In the parable of the householder and the vineyard workers, when the master pays the eleventh-hour people the same wage that he pays to those who had borne the heat of the day(a denarius, normal pay for a day's labor), our sense of fairness is violated. We understand easily the grumbling of the full-day workers: if the one-hour workers get a full day's pay, should not they, in all fairness, get something like twelve days’ pay? The householder's defense seems lame.
The fact that the full-day workers had agreed to a denarius does not really address the apparent lack of proportion in the eleventh-hour workers getting for one hour's work what “the heat of the day” people had worked so hard to earn. The householder may indeed be “generous” with respect to the eleventh-hour people, but in this situation, the full-day workers experience the normal day's wage as decidedly ungenerous. “Generous” would be something like maybe ten or twelve denarii.
But despite most contemporary English translations of the adjective the householder applies to himself in verse 15, the issue is not generosity but goodness. A literal rendering of Matthew 20:15b (reflected accurately in the King James and the Rheims versions) reads: “is your eye evil because I am good?” The importance of the difference between “generous” and “good” becomes apparent when we consider the fuller context.
This is, after all, not a teaching about just wages but a parable that begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like … ” By now two-thirds of the way through this Gospel we readers of Matthew know that “kingdom of heaven” is not a name for the place where God lives but the realm of human persons responding to God’s reign freshly inaugurated through Jesus of Nazareth. As in other householder parables, the master is of course God. And the issue of God’s goodness and what it takes to relate appropriately to that goodness is raised in the previous chapter, when a young man approaches Jesus and asks, “teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” And Jesus answers, “why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.” In the ensuing conversation, Jesus says that to follow the commandments is doing “the good,” but that full goodness, indeed “perfection,” comes with letting go of everything and following him, Jesus. Relating to the ultimately good one, in other words, is converting to a new way of looking at and living one's life—i.e., receiving the teaching of Jesus and becoming his disciple.
Peter follows this with his question about how he and the rest of the disciples will be rewarded if they give up everything to follow him. Jesus speaks of reigning with him, enjoying the hundredfold and inheriting eternal life. But then, as if to disabuse the disciples (and Matthew's readers) of conventional notions of accomplishment and reward, Jesus launches into our parable about the landholder.
The parable flies in the face of normal expectations about accomplishments and reward, or work and wages. Perhaps the key lies in the master’s agreement with the third-hour (9 AM) people to pay them “what is just” (NAB); (or “whatever is right,” NRSV). At this point in the story, we readers or listeners naturally take this to mean something less than the denarius promised the workers who started at dawn. Along with the eleventh-hour people, we bristle at the news that all workers will be paid equally; at that point we hear Jesus say, “is your eye evil because I am good?” In the Mediterranean world, one of the things that makes for an “evil eye” is to look upon someone else's goods with jealousy—to make invidious comparison. The very word “invidious” (from Latin invidere “to look at with envy”) derives from that understanding of evil eye.
As Isaiah reminds us in the First Reading, God's ways are not ours; God's goodness would create a kind of equality in the household of the kingdom that goes beyond our small sense of “what is right.” To the extent we make invidious comparisons—such as Martha with Mary, or the elder son with respect to his prodigal brother—to that extent our eye is evil and we are blind to the goodness of God.