Rembrandt van Rijn

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, 1637, Oil on panel, 31 x 42 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; GE-757, akg-images / Album / Prisma

Just Wages

Commentary by Kimberly J. Vrudny

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Read by Ben Quash

Near the end of his song, the author of Isaiah 5 interprets with exquisite clarity the meaning behind his allegory of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
  is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
  are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
  but behold, bloodshed. (v.7)

Jesus will later draw on Isaiah’s imagery. In his parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus has the landowner insist, ‘I am doing you no wrong’ (Matthew 20:13), dismissing the ones who protest about his decision to pay all his workers the same wage—even those who had come late to his vineyard and who delivered only a bucket or two of grapes.

In Rembrandt van Rijn’s depiction of the story, those who surround the landowner grumble about fairness, but the owner points out the obvious. The workers had agreed to work for the wage they had received. They, however, were not having it. Unlike the others who had received the same wage for working fewer hours, they had laboured in the vineyard from dawn.

Trusting that their boss was not so obtuse as to be unaware of how they had contorted and twisted their bodies to release each stubborn grape from its vine, remaining all the while cautious not to seep the fruit’s precious nectar, they pleaded with him to be reasonable. Now, out of the heat from the scorching sun, these labourers barter still with the landowner, who is seated at his desk. 

Catching the long rays of the setting sun, the landowner’s wife consults their ledger, even as dark shadows, created by Rembrandt’s signature chiaroscuro, give contour to the room. The room sends a chill, as the dampness held by their dirty clothes from the sweat that had trickled down their backs throughout the day turns cold, only to confirm their misery. Behind them, another group of workers and spouses talk excitedly amongst themselves as they count their money. What wonderful fortune! What amazing luck! A day’s wage for an hour’s work? How extravagant! How generous! How kind!

In these strokes, Rembrandt depicts Jesus’s radical vision of the Kingdom of God. The Lord of Hosts ‘look[s] for justice’ (Isaiah 5:7), but this justice may be something very different from what we expect.



Horsley, Richard A. 2002. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

Schottroff, Luise. 2006. The Parables of Jesus, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

See full exhibition for Isaiah 5

Isaiah 5

Revised Standard Version

5Let me sing for my beloved

a love song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

2He digged it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it;

and he looked for it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

3And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem

and men of Judah,

judge, I pray you, between me

and my vineyard.

4What more was there to do for my vineyard,

that I have not done in it?

When I looked for it to yield grapes,

why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you

what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge,

and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall,

and it shall be trampled down.

6I will make it a waste;

it shall not be pruned or hoed,

and briers and thorns shall grow up;

I will also command the clouds

that they rain no rain upon it.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts

is the house of Israel,

and the men of Judah

are his pleasant planting;

and he looked for justice,

but behold, bloodshed;

for righteousness,

but behold, a cry!

8Woe to those who join house to house,

who add field to field,

until there is no more room,

and you are made to dwell alone

in the midst of the land.

9The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:

“Surely many houses shall be desolate,

large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.

10For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,

and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”

11Woe to those who rise early in the morning,

that they may run after strong drink,

who tarry late into the evening

till wine inflames them!

12They have lyre and harp,

timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts;

but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,

or see the work of his hands.

13Therefore my people go into exile

for want of knowledge;

their honored men are dying of hunger,

and their multitude is parched with thirst.

14Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite

and opened its mouth beyond measure,

and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down,

her throng and he who exults in her.

15Man is bowed down, and men are brought low,

and the eyes of the haughty are humbled.

16But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice,

and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.

17Then shall the lambs graze as in their pasture,

fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins.

18Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood,

who draw sin as with cart ropes,

19who say: “Let him make haste,

let him speed his work

that we may see it;

let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near,

and let it come, that we may know it!”

20Woe to those who call evil good

and good evil,

who put darkness for light

and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

and sweet for bitter!

21Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,

and shrewd in their own sight!

22Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,

and valiant men in mixing strong drink,

23who acquit the guilty for a bribe,

and deprive the innocent of his right!

24Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,

and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,

so their root will be as rottenness,

and their blossom go up like dust;

for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts,

and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

25Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,

and he stretched out his hand against them and smote them,

and the mountains quaked;

and their corpses were as refuse

in the midst of the streets.

For all this his anger is not turned away

and his hand is stretched out still.

26He will raise a signal for a nation afar off,

and whistle for it from the ends of the earth;

and lo, swiftly, speedily it comes!

27None is weary, none stumbles,

none slumbers or sleeps,

not a waistcloth is loose,

not a sandal-thong broken;

28their arrows are sharp,

all their bows bent,

their horses’ hoofs seem like flint,

and their wheels like the whirlwind.

29Their roaring is like a lion,

like young lions they roar;

they growl and seize their prey,

they carry it off, and none can rescue.

30They will growl over it on that day,

like the roaring of the sea.

And if one look to the land,

behold, darkness and distress;

and the light is darkened by its clouds.