Jonah the Pharisee

How should we think of Jonah? In a previous post I noted textual features in the book of Jonah that call to mind Cain. Are there other stories in the Bible with characters like Jonah? It is interesting to read the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) with Jonah in mind.

The Laborers in the Vineyard

In this parable “the master of the house” hires people to work in his vineyard at different times throughout the day–some in the early morning, some in the middle of the day, and some “in the eleventh hour.” The text explicitly tells us that those hired early in the morning agreed to work for a denarius. At the end of the day, the master of the house began doling out payment first to those who started working in the eleventh hour. Surprisingly, he gave them a full day’s wage. The tension rises. Those who had labored all day thought for sure that they would receive more than their initial agreement. When they don’t, they protest! The master of the house sends them away with their agreed upon wage and these parting words: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (ὁ ὀφθαλμὸς σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός).

Here, “evil eye” is an idiom for being greedy and ἀγαθός means “generous” (BDAG 2aα). Similar language is used in Deuteronomy 15:9 and Tobit 4:7, 16 to speak of greed. The master of the house was absurdly gracious with his money, and according to Jesus this illustrates a truth concerning the kingdom of God: God is gracious in a way that causes some to have an “evil eye”; some begrudge his generosity, but in the end “the last will be first.” The message of God’s absurd generosity seems to be a fundamental reason for the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees – one is reminded of the words Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”


This is the  same issue that creates conflict between Jonah and Yahweh in Jonah 4. In fact, according to Jonah 4:2 the reason Jonah fled from Yahweh in the first place was because he knew that in the end Yahweh would forgive Nineveh of their sin.

In light of the Laborers in the Vineyard, listen to the closing words of the book of Jonah. Yahweh says to Jonah,

You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

Essentially, Yahweh is saying, “Jonah, is your eye evil because I am good? Do you begrudge my generosity?”


The laborers in the vineyard call to mind not only the Pharisees but also Jonah. When the book of Jonah comes to a close, he looks a lot like a Pharisee. There he sits before God, angry “unto death” over God’s grace. Jonah is a grace-greedy Pharisee.

Related Posts: “Echoes of Cain in the Story of Jonah” and “Jonah as Disciple