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Matthew 20:1-16

May 9th, 2011


The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

This parable only appears in Matthew. Whenever I come across a passage like this that doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels, I am always very grateful to the writer for including it, and to God for having inspired them to do so. I do believe that both Matthew and John purposely set out to include things that Mark and Luke had not. These are things that they, and the Holy Spirit, thought it was important for us to know.

The fact that this passage begins with the word for indicates that it’s a continuation of what Jesus had just said. He was illustrating his answer to Peter, who had just asked, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” (19:27, NLB) Jesus ended his initial answer to Peter with the same statement that he ends this parable with, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (19:30) So he is illustrating that principle with this parable.

The practice of hiring day laborers in the marketplace was common in that culture. It’s not that different than the current practice of hiring “undocumented” workers who hang out at The Home Depot hoping to be hired for the day. A denarius was the going wage for a day laborer in Jesus’ time. Workers would go to the marketplace with all of their tools, hoping to find work.

I don’t want to read too much into the fact that the owner continued to hire workers throughout the day. It’s easy to think, “If there was that much work, why didn’t he hire more workers to begin with?” Analogies like this can’t be taken too far. Jesus was making a point about grace with this parable. God continues to raise up workers for his harvest. It’s a good thing he does, too, because there is more to do in his kingdom than those of us who are already in the field can possibly do.

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

Jesus has the last workers hired paid first to make a point. If the workers hired first had been paid first, they would have gone away satisfied, because they were paid what was promised. The point of the parable would have been lost. Since the ones who were hired last and only worked an hour were paid first, the ones who worked all day saw what they were paid. They must have thought they would be paid much more, since they had worked all day. Their attitude was the same as the elder brother in the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-31, blog). But the whole idea of grace is that we are not rewarded according to what we deserve, but according to God’s mercy and generosity.

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Many teach that this parable is about those of us who serve the Lord for most of our lives getting the same reward as those who repent on their deathbeds, eternal life. That is one valid interpretation of this parable. Others see the workers hired first as representing Israel, who later resented the fact that Gentiles could receive salvation without having followed all of the rules they had had to follow. There is merit to that interpretation also. But this parable is a follow-up to the encounter Jesus had just had with the rich young ruler, who had gone away sad because he would not make the sacrifice Jesus had asked. Jesus then made the comment that it was almost impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, because the kingdom of God requires us to let God reign in our lives. The disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus, and Jesus told them that they would not fail to receive their reward. Then, with this parable, he showed them how rewards in his kingdom would not be given like rewards given under the system of law and sacrifices. Because of grace, God rewards us not according to what we’ve done, but according to who he is.

The owner in the parable paid his workers, not according to how much work they had done, but according to his own generosity. God rewards us the same way. Of course, some doing is required. The ones who were never hired at all didn’t get paid anything. We must work diligently in his fields for as much time as we have to receive his reward.

As I said earlier, we can’t take every detail of these parables too far. The amount paid in the parable was only the going rate for a day laborer. Nobody would get rich on that amount. It was just enough to meet the needs of an average worker for one day. That’s why they were paid at the end of each day, according to the law (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15). God’s rewards are much greater, of course. His rewards are eternal, and he rewards those who work in his fields of harvest according to his great love for us, his abundant riches, and his incredible generosity. He rewards each of us far more than we deserve, because of his grace.

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