Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

grapes on vineyard during daytime
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This is Part 16 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 15 here). Today I’ll cover The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).

The Parable

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 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?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 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.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘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.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

The Key

Immediately before and after this parable, Jesus gives us the key to unlocking its meaning: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 19:30 and Matthew 20:16)

This phrase is a riddle of sorts. What’s the only way that someone can be in both last place and first place at the same time? If everyone crosses the finish line at the same time, then everyone ties for both first and last place. Hence, we see that the meaning of this parable has something to do with everyone being equal.

The Context

Just before this parable, Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:21). He refuses, exposing the fact that he is not willing to submit to the lordship of Jesus, and in doing so he misses out on the gift of eternal salvation.

Then, Peter responds by saying what all the apostles are probably thinking, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Most likely Peter’s reaction is rooted in excitement rather than impatience. He must have been thinking, “If only the rich young ruler had sold all his possessions, he would have inherited eternal life. But we gave up even more than that⸺livelihood, friends, reputation⸺to follow Jesus. Certainly our inheritance will be that much better!”

I’m sure that Jesus’ initial response sounded promising to Peter: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” However, Jesus doesn’t stop there, and His next statement seems designed to correct Peter’s logic: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

So although the apostles are going to have a special responsibility during the Millennial Kingdom, Jesus reminds Peter that the ultimate gift is eternal life, which all Christians, from the least to the greatest, will one day receive.

Why do I think that Jesus was correcting Peter’s logic? Let me add a little context:

  • Each apostle thought that he was greater than the other apostles. Shortly before this parable, the apostles were arguing over who was the greatest among them (Matthew 18:1Mark 9:34, and Luke 9:46). Shortly after this parable, the apostles argued over who would get to sit in the place of honor next to Jesus (Matthew 20:21 and Mark 10:37). The apostles even argued over who was the greatest during the Last Supper (Luke 22:24).
  • The apostles thought that they were above people due to age or disability. Jesus had just told the apostles to welcome the little children in His name (Matthew 18:2-5 and Mark 9:36-37), yet just before this parable, they were rebuking people for bringing their children to Jesus (Matthew 19:13Mark 10:13-14, and Luke 18:15). They did the same thing right after this parable by rebuking some blind men who wanted to talk to Jesus (Matthew 20:31, Mark 10:48, and Luke 18:39).
  • The apostles thought that they were superior because they were Jews. The apostles were part of a culture that believed that Jews could become defiled simply by associating with Samaritans and Gentiles (John 4:9, John 18:28, and Acts 10:28). The apostles even wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56). That’s why God had to send the Holy Spirit in an unusual way when the first Samaritans and Gentiles became Christians: to make it obvious to the apostles that all are equal in the Kingdom of God (Acts 8:14-17 and Acts 10:44-46).

So even though the apostles had saving faith in Jesus Christ, they still had to overcome their human tendency toward prejudice and selfish ambition. With that context in mind, it seems very likely that both Jesus’ comments and this parable were intended to rebuke the apostles for thinking that they deserved greater rewards than other people.

Quick Background

In First Century Israel, the owner of a vineyard would have had several servants in his household who were responsible for preparing the soil in Spring and pruning and tying back branches in Summer. However, when Fall arrived, the landowner would need to gather the harvest quickly before the heavy rains started and ruined the crop. Harvesting was too big a job for the landowner’s household servants to handle by themselves, so the owner would go into the marketplace and hire day laborers to assist him.

Since servants were members of the landowner’s household, he would have been obligated to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter. But the only obligation the landowner in the parable would have had to the day laborers was to pay them their wages before sunset. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that he agreed to pay these workers a denarius each, which was the daily wage for a Roman soldier. This would have been a generous wage for these workers, which they were no doubt happy to receive regardless of how difficult the work was.

The Meaning

When evening comes in the parable, we get another hint reminding us that the theme is equality in the Kingdom of God: “pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” As we’ll see, this was an important lesson that Jesus was trying to teach the apostles.

In the parable, the last group of workers would have been overjoyed to receive a denarius each for only one hour of work. Naturally, all of the other workers must have been excited as well, not because they were happy to see their fellow laborer receive such a generous wage, but because they assumed that they would also receive a denarius per hour.

However, when the first group of workers receives only one denarius each, their demeanor suddenly changes. They began the day thinking that one denarius was more than fair, yet suddenly when they see that they’re being paid the same as those who only worked an hour, they feel cheated.

The landowner calls them out for their negative attitude and overreaction. Notice how he addresses one of them as “friend.” The English translation falls short here, because the Greek word used is more like impostor or traitor⸺the same word Jesus uses to address Judas in Matthew 26:50.

The landowner accurately diagnoses the problem, and it has nothing to do with his paying an unfair wage. The real problem is that these workers are jealous. The Greek literally says that they have an envious eye, or as the King James Version translates it, an evil eye.

With this parable, Jesus is accusing the apostles of behaving like the first group of workers. They had sacrificed everything and been with Jesus from the very beginning of His earthly ministry, and they somehow thought this made them better than everyone else. They felt that since they had served Jesus longer and with a greater level of commitment than anyone else that they had somehow earned a greater reward. They felt that children, blind beggars, and foreigners were somehow less deserving than they were.

The apostles had forgotten that God alone is responsible for salvation, and that He chooses whom He will save (John 15:16, Ephesians 1:4-5, and 1 Peter 1:1-2). They had forgotten that no one earns salvation and that God doesn’t owe anyone a reward (Ephesians 2:8-9). The only thing we deserve is God’s wrath for breaking His commandments (Ephesians 2:3).

The Application

Remember that the theme of this parable is equality. The landowner picks who to hire and when to hire them, and he pays each of them a generous wage, not based upon how long they work, but upon his own generosity.

Likewise, God picks who gets into Heaven, and He decides at what point in life each person gets saved. He gives all Christians the generous gift of eternal life, not based upon how long we serve Him, but upon His own mercy and grace.

The point is that we should not call God unfair even if He chooses to save a serial rapist or a pedophile, because we don’t deserve salvation any more than they do. Nor should we resent God for saving someone on their deathbed and giving them eternal life even though they never labored in His Kingdom here on earth. Even someone like Billy Graham, who evangelized for decades and led countless people to Christ, is no more deserving of God’s grace than the deathbed convert.

David Guzik’s Bible Commentary includes a really good quote on this parable:

“Living under grace is sort of a two-edged sword. Under grace, we can’t come to God complaining, ‘Don’t I deserve better than this’; because God will reply, ‘Does this mean that you really want Me to give you what you deserve?'”

The weird thing is that Christians tend to forget that God operates the same way when it comes to material blessings. For example, maybe you and your spouse have been struggling for years with infertility issues while your heathen neighbor just found out that she’s pregnant with her fifth child. At that point you might get mad and wonder why God keeps blessing someone who doesn’t love Him while completely ignoring your prayers.

In situations like the one above, it’s natural to be mad and confused. However, we have to be careful not to accuse God of being unfair. Did He ever promise to give you children? Does God owe you children because you’re a Christian who shares the Gospel, gives to the church, and never uses vulgar language?

Or how about the flip side? Maybe God has chosen to bless you with multiple children while your heathen neighbor has been unable to conceive. The temptation is to think that God is rewarding you because you’re living a holy life, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Any blessings you receive are gifts freely given by a loving God, not a result of something you did. God is the source of our success, so our accomplishments don’t impress Him. Furthermore, God doesn’t need anything from us, so He isn’t obligated to give us greater blessings based upon what we do.

We tend to forget these things, because our fallen sinful nature corrupts our innate desire for justice. Instead of remembering that God’s Law is the standard by which He judges us, we treat it like a contract and get mad at God for not holding up His end of the bargain.

Thankfully, we don’t have a quid pro quo relationship with God, because we could never do enough to earn blessings from Him. We should simply celebrate when we see anyone enjoy God’s blessings, because we remember that none of us deserves anything. I’ll close with another quote from David Guzik:

“We can be assured that God will never, ever be unfair to us, though He may – for His own purpose and pleasure – bestow greater blessing on someone else who seems less deserving.”