The first part of the 20th chapter of Matthew records another story that Jesus told, this time about the wages paid to the workers in the vineyard. It clearly is about serving the Master, or working in the kingdom, but the twist here is that many of those who worked in the vineyard did not think that the wages were fairly paid. The story follows logically the ideas of the last chapter concerning wealth and the kingdom of heaven, that is, following the Lord and the cost of that discipleship. The theme of the last being first and the first being last ended that chapter, and this one as well. God’s economy of grace is not the same as the natural order people expect.
After this passage the focus will turn to Jerusalem and the suffering of the Messiah. In Matthew 20:17-19 Jesus will speak of His death again. Then, when the mother of the sons of Zebedee comes and asks for favors for her sons in the kingdom, Jesus speaks of their being able to drink the cup that he must drink (20:20-28). And then as a climax to His teaching and His mighty works, Jesus healed two blind men in Jericho as he headed toward Jerusalem (20:29-34).
1 For the kingdom of heaven of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the market place without work. 4 And he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too and I will give you whatever is right.” 5 So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and he said to them, “Why are you standing here all day without work?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go and work in the vineyard too.”
8 When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. 10 And when those hired first came, they though they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. 11 When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.
13 And the landowner replied to one of them, “Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave to you. 15 Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We have here a story without any additional teaching. The statements of the landowner in the story therefore form the teaching that the Lord wanted to make. After all, the landowner does represent the Lord.
The story could be divided into two or three parts for the organized study. I have chosen three parts: the basic story of the hiring agreement, the twist in the story when the workers were all paid the same thing, and the landowner’s explanation of what he was doing (the first two could be joined together).
The passage is uncomplicated. There is no citation from an Old Testament prophetic passage to be dealt with. There is no miracle in the story that has to be explained. There are no heavy theological expressions or terms that have to be studied. And there is no real sin in the story that has to be confronted--perhaps a mild complaint and dissatisfaction by the workers. What we are left with is a fairly simple story with a twist to it, and a lesson made out of the event.
There is no reason whatsoever to go into this passage in great detail--the grammar and the vocabulary is all pretty much straightforward. In fact, an excellent reading of the story will provide enough color for any explanation of the meaning. But because even reading a passage requires a certain amount of exegetical interpretation, we must trace the basic things here.
In order for the story to work, the imagery has to be clarified. The landowner clearly represents the Lord, and the vineyard represents his kingdom. These two motifs have been used elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching with these meanings. There is no reason to ask what kind of work they were supposed to do, because that is not the main thrust of the text. But what is important is the apparent inequity in the pay scale.
The story unfolds as the day progressed. The landowner wants to hire some men to work for him. He simply goes to the place where he could find such labor--the local labor pool. Even to this day men stand around these areas in the hopes that they will be picked up and given a day job. And in our story the landowner made several runs at the marketplace, perhaps because the work apparently proved too much for the first two who were hired, or perhaps because the day was spent and the work needed to be done--we cannot tell.
But we can already anticipate where this story might be going. As time progresses, the Lord goes looking for more and then even more people to come and work in his vineyard--with the promise of a fair wage. In the Bible, working in the vineyard is a fairly solid image of serving in the Lord’s kingdom. The emphasis on wages in the outworking of the event means that this story is primarily about God’s gifts, or rewards, for faithful service. But the length of service and the amount of work does not determine what the reward is.
After the day came to an end, the landowner called his manager to pay the workers. But to everyone’s surprise, he first paid the workers who came last, and who probably worked an hour or two. They received the pay for a full day’s work.
This led the other workers to think that they would get more, because they had been there all day. But they were wrong--they all received the same thing, a full day’s wages. This landowner was certainly unconventional.
Quite understandably, the workers who had been there all day complained to the landowner. They thought it was unfair that the men who worked only a little should get as much as they. Most workers would think the same thing. But the landowner simply had to remind them of the facts of the case, and that ended the discussion.
In response to the complaint the landowner simply had to remind the workers of a few important points. He paid the early workers exactly what He promised, what they agreed to. So they had no reason to complain. And since He was the landowner, he was free to offer the other workers what He thought was fair if they would come and work as well. And finally, He told the workers to take their wage and go. There was no chance of their changing His mind; and nothing good would come out of their wanting more than the later workers, for there was no law that said he had to pay everyone proportionately.
The final point of the story says that the last will be first and the first will be last, a statement made elsewhere in the Gospel. At the least this statement says that the Lord cannot be held to social convention or custom in the way that He rewards people; but it certainly also says that His pact with each group is fair--and generous since without it they would have nothing. In other words, it is by grace that He rewards the workers, just as it was by grace He offered them the place.
Was this story prompted by the disciples claim that they had left everything to follow Christ, implying that they deserved some kind of reward for their service? Most likely, for Peter thought he should receive more than the rich young man would have. After all, they were the first to leave everything and follow Him. This lesson was apparently prompted by the event that led to the teaching on wealth and the kingdom and concluded with the same theme of the last being first. But the message here goes even further, to the general call to faithful discipleship.
We may form the interlocking lessons out of the answers of the landowner at the end of the story, for those represent the teachings of Jesus on reward for faithfulness.
1. The Lord is sovereign over His kingdom. Because He is the landowner, He can pay people whatever He wants to pay them, as long as He is just. And no one here could accuse Him of being unjust. He owed no man an explanation of His dealings with the workers in the vineyard. He arranged for the first workers to be paid a day’s wages--that was fair. But the other workers He only promised a fair wage, and He certainly was more than fair there.
In God’s kingdom, then, He is absolutely sovereign and He can deal with all people in whatever way He chooses. He is free to give some people more than others in relationship to their years of service or contribution. He alone makes the decisions of what to give people for service, how to use them (all day or not), and how to reward their faithfulness. And no one can challenge the decision of the sovereign Lord.
2. Everyone who serves the Lord will be treated fairly. The workers either got what they agreed to, or they got more. In fact, the latter servants came to work without an exact agreement, so they were actually trusting the landowner that they would receive a fair wage. They did not have a settled agreement fixed. And because they trusted His equity, they were rewarded with the same wage that the others who worked all day were receiving. But they got theirs first when the owner paid the wages. This no doubt was designed to underscore the point that the last shall be first.
3. How the Lord treats all of His servants is by grace. Until the workers were approached by the landowner, they had no work. If He had not found them and arranged for them to enter his vineyard, they would have remained with nothing. No one can complain that such a gracious provision is unfair--unless they think that everything must be based in a legal arrangement. Everyone should be thankful that God opened up the opportunity for service.
The story starts out with a conventional plot, hiring day workers. But it turns at the end to what is totally unconventional, so that the people who worked the least got equal pay. How is it possible that the last shall be first? Not by agreement and not by contract--but by grace and grace alone. As 19:30 reminded us, with God all things are possible, and especially this work of grace that the last is first. If God extends grace to people at the eleventh hour, and they respond, trusting in His goodness, they will also receive what He promised others. If God calls people into service in His vineyard, and they serve Him faithfully, both the calling and the reward is by grace, especially if their work was not a full day.
4. The workers should be pleased with what He gives them, and not concerned with what He gives other people. If the workers were genuinely pleased to receive the work and the day’s wages, they would have focused on that, and not on another worker’s packet. It is when people start comparing what God has given to other believers that they begin to judge God’s fairness. But in the final analysis it is not by length of service, or amount of work, that grace operates--it is based on what He chooses to give.
The warning to each of us is not to be proud of what we have done and expect more than those whom we think have done less. After all, if we have done more, or done it longer, it is only because by His grace He made the opportunity available earlier for us. The word here drives us back to the instruction that whether He gives us a whole day, or just an hour, we must serve Him faithfully and trust that we will enter into the reward that He has in store for those who are faithful. That God chose any one of us for His vineyard is amazing. We should rejoice in that, and rejoice in the fact that He is still inviting otherwise “unemployed” folks to join.
In the final analysis this story is basically about people responding to the opportunity to work in His vineyard when the invitation is made to them. For some the arrangements are clear, for others they are not, but in both cases the Lord deals justly and fairly with His people. It is not a parable about salvation per se, but about working in His vineyard, and the rewards that will be given for faithfulness. The bottom line is that people should be ready to respond to the opportunity for service, and rejoice in what He gives us as a reward for our service. He alone knows the value of each person’s service for His kingdom. But we can all rest assured that when the opportunity and the rewards come from the gracious Lord, they will be just and generous.