“For the kingdom of heaven can be compared to an employer which goes out at dawn to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing to pay them a denarius apiece, he sends them to work. He goes out again about 9 a.m. and finds more men standing around in the town square and tells them, ‘Go also into my vineyard and I will pay you a fair wage’. So they go to work. He makes the same arrangement with others about noon and 3 p.m. He goes again at 5 p.m. and finds more unemployed men. He says to them, ‘Why do you stand here all day?’ They say unto him, ‘Because no man has hired us.’ He says to them, ‘Go also into my vineyard and I will pay you a fair wage.’
At the end of the day the owner of the vineyard says to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with those hired last and ending with those hired first.’ When those that are hired at 5 p.m. come they are each paid a denarius. But when those arrive who are hired first, they suppose they will receive more, but each of them also receive a denarius. They take it grudgingly and complain to their employer saying, ‘These latecomers worked only one hour, yet you treat them the same as us who have toiled all day in the blazing sun.’ But he replies to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Did you not agree to work for a denarius? Take your money and go, for I will give to those hired last the same as I give you. Do I not have the right to do as I choose with what belongs to me? Do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last shall be first and the first shall be last, for many are called but few are chosen.” (Mt. 20:1-16, paraphrased)
The opening word “for” shows this story is closely connected with scenes in the previous chapter. These events commence when a wealthy young man asks Jesus how to receive eternal life (Mt. 19:16). Jesus then confronts him about his preoccupation with riches (vv. 17-24). The disciples watch as this person departs sorrowfully, unwilling to forsake his wealth. Peter then poses a question which proves he has not fully grasped the economics of the Kingdom of God. Because he and the other disciples have forsaken everything to follow Him, he asks how they will be compensated (v. 27). Jesus answers his question by highlighting their temporal and eternal rewards (v. 28-29). He elaborates by teaching this parable, hoping to bring their allegiance into proper perspective.
The central truth contained in this parable warns members of the Kingdom not to begrudge favors shown to other members. This narrative is bracketed by the repetition of a maxim Jesus Himself originates; “The first will be last and the last first” (Mt. 19:30 & 20:16).
Jesus is not teaching work ethics, but rather how monetary concerns can reduce Christian service to a mathematical equation. The parable redirects spiritual priorities for those who feel their achievements give them the right to judge others. It is an indictment against the attitude of entitlement so prevalent among Believers in the twenty-first century.
Throughout Palestine, vineyards can be seen growing on terraced hillsides. Good soil must be hand-carried considerable distances from the fertile valleys below. Such laborious, time-consuming work requires numerous diligent workers. At the end of September, the grapes are carefully hand picked until the rainy season arrives. Because there is so much work to be done, vineyard owners leave home at dawn to hire day-laborers. Hopeful men congregate in town squares or markets seeking employment.
v. 2 – 3
The typical Jewish workday is divided into twelve hours (Jn. 11:9). It begins at “the first hour” around six in the morning. In this parable, the daily wage agreed upon per man is one Roman silver denarius. It is the primary coin of exchange in that day and considered above average pay for a day’s labor. It is also the common daily wage of a Roman soldier. The vineyard owner makes a specific monetary arrangement only with these men he hires at dawn.
The owner has a compassionate interest in the unemployed and deals with them personally. In the parable, the owner goes out and seeks workers; they do not seek him. God calls us to work for Him, not because He needs us, but because we need Him. The impulse to serve God always originates with a summons from the Holy Spirit, never from the human spirit.
v. 4 – 7
The owner goes out again about nine a.m. and at noon. In the marketplace, he finds more men waiting to be hired. He does not tell them what they will receive, only that they will be treated fairly at the end of the day. They trust the owner’s word and unhesitatingly accept the opportunity for employment.
The owner finds additional men needing work at 5 p.m. and asks them why they have been idle all day. They explain that nobody has hired them. These he also sends to his property with the same promise of fair treatment.
At dusk the owner tells his foreman to call the workers and give them their pay. The Law of Moses specifically states the wages of hired men are to be paid at the end of every working day (Lev. 19: 13). They are to receive these funds “before the sun sets” (Deut. 24:15). This ordinance is instituted to protect farm hands from exploitation by landowners.
Although payment of wages in the evening is the usual protocol, the order in which the owner has his steward distribute pay is unusual. The old adage of “first come, first served” does not apply here. The parable becomes more intriguing when the owner arranges for the last workers to be paid first. Putting the workers who are last hired at the head of the line highlights Jesus’ parabolic strategy. If the owner pays the early workers first, they will not observe the owner’s generosity. Had that been the case, there would have been no murmuring and the point of the parable would be lost. The reversal of the order of payment provides clarification regarding the “last being first” and vice versa.
v. 9 – 11
Every man who worked for only an hour is probably overjoyed to receive a denarius. The early workers are not upset until others receive what amounts to a gift. They see these latecomers being generously paid and become jealous. They calculate they have worked eleven hours longer and will receive pay accordingly.
Although they do not get less than what is promised, it is less then they expect.
When these sweat-stained men take their coins they murmur against the owner. They complain not because they receive too little, but because they imagine others receive too much. Envy breeds dissatisfaction. Their mistake is comparison, for “comparing ourselves among ourselves is not wise” (II Cor. 10:12).
The owner listens to the unfounded complaint against him. “These last have worked but one hour, yet you have made them equal us who have born the burden and heat of the day.” The “heat” (kausona) refers to scorching hot wind prevalent in Arabian deserts. They argue they have worked longer and under more oppressive conditions.
The men who work all day presume the extra money they desire is somehow deserved. According to their math, the one-hour workers actually receive 12 hours pay. The hard-earned coins that might have brought them satisfaction are tarnished by the spirit in which they are received.
Every man who works that day has monetary needs. All are willing to work, all have no other prospects for employment, and all go to work when given the chance to do so. The difference is in their attitudes. It is essential to cultivate a spirit of generosity and rejoice when others are blessed.
The owner is a man of integrity and responds courteously to their presumptuous accusations. He answers the charge against him in a firm but respectful manner. Addressing the spokesman of the group as “friend” (hetairos) bespeaks a cordial relationship rather than close friendship. This is the same term Jesus uses to address Judas when he betrays Him in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:50).
Although some workers feel the owner is unfair, his actions are lawful in both a civil and moral sense. He makes it clear no injustice has been committed. The wages of the first hour workers and those hired later are based on separate oral contracts. Those employed early enter into a verbal contract for one denarius apiece and he fulfills his commitment to them. These early workers have no right to expect a bonus and should not question the motives of this generous man.
They are satisfied with the deal they made twelve hours earlier until others receive more money for less work. They do not complain because they are deprived, but because others are compensated disproportionately. They do not appreciate they are paid by a gracious employer who is under no obligation to hire any of them.
v. 14 – 15
A proud boss might have refused to pay the complainers at all, but the workers are instructed to take their coins and depart. At this point, the owner asks two rhetorical questions which are actually statements of fact. The first regards his personal rights and the second addresses the attitude of the workers:
1. I have the lawful right to distribute my funds as I please.
2. You are jealous because I am generous.
Envy is not based on sound reason but on reasons that sound good. Jealousy is depicted as finding expression through the eyes (Deut. 15:9 & I Sam. 18:9). Having “an evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) is a Hebraism that pictures an envious or begrudging spirit.
In the world’s economic system, men who work harder and longer usually receive better pay. But Kingdom principles differ because they factor in grace, generosity, and abundant blessings. God is never obligated to anyone.
Men whom the world deems “last” often become “first” by gratefully receiving God’s grace and generosity. Those who consider themselves “firsts” become “lasts” due to imaginary self-worth.
But the reversed roles of those first or last cannot apply in every situation. Jesus qualifies His statement by saying, many (not all) are called but, among those, few are actually chosen. The “many” refers to those who answer the call of salvation. This is verified by the context in which this maxim is used in a later parable (Mt. 22:14).
The story has many applications, but three are the most prevalent:
1. It can be applied to the apostles, for it is spoken directly to these who are first to serve in the Lord’s vineyard. The relevance of the parable becomes apparent soon after it is taught; the mother of James and John seeks positions in heaven for her sons (Mt. 20: 20-23). Her ambitious suggestion causes frustration and rivalry among the apostles (v. 24). During the last supper, the apostles are still arguing about which of them will be the greatest (Lk. 22:24).
2. It can be applied to Christian workers, many of whom begin to serve Christ early in life. The hours of the work day can represent the various periods in the life of a convert who enters Christian service:
<> The 6 a.m. workers personify small children.
<> Those hired at 9 a.m. represent pre-teens.
<> Noon workers epitomize teen-agers.
<> Men employed at 3 p.m. depict the middle-aged.
<> Workers who arrive at 5 p.m. characterize seniors who find salvation in their sunset years.
God accepts new workers for His vineyard at whatever age in life they accept Him as Savior. Those who enter the Lord’s service should trust they will be treated fairly. In the Kingdom of God, everyone is paid more than they deserve (Luke 17:10).
3. It can be applied to Jews who are jealous of Gentiles. Like the all-day workers in the parable, the Jews enter into a covenant with Jehovah around 2,000 B.C. The “later workers” (Gentiles) enter into a covenant of grace. The Jews felt God is obligated to them alone, for Gentiles are late-comers to the vineyard.
The concept of Jewish exclusiveness is so engrained in Peter’s mind, it takes a vision from heaven to eradicate it (Acts 10:11-15). The Jews are amazed when Gentiles are filled with the Spirit (Acts 10:45-46). The crowds become infuriated when Paul says he will go preach to the Gentiles (Act 22: 21-22). He is grieved years later when fellow Jews forbid him to preach to Gentiles (I Th. 2: 14-16). Many Gentiles are made first by their faith and obedience while many Jews are made last by their jealously (Lk. 13:28).
The Lord has the resources to reward all who work for Him, but is more concerned about motive than productivity. The amount of work completed is less important to God than the spirit in which the work is done. An honest sense of unworthiness is the ideal attitude. Many are called to the Lord’s vineyard, but few retain the positive spirit that allows them to enjoy the rewards.
Points to Ponder
1. Jesus’ parable hinges on a question asked by Peter. List some other questions Peter had:
2. What famous expression of Jesus in this parable is also found in Mark 9:35 and Luke 13:30?
3. Paraphrase Colossians 3:24-25. What does this passage teach regarding God’s impartiality and fairness?
4. The penitent thief dies within minutes of being promised eternal life (Luke 23:41). The elder brother pictures a man who serves God all his life (Luke 15:28-30). Compare the attitude of these two men
5. What does God say in defense of His own “value system” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
6. What does Philippians 2:14 teach us about complaining?
7. What do Proverbs 14: 30 and 23: 6-7 teach regarding envy?
8. What will overcome jealousy (I Corinthians 13:4)?
9. Compare this parable with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). What do these two stories have in common?
10. What are Believers promised (I Corinthians 3:8)?