The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

illuminated manuscript depicting the parable of the vineyard workers

Last time we were together, we looked at several short parables about the kingdom of Heaven. We took some time to define this kingdom that Christ is talking about as His church, and we’ve looked at parables covering several subjects. It’s been compared to both treasures and weeds, sowers and fishers; it’s been a mustard seed, and it’s been leaven. The themes, though, have been consistent. The kingdom is valuable. The kingdom is enduring. The kingdom will spread. The kingdom should be shared.

Today, we’re going to look at one more kingdom parable, and this one is looking directly at the kingdom beyond this life.

Matthew 20: 1 – 16:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

“And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.

“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

“And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.

“Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

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

An Old Testament Principle

This parable actually centers around a command given under the former law in Deuteronomy 24:14 – 15:

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.

The idea here is simple. These are itinerant workers who are struggling financially. You hire someone to do laborer, and you pay them that day for their labor. Moses is specific here, saying that you should pay the wages before the sun sets. These individuals are living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis. You show mercy by paying daily rather than withholding wages until a set interval. Moses says that doing otherwise would be sin.

In this parable, the master goes out in the early morning, starting around 6:00 a.m. by our standards. This makes the third hour 9:00 a.m., the sixth hour noon, and the ninth hour 3:00 p.m. Finally, those called at the eleventh hour came at 5:00 p.m. and only worked for one hour.

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses did not specify how you should divide up wages for the poor you employ under the old law. However, the common practice back them was similar to what we do now. If you work more hours, you get paid more. Isn’t that what’s fair? But that’s not what happens in this parable. Here, the master pays those who worked one hour the same as those who worked twelve.

A Lesson in Humility

This is a parable about humility, as evidenced by Jesus ending the parable with these words: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” In a way, this passage foreshadows another parable most of us here will likely be familiar with: the prodigal son. At the end of that parable, one son feels he deserves more honor because he has demonstrated more loyalty to his father. The same is true of these laborers, but the wording here is interesting in verse 12: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day…”

They aren’t concerned so much with getting more than those who worked fewer hours as much as they are with those who worked less getting less. Let me make this clear: those who were grumbling basically wanted those who worked less to be “put in their place.” The words “you have made them equal” are basically accusing the master of unfairly elevating those who deserved less. Do you see the distinction there? They didn’t ask for a greater reward; they asked that the others should receive less. Brothers and sisters, when we become too proud of ourselves it’s easy to punch down.

In the direct historical context of this parable (and also that of the prodigal son), Jesus is likely drawing a comparison between the Jews and Gentiles access to the kingdom. Some of the Jews — particularly the religious leaders — viewed themselves as having been faithful to God for generations, and they would later resist the gospel being shared with Gentiles. They were God’s chosen people, after all. Parables like this served to prepare them for the kingdom opening to the Gentiles, whom they would view as less deserving because of their years of unfaithfulness. That’s likely the direct context, but the actual application has wider implications for us.

It’s easy to look at someone who stumbles more than we do or has a greater difficulty understanding God’s word than we think we do and show them lesser grace. It’s easy to lose our temper with the brother or sister who has a hard time controlling their own. It’s easy to feel less forgiving toward a brother or sister who confesses more sin. It’s easy to act as if we are more deserving of God’s grace than others because we just have it so together. After all, we’re just so faithful. This parable is a warning to us to not think too highly of ourselves.

Humility in God’s Kingdom

Look at what happens in verses 17 – 28:

And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?”

She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”

They said to him, “We are able.”

He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Gospels are not always recorded in strict chronological order, and I believe that sometimes the authors pair events with teachings to drive a point home. That may be the case here, for the pride of the apostles directly mirrors the pride of the laborers earlier in the chapter. And it’s not the pride shown by the sons of Zebedee or their mother that’s the real problem. No, the real problem is the pride shown by the other ten in verse 24. It says they were indignant. This is anger toward a perceived unfairness as if any of them were as deserving or more of that reward.

Remember that the all-day laborers were indignant over what they felt were unfair wages. They worked longer, so they deserved more. I’m sure some of the apostles could say they had been with Jesus longer or had labored harder than James and John. What about Matthew, Mark, and Peter? Didn’t they deserve an equal or greater place in the kingdom? Jesus flat out says this the the wrong way to think about it, and He tells them to put on a servant attitude rather than an attitude like earthly rulers. He commands them and us to be humble.

You see, it doesn’t matter if I was baptized before or after you. It doesn’t matter if I have preached more or fewer sermons than you. It doesn’t matter if I have brought more or fewer souls to Christ than you. It doesn’t matter if my Bible knowledge if greater or less than yours. None of these things make me greater or less than you in the eyes of the Father. We are all His humble servants, and we are all working toward the same goal. And, in doing so, we will all receive the same reward, whether we’ve been faithful fifty years or fifty minutes.

A Quick Caveat

Before we move on, I do want to insert a word of warning. This is not to encourage unfaithfulness. Like Paul writes in Romans 6:1, “Shall we then sin more so that grace may abound?” We might ask, “Might we not go on sinning and repent in the last hour?” The answer is the same that Paul gives: Assuredly not. God takes sin seriously.

As the Hebrew author writes in Hebrews 6:4 – 6:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

When we’ve learned of God’s invitation to work in His vineyard, then anything other than humble acceptance is an insult to Christ’s sacrifice for us. And that contempt can lead to a hardened heart that may never return. That is why the Hebrew writer also calls on us to respond to God’s invitation while it is still called today, later warning us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’s.

We do not know the hour of our final breath. We do not know the hour Christ will return. Courting unfaithfulness in hopes of an eleventh-hour repentance is flirting with disaster. If you know Him, then humbly accept obedience to His will in faith.

A Lesson of God’s Mercy

Finally, this is also a lesson in mercy. The master in this parable pays those who worked but one hour the same wage as those who worked twelve. He lifts them to equal standing. This is unmerited grace; for those third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh-hour workers do not deserve the same wage as their colleagues who worked twelve. It is not a sleight to those laborers who faithfully toiled all day. Rather it is an extension of love and grace to those who fell short.

John 3:1 – 2:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

Do any of us deserve to be called a child of God? Can any of us merit such a relationship? Jesus Christ, the only living Son of God, came to this world from the spiritual realm. He lived a perfect life. He perfectly submitted to the Father’s will to become a sacrifice for all. Then He rose again in power and ascended back to Heaven to sit at God’s right hand. Can any of us say we truly live up to that standard?

Jesus is the only one who can say He deserves to be called God’s Son. But we gain the status of children through love and grace. This then makes us joint heirs with Christ, as Paul writes about in Romans 8. No matter how great or righteous or faithful we may think we are, not one of us deserves an inheritance like that, but grace says we get to receive it anyways.

Instead of begrudging such a great inheritance, as those laborers in the parable begrudged their wages, let’s be humble and grateful. Let’s be grateful for the favor God has bestowed upon us when there is no way we can deserve it. And let’s show that gratitude by humbly submitting to His will and also by sharing that great inheritance with others, so that God can say, to as many people as possible, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

lesson by Robert Smelser