The parable of the vineyard workers (Matt.20:1-16) is unique to Matthew, although Jesus’ teaching about the first and last is not (see Mark 9:35. Luke 13:30 and also Mt.23:12). In this story, we have a vineyard owner visiting the marketplace looking for an influx of day workers to help with the grape harvest. A vineyard was the most common agricultural setting in Palestine at this time but was also a familiar image for God’s people. During harvest time, 12-hour workdays were common, from sunrise to sunset. Gathering grapes was tough manual labour and the heat of high noon in the Middle East was notorious.
The first group of workers were hired for a day wage (a denarius) while the subsequent groups were simply promised a fair wage and the final group were sent to work in the vineyard with no promise of a specific wage. Workers were normally paid at the end of the day (Lev.19:13. Dt.24;15). Surprisingly, this owner pays the last workers first and gives them a full day’s wage, despite the fact that they worked much less than the others. The order of payment created an expectation in those hired first that they would be paid more for working longer hours and through the heat of the day. This didn’t happen and they complained. They felt that they were being treated unfairly.
The owner responded by reminding them that he had given them exactly what was agreed to and that he had the right to be generous to the others with his own money. By implication, the owner in the story represents God and the workers represent the disciples of Jesus. The story is clear but what does it mean?
What does the Parable Mean?
Jesus is not teaching a lesson about economics or business practices! He doesn’t tell us to go and do likewise. Also, this parable is not an allegorical picture of the stages of church history or of the time in life when a person may come to faith in Christ. It could be aimed at problems that Jewish Christians had when Gentiles began to believe the gospel and embrace Christianity (see Rom.9-11).
Many see the parable as arguing against salvation by works, portraying the grace of God in salvation. We easily focus on our human effort, goodness, and the work we do for the kingdom of God. That way of thinking affected the disciples – Peter, James and John – and it has affected Christians ever since. It is easy to allow length of service and fervour for the Lord to determine our sense of and degrees of worth and value. God’s way with us is to make no distinctions. We are accepted and loved by God. We are saved by God – and not because of our own goodness or efforts but purely by God’s own grace. This is the gospel. It is different than human wisdom and therefore unusual but full of good news for all. God saves all of us by grace … not by our worthiness. We celebrate not what we have done for God but what He has done for us.
The First will be Last and the Last will be First
This parable is bracketed by a well-known statement of Jesus’: “Many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first (Mt.19:30),” or even more emphatically, “The last will be first and the first will be last (Mt.20:16).” This parable occurs between these two statements and so obviously illustrates the principle Jesus taught. Jesus is saying that in the kingdom, many who are at the back will find themselves in the front and those in the front will find themselves in the back. God is going to stand everything on its head. The nobodies are in the lead and the great and good are in the rear. Jesus is offering a vision of God’s new world in which everything will be upside down and inside out.
The Core Message
The most likely meaning of this parable is that Jesus is using it to address Peter’s earlier question, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get (Matt.19:27)?” Jesus is directing this parable against attitudes of envy, jealousy, greed, competitiveness or any form of comparison among his disciples. The sequence of paying in the story sets the listener up for a surprise. Expectations arise at the sight of such generosity to the most recent workers. “If these guys who only worked for one hour get the same amount I agreed to for the whole day, just imagine what I will get for working 12 hours!” But as the story unfolds, the listeners share in the tension and the feeling of unfairness. They worked longer hours and in the heat of the day. This seems unjust. The world operates on the principle that those who work the longest and the hardest receive the most pay. But in God’s kingdom, the principles of merit and ability are set aside so that grace can prevail. God was fair with those first hired, paying them the amount that was agreed to, while choosing to be even more generous with those hired last.
- Which workers in the parable do you identify most with: the ones just recently hired who were so thankful for the owner’s generosity, the ones who have worked hard all day, or the ones who may not have been hired yet?
- Read Paul’s comments in Ephesians 2:8-10. How do we balance our understanding that our salvation is fully by grace yet we are created to do good works?
- Reflect on a time when someone you know was really blessed or favoured by God. How did you feel, what did you think, and how did you respond?
- Reflect on the feelings of envy and jealousy. Where do they come from, what do they feel like, what are their cause, and how can we handle them appropriately as disciples?
- Read Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18. What are some of the dangers of comparing ourselves with others?
- What are some ways that we can avoid developing an attitude that God somehow owes us for all we do for him?
- In what ways is this parable similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Compare the attitude of the workers first hired to that of the elder brother.