Parables - Workers In The Vineyard

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Read the Text: Matthew 20:1-16


We have here the most puzzling of all the parables. The story is improbable were it not told by Jesus, we would hesitate to believe it. The owner of a vineyard went out early in the morning looking for workers. Finding some men available, he talked with them, and they agreed to work for a denarius each. The denarius was a Roman coin worth about twenty cents and was the ordinary pay for a day laborer. In all of this there is nothing unusual, for in Palestine a man was hired at dawn and paid at sunset. The early morning hours passed; and because there was much work to be done, the owner goes again to the market-place in search of laborers. According to the story, he finds men at the third, the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh hours. The Jews divided the daytime into twelve equal parts. The length of the hour depended on the length of the day. The third hour would be approximately 9 a.m., the sixth hour about noon, the ninth hour mid-afternoon, and the eleventh hour about 5p.m. It is importan t to notice that as the owner contacts the different laborers through the day, no bargain on pay is reached with them. The owner simply says that he will treat them right at the end of the day. It is also important to notice that the owner hires all the men he finds, and that none of the men when found refuse to go into the vineyard. They evidently did not feel that they were in a position to bargain; they only wanted a chance to work, and they were willing to commit themselves to the goodness of the owner.

It is at the close of the day that we come face to face with the Lord of the vineyard. The law of Moses stated that a hired man was to be paid at the day's end. Speaking of the laborer, the law read: "You shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down" (Deut. 24:15). So the laborers were called and given their wages; and, strangely, those who had come into the vineyard last were paid first. Not only so, but the five o'clock men were paid for the full day's work. How surprised and happy they were! What had been a long, fruitless day, as they looked for work, has now been turned into joy by a generous lord. The others employed at different hours were likewise well-treated: they were paid in full, although they had only worked in part. Then the time came to pay those who had worked the entire day. Since the lord had been so gracious, paying as much as a nedarius for one hour's work, they expected to get more. But they, too, received the same wages. With bitterness they objected, "Have we not borne the burden of the day and the scorching sun? Why have you not been as liberal with us as with the others?" The answer flew back, "I do you no wrong. You have what we agreed upon; take your money and go."


What strikes us first about the parable is that apparently the owner of the vineyard (Jesus Christ) seems to be unjust. We are ready to argue that the men who labored in the heat of the day ought to be paid more than the late-comers. We instinctively have a kind of pity for the grumblers. In order to justify, therefore, the unusual actions of the owner, various explanations have been proposed.

A. Some say the "denari" that all are working for is rewards that the Christian will receive in the kingdom. God will reward His own differently according to their service (I Cor. 3:8; John 4:36). If the "denari" stands for rewards, then God is not fair, for every worker got the same reward.

B. Some say the "denari" means salvation and that those who work and receive salvation early in life will receive the same eternal life that those who receive Christ late in life or perhaps on their death bed. The parable is not about salvation and the "denari" does not stand for salvation or eternal life, because salvation is not worked for nor earned by good works.

So we must look elsewhere for the correct explanation. We must see that all the workers in the vineyard were not treated on the same basis. The owner himself acknowledges this. "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?" But if the owner's methods represented unequal treatment, they did not represent unfair treatment. He did not wrong the early workers by doing a favor to their fellow workers. He did not withhold from them one cent of what was theirs. The trouble with the early workers was that they were jeoulous over what the others had received. They simply begrudged the owner's generosity. They murmured not because the lord had deprived them, but because he had been so merciful to the others.


It should be kept in mind that this parable was addressed directly to the apostles. In the previous chapter (Matt. 19), we read of a young man who came to Jesus in quest of eternal life. He was a good man, he had kept all the commandments of the law from his youth. Yet one thing he lacked. Jesus said that he needed to sell whatever he had, give it to the poor, and come and follow him. The young man, clinging to his many possessions, went away sorrowfully. Then Peter, unaware of his self-righteousness, drew a contrast of himself and the apostles with the self-centered rich man. He said, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?" Jesus responded that they, and all others who forsake themselves, will be greatly compensated - a hundred fold in this world and in eternal life in the world to come. But lest Peter get the wrong impression, Jesus hastened to add, "Many that are first will be last, and the last first." That is to say,"Do not be so much concerned about what you are going to get. In the kingdom of heaven it is not a matter of punching a clock, so much work and so much reward. If that is your attitude, great as your work may be, it will be small in the sight of God. Men may regard you first, but God will regard you last." Then Jesus gave the parable as an illustration of what He meant. The first hired were the last paid and the least honored. Not simply because they were first were they last, but because they had the wrong spirit of work. When so understood, the parable becomes a warning to the apostles who, as the first workers in the vineyard, might through an improper spirit end up as last in the kingdom.

The parable also may be taken as a warning to the Jews. The Jews had for centuries look upon themselves as the elect people of God. They were bound to God by a special covenant, and they were the exclusive recipients of his special promises. Very early they had entered the Lord's vineyard. All other nations were latecomers. So according to this view, Jesus is saying that the Jews, like the early workers, would resent the gathering in of the Gentiles. Last in time to dome into the kingdom, the Gentiles through their service would be made first; and the Jews, who were once first, because of their hatred of others would be made last. This interpretation has some merit, especially considering the parable stands in a series of parables that have to do with the Jews' rejection of God's kingdom.

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