The text from Matthew 20:1-16 is known as “The Parable of the workers in the vineyard”. In this parable as in a number of other parables Jesus allows us to look into the human heart and see what lies within it. This particular parable deals with an attitude that like pride and unforgiveness has no place in the kingdom of God. In our world this attitude is considered to be normal and acceptable. But this is an attitude that is rather dangerous because even we as believers often tolerate it in our lives. This attitude is called “envy”. It is the feeling of annoyance and malice provoked in us when we see someone else’s prosperity, achievements and success. This attitude comes from comparing ourselves with others. This comparison is a sin, because it often leads to rivalry and grumbling – things that have no place in the kingdom of God.
- “Why should somebody else have more than I do?”
- “Why should he have something that I don’t?”
- “Why should somebody work less and receive the same wages that I do?
These are the questions that characterize the wrong attitude that the parable of the workers of the vineyard deals with.
I. Context of the Parable
In order to get a better understanding of the message of the parable, and to catch the nuances and accents it puts on the spiritual truth contained in it, we should examine the parable in its context – those parts of the text that precede and follow it that determine its meaning.
Very High Price?
The events that precede the parable of the workers in the vineyard are the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man and the discussion that arose between Jesus and his disciples. It originated in Jesus’ statement about the camel and the eye of the needle.
The encounter of Jesus with the rich young man is conveyed to us in Matthew 19:16-22. If we look at this episode from the perspective of the parable, we could say that at this moment Jesus calls the rich young man to “go to the vineyard” or in other words he calls him to enter the kingdom of God. Unfortunately the young man refused to accept His gracious offer. He haggled or bargained with Jesus. The rich young man considered that because he had kept God’s Commandments he deserved eternal life. Jesus asked him to sell all his possessions and to give the money to the poor. But it looks like the rich young man quickly estimated that his property was a very high price to pay for eternal life and in other words he did not agree on “the deal”. He was called to “go to the vineyard”, but he refused to follow the call because he thought that “the wages” were way too low for “the labor”. So, until that moment at least, he remained without eternal life. Anyway, we should point out that the reason he did not have eternal life yet was not because he refused to sell his possessions, but because he “went away” and he did not follow Jesus.
Camel through the Eye of a Needle
Christ’s comments on the decision of the rich young man were as follows (Matthew 9:23-26):
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
With these words Jesus declared that the rich young man could actually be saved, even though he was wealthy!
The Question about Benefits
Peter and the others were puzzled by this statement and so Peter asked (Matthew 19:27):
27 “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Peter felt hope for the rich young man in the words of Jesus. The Lord said that it was hard and almost impossible for him to enter the kingdom of heaven, and yet with God’s intervention he could be saved. This is the teaching of the New Testament: salvation is not by deeds but by grace alone.
But then it looks as though Peter thought in that same moment: “If such an unlikely candidate for eternal life as this rich young man could be saved then what do we apostles receive?” As if Peter had got into the same mercenary spirit as the young man and started bargaining with Jesus. If the rich young man could be saved even without giving up his possessions, were the apostles so naïve to leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus? If he could receive eternal life without losing his property, should they not receive something far greater if they had left everything in order to follow Jesus?
27 “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
In other words: “Aren’t we going to get ‘something more’?” Peter’s question could be considered as a manifestation of a mercenary and egocentric spirit. To have such a spirit means that the main purpose of your life would be to derive some benefit or profit from everything you do. It means that you get motivated not by love or desire to do something good but by a passion for personal gain.
In Peter’s question “What then will there be for us?” we sense a fear that perhaps he has given up more than he needed to, or a fear that he has been wronged by Jesus. As if Peter was afraid that he was not going to receive the full proceeds from the investments he had made to follow Jesus. This question reveals a fear that perhaps somebody else will receive more than us by giving less. This was obviously a serious flaw in Peter’s character, because in another situation he asks a similar question. When in John 21:18-23 Jesus predicts his martyrdom, Peter asks whether John was going to die in the same way or what was going to happen to him. Jesus however told him: “Look at your own front yard and do not compare yourself with others!”
20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
Even if we assume that Peter’s motives were pure, we should examine the parable as a pre-emptive strike against erroneous attitudes of comparing, envy and scheming. Right there Jesus rebukes those who try to minister for reward instead of ministering out of love.
In either case the parable cannot be understood properly without taking into account the question Peter asked “What then will there be for us?”, because it is the answer to this particular question. Proof of this is the fact that in the other gospels where the parable is not included in the narrative Peter’s question “What then will there be for us?” is omitted too. In the other gospels this question is missing. But in them the parable is not mentioned. In my opinion this is quite clear evidence for the connection between the question and the parable.
But before we start meditating on the parable, let us look at how specifically Jesus answers Peter. And it is really impressive – true, for those who have served and sacrificed faithfully for the ministry there will be something more than salvation (Matthew 19:28-29).
V.28 is especially about the apostles:
28 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And v.29 is a general promise for all Disciples of Christ:
29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.
Yes, there will be “something more” than eternal life for the apostles and for all devoted believers. Jesus however concludes his answer to Peter with a warning (v.30):
30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
The warning of Jesus starts with the word “but”. “But” means “Attention!” Many who are first will be last, and the last – first. With these words God addresses the wrong motives. Even though there will be “something more”, we should follow Jesus not because of the rewards – hundredfold multiplied, but because of love!
This enigmatic warning about the first and the last is repeated again in reverse order by the end of the parable (Matthew 20:16). In this way it puts the parable in a specific frame. Obviously the parable is an explanation of this paradoxical declaration. And we should not forget that it was given by Jesus in His answer to Peter’s question about the extras to eternal life.
And so, having in mind these two elements of the context – the warning about the first and the last and Peter’s question about the benefits we are ready to approach the parable and its message. And its message is that in the Kingdom of God calculating people will miscalculate their profits. Giving only in order to receive is wrong – it is giving from self-centeredness. If you follow Jesus only for some kind of gain you can be disappointed. The motive for our ministry should not be gain but love and a desire to obey God’s call and do something good.
II. Content of the Parable
Early in the morning a landowner goes to the market place to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. After the usual bargaining about the wages he hires them and sends them to work (vv.1-2):
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
Notice that the landowner agrees with the first workers for the wage of one denarius per day. They settled it in the morning and then the workers were content with the agreement. Their wages were a preliminary contract.
In the later hours of the day the landlord hires more workers. But he does not specify their wages. What is impressive about them is that in contrast to their co-workers they go to work without any bargaining. It looks as though they trust the landowner. They rely on his integrity and trustworthiness and do not think that he could lie to them or treat them unjustly (vv.3-5):
3 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, `You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.
The reason the workers hired later went to work at a later time was not that they were lazier than the first. They went to work later because nobody had hired them earlier (vv.6-7):
6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, `Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 ” `Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, `You also go and work in my vineyard.’
In the end of the day all the laborers received one and the same wage for different amounts of work. This fact disappointed the first laborers and made them angry. So they started arguing with the landowner (vv.8-12):
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, `Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 `These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, `and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
Notice that the owner of the vineyard deliberately orders his servant to begin paying from the last to first so that the laborers hired earlier could see the wages of the last. If he had started with the first, they would take their denarius and would go home. This would avoid the quarrel. But the explicit orders of the landowner were that payment should start in reverse order. So when the first workers saw that the last who had worked only one hour received one denarius, they must surely have started to calculate that if they had worked ten times more, they should receive at least five denarii, but in any case more than one. What was their surprise when they received also one denarius? Was this fair?
Is this fair?
Listen how the landowner replies to the grumblers (vv.13-15). He tells them:
- “I treated you fairly because you did receive what we agreed on.” (vv.13-14а):
13 “But he answered one of them, `Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go.
- “It is my will to pay the same to the others.” (v.14b):
I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.
- “Don’t I have this right?” (v.15а):
15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?
- “How can you be irritated by my goodness? Is that justified?” (v.15b):
Or are you envious because I am generous?
It does not become the Christian to be envious just because God may have given something better to others. Sometimes we think that God is being more gracious to others than to us, but it is not true! There is no favoritism in God. He has no favorites. He is generous to all who call on Him (Romans 10:12)!
III. Lessons from the Parable
If we carefully meditate on the text and context of the parable we can learn at least five lessons.
1. Nobody will be wronged by God.
What everyone will receive as a reward for his discipleship; ministry and dedication will be more than fair. God will not treat us unjustly. In v.13 the Landowner who represents God says:
Friend, I am not being unfair to you.
God is a good God! He is a generous God! And His grace towards us or towards others should not surprise us!
2. Those who have come to Christ earlier, who have been more dedicated, and who have worked more in God’s vineyard should not envy those who have come into the Kingdom later.
Let us accept that the additional payment to our wages is the opportunity and the privilege of serving such a wonderful Master as our Lord longer than others. This is a really priceless reward!
3. When we are called through the Gospel to obey Christ and follow him we should respond immediately. We should accept Christ’s invitation right away instead of turning away with empty hearts as the rich young ruler did.
Maybe some of us were called by God when we were children. Others may have not heard the gospel until they grew up to be adults. Nobody can judge people because they were late answering God’s call to enter the kingdom of God. Nobody knows the reasons for a later conversion. But once we hear the call of Christ we should not hesitate even for a minute but “go to the vineyard”. Like the laborers who went to work later, we should respond immediately and serve God diligently no matter how much more life we have left on earth. Let us commit ourselves to God in faithful service and He will not disappoint us!
4. We should serve God with all our talents and capabilities and without holding to our personal interests; without thinking: “What is in it for me?”
It is better to leave our reward in the hands of God rather than bargain with Him! He will never do us wrong. He will never be unfair to us. On the contrary, He has promised us that if we seek His kingdom and his righteousness first then all our needs will be supplied (Matthew 6:33)!
5. We should not compare ourselves with others but look at our potential in Christ.
The Lord said to Peter: “What is that to you? You must follow me.” We should not measure ourselves against ourselves or against others but we need to fulfill our potential in Christ!
What Motivates Us to Serve the Lord?
Let us think for a while about our attitude toward our ministry in God. Let us look in the mirror of the Word of God and be honest with ourselves and God. Why do we serve Him? Is it because of love or because of some reward? Or is it that we do not serve Him at all because we do not see any benefits in such a ministry?
If our hearts have been infiltrated by a calculating attitude like the one we see in Peter’s question or if there is a spirit of envy like the one that grabbed the early workers, we need to wake up and sober up. Because the parable teaches us that people with calculating and envious hearts will not feel comfortable in the Kingdom of Heaven. They will surely be disappointed. In other words calculating people will miscalculate because at the end of the day the last will be first and the first will be last.