Jesus spent a great deal of His ministry announcing the coming of God’s kingdom and overcoming first-century presumptions by teaching people to recognize that kingdom. And a lot of His parables focused on communicating valuable truths about this kingdom.
One misunderstanding that Jesus needed to clarify was the idea that the Jews held a special insider relationship with God. From the very beginning, God told Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through his offspring (Genesis 22:18), but as far as the Israelites were concerned, these other nations would never be as blessed as they were.
Jesus’s teaching regularly challenged this idea and never as overtly as in the parable of the workers.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-7).
Jesus’s story begins with a landowner hiring day laborers. Early in the day, the landowner heads out to the location where workers-for-hire wait to be employed for the day. He picks up a handful of laborers and promises them a day’s wages.
As the morning progresses, the landowner heads back into town to pick up a few more workers. This time he doesn’t make them a specific promise about payment. He tells them that they shall be paid “whatever is right.” Happy for the work, the laborers head to the vineyard. Twice in the heat of the afternoon, the owner heads back into town. Seeing unhired laborers, he puts them to work. He doesn’t discuss pay in either of these instances.
Paying the laborers
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.”
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These 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” (Matthew 20:8-12).
When it’s time to pay the workers, the foreman begins with the last workers picked. It’s interesting to note that if he’d paid the early laborers first, he probably wouldn’t have had this problem. But the whole time the foreman is passing out the standard payment for a day’s wages to the late workers, the early workers were probably thinking, “Woah! Look how much money he’s giving them, and they’ve only been here for a few hours!” They probably assumed they were going to receive so much more than the owner originally promised them.
They must have been astounded when they received the same pay as everyone else. Naturally, they’re frustrated. They’ve worked all day long, and the landowner has made these latecomers “equal” to them.
This is precisely the situation that the first-century Jews find themselves in. They were God’s chosen people. They’ve served Yahweh for generations. They’ve been blessed, and they’ve been disciplined. They’ve been waiting for a Messiah to come to rescue them from Rome and reestablish them as God’s unique, chosen nation.
But Jesus challenges that expectation. The special inheritance that Israel believes to be hers is going to be extended-in full-to other nations. It’s not that the Hebrews were against God extending blessings to other nations. They just always assumed that God would value those nations below Israel.
In response to the kingdom of God, Israel would make the same argument as the early laborers, “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work.”
The landowner’s response
But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:13-16).
The landowner reframes the discussion. This isn’t really about the workers being taken advantage of-they’re receiving exactly what he promised. This story is about the vineyard owner’s generosity to the other workers. It’s just that when the early workers see the owner’s kindness, they feel like they’re being cheated-and in the midst of this misunderstanding, the owner still calls them “friends.”
Nothing is being taken away from God’s promises to Israel for Him to open the kingdom to everyone. In fact, it’s through Jesus that the whole earth is blessed, which keeps God’s promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations would be blessed (Galatians 3:16).
The Hebrew perspective would depend on their outlook. If they focused on themselves and what they believed they deserved in comparison to the other nations, they would feel bitter and slighted. But if they focused on the generosity of God, they could enjoy the outcome of God’s promises while God showed kindness to others.
What’s the personal application?
This lesson goes beyond a macro-discussion about nations. It applies to our personal experience. It’s entirely possible to make sacrifices and difficult choices to serve God faithfully and watch others slip into the kingdom during deathbed conversions. Like the thief on the cross, they get to enter paradise by coming to Jesus in their last moments.
This scandal of grace is a sign of the unbelievable goodness of God. It’s possible that someone could look at a lifetime of service and feel, like the early laborers, that they were cheated. But this is the wrong way to look at faithfulness.
When we truly recognize the lavish generosity of God’s mercy, it’s a game changer. We stop focusing on what’s “fair,” and begin to humbly appreciate God’s unbelievable benevolence. Hopefully, we recognize what the early laborers missed: It’s a privilege to serve a God who is so kind and unselfish.