Jesus told a parable about a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard. To understand the theme, we need to know what prompted him to tell the parable. Jesus had challenge a rich man, who wanted to be perfect, to give his wealth to the poor and follow him. Unwilling to give away everything he earned to the poor, he departed. A discussion of how difficult it is for a rich man to be saved ensued between Jesus and his disciples.
The conversation about wealth and treasure in heaven sparked Peter’s curiosity, or perhaps insecurity. He tried to nail Jesus down to a specific agreement.
“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mat. 19:27).
Jesus said their compensation would be the right to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said anyone who had forsaken something for his sake would receive a hundredfold return within his life time and eternal life in the coming age (Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29-30).
Jesus then told a parable explaining how the kingdom of heaven compensates its workers.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” (Mat. 20:1)
Jesus had already told his disciples the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few and offered a solution. “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mat. 9:37-38). In the parable God is the landowner who hired workers. This parable expresses his attitude toward compensating his workers.
“He [God] agreed to pay them [the workers] a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.” (vs. 2)
The most important thing in this verse is not the denarius, considered a full day’s wage, but that an agreement for a specific amount of money was made. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim states if a laborer was hired without a prior agreement the employer was only bound to pay the lowest wage or at best the average between the lowest and highest wage (Book 5, Chapter 5). The first workers the landowner/God hired did not trust him so they guaranteed their pay with an agreement.
“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.’”(vs. 3-7, emphasis added)
The rest of the day, the landowner went out about every three hours to send more workers into his vineyard. When he learned some of the workers had been waiting all day for work, but no one hired them, he had compassion and sent them to work in his vineyard. These workers did not guarantee their pay like the first group of workers. They accepted that the landowner, would give them “whatever is right.”
“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.’(vs. 8-12)
The landowner could have avoided a controversy if he had paid the first group sent into the field first. They would have received their pay and left. Instead, he gave specific instructions to, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”
The first group of workers learned the group who had only worked one hour receive a full day’s wage. They had worked harder and longer, so they assumed they had earned more than the amount in their agreement. When they received the denarius, they grumbled the landowner had not been fair.
God had a greater interest in healing a spiritual problem than avoiding controversy. God’s ways have a way of opening our eyes to the evil in us that we are not aware of. Those who only worked an hour had no choice. They wanted to work. No one hired them. Lest they return home without money to care for their families the landowner paid them a full day’s wage.
The first group of workers saw God’s goodness as an injustice.
“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.” (vs. 13-15)
This parable is a warning about securing our future with God based on what we think our labor is worth to him. God never devalued the labor of those who worked longer and harder. They agreed to receive a denarius and God fulfilled his part of their agreement. What we see in this parable is God’s generosity toward those who trust him to do the right thing.
All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise noted.