Scripture Reading: It is important to read all of Matthew 19:16-20:16 in order to get the whole context in our minds. This will be important to our understanding of Jesus' teaching in the parable.
Introduction: As I was studying this parable in preparation for teaching this passage, I came across this surprising assessment by Klyne Snodgrass in his Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus:
For some, this is a marvelous parable about the grace of God. Hultgren placed it in his section on parables revealing God's extraordinary forgiveness and grace. Jülicher said it presents the gospel in a nutshell, Montefiore thought it one of the greatest parables of all, and Fuchs and Jüngel considered it the climax of Matthew. I think all this is hyperbole and consider this one of the three most difficult parables (along with the Unjust Steward and Matthew's account of the Banquet) (p. 362)
Needless to say, such a perspective by such an able Bible expositor left me feeling even more than my usual amount of fear and trembling at handling the Word of God. But the more I studied and thought about the parable, the more I began to think that some have made it harder than it really is and that the context really does help us to see clearly at least the basic points Jesus is trying to make.
So, that is where I will begin today, as I examine this parable under three headings: 1) The context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the application of the parable.
I. The Context of the Parable
As with any parable, so with the the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the context is crucial for understanding the things Jesus is trying to teach. And understanding the context will require us to go back at least as far as 19:16 in order to get the proper background.
Read 19:16-22 – The rich young man refused to give up his wealth to follow Jesus, which means that he was not keeping all the commandments as he had claimed. In particular, he was not keeping God's command that “you shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod. 20:3). His wealth was an idol that kept him from following the One he had just recognized as “good,” and thus worthy of following.
Read 19:23-26 – Jesus warns them of the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of God. It is, in fact, impossible for the man who trusts in himself and his own ability to keep the law, which was the problem the rich young man had. However, Jesus assures them that God is able to do what is impossible for a man. But this means the man has to trust God rather than himself or his own wealth and power. This the rich young man refused to do, which was evident in his refusal to give up his wealth.
Read 19:27-30 – The question asked by Peter leads to an answer from Jesus that extends all the way through 20:16, an answer which includes the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. But before getting to the parable itself, it is good to pause and get a grip on what is going on in this exchange between Peter and our Lord Jesus.
First, Peter's question (vs. 27) is not about salvation. It is about the rewards to be expected by those who have – unlike the rich young man – given up all to follow Jesus.
Second, Jesus' response does two things:
1) It gives the assurance that there will be rewards for Peter and the rest of His true disciples, as well anyone else who has sacrificed in order to follow Him (vss. 28-29).
2) It also gives a kind of warning that God will not distribute these rewards in a way that they might expect: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (vs. 30).
With these things in mind we are ready to begin examining more closely the parable itself.
II. The Communication of the Parable
The parable may be broken up into four scenes, and we will briefly consider each of them.
Scene #1: The Workers Are Hired (vss. 1-7)
NKJ Matthew 20:1-7 For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and said to them,“You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”
There are a couple features of the parable to take special note of at this point.
First, notice the difference in the times that the workers were hired. In those days, there was essentially a twelve hour work day, from morning till evening, and this is assumed in the story.
“early in the morning” (vs. 1) – This would have been at dawn, which would be about 6:00 AM.
“the third hour” (vs. 3) – This would be about 9:00 AM.
“the sixth and the ninth hour” (vs. 5) – This would be about noon and 3:00 PM respectively.
“the eleventh hour” (vs. 6) – This would be about 5:00 PM, when there would have been no more than one hour of the workday left.
Second, notice the difference in the description of the wages offered.
1) The first workers who were hired had agreed with the landowner “for a denarius a day” (vs. 2). This was the common wage for a day laborer in first century Palestine.
2) The workers hired later in the day were simply promised by the landowner that he would give them “whatever is right,” and they accepted this arrangement (vs. 4, 7).
In both cases, that of the agreed amount of a denarius and that of the agreed amount that is considered right by the landowner, the workers accepted the landowner's offer.
Scene #2: The Workers Are Payed (vss. 8-10)
NKJ Matthew 20:8-10 So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.” 9 And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.
There are three things that need to be pointed out here.
First, notice that the order in which the workers are paid is reversed from the order in which they were hired. They are paid beginning with the last to the first (vs. 8). This reflects Jesus' earlier statement that “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30). Thus Jesus is clearly identifying the theme He wants to emphasize.
Second, notice that the workers are all paid the same wage – a denarius – even those who were hired at the eleventh hour (vs. 9). This represents mercy and generosity on the part of the landowner, who wanted to make sure that everyone had enough to live on that day, even if they hadn't been able to work the whole day. It would be hard to imagine that those hired so late in the day wouldn't have been quite surprised at such generosity!
Third, notice that the workers who were hired first – having seen the others receive their pay – supposed that they would receive more (vs. 10).
Klyne Snodgrass is helpful when he observes that:
Key in interpreting the parable is v. 10: those hired first thought they would receive more. The parable breaks any chain of logic connecting reward, work, and human perceptions of what is right. God's judging is not regulated by human perceptions of justice, and lurking behind that statement is a whole theology of mercy. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 377)
This leads us to the next scene.
Scene #3: The Workers Complain (vss. 11-12)
NKJ Matthew 20:11-12 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”
Those hired earlier are actually accusing the landowner of having been unfair because in their minds he had treated those who were hired later as though they had worked all day when, in fact, they had worked but one hour. These men are much like little children who think that fairness means treating everyone the same way. But this isn't true, and it definitely precludes treating some – who may be in a more desperate situation – with true generosity.
As Klyne Snodgrass again aptly states it, “We worry about justice, but too often we dress up as justice what is in reality jealousy, or we use justice as a weapon to limit generosity” (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 378).
That these complaining workers are guilty of these very sins is clear in the final scene.
Scene #4: The Workers Are Corrected (vss. 13-15)
NKJ Matthew 20:13-15 But he answered one of them and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good [ἀγαθός]?”
The landowner replies to the complaining workers in three ways.
First, he reminds them that he has indeed treated them justly, since he has given them exactly what he agreed to give them (vs. 13). He had not cheated them in the least, and thus he had done them no wrong.
Second, the landowner points out that he has the right to do with his own money whatever he wishes (vs. 15a). So, not only has he done no wrong in paying the earliest workers what they themselves had agreed to, but he has also done no wrong in paying the latest workers more than they had earned. He is allowed to be as generous as he wants to be with his own money!
Third, the landowner confronts the complaining workers about their true motivation, pointing out that it isn't really a desire for justice that motivates them but rather their own envy of those who had worked less than they had (vs. 15b). When he asks the question – which is translated quite literally in the New King James Version – “Or is your eye evil because I am good?”, the reference to an evil eye is a clear Old Testament metaphor for envy or greed. For example:
NKJ Deuteronomy 15:9 Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,” and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the LORD against you, and it become sin among you.
NKJ Proverbs 28:22 A man with an evil eye hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him.
But Jesus also highlights something else, and it is about the landowner. He has the landowner referring to himself as good [ἀγαθός], and this description recalls the exchange between Jesus and the rich young man in 19:16-17:
NKJ Matthew 19:16-17a Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good [ἀγαθός] Teacher, what good [ἀγαθός] thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” 17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good [ἀγαθός]? No one is good [ἀγαθός] but One, that is, God.”
Thus, just in case some of us may have missed it, Jesus identifies the landowner in the story as standing for God. This means that He is referring to the way in which God Himself will distribute rewards to those who trust in Him as Lord and Savior.
As D.A. Carson puts it, “These rhetorical questions (vv. 13b-15) show that God’s great gifts, simply because they are God’s, are distributed, not because they are earned, but because he is gracious” (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 428).
And this leads to the final point.
III. The Application of the Parable (vs. 16)
We have already considered various legitimate applications of the parable as we have examined its communication in the context of Jesus' teaching of the disciples, but now I want to focus on the most important applications that Jesus had in mind. These are indicated in verse 16:
NKJ Matthew 20:16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.
There are essentially two points of application highlighted by Jesus here in the form of two proverbial statements.
First, the statement that “the last will be first, and the first last” recalls 19:30 and forms an inclusion, indicating that the parable is a unit of teaching that belongs with the preceding context. With this statement Jesus drives home the point that God does not distribute His rewards in the way that we might expect.
Second, the statement that “many are called, but few chosen” is not included in a number of modern translations because it is not found in a handful of old manuscripts. But I think it is also left out because it is hard for so many to figure out how it fits the context, which plainly has Jesus answering Peter's question in 19:27 about the rewards believers may expect from the Lord. Thus, a reference to many being called, but few being chosen just doesn't seem to fit, since it apparently speaks of some who are not believers at all.
But, once again, I think that a close examination of the context may relieve the difficulty. Recall that what led to Peter's question in the first place was Jesus' reflection on the situation of the rich young man. And remember that Jesus' reference to the landowner as good [ἀγαθός] shows that he still had the conversation with this young man in mind as well. This leads me to the conclusion that, whereas all those who will receive rewards – be they first or last – are chosen, it is only the chosen who will receive such rewards. But there are many– such as the rich young man – who are not chosen, and they can expect no rewards at all.
Conclusion: What about you? I presume all of you are here today because you have heard some kind of Gospel call. But are you one of the chosen? Or are you like the rich young man, trusting in your own ability to be pleasing enough to God for Him to save you, which can never happen?! Or is there an idol in your life that you refuse to give up in order to truly follow Christ? If so, I pray that by God's grace you will reject the idolatry that we are all so prone to, and that you will trust in Christ alone to save you.