The next parable we are going to look at has always been one of my favorites. It takes place only in Matthew chapter 20. This parable is about what the kingdom of heaven is like, like most of them. A famous saying actually comes from this parable and we’re going to find out what that is and why this parable is so important to understanding God, the kingdom, and what Jesus was all about. Let’s begin.
This parable is called the Workers in the Vineyard and it takes place in Matthew 20:1-16. Let’s read it all at once and then talk about it.
““For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3 “About nine in the morning 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 noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 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?’ 7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
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 five in the afternoon 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 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.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.””
So in this parable, we have a landowner, the workers, and the foreman. In this parable, Jesus likens the kingdom to a landowner who hires workers to work in his vineyard. He does not make them his slaves, he desires to pay them and the workers accept the wages and start working. There are 5 different times in the day in which this landowner goes out to hire workers. He goes out, “early in the morning”, 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm. At all times the workers agree to the same amount of wages and they work until the workday is over. So clearly, some will not work as much as the others if they all stop working at the same time. They all receive the same wages, but not the same amount of work time.
So when it comes time to pay, the ones who were hired first get paid last, a backwards way of looking at business. Naturally, the ones who worked all day expect to be paid more than the ones who only did an hour of work. However, each of them receives the same. The ones who were hired first start to complain at this backwards and seemingly screwed up system. The landowner reminds them that they agreed to work for this amount of money and so they are getting what they wanted. They are not getting jipped in any way but they feel like they are.
This parable can have many interpretations and I believe they can be right in their own way. One interpretation could be that this parable is about those who receive God’s mercy and grace “later” than others, (ex: the poor and outcasts of society). These folks were the lowest in society and it could be interpreted this way because “no one hired” them. In light of the context of this parable, Jesus had just given the parable of the rich young man who could not give to the poor and he had just mentioned those who give everything for Jesus will receive their reward in abundance and was talking about the last being first. This would also mean that the “first hired” could be the Pharisees or teachers of the law who looked down on the low and outcast of society. In light of this interpretation, this means that no matter what our life circumstance is now, we have a reward far beyond our comprehension waiting for us.
Another interpretation could be that the last hired were Gentiles and the first were Jews and Israelites. This would go along with Paul’s discussion of Gentiles coming into the branch of Israel later in Romans.
But for a life application interpretation, the main point is this: God’s grace and free gift of love is always accessible and always the same. Ephesians 3:12 says, “In whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” The landowner gave the same amount to each worker. Thus, God gives each of us the same amount of love and grace when we accept the invitation. God gives to each of us equally and each of us receives more than we deserve. So whether we come to know Christ later in life, early in life, or somewhere in between, the kingdom is always waiting, God is always ready, and the love of Christ is always open. Jesus is the way, (John 14:6) and He is always willing and ready for us to come to Him.