Matthew 20:1 – For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
As you may recall, chapter 19 ended with a verse that said, ‘But many who are first will be last, and the last first’. This was a very unfortunate place to break off the chapter because the parable we find in Matthew 20:1-16 ties in with the events and discussions of chapter 19.
As you recall, Jesus was still dealing with the concept of reward which came about after the rich young ruler refused to give up his worldly riches and follow Jesus. The specific reward that the young man forfeited was eternal life. Please keep this in mind as we examine this parable. Other lessons can also be found in this portion of scripture, and we will take a look at some of those too.
Let’s get started.
In this parable, we find the master or owner of a house who owns a vineyard. He is in need of workers to tend it.
Early in the morning (6 am), he goes into the market place searching for people to labor in his field.
Matthew 20:2 – After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
First, we want to note that these workers are not slaves. Slaves do not have a choice of whether or not to work. They do not get paid wages for their efforts.
These are hired hands or day laborers who were hired for short term employment. They would congregate at a particular place (probably close to the city gate) and just wait for someone to come along and offer them a job. They could be hired for part of a day, a full day or even a bit longer. These types of workers were always paid daily.
So, in the parable, it appears as though the master found a group of these men first thing in the morning (6 am), offered them the standard rate of pay for a day’s work (a penny), they accepted, and he sent them to work. So far, so good.
Matthew 20:3 – And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
About 9 am, the owner sees other people standing around the employment office looking for work. These people are not idle because they are lazy; they were simply unable to be at work until after 6 am. This was nothing more than a timing issue.
Matthew 20:4 – and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.”
So he sends another group of laborers into the vineyard, but this time, no definite wage is specified. The owner simply promises that he will treat them fairly. They accept this arrangement, and (hi-ho, hi-ho) off to work they go!
Matthew 20:5 – So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.
All day long, the owner constantly sends more and more workers into his field. Each time, he agrees to pay them a fair wage without specifying exactly what that would be.
Matthew 20:6-7 – And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
The eleventh hour is equal to 5 pm, and the working day ended at 6 pm. These workers were sent to work only the last hour of the day.
Matthew 20:8 – And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’
Soon, 6 pm rolled around and the work day was over. Like any group of workers, I imagine that some of them had a great day. They felt like they had accomplished a lot and were happy. Some probably encountered problems or difficulties during the day and were just glad to be done! Some had worked though the heat of the day and were tired/weary, while some had worked only an hour and felt like they could keep going.
Regardless, of how the day unfolded for each individual worker, it was now time to receive payment for their labor. We note that the master of the house instructs the foreman/steward to pay the workers in a precise manner – the last hired are to be paid first, and the first hired are to be paid last.
Matthew 20:9 – And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.
So the workers that labored for an hour are paid first. They received the same amount that was promised to the contracted workers who worked 12 hours. The generosity of the master of the house was incredible! They were certainly very pleased with what they had been given!
And apparently those standing in line behind them also noted that they had received an entire day’s wages.
Matthew 20:10 – Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
So picture this – You are one of the 6 am shift. You worked all day in the heat. Your feet are aching; you are tired and sweaty. You see the people who were hired for one hour being paid a whole penny/whole day’s wages.
Your mind would begin to jump to conclusions, wouldn’t it? You would assume that if the master paid the later worker a full day’s wage, then surely you would be entitled to more… maybe even double! Forget the contract – suddenly, you want what you feel you deserve!
You are anxious and excited as you make your way up to the payment window. Eventually it is your turn and you receive (drum roll here)… a penny. A single penny. The same amount that you were contracted to be paid, and nothing more! The same amount that was given to the workers who did not labor as long as you did! How outrageous! How unfair!
Matthew 20:11-12 – And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
Oh, how quickly our attitudes can change! There is no doubt that at 6 am they considered themselves fortunate to be hired. They were glad to be going into the vineyard. They were looking forward to getting paid a penny. But despite the fact that none of that had changed (in fact, it occurred exactly as they expected it would), they were now unhappy! How ungrateful and peevish they now seem!
Matthew 20:13 – But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?
As the owner points out, he had completely fulfilled the contract between himself and the disgruntled workers. They voluntarily entered into the contract; he fulfilled his end of the bargain. There were no grounds for appeal or renegotiation.
Matthew 20:14-15 – ”Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
The master rebukes the ungrateful workers. Doesn’t his stuff belong to him alone? As master, doesn’t he have the authority to use it as he pleases? Because the master is generous and liberal, does that give the temporary employee a right to be envious or covetous? Of course not!
When we read this account, the complainers seem like spoiled children, murmuring that their wages are unfair. However, in reality, they have nothing to complain about.
Matthew 20:16 – So the last will be first, and the first last.
How are we to interpret this parable in light of the reward of eternal life?
The parable describes what takes place in the kingdom of heaven, or the gospel dispensation. As we have already discussed, this period of time began with the public ministry of Jesus and it will end when he returns again to earth.
So, what was the most mysterious part of the gospel dispensation, in regards to eternal life?
It is the rejection of the Jews and the acceptance of the Gentiles into the kingdom of Heaven.
Ephesians 3:3-6 – … the mystery was made known to me by revelation as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
To those of us reading this in the 21st century, this is not a mystery at all. As long as we have walked the earth, Gentiles have had the opportunity to be admitted into the kingdom of heaven; the same heaven as the Jews. For us, this is the status quo.
But remember, this parable was spoken before Jesus was crucified and raised to life. At that time, the Jews despised the Gentiles, calling them ‘dogs’. They hated everything about the Gentile way of life. They hated the authority that the Gentiles exercised over them. The Jews were convinced that the Gentiles would rot in hell forever, which was what they deserved, and the sooner they got it, the better.
When God opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles, there was a major uproar in the church. The Jews were very unhappy, to say the least. They wanted no fellowship with the men they had long despised.
Were it not for the work of the mighty Holy Spirit, the early church would have split into two churches – the Jewish part and the Gentile part. This is clearly evidenced by numerous New Testament writings. But, by his great might and wisdom, God combined both the Jews and Gentiles into a single, united body of Christ. Believers in both groups were entitled to receive eternal life.
So in our parable, the workers who were called at 6 am were the Jews. The owner (God) made a contract (covenant) with them. They agreed to labor for a penny a day (eternal life).
Those without a contract are the Gentiles. God has called them to work in his kingdom, with the promise that he would pay them what was fair. He chose to give the Gentiles the same wages as the Jews – eternal life.
The first workers in the story (Jews) were unhappy that the late comers (Gentiles) received the same wages (eternal life) as they did. They felt they were being treated unfairly, and they complained about it.
However, God soon put them in their place. Doesn’t the gift of salvation belong to God alone? If he, in his sovereignty and grace, chooses to be generous and give it to all men, do the Jews have the right to be angry about that? Didn’t they receive exactly what was promised to them through the original covenant? Of course they did! They have no cause to be angry with God over the salvation of the Gentiles.
It is now easy to see how this relates to chapter 19. Peter and the other disciples are all excited about receiving the reward that was rejected by the rich young ruler. This reward was eternal life, and they were happy to get it.
However, Jesus was using this parable to tell them that the reward of salvation was going to be open to all men, and the Jews were going to be unhappy about it, at least at first. This is even more evidence that God always intended to give eternal life to Gentiles.
This is the focal point of the parable. However, as we mentioned earlier, they are many lessons that can be taken from this portion of scripture.
First, no man can accuse God of being unfair. Everything we have, even the air we are breathing right now, was given to us by him, and we did not deserve any of it! Pouting and complaining about unfairness will not change God’s mind one bit. The person who feels they are being treated unfairly, should pray and ask God to open their eyes to the truth, and help them change their attitude. Be thankful for what God has given you; he knows what is best!
You have to love all of your brothers and sisters in Christ, and be in unity with them. We are all on the same team, working for the same goal – to see the world won for Christ. So, let each person do what God has called him to do, and let us labor together, like a body made up of many individual members.
This parable could also be used to demonstrate the truth that people can receive eternal life, regardless of when they surrender to God. For instance, if a person received Christ as savior at the age of 5, and then spent another 95 years working in his kingdom, he would receive eternal life as his reward. He would be a ‘6 am’ worker. A person who accepts Christ on his or her deathbed would be an 11th hour worker. Like the thief on the cross, he too receives eternal life.
Matthew 20:17 – And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them,
Jesus is headed up to Jerusalem for the Passover. He will not only observe this Passover with his disciples, he will also fulfill Passover by giving his life as a ransom for mankind.
Matthew 20:18-19 – “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
This is the third time that Jesus has revealed his death to the disciples (once in chapter 16 and once in 17). Why do you think he does this?
Because if Jesus tells them in advance, their faith in him as the Messiah will not be shaken when they see him arrested and put to death.
Notice how very specific/detailed Jesus is about his upcoming death. He will be delivered to the Sanhedrin, the great religious council of the Jews. They will condemn him to death, but they have no actual power or authority to carry out capital punishment. Therefore, they must turn him over to the Gentiles. Specifically, that would be the Romans, who practice the most horrible of executions – scourging, followed by crucifixion.
Who but the true Son of God could have given the exact order and details of his own death? Even though this does not make any sense to them at the present time, the disciples will eventually know and understand that this was all a part of God’s perfect plan.
This news also brings them a secondary comfort: if Jesus was telling the truth about his own death and resurrection, then he was also telling the truth about the gift of eternal life that they had just been discussing.
We also notice that Jesus reveals this truth only to the disciples, not the large crowd following him to the city. This was because the 12 were his chosen witnesses that would later preach the gospel and establish the church.
So let me offer you some encouragement:
For a time, the disciples did not understand the death and resurrection of Jesus. That scenario did not fit in with their idea of Jesus throwing off the rule of the Gentiles and setting up his own victorious kingdom.
But later, they understood that God was indeed going to fulfill all his promises; just not in the way they expected. Perhaps this is true in your life too. Have you been holding onto a promise from God, but things aren’t happening the way you thought they would? If so, let me give you some encouragement – God always keeps his promises! So keep your eyes on him, and continue to trust him. Give him glory and be thankful. Like the disciples, you will one day look back and see that God was faithful to all that he promised!
Let me offer you some relief:
This chapter deals a lot with the reward of eternal life. Now is the time to examine this truth in your own life. Have you entered into the service of the master yet? Is your eternal salvation guaranteed? If not, now is the time to turn from sin and lay hold of the promise of eternal life, by praying and asking Jesus to be Lord and Savior of your life.
Let me offer you some strength:
The disciples suffered a period of intense upheaval and uncertainty when Jesus was crucified. We too, are experiencing a time of upheaval and uncertainty, because of the COVID virus.
What will happen in the future? Will there be public school or sporting events? Will the virus run its course or continue to plague the entire world? Will food, housing and transportation continue to be readily available or can we expect shortages? What will happen to our jobs? We can no longer be confident of these answers like we have been in the past. This uncertainty can result in fear and worry.
But let me offer you some strength – some things are eternal and unchanging!
God is still in control of the universe, and our lives. His perfect plan for you cannot be altered by the virus.
God is Jehovah Jireh, our provider. He is the source of all that we are going to need, including food, shelter and employment. God is not experiencing any shortages!
God has guaranteed us eternal life in paradise with him. Nothing can take that away from you!
God is still interested in gathering souls to himself. Despite what is happening around us, we must still press forward in winning souls and making disciples of all men.
God guided the disciples through their period of uncertainty. By his Holy Spirit, he transformed them into powerful witnesses for Christ. He will do the same thing for you. Ask the Lord to baptize you in the Holy Spirit and transform you into a powerful witness for him in these last days!