“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” (CEB)
Into the Vineyard
In this parable, Jesus overturns the normal values of culture. He takes fairness, as our culture would see it, and throws it out the window. At the end of chapter nineteen Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be radically different than they would expect or perceive. This parable continues that theme.
First, I suppose it would be helpful to explain what this parable is not. This parable isn’t about economics. It’s not a lesson on how employers should treat their employees. No company could survive if they paid their employees in this way. Besides, any company that paid employees hired in December the same amount as those who work a full twelve months would soon have trouble finding anybody in the office from January to November. In the same way, any teacher who gave an A to a student who registered for the class on the last day would find themselves in the midst of a revolt on the part of the students who showed up for class and handed in the required assignments all through the semester. The parable is intentionally impractical so that it forces us to think in a new way about ourselves, other people, and God.
The parable it is to be interpreted as a sort of poetic allegory. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1 CEB). We’re to understand this householder, in a symbolic way, as God. And we are to understand ourselves, in a symbolic way, as the laborers in the vineyard.
The landowner in this parable seems more concerned about the workers than he does about his crop or profit. We’d expect the story to say that the landowner hired some harvesters early in the day, but when he found out that the crop was bigger than he expected, and that the job was bigger than the first workers could handle, he went out to round up enough workers to get the job done. But this is not what happened in this parable. In this case the landowner went out and hired more workers simply because the unutilized labor force was standing around waiting to be hired. The landowner is motivated by the needs of the people. If anyone is out of work, the landowner will invite them to come work in his vineyard, not necessarily because he needs them, but because they need him and the work he is able to provide so that they, in turn, can provide for their own families.
At no point does the landowner say to the workers standing in the marketplace, Why are you standing around? Go get a job you lazy slackers! Nor does the landowner say to the workers, Well, I wish I could use you but I already have a full crew. No, every time the landowner goes out into the marketplace and finds workers standing idle he invites them to come work in his vineyard. This landowner hires even those persons whom all other employers have neglected, rejected, ignored, or in any other way refused to offer a job. These are the people who are like the kids in a gym class that are always picks last to be on the kickball team. These are those whom the world rejects, yet they are beloved by God.
If we’re to understand ourselves symbolically as the laborers in the vineyard, this parable forces us to rethink how we relate to God. We can’t help but notice that the different groups of workers are operating under different agreements with the landowner. The first group of workers made an agreement with the landowner to work for a denarius, which at that time was the normal daily wage for a worker. This is a clear contractual agreement. The second, third, and fourth groups agreed to work for “whatever is right,” (Matthew 20:4) thus placing their trust completely in the landowner to give them a fair wage for their time of work. They had no specific agreement with the landowner.
The fifth group was not even told that they would receive what was fair. They had no agreement whatsoever with the landowner. They were simply told, “You also go into the vineyard” (Matthew 20:7 CEB). At the end of the day, the landowner says, “Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first” (Matt. 20:8 CEB). Each labor gets a denarius, a full day’s wage for their work. Everyone gets enough to live on.
There is, possibly, a dramatic contrast between the first hour workers and the last hour workers. The last hour workers were desperate and needy, and they knew it. They had waited all day for a call to work and gotten none. They would have stood idle and useless all day had it not been for the benevolence of the landowner. Those who, in joy and in trust, responded to the command of the landowner to go into the vineyard are given sheer grace: a full day’s wage, which for them is the sustenance of life. It’s what they can use to feed their families.
The first hour workers are also given grace, although they don’t readily recognize it. They’re the contract workers. Maybe they’re bargainers who think that life works according to deals and negotiations. Maybe they try to strike bargains with God, counting up good deeds, checking their timecards, and measuring out their devotion with cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. They might see themselves as entitled in that they deserve what is rightfully theirs. If we interpret the parable this way, the contrast between these workers could hardly be more dramatic. The first crew, the bargainers, are working for a denarius. The latecomers are working for the landowner, for God, and both get what they are working for.
As I mentioned before, a denarius was the typical daily wage for a worker. But this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. What is a daily wage in the kingdom of heaven? In the previous chapter, Peter said to the Lord, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?” (Matthew 19:27 CEB). Jesus replied to the disciples, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:28-30 CEB).
One way to interpret this parable is that, at the end of the day, everyone who has labored in God’s vineyard, everyone who has served in the work of the kingdom—even those last-second converts—will be given a wage that will give them life.
Now, to be clear, this is a parable. It’s not direct language, and I doubt Jesus is suggesting that we can earn our way to heaven. In fact, the way the parable is pieced together, it seems clear that what is given is more closely related to God’s generosity than to what we have earned. At the same time, every time the Scriptures mention judgment, they say we’ll be judged according to what we have done, what we have failed to do, or what we have said.
The fact that the last-minute workers get the same wage as those who worked all day shows us the true poverty of those who started their work first. Everybody in the parable is offered the same wealth of the kingdom. God gives everyone a daily wage so extravagant that no one could ever spend it all. A deluge of grace descends upon everyone; torrents of joy and blessing fall everywhere. It’s inundating, overwhelming, super-abounding. And these pitiful first hour workers stand drenched in God’s mercy with an ocean of peace running down their faces, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more.
The reply of the landowner to one of the workers at the end of this parable speaks to the point. The landowner says, “Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15 CEB).
The literal translation of this last sentence from Greek is, “Or is your eye evil because I’m good?” The language recalls the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be!” (Matt. 6:22-23 CEB). In other words, when the landowner says to the first hour workers, “Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” he kind of saying, “Does my generosity expose the darkness of your soul?”
What we see of God in the world colors how we live in it and how we interact with others. If we see only scarcity, partiality, unfairness, and selfishness, we might start to act that way, too. If we see God’s extravagance, impartiality, fairness, and generosity, we’ll start to imitate those things.
The message of this parable is that God is generous. God’s generosity is overflowing, and surges mercifully over the landscape of human life. We may need to consider whether we are serving for the reward or because we love God. Either way God is merciful. But those who rely upon grace see grace more clearly. Jesus invites us to open our eyes and see that all is grace. All is providence. And everything is from God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!