Matthew 20-21 Parable: Laborers in the Vineyard

From Matthew 20-21

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Do you resent it when you see others display generosity to others but not to yourself? This will happen to some in the kingdom of God. Today’s passage is the parable of a generous master and the labourers he hires for his vineyard.

This post is part of my bible in a year series.

Passage and Comments

Jesus occasionally spoke cryptically in parables and used them to describe the kingdom of God. He Jesus spoke in parables to conceal what he was talking about. He spoke in parables to make people stop and think. Sometimes he spoke with an unexpected twist that ran against what people thought should happen. Those who did not understand were condemned. The disciples were given understanding of the parables (Mt 13.10-17).

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Today’s parable is structured around a single Jewish day of work. The day normally starts at what we would call 0600 am. Counting from 6am the middle of the day (12 noon) was the sixth hour. The end of the working day (1800pm) was the twelfth hour. Working days were typically twelve hours long.

Some had to look for work every day. We can think of them as unemployed and had no one supporting them. They depended on people to hire them. Perhaps they were sent out by poor families to work. Perhaps they were on their own. Perhaps they had families to look after. We don’t know.

What we do know is that they were unemployed and they were anxiously looking for work. If they didn’t find work they had to return home empty handed. So these unemployed people waited around at the marketplace looking for someone to hire them.

Those who were better off and needed people to work for them would normally send their senior servants to come to the marketplace to hire some of these labourers. We should assume landowners who were competent and had done this many times before would know upfront how many hired men they would need for the day.

As we will see today’s parable is connected with what happened immediately before. Jesus starts saying this parable is about the kingdom of God.

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20 “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. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. (Mt 20:1–2)

Ive drawn pictures to help us understand the context of what is going on and the peoples involved.

So the master of a house goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard. This stands out as different. Normally the master of the house would send out his foreman. Right from the start this master is different from all the others. He has a personal involvement in what is happening. People would see this.

The master knows in advance how many he wants to hire. He picks out the number of people he wants, as many others do.

Its all really easy, because the unemployed need to work.

He then negotiates their pay for a days work. A denarius was a typical amount a labourer could expect for a days work. No surprises here. He sends the labourers off to work in his vineyard.

Presumably the selection process left him with an understanding of how many people remained in the marketplace, unemployed with no work. Have you ever been left out in a selection process? How do you think they would feel?

Moved by compassion he goes back.

3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. (Mt 20:3-5a)

Its now the third hour (0900am). He goes back and his suspicions are confirmed. There are still many unemployed remaining.

He doesn’t have to because he has all he wants already. Even so, moved by compassion, He hires some more.

He doesn’t say exactly what they will get paid, but the scripture says ‘so they went’. It was an easy choice for these guys. They thought they has missed out and still hung around because they didn’t want to return home empty handed. Whatever they get paid is better than nothing.

In returning to the marketplace and hiring more the master would be observed by others. Unemployed still remain waiting for jobs they need. Perhaps he does so thinking he might encourage other land owners, master and businesses to hire more as he is. Would his generosity move others to do the same?

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Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. (Mt 20:5b)

The working day begins and passes slowly.

The master goes back again and again.

We don’t know what the master was thinking as the day passed. Maybe he was thinking what would happen to the remaining unemployed? Perhaps he would remember their discouraged faces as he left. Would others hire them? Would they care they stood there unemployed?

As the time ticks on the master stands to gain less and less from hiring the unemployed. They cannot work the whole day. Each time he goes back, he hires people he doesn’t need. Each time he is observed by others and hoping to encourage them to do the same. Each time he leaves people behind.

Those he hires over time may have abandoned hope of being hired. But what could they do? Return home empty handed, humiliated waiting at the marketplace for work that never comes.

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6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ (Mt 20:6–7)

We need to be reminded the eleventh hour is only one hour before they finish work. Imagine how these unemployed laborers felt waiting around all day.

Moved by compassion and generosity he goes back at a very late hour.

The questions draw out their plight. He questions why they had been standing here all day. Because no one had hired them and they had no work. What else could they do? One final time, he hires still more knowing they could do little to nothing in such a short a time.

The working day finishes.

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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.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. (Mt 20:8–9)

His foreman is mentioned for the first time. The master has humbled himself all along before others in the marketplace doing the job his foreman would normally do. The master makes it a personal matter to hire his labourers.

He gets his foreman to call all the labourers and pay them. Everyone who works gets paid. Those sad few who did not work have left the marketplace with no work at all.

He wants to pay those who were hired at the very end, first. Before all the others. He pays them a denarius. They only worked for one hour and he paid them a denarius, a whole day’s wage.

Amazing generosity for people who need it.

He does this in public as well. He could have reversed the order and everyone would be none the wiser. He wants everyone to see his generosity to the unemployed hired last.

10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 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.’ (Mt 20:10-12)

Most down the line would have appreciated the generosity of the master. He had given them a whole day’s wages. Wages they needed. For less than a days work. Wow.

Not everyone sees it this way however. The ones at the end, do not appreciate the masters generosity. They all get a denarius. They are all made equal.

The ones hired first don’t like being made equal to the ones who were hired last.

Rather than think of the plight of those hired after themselves, they want more for themselves. They don’t appreciate the generosity of the master. They worked the whole day, the others worked less. They don’t think its fair.

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Mt 20:13–15)

The master is being fair. They got what they agreed, no more, no less. He picks one out and explains.

Jesus’ point is that the master chose to be generous. The master wants them all to go home with a days wage. They all need a days wage. Did they think of the plight of those left behind? Did they care they all need a days wage to survive?

The parable isnt about saying the master cares nothing for their work or they didn’t have to work for their wages. Some interpreters miss the point there are people who did no work. There the ones who stood at the marketplace all day and were never hired.

He chose to be generous. He is allowed to be generous with what he has.

Jesus’ point is that the master chose to be generous. The master obviously has wealth enough to be generous. Generous to those who could never return what they had been given.

16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Mt 20:16)

The last are the people hired first because they leave a little miffed at the masters generosity. The first are those hired first because they leave overwhelmed at having received the masters generosity.

About Jesus

The parable is about what will happen in the Kingdom of God.

Some Christians come to know the Lord early and have worked for him their whole lives. They receive eternal life. There are others who come to know the Lord late in their lives. They receive eternal life as well.

The ones who come to know the Lord early in their life and serve him all their lives may be tempted to begrudge the generosity of our loving master. Jesus forewarns us not to do this. Rather he constantly points us to the amazing generosity of our loving father and the plight of those who do not know him.

The gospel tells us today, we serve a generous master. Don’t let his generosity begrudge you.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.