THE LABOURERS IN THE VINEYARD.
This parable is part of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question: ‘Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?’ (Matthew 19:27). This challenging part of the reply is framed with a formula concerning the ‘first’ and the ‘last’ (Matthew 19:30), which is inverted at the end of the parable (Matthew 20:16).
Since we are dealing with “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 20:1), we need to think our way into the cultural setting of the parable, eradicating worldly presuppositions along the way.
First of all, the employer went to the market place to hire daily labourers. This was the usual custom. Straight away we are made aware that it is God who comes seeking us, rather than vice versa: but it helps if we situate ourselves in the place where we know God will most likely reveal Himself.
Secondly, the employer came with the express intention of hiring labourers. We see the dignity of work (cf. Matthew 20:7), and God’s grace in providing it (Genesis 2:15).
Thirdly, as we might expect, the employer contracted with his employees to pay a specific amount (Matthew 20:2). That amount was enough for each to purchase his daily meal. It may have been no more than the national minimum wage, or the equivalent thereof: but it was sufficient, though not excessive (Exodus 16:14-18). Furthermore, BOTH PARTIES AGREED TO THE AMOUNT.
So far so good: but as the parable proceeds it becomes a little strange to our ears. There is nothing wrong with the employer seeking out other workers as the day proceeds (Matthew 20:3-7): even if it is for no other reason than to rescue them from the indignity of being idle (Matthew 20:6). And each would receive, “whatever is right” (Matthew 20:4; Matthew 20:7).
I don’t know whether it was normal for the last to be paid first, but certainly this is what Jesus would have the employer doing here (Matthew 20:8). Remember we are talking about the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 20:1): which though the world views it as topsy-turvy (Acts 17:6), is in fact setting things the right way up!
Imagine the surprise when the employer gave to each group of labourers the full day’s wage! A pleasant surprise for some, but a source of increasing alarm to the first-contracted workers. Jesus certainly wasn’t teaching a lesson about the economy and diplomacy of trade relations!
The angry attitude of the first-in-the-field (Matthew 20:11) reminds us of the jealousy of the Prodigal’s brother (Luke 15:29-30). Both Peter and Paul teach us that, ‘God is no respecter of persons’ (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). There are eleventh hour converts, and they are just as eligible as recipients of God’s grace as those who fancy that they have personally “borne the burden and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12).
The complaint was: “you have made them equal with us” (Matthew 20:12). However, since the first-comers RECEIVED THEIR FULL CONTRACTED AMOUNT (Matthew 20:13), why was anyone complaining? Would they rather that these others were sent home without sufficient for their daily meal?
The Lord is in no doubt: “I will give unto this last, even as unto you… Is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matthew 20:14-15).
We pray day by day, ‘Give us (plural) this day our (plural) daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11). Whether viewed in relation to our physical needs, or to our spiritual needs, it is a prayer for us all.
We should not begrudge those who receive the answer to this prayer, though late in the day. We must not envy the new converts their blessings.