Summary: From the parable of the vineyard workers, understand the generosity of God’s grace and learn to extend grace and mercy to others.
Parable of the Vineyard Workers
This is not a well-liked story because it hits at our sense for what is fair and just. Our first impression is that it is not fair. Why? Why Jesus tells this parable?
20:1 “The kingdom of heaven is like…” It is a description of how God’s Kingdom functions. It is about how God treats his people.
20:1-2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”
This is very similar to some places in China today. The jobless will gather in some places waiting for anyone to hire them for the day. In Jesus’ time, there were places where day labourers gathered to seek work – unusually the unskilled workers. They worked from job to job, many of which lasted no more than a day. Because they had no guarantee of a job, they would gather in the market place even before dawn to be available for hiring.
These workers were promised the pay of a denarius. This was the wage of a Roman soldier for a day. The equivalent today will be a day’s wage for a labourer.
Now, this particular landowner’s property obviously was large, and so he needed more workers.
20:3-5: “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.
The phrase “I will pay you whatever is right” in verse 5 shows us that these workers no doubt trusted the owner as a man of his word - while the owner does not promise a particular wage, these workers knew it would be fair. This pattern continued for the hirings at the third hour, sixth hour, and the eleventh hour.
The Jewish workday began at 6:00 AM. This was called the 1st hour. The 3rd hour began at 9:00 AM, the 6th hour began at noon, the 9th hour began at 3:00 PM, and the 11th hour at 5:00 PM.
It is at this point that the parable takes a TWIST.
20:6-7: “About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’”
By the 11th hour - 5:00 PM - the work on most plantations would have been winding down. The labourers who were stilling waiting for work at this time would have lost all hope. Yet on this particular day it was different - because of the generosity of the landowner. It is clear that he is interested not only in his vineyard but also in the unemployed.
Chances is that this last group of the unemployed are the unpromising ones, small built or not physically strong, and therefore potential employers drop them when they picked their workers. Whatever the reasons, we can see that this landowner calls them out of compassion rather than because they will do much for him in the remaining ONE hour of the day.
So we see that there are two groups of workers: those hired early who went to work after negotiating a wage; and those hired later who went to work without a contract, choosing to trust the goodness of the master.
The Owner Pays the Workers
20:8 “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.”
The typical mode of payment back then was “first come first served.” Jesus turns it around to, “last come first served.” I’m sure those who worked all day were beginning to get a bit confused at this point.
20:9-10, “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each of them also received a denarius.”
ALL the workers up to those hired first were paid a denarius. We can imagine how the labourers who worked all day felt as all the workers got paid the same. The natural thought would have been, “If the owner gave them 10 bucks for working one hour, those of us who have worked twelve hours stand to gain 12 times more!”
However, their hopes were dashed. They received the same pay.
The Workers Complain