Summary: Parables are more than stories from life. They illustrate something greater.
The Parable of the Laborers: An Exposition of Matthew 20:1-16
Have you ever wondered about what Jesus did between the time he astonished the rabbis in the Temple when He was twelve years old and the time He came to John the Baptist for baptism when he was about thirty years of age. All Luke tells us was that He grew in grace and favor with both God and man. Some have creatively tried to fill in the gaps with fanciful stories of Jesus showing off His miraculous powers by turning clay pigeons into real ones and other such folklore. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, was said to be a carpenter, and one would assume that Jesus would have apprenticed in the family trade. But the Greek word used here, tekton, is ambiguous. It could be used for a bricklayer. A stonemason, or someone employed in the building trade. What Joseph was not was a master craftsman. If he were, he would have been called “architekton” or architect in our language. So was Joseph simply a day laborer employed in the building trade, and did Jesus do likewise? This is the thought of Ray Vanderlan which would give some interesting insight to this parable.
The life of a day laborer was hard. The workday was from sunup to sundown or twelve hours, which in the summer were much longer than our twelve hours. We have seen the plight of the day laborer in places like Wal-Mart parking lots where undocumented aliens are often hired to work under these arduous conditions. So Jesus would personally understand their plight, seeing that He was there, The going wage was one silver coin a day, called a denarius. It us hard to give an exact valuation for this, but it would probably be well below our minimum wage. A man could hardly support his family on this amount. So if one worked the entire day, he would barely escape starvation. What would happen if he did not get hired until noon? Also what would happen on the Sabbath? Would one go hungry on the Sabbath and keep it? Or would one have to break the Sabbath and feed his family? Would he have to hire out his minor children to help make ends meet? This is a much rougher life than being a self-employed carpenter.
In this case, the laborers were chosen to work in the vineyard and not in the building trade. If anything, it was even harder to work in the high heat and bright sun. Who would be hired first? Obviously, it would have been the strongest and most healthy. They could do the most work. But the ardors of this kind of work soon began to sap the strength of the laborers. Men rarely lived over the age of forty. As they weakened, their wages would go down because they would have to wait until there was a need. And they would be paid proportionally to the hours they worked. The problem was that the needs of the family did not decrease with the decrease in income. This would further weaken the man and his family. The children would be forced to work also to help provide for the family.
The thing about a parable is that its story must be familiar to its listeners. They would have understood everything Jesus was saying. But there is often a catch in the parable which is contrary to expectation. And this parable is no different. The one who had hired these men paid them at the end of the day. This was required by Jewish Law and the social contract of the day. But he paid the ones he had hired for only one hour first. They had done the least work of all, and the work they had done was probably not to what the stronger and younger men had done in the same hour. The first twist is that the landowner paid them a full denarius for the work rather than 1/12th which would have been the fair amount.
One could see the other laborers starting to salivate. This landowner was really generous! The three o’clock workers started to calculate their wages in their head. They might have thought they would be able to catch up on the bills or be able to get something special for the family. But they got the same denarius. I would guess that they were somewhat disappointed, but they still made out pretty well. The same was true for those at twelve and nine o’clock. By now those who had worked all day were getting upset because it looked like all they were going to get was the same denarius. This was exactly what happened, and they were bitter. It did not seem fair that they should be paid the same for much more and better work. But the landowner replied that they had agreed to work for a denarius, so they had been treated fairly. He added that he had the right to give whatever wages he pleased, so long as they exceeded the contract price.