Summary: A look at all of us who work in the vineyard and our attitude in our work.
I can remember as a boy riding with my Dad into the downtown area, in my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, and seeing a crowd of men standing on a certain street. There were so many of them that there did not seem to be any room left to walk on the sidewalk. I asked my father what they were doing, and he explained that they were waiting to be hired by the city for sweeping the streets. Others might be waiting to be hired by construction companies for day labor jobs. Still others might be hired by a farmer needing temporary help in the fields. They were all paid at the end of the day, because either they might not be back tomorrow, or the jobs might be temporary. Some things don’t change, even over a couple thousand years.
Jesus’ parable is telling a similar story of men standing around the city marketplace waiting to be hired for a day’s work. The story begins with a landowner going out around six in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard at the usual day’s wage. It must have been a large vineyard, because he returns at nine in the morning to hire more workers. He returns at noon, three and five o’clock to hire more. The typical work day was ten to twelve hours.
The surprise that Jesus introduces into the story, as he typically does, is that at the end of the day all men are paid the same wage — both those who worked twelve hours and those who had worked only one. Try that today and see what happens. The government and all kinds of human rights groups would come down on you in full force. But it was not much different in Jesus’ day. There was an angry outburst from the workers who had worked longer. The Bible says, “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’” But the landowner said to one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The point of the parable is not the hard work of the laborers, but the generosity of the landowner. In the parable, God is the Landowner, for he owns the earth and everything in it. It is totally unfair according to human standards, but God does not work according to the world’s standards. God operates on the principle of grace and generosity. It is a surprising and disconcerting turn of events, and it is disturbing to even us. But Jesus wants to introduce to them a man unlike any man they have known. Jesus was trying to say that the kingdom of God operates differently from the kingdom of this world and the way things normally work here.
The parable immediately follows Jesus’ teaching where he said, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24). And Peter’s response to Jesus’ statement was, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Peter and many of the other disciples had followed him from the very beginning, and they had made great sacrifices. Peter wondered what their reward would be; it should be more than anyone else, since like the workers who labored at the beginning of the day and had borne the burden of the work and the heat of day, they had been with Jesus from the beginning and borne the heat of the controversy surrounding him — some of the controversy even coming from their own families. Surely they would receive more than others in the kingdom. And even among the disciples they were always quibbling about who was first and who was last. Jesus had assured them that there would be rewards for following him. They would share thrones in his kingdom. The sacrifices they had made for his sake would be returned to them a hundredfold. They were not just making sacrifices — they were making investments. But not all rewards would be received in this life, and they were not to work merely for the sake of being rewarded.