This elaborate kingdom growth parable, found in Matthew 20:1-16, provides a window into the grace and priorities of the Heavenly Father. Jesus speaks this to the disciples who think the reward for their service in the kingdom will be greater than those who serve later. The key phrase in the passage is “the last shall be first and the first last.” The disciples would gain great insight into the kingdom of heaven and we who read the words today can receive the same insight. Having said that, the parables focus on your attitudes, beliefs, and relationship with the Father rather than providing answers to specific issues or problems you may be facing at the moment.
Matthew 20:1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (2) And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into the vineyard. (3) And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place. (4) And to those he said, 'You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And so they went. (5) Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did the same thing. (6) And about the eleventh hour, he went out, and found others standing, and he said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?' (7) They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You too go into the vineyard. (8) And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' (9) And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. (10) And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more, and they also received each one a denarius. (11) And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, (12) saying 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.' (13) But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? (14) Take what is your and go your way but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. (15) Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' (16) Thus, the last shall be first, and the first last.”
This parable follows the discussion between the rich young ruler and Jesus about how to attain eternal life. After this conversation, the passage indicates Jesus and the disciples are alone when they question the difficulty of entering the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:27-30 tells how Peter, in his pugnacious way, reminds Jesus that they, the disciples, have given up everything for Him and asks what would be for them. Jesus replies but appends the phrase, “but many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”
Matthew 19:27-30 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you; what then will there be for us?” (28) And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you all shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (29) And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, shall receive many times a much, and shall inherit eternal life. (30) But many who are first will be last; and the last first.”
Jesus then elaborates upon His response to the question of Peter speaking The Workers in the Vineyard. The details in this parable are true to life in the day of Jesus. The harvest is the most critical phase of the season for the grape. As short a period as a day could mean the difference between a quality product bringing a good price, harvested prematurely, or too late. The reason for this critical timing is that the amount of sugar in the fruit would determine the quality of the harvest and each day beyond the prime harvest meant greater sugar content and reducing the market value of the product. Grape harvest is September/October with the winter rains coming soon after. During the growing season and harvest, the scorching heat (Matthew 20:11) of the desert wind from the south also affects the quality of the grapes. The time frame for the desert-borne heat was about fifty days during late summer with each episode lasting several days to several weeks. The harvest is a race between heat, fall rains, and the prime of the grape. All of these factors impact the quality of the grape and the price at market. In this race, an hour could be critical and extra hands at the very end of the harvest could determine success or failure.
At this time of the year, the dawn is six in the morning and dusk is six in the evening. An hour for a meal and an hour for prayer means workers would have ten hours to work. According to this time frame, the men the foreman hires in the eleventh hour only work from five until six in the evening. It is not uncommon for a landowner to hire additional workers in the afternoon to provide an extra boost of energy and morale to the men already working, particularly if the day is unusually hot. While uncommon to hire a man for only one hour, we cannot dismiss the scenario as ludicrous, particularly since it is easier to determine the progress of the harvesting in relation to the remaining time in the day. If the harvest happened to occur on a Friday, the foreman would be likely to hire additional workers because of the Sabbath and the Talmudic requirements for rest. To counter these comments are seemingly rationalizing the hiring of laborers so late in the day for only one hour of work, Hagner comments “the purpose of this insertion, which breaks the pattern of the previous hiring, is apparently to underline the fact that these are the one rejected by other employers as unworthy. These last ones assume particular in the second half of the parable. They are analogous to the tax collectors and the harlots invited into the kingdom by Jesus.” [i]
The parable also notes the discussion between the landowner and the workers at the beginning of the day concerning wages. The denarius for the day of work is customary. Day laborers are at the bottom of the social-economic ladder, just as they are today. Offering few skills, these men are hired on an as-need basis, and the welfare of their families depends on the success of them working. For these, no work meant the family does not eat. Because day laborers often work for only part of a day, it would be typical for a man to work several hours, receive his pay, and return to the marketplace looking for more work. It is of interest that from the third hour (nine in the morning) until the end of the day, no discussion of wages occurs between the men hired and the landowner. “The men who were hired early in the morning would not go to work until they know how much they would make. The owner agreed to pay them a denarius for the day. But the others had no contract. They trusted the owner to give them what was right.” [ii] The implication is the landowner has the latitude to pay the laborers what he deems appropriate, be it a pittance to an exorbitant amount. At the end of the day, work ceases and the landowner pays the men. Jewish law stipulates wages are to be paid at the end of the working day.
Leviticus 19:13 You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.
Deuteronomy 24:15 You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets; for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he may not cry out against you to the Lord and it becomes sin in you.
It is at this point in the parable Jesus diverts from how the landowner typically pays his workers. Instead of what the listeners expect, Jesus explains that the landowner orders payment of wages starting with the last one hired. Typically, a man who works for only an hour would receive a pondion, equivalent to 1/12 of a denarius but the landowner instead pays them a denarius which is fair compensation for a full day of labor. The narrative reveals the surprise, consternation, and expectations of those who work the entire day. Of course, those who had worked only part of the day were ecstatic at the generosity of the landowner. When those who had sweated the whole day in the vineyard see those who had worked for a short period receive a denarius, they think the landowner would be just and pay a correspondingly greater wage to them. This would be the fair way, in their minds, to settle accounts. But when they are paid also a denarius, they are upset at the injustice of the landowner. Upon hearing their objections, the response of the landowner is firm but implies a rebuke using the word “friend” in his response. The expression “friend” appears twice more in Matthew, and each time the person so addressed is in the wrong.
Matthew 22:12 And he said to him, “Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?” And he was speechless.
Matthew 26:50 And Jesus said to them. “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him.
Several rabbinic parables also address the issue of reward and God's grace. While different, they offer insight into Jewish concepts of God's grace and sovereignty. The first is “The Exceptional Laborer.”
Unto what is the matter like? It is like a king who hired many laborers. And along with them was one laborer that had worked for him many days. All the laborers went to receive their pay for the day, and this one special laborer went also. He said to this one special laborer: I will have regard for you. The others, who have worked for me only a little, to them I will give small pay. You, however, will receive a large recompense.
Even so both the Israelites and the peoples of the world sought their pay from God. And God said to the Israelites: My children, I have regard for you. The peoples of the world have accomplished very little for Me, and I will give them but a small reward. You, however, will receive a large recompense. Therefore, it says, “And I will have regard for you.”
The second parable, “The Proficient Laborer”, is for the family of a young rabbi, R. Bun bar Chaya, who died at the age of twenty-eight. He was a scholar of some repute, and the family was questioning his death at such a young age.
To what may R. Bun bar Cheya be compared? To a king who hired many laborers. One of them was very proficient at his work. What did the king do? He took him and walked with him the lengths and breadths of the field. In the evening, the laborers came to receive their wages. But the one with whom the king had walked, he received a full day's wage. The other laborers complained, “We worked all day long but the king has given this one who only worked two hours a full wage.” The king replied, “He has done more in two hours what you did the entire day!” Thus, though R. Bun labored only twenty-eight years, he did more than a learned scholar could have studied in a hundred.
The narrative of the king and laborer walking the fields is reminiscent of several Old Testament passages where great men of God would enjoy a special relationship with Him. There are similarities and differences between The Proficient Laborer and The Workers in the Vineyard. The worker in question is present the entire day, although he only labors with the others for two hours. There is a disagreement between the other workers and the king. The symbolism is easily applicable to God and His grace toward man as well as divine sovereignty and justice. While the other workers question whether the one who had walked with the king deserves the same pay, the king determines the value of this worker. Neither of these rabbinic parables fully answers the question about fairness or justice but do provide insight to Judaic concepts of God's sovereignty and divine nature.
There is some question as to the authenticity of the last verse in the passage, “thus, the last shall be first, and the first last.” Some contend the early church appended this verse because it seems to not flow with the rest of the passage, particularly given the seemingly harsh statement in verse fifteen. Also, there are passages in the New Testament that suggest Christians receive different degrees or levels of judgment.
Romans 2:5-7 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, (6) who will render to each person according to his deeds. (7) To those who be perseverance in doing good seek the gory and honor and immortality, eternal life.
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Jesus refers to this when He tells His followers to be vigilant for His return.
Luke 12:47-48 And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, (48) but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.
This message of this parable, when we view it as a single entity from the conversation between Jesus and the rich young man to its conclusion is a lesson and rebuke to the disciples. The repetition of the phrase “many who are first will be last and the last first” emphatically connects the parable to the preceding question of Peter of what their sacrifice would mean for him and the other disciples. Through the ages, this parable has been given many interpretations. A typical explanation is that Jesus is referring to those accepting Him as Savior and Lord at different times in their lives. While some accept Jesus at a young age and serve their entire lives, others accept Him as death draws near but all are given salvation. It is the Lord who draws the sinner to salvation. An example of these two extremes is John the Baptist, who was prepared before birth to announce the Messiah and the thief on the cross who asks Jesus to remember him. God's ways are not our ways. This is seen where Jesus speaks of the amount the poor widow gave in comparison to the supposed generosity of those who had given much more.
Luke 21:1-4 And he looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. (2) And he saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. (3) And he said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; (4) for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”
Also, some seek to apply so-called economic truths to this parable. One is that every man has a right to work, and another is every man has a right to a living wage. It is easy to see how some seek to incorporate social Gospel and socialist concepts into this passage, even though it is wrong to apply these interpretations to this parable. William Barclay comments “the real lesson of this parable is that it is the spirit in which work is done which makes all the difference.” [iii] He further writes that the motives of work were service to fellow men and to God. His comments are an example of this parable re-cast to fit a particular message rather than understanding the parable in its original context. We must remember the context of the parable. It is in response to a question from Peter as to their reward for leaving everything to follow Jesus. In this parable, the work done by the different groups of workers, while significant in some cases, is still work in the vineyard. The landowner decides to hire the last workers and to show grace to all who labor. This statement seems to indicate rewards come by the grace of the Father. Other parables echo similar thoughts and we can see this theme throughout the teachings and parables of Jesus.