“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16 ESV)
The parables of Jesus are intriguing messages from Jesus which often almost sneak up and whack you with a realisation that God or his kingdom is quite unexpected. Jesus says them to certain people at certain times and hence their contexts are important. They are not mystical nuggets, literary gems just dropped around for us to pick up and work out meaning from. One of the clearest examples of this is the parable of workers in the vineyard for if ever a context gives us clarity, it is here. Yet I suspect we know the parable far better than the context.
A landowner goes out early and hires workers for the day. They agree on a wage – a denarius – which is a day’s wage for a labourer – and off they go to work. The focus remains on the landowner not on these workers. The landowner goes back to the market place and gets more workers and this time there’s not the same exact negotiations other than he promises to pay ‘what is right’. He does this 3 more times during the day – even when there’s about one hour left. Why are you standing around? No one’s hired us. Go and work in my vineyard. End of day comes and the pay is distributed and as is still the practice often – first in – first out – the newbies get paid and wonder of wonders, it’s a denarius. We can imagine their excitement – a full day’s pay for an hour’s work. We’d all like that! And we can understand those waiting in the queue getting excited in anticipation but they get the agreed amount – the day’s wage. And they grumble – it’s unfair – we deserve more! The landowner replies in English something like ‘Are you envious because I am good?’ or ‘Do you begrudge my generosity?’ while the Greek has ‘Is your eye evil because I am good?’. And then Jesus summarises it all with the enigmatic ‘So the last will be first, and the first last’. And while we can understand the scene – because we know ourselves! – this last line and the parable itself floats in a sea of interpretations and is not anchored anywhere.
Some people suggest the parable teaches that those called into the kingdom have to work in it. I half wonder whether something like this isn’t behind the idea of people who think that they’ll turn to Jesus at the eleventh hour and only have to do an hour’s work. Others suggest that Jesus is really talking about Christian economics and that employers need to be concerned for the poor and support the unemployed or rather the under-employed and their families with good wages. I don’t understand it myself and the mathematics don’t work and the labour laws would get involved, not to mention the unions. Some people suggest that the parable is really about salvation for all by God’s grace because everyone got the same in the end but while the sentiment is correct – we are all saved by God’s grace – that can’t be the meaning because it goes against the hiring of the first crew who agree to work for the denarius – so for them it isn’t grace, it’s the agreed wage. No, the parable is all about the last being first, and the first last.
Now we don’t have to guess the answer. We just mutter a little that those who put together chapters and verses did a lousy job. If we read a few verses before this parable we discover the rich young man going away from Jesus sad because he had lots of possessions and Jesus comments how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are amazed and then a light bulb goes on in Peter’s head and he pipes up that he and the disciples have left everything and followed Jesus and so ‘What will there be for us [in the kingdom of God]?’. You can almost see him at the back of the queue with the first workers already!
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:28-30) And into the parable Jesus goes.
Jesus gives a wonderful answer to Peter and to all followers of ruling with Christ – prayer and witnessing now – eternal life in the heavenly realm and the flowing of blessings – which I think is not a prosperity gospel (all Christians will be rich) but rather that Christians in fellowship together – helping, sharing, praying – become as family to each other – as for example we who have mostly have families far away can find fellowship and support here. It is in response to Peter – “What do we get out of it? What do we get out for leaving everything? What do we get for following you?”.
The parable is Jesus’ reply, “That’s the wrong question, Peter”. The question focuses on human effort and on the reward and the eyes go away from the giver. Looking at the denarius those first workers grumpily see the owner as mean because he was generous to others! If the parable was real we can easily imagine those workers hiding the next day until the eleventh hour – in fact they all would! – and hoping for the generous gift. We can twist any good gift to our own misfortune and ruin.
The only thing that stops that is how we see the giver. If we are like the early workers and demand rights – we’ve worked hard, if you’re going to give them a bonus for one hour, we should get one too – then God will treat us accordingly. We will get what we deserve. Paul makes it clear that the wages of sin is death. However if we’re like the later workers who have received what they know they didn’t earn or deserve then the response to grace is gratitude. All workers were hired because the land owner went out to find them. None of us have a claim on God and can haggle with him on the basis of our rights or effort.
When said like that it’s obvious but I wonder how it’s lived out as Christians can find themselves resenting new Christians or wondering whether sowing some spiritual ‘wild oats’ would really do any harm or spitting the dummy with God when he doesn’t do what someone expects or hopes will happen – especially if suffering comes.
However if grace remains the environment in which one lives with God then grace and blessings continue. The relationship grows – trusting and depending on God – serving the neighbour in our vocations as family, employee/employer, citizen – and praying which might be considered haggling at times and we can make claims on God and his Word but this time it’s all on the foundation of grace. God, you are good and always gracious to me. The sinner in us doesn’t like that and wants to be important. And so the struggle is on and those who are first should be careful.
Does anyone know what happens immediately after this parable? Jesus continues going up to Jerusalem and he takes the Twelve aside and teaches them (this is the third reference in Matthew) that he will be delivered over, condemned, mocked, scourged, and crucified, and on the third day he will rise.
For me the message is clear, when lining up to get what I deserve from God – whether in a prayer queue (so to speak), at the altar, or at the end of everything – if I miss his crucifixion for me and concentrate on what I think I should get then I will have missed the whole point. Sin blinds. The God of all became a human being and suffered and died so that I might live. It is always by his grace and that life begins now as I hear the grace of the absolution, the grace of the Good News, return to the wet grace of baptism, and the nourishing grace of Holy Communion. I deserve to be last and alone but my Lord has rescued me and that defines how I try to live.
Grace! It’s all about grace!
- Matthew 20:1 - 16