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Matthew 20:1-16 Biblical Commentary:
Matthew 19-20: THE CONTEXT
Keep in mind that the chapter divisions were added long after this Gospel was written. The second half of chapter 19 provides the context necessary to understand the first half of chapter 20, and belongs with chapter 20. “But many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (19:30) and “So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:16) function as bookends to mark the beginning and ending of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and to explain the parable’s meaning.
Both chapters 19 and 20 emphasize that the rules by which kingdom of heaven operate are very different from those of this world. Both chapters have to do with rewards for sacrificial discipleship.
In 19:16-22, a rich young man came to Jesus asking, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” When Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, the man went away sorrowfully, because he had many possessions.
Peter, observing this exchange between the rich young man and Jesus, notes that the disciples have already given up everything to follow Jesus (19:27). What will their reward be? Jesus answers generously—the Twelve will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. But rewards will not be limited to the Twelve. “Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life” (v. 29). This will not diminish rewards for the Twelve, but it extends rewards to other deserving people. It must come as a surprise to the Twelve to hear that so many others will share in the rewards.
Peter asks, “What then will we have?” (19:27). This is not the last that we will hear of the disciples’ ambition. Shortly after the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to request a special place in the kingdom for her sons, a request that Jesus says is not his to give (20:20-23).
And, of course, the request of the mother of James and John was not the end of ecclesiastical ambition. Is there a clergyperson whose heart beats so faintly that he/she does not long for a larger church or a promotion to the next ecclesiastical office? How many laypeople hope to be known as chairperson or deacon—or try to control congregational policy and practice—or donate money to get their name emblazoned above the door. Personal ambition is still the name of the game in too many Christian hearts.
Jesus turns such ambitions topsy-turvy. He strips away the notion that we must earn our way into heaven. And he strips away the notion that our heavenly rewards will be proportionate to our Christian service. And he strips away the notion that we are competing with other Christian saints for heavenly rewards. He leaves us wholly dependent on the generosity of a merciful God who is eager to surprise us with undeserved blessings and to lavish on us joys that we would never have conceived.
After reading the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we not dare to look down our noses at those who have no ecclesiastical titles—or those who have more recently come to Christ—or those whose understanding is less refined—or those whose denominations are less influential—or those whose congregations are smaller—or those whose music is less inspired—or those who have less money. Have we achieved high position or accomplished much for Christ? Do we have good reason for a bit of pride? Jesus warns, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:16).
Matthew 20:1-16. THE PARABLE OF THE WORKERS IN THE VINEYARD
In chapter 19, we heard of rewards that grow out of one’s discipleship:
• The rich young man was denied heavenly blessings because he loved his money too much and God too little (19:16-26).
• But the disciples will sit on twelve thrones in the heavenly realm (19:28).
• Jesus promised, “Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life” (19:29).
So far, so good! But then Jesus closes chapter 19 by saying that “many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (19:30). We can hear that as a wonderful promise if we think of ourselves as one of the last—the poor or powerless or otherwise one-down. But in Jesus’ comment about the first and last, there lurks the warning not to expect God to hand out purple ribbons to disciples who focused on beating the competition.
Then, with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus spells out how the heavenly rewards system might look. Keep in mind that Jesus gave this parable in answer to Peter’s question, “What then will we have?” (19:27). Peter, who had left everything to follow Jesus, must have heard this parable with some frustration, because it implies that the rewards that the apostles will receive will be the same as the rewards that lesser disciples will receive. That must have offended Peter’s sense of justice.
Frankly, it offends our sense of justice too! We are accustomed to functioning in a world where one’s rewards are proportionate to one’s service. (Although we have to wonder if a professional football player is really worth as much as a thousand high school teachers.) We would be happy to grant the apostles a larger share than we would expect for ourselves as long as we could expect more than a lesser disciple might receive. We feel for the all-day workers, who received the same pay as the one-hour workers. Is that fair? Don’t they deserve more? Shouldn’t the master treat them better?
This parable is similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son/ Elder Brother (Luke 15). In both parables, the grace shown to the undeserving person offends those who think of themselves as deserving. However, the prodigal son is so winsome that he steals our hearts. When we read that parable, we are glad for the mercy shown to the returned prodigal and are offended at the elder brother’s outrage.
Not so with the Parable of the Workers. We share the offense of the all-day workers. They have worked long and hard, but the master put them on a par with all the rest. In like manner, God has put us on a par with latecomers to the faith—and others who have done less or given less.
But we don’t want to be on a par! We want to be on top! We don’t want mercy (what God gives freely) but justice (what we have earned). If God distributes rewards fairly, we who worked all day will get more than those who arrived at the last hour. We will receive what we have earned plus a generous bonus. The irony, of course, is that the little bit that we have earned is of no consequence when compared to God’s grace-bonus.
Matthew 20:1-7. FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE…
1“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who was the master of a household, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3He went out about the third hour (nine a.m.), and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. 4To them he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went their way. 5Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour (noon and three p.m.), and did likewise. 6About the eleventh hour (five p.m.) he went out, and found others standing idle. He said to them, ‘Why do you stand here all day idle?’
7“They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
“He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and you will receive whatever is right.'”
“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who was the master of a household, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (v. 1). This parable starts wonderfully well. A landowner goes out early in the morning to find laborers for his vineyard (v. 1). Even though he has a manager (vs. 8), he goes personally to the marketplace.
“When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard” (v. 2). He hires those who are available for work after securing their agreement to a fair wage (a denarius), and they go to work (v. 2).
A denarius is a small silver Roman coin roughly equal in value to the Greek drachma, another common silver coin. This verse tells us that an ordinary laborer’s wages are equal to one denarius for a day’s work. To translate that into an equivalent value today, we simply need to know what an ordinary laborer can expect to make for a year’s work and divide by 250 (the number of working days in a year). If an ordinary worker can expect to make $25,000 a year, his/her daily wage is $100. That would be the equivalent of a denarius today.
Do your own calculation based on the prevailing wages in your locale. Divide the annual salary by 250 to determine one day’s pay—which would be the equivalent of one denarius.
“He went out about the third hour (nine a.m.), and saw others standing idle in the marketplace” (v. 3). As the day progresses, the landowner makes four additional trips to the marketplace to hire workers. He makes his second trip at nine o’clock (Greek: peri triten horan—the third hour) (v. 3). While the Jewish day technically starts at sundown, the working day starts at sunrise and is divided into twelve hours, the length of the hour varying with the seasons. The third hour corresponds roughly to 9:00 a.m. our time. The master makes additional trips at the sixth and ninth hours (noon and 3:00 p.m.), and makes his final trip at the eleventh hour (5:00 p.m.).
“To them he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went their way” (v. 4). The landlord’s focus seems to be less on the urgency of the harvest than on the need of the laborers. He does not specify how much he will pay these workers. Presumably he will pay three-fourths of a denarius to workers who work three-quarters of a day—half a denarius to those who work half a day—etc. However, the master promises only to pay them whatever is right.
“Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise” (v. 5). In the original Greek, he went out around the sixth and the ninth hour, which correspond to noon and three p.m.
“About the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle. He said to them, ‘Why do you stand here all day idle?'” (v. 6). In the original Greek, he went out around the eleventh hour, which corresponds to five p.m. This is the origin of our phrase, “the eleventh hour,” by which we mean “at the last minute” or “very late in the game.”
“They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and you will receive whatever is right'” (v. 7). Some scholars speculate that the landowner is trying to speed the harvest to prevent spoilage, but there is no mention of that in this text. We can only guess at his motives. Perhaps he intervenes because, in his mind’s eye, he sees children who will go without food if their fathers fail to find employment.
Presumably, the more motivated laborers went to the marketplace early to find employment, and those who went later were less ambitious. Savvy employers would avoid latecomers. This landowner, however, hires everyone in sight—a grace-filled moment.
Those hired early have a clear contract. They are to be paid a denarius, the usual wage for a day’s work (v. 2). For those hired at nine o’clock, noon and three o’clock, the landowner promises only to pay what is right (v. 4). For those hired at five o’clock, there is no mention of money (v. 7).
Matthew 20:8-12. THE FIRST SUPPOSED THEY WOULD RECEIVE MORE
8“When evening had come, the lord of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning from the last to the first.’
9When those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came, they each received a denarius.10When the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise each received a denarius. 11When they received it, they murmured against the master of the household, 12saying, ‘These last have spent one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!'”
“When evening had come” (v. 8a). The Torah (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15) requires that the laborer be paid at the end of the day.
“Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning from the last to the first” (v. 8b). Jesus has said that the first will be last and the last will be first (19:30) and will soon repeat it (20:16). Here, in this parable, we see it happen. The workers who were hired late in the day get paid first, and the all-day workers get paid last—not the way it is usually done.
“When those who were hired at about the eleventh hour (five p.m.) came, they each received a denarius” (v. 9). The last workers hired are paid a denarius, a full day’s wages, even though they worked only one hour.
Who are these one-hour workers? Those who repented on their deathbeds? Yes! Those who battled addiction all their lives? Yes! Those who wasted their youth and were able to give Jesus only their withered last years? Yes! Tax collectors? Yes! Prostitutes? Yes! (21:32).
We hear no complaint from the other workers. They smell generosity, and can hardly wait to see their own paycheck. Jesus makes no mention of the wages received by those hired at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m., but presumably each receives a denarius. If so, they all enjoy a bonus, but the bonus becomes progressively smaller as the manager moves to the earlier groups, because the earlier groups worked more hours and came closer to earning a denarius.
“When the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise each received a denarius” (v. 10). When their time comes, the all-day workers also receive a denarius, one day’s wages exactly as contracted with no bonus added. At that point, they complain (vv. 11-12). Their complaint is not that they should receive more money but that “These last have spent one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (v. 12). The early risers competed hard in a competitive world, and expected to end up ahead of those who didn’t. They got in line early and worked through the heat of the day, and are upset to find themselves lumped in with the five o’clock scum. As my children would say, “It’s not FAY-YUR!” We agree!
But this parable unveils a truth that Matthew’s predominately Jewish readership needed to hear. It unveils a truth that Peter and the other apostles needed to hear. It unveils a truth that we need to hear. That truth is this: God calls us to give ourselves unreservedly to God’s service and to trust God for our reward. There is an implied corollary—that God is certain to be more generous than we deserve—and probably more generous than we could even imagine.
But while we who have worked so hard want God to show mercy to those less deserving–we want God to reward our good service with a special dollop of blessings.
But perhaps Jesus’ story is fairer than it seems at first blush. We assume that it is a better deal to work one hour for a full day’s wages than to work all day for the same amount. However, those of us who have spent day after day in labor halls waiting for our name to be called know otherwise. It is soul-killing to wait and wonder and hope. It is soul-killing to have our destiny controlled by someone whose name we do not know. It is soul-killing to wonder if we will be able to buy groceries for the dinner table. Far better to sweat in the hot sun all day, secure in the knowledge that we will be able to feed our family that night!
And so we must ask whether it is better to live most of one’s life without Christ—without faith—without prayer—without hope—and to pay the cost of discipleship only in one’s last days? To imagine that those who find Christ on their deathbed have struck a better “deal” suggests that we do not really value our relationship to Christ—that we value the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow rather than the joy of knowing Jesus. Such discipleship is like valuing great art only for its price tag—failing to appreciate the way that it enriches life! The person with that attitude lives a shrunken life!
A part of our problem in accepting the grace of this parable stems from our experience in a world where scarcity prevails. While some would argue that there is no scarcity (if we would just distribute goods equitably, there would be plenty for all) that fails to meet the test of our experience. While it might be possible to insure that everyone can enjoy a daily bowl of rice, it is not possible to give everyone a luxury car—or a waterfront home. At some point life is a zero-sum game—a game where one side can win only if the other side loses. There is only so much waterfront land, and you and I cannot own the same waterfront lot. Either it is mine or it is yours. If I win it, then you lose it. Knowing that some of our desires will go unmet, it is difficult for us (1) to rejoice at our neighbor’s good fortune and (2) to shift from this-world-thinking to kingdom-thinking.
But Jesus has just said, “Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life” (19:29). The ultimate reward of faithful discipleship is eternal life and of that there is no scarcity. The kingdom of heaven is not a zero-sum game. When Jesus offers eternal life to the less deserving, he takes nothing from the more deserving. In God’s kingdom, we can all have, as the old song promises, “a mansion just over the hilltop.” There is no need for spiritual competition, because our reward will be as good as it could possibly be. That is a hard lesson for competitive people to learn.
Matthew 20:13-15. IS YOUR EYE EVIL, BECAUSE I AM GOOD?
13“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? 14Take that which is yours, and go your way. It is my desire to give to this last just as much as to you. 15Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I want to with what I own? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?'”
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong” (v. 13a). The landowner calls the complainers “Friend.” While they might be ungrateful, he does not call them ingrates. He has shown grace to latecomers, and now he shows grace to those who came early as well.
“Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius?” (v. 13b). They contracted for the usual wage, and received exactly that. The landowner has not shortchanged them, but has paid them fully in accordance with their agreement. The landowner’s generosity to the latecomers has not taken a penny out of the pockets of the all-day workers.
“Take that which is yours, and go your way. It is my desire to give to this last just as much as to you” (v. 14). There is no harsh judgment here—only grace. The landowner does not punish the early workers for complaining, but acknowledges that the denarius that they received is their property. They are free to take it and leave —but they are not free to dictate what the landowner will do with the rest of his money. If he chooses to be especially generous to the eleventh hour workers, he will do so—and he does.
Then the landowner asks, “Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I want to with what I own? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?” (v. 15). These two questions go to the heart of this parable. The question,“Or is your eye evil, because I am good?” means, “Are you jealous because I have been generous?”
The answers are obvious. First, the landowner is clearly allowed to do what he wants with his money. Second, the all-day workers are jealous. They paid the price to get ahead. They got up at the crack of dawn and worked through the heat of the day, but the landowner refused to acknowledge their diligence by elevating them above the latecomers. They were playing by the world’s rules, but the landowner was playing by kingdom rules. It’s not FAY-YUR! That was Jonah’s complaint—and the elder brother’s—and the Pharisees.
It’s not FAY-YUR! That is our complaint too. We, too, want to bargain with God—to negotiate a favorable deal. If you don’t believe that, examine the content of your prayers. By spelling out details, we hope to persuade God to give us what we need. However, God’s storehouse includes blessings that we could never anticipate—and God’s will is to shower us with those blessings. We need to learn to pray, “Your will be done!”—understanding that God’s will for us includes blessings beyond anything that we can imagine or ask. We are better off with grace than with justice. If God gave us what deserve, we would never enter the heavenly gates.
Matthew 20:16. THE FIRST WILL BE LAST
16“So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Jesus ends the parable as he began it (19:30). This is the Grand Reversal.
Who are the firsts, and who are the lasts? The firsts would include Israel—and the Pharisees—and the Elder Son (see Luke 15)—and the apostles—and those who are born into the church and serve Christ all their lives—and ministers of the Gospel—and pillars of the church.
Why would such firsts become lasts? Perhaps because they have become prideful. Perhaps because they have given their alms on street-corners so that others might marvel at their generosity. Perhaps because they sought to pave the way to heaven for themselves and their families with little consideration for others. Perhaps because they spent their lives praying, “MY will be done!” instead of “THY will be done.” Perhaps because their lives have been characterized more by getting than giving.
But there is also the possibility that the firsts will become lasts simply because God has willed it that way. If so, the firsts won’t have lost anything. They will receive their full due—and probably a grace-filled blessing as well.
The lasts would include Gentiles (most of us are among the Gentile lasts)—and the son who wastes his inheritance and comes home with his tail between his legs (see Luke 15)—and pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics, and others who live wanton lives before turning to Christ—and those who find Christ on their deathbed.
We might cringe at the prospect of sharing our heavenly neighborhood with these undeserving lasts—but let us instead give thanks that God has chosen to include them. If he has chosen to forgive their grievous sins, then we can believe that he will forgive our grievous sins too. Thanks be to God for his great mercy! We need it!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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