The parable of the workers in the vineyard follows immediately on from Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler. To tie the two episodes together, Matthew uses a saying that warns against the danger of self-assessed piety: "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." Matthew uses the parable to support this truth. Like all kingdom parables it proclaims the gospel. The dawning kingdom of heaven is like the situation where a landowner graciously pays his workers in full, irrespective of the work they have done. God is even now settling accounts, but beware, it's all about receiving, not doing.
v1. The opening phrase, which introduces all kingdom parables, does not mean that the kingdom is like the landowner, but rather like the situation where a landowner hires workers and pays them irrespective of the work they have done. As it is with a landowner, so it is with the kingdom of heaven.
v2. A normal day's work is 10 hours, and the pay of a denarius is the normal wage for a foot soldier, or day-laborer.
v3-7. In our story, the hours of hiring were 6.00 am, 9.00 am, 12.00 noon, 3.00 pm and 5.00 pm. The first group of men were promised a denarius each. The second group was promised "whatever is right". The last group was hired an hour before sunset. The King James version states they were standing around "idle", but that is not what the text says. They were standing around because "no one has hired us." As was typical, casual laborers waited in the village market-place to be hired. What is not typical is the way the landowner paid his workers.
v8-12. Although those first hired received the payment promised, the late-comers received a denarius as well. Those first hired thought that they would be given a bonus of sorts since they had worked through the "heat of the day." They grumbled because they felt unfairly treated. It did not seem fair to them that those who worked much less received the same as those who worked much more.
v13-15. The workers are reminded that the landowner had acted justly. He paid what was agreed. As long as he acts justly he may do what he wishes with his money. Their grumbling comes from an "evil eye", or as the NIV puts it, "envy".
v16. A concluding saying from Jesus draws out the point Matthew wants to make. Watch out! In the face of the coming kingdom, those who think they are secure can easily come undone.
The different interpretations proposed for this parable give us an idea of how difficult it is to be certain about the meaning of kingdom parables.
The parable is not a social comment about work. Some commentators have suggested that the workers are rewarded equally because the men who worked for an hour did as much as those who worked all day. The parable certainly doesn't say this. Nor is the parable an affirmation about intentions. The workers who worked an hour were willing to work all day and so were paid the full day's pay. The parable doesn't say this either.
Some suggest that the parable is about outcasts who are accepted into God's family, but who face the grumbling of the righteous at their free inclusion; an idea found in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Other's suggest that it depicts the Jew / Gentile debate. The Jews have borne the burden of the Law and now Gentile outcasts are made equal to them apart from the Law. One unlikely suggestion is that this parable teaches that although Jews / Christians get into the kingdom early, in the end, everyone gets in. The parable certainly doesn't say this, nor is it saying all Christians are equal before God, or that the work of all believers is equal before God, ie., all ministries are equal in His sight.
As with all kingdom parables, the central truth of this parable concerns the immediacy of the kingdom of God. The parable proclaims the gospel, it reminds us that the time of reckoning is at hand. Know this for sure, the kingdom of God is at hand, so repent and believe.
As we face this reckoning, we become aware that things are not reckoned as we would expect. The blessings of the dawning kingdom are gained, not by effort, but as a gift of God's grace freely given. As the landowner gives the days pay to all he hires irrespective of the work undertaken, so God gives the blessing of the kingdom apart from good works. This is an amazing truth, and quite unexpected. "The principle of the world is that he who works the longest receives the most pay. That is just. But in the kingdom of God the principles of merit and ability may be set aside so that grace can prevail", Kistemaker.
The rich young ruler thought he could get the promised blessings of the covenant by obedience to the Law. Jesus had to show him that the obedience necessary to comply with the demands of the covenant was perfection - "Sell all your possessions and give to the poor." The young man was right to go "away sad", for who can achieve such perfection. The disciples were also right to be concerned when the full weight of Jesus' words sank in. "Who then can be saved?" Like the rich young man, we all have possessions and we are all tied to them. The answer is "with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible".
We must not be fooled by our own assessment of our righteousness before God, as Peter was with his "we have left everything and followed you." In his presence, all our worthiness is of little value. The only thing of worth is God's grace in Christ, in whose submission to the cross on our behalf we are able to possess life in all its fullness.
So, beware! Those who think that they are at the front of the que may find that they are at the end.
1. Some argue that this parable concerns the inclusion of outcasts, or Gentiles, into the kingdom. Discuss this suggestion.
2. "If getting into God's heaven is a gift of his kindness, maybe he will let in a rotter like me if I ask". Is this the gospel or an example of cheap grace? Is this the point of the parable?
3. What point is being made by the saying in v16?