In response to Peter’s question, “You see, we have given up everything to follow you. What will be our lot?” (Matthew 19: 27), Jesus promised, “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory, you who have followed me will yourselves sit on twelve thrones to rule the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28). He also offered a hundred times more of what they had given up and eternal life’s inheritance (Matthew 19: 29). He then concluded saying, “Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30). As a continuation of this, Jesus presented the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Through it, Jesus taught that God’s generosity surpasses human thinking. So, the late converts and ministers in the church also might get a fair reward. The early disciples should be ready to appreciate the magnanimity of God in favoring the latecomers in his kingdom.
(Matthew 20:1) The kingdom of heaven is like this: A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. (2) He agreed to pay the workers the usual daily wage of one denarius a day, and he sent them to his vineyard. (3) He went out again at about the third hour, and as he saw men idle in the square, (4) he said to them: ‘You, too, go to my vineyard and I will pay you what is just.’ So they went. The owner went out at the sixth hour and again at the ninth hour, (5) and he did the same. (6) Finally he went out at the eleventh-hour and saw others standing there. So he said to them: ‘Why do you stand idle the whole day?’ (7) They answered: ‘Because no one has hired us.’ The master said: ‘Go you also and work in my vineyard.’ (8) When evening came, the vineyard owner said to his manager: ‘Call the workers and pay them their wage, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ (9) Those who had come to work at the last hour turned up and were given a denarius each. (10) When it was the turn of the first, they thought they would receive more. (11) But they, too, received one denarius each. So, on receiving it, they began to grumble against the landowner. (12) They said: ‘These last hardly worked an hour, yet you have treated them the same as us who have endured the day’s burden and heat.’ (13) The owner said to one of them: ‘Friend, I have not been unjust with you. Did we not agree on one denarius a day? (14) So take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last as much as I give to you. (15) Do I not have the right to do as I please with my money? Why are you envious when I am generous?’ (16) So will it be: the last will be first, the first will be last.
Only Matthew presents this parable. Jesus was talking about the reward his disciples might attain for giving up everything and following him. Jesus’ disciples were not from the conservative Jewish leaders. They were ordinary people like fishermen or tax collector like Matthew. Hence, they were not strict to Jewish practices. However, Jesus promised them glorious reward (Matthew 19:28-29). So, God will reward even the late comers in His new kingdom.
To the rich young man who kept all the commandments of the Lord, Jesus said: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all that you possess and give the money to the poor, and you will become the owner of a treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21). He declined to give his material goods for the Kingdom of God. Unlike that rich man, the apostles had given up everything for Jesus and followed him. To them Jesus said, “Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30). In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus illustrated how God welcomes even the less prominent like the apostles into his kingdom and reward them for their labor out of his graciousness.
(Matthew 20:1) The kingdom of heaven is like this: A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
The kingdom of heaven
Matthew used “the Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God” that other evangelists used. This was to avoid using the term God because Matthew wrote for the Jews who do not use God’s name. Both Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God mean the same. This kingdom is of divine origin, governed by God, eternal, peaceful, free from any struggle, and is open only for the faithful children of God. Jesus reestablished the unfaithful Israel and formed his church as a foretaste of God’s kingdom that will happen later in its fullness. Jesus will establish the perfect kingdom at his second coming. Some examples illustrate the criteria for entry into the kingdom. In this parable of the workers in the vineyard, the one dinar given as wage at the end of the one-day work stands for the reward of entrance into the Kingdom of God.
A landowner… his vineyard
According to the Old Testament, God is the landowner, and Israel is the vineyard. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant vine.” (Isaiah 5:7). The leaders of Israel are the laborers that God had assigned to take care of his vineyard. In the New Testament, the church is the vineyard that Jesus gained as his inheritance from his Father. Jesus regained this vineyard from the unfaithful servants of Israel by giving his life as a ransom. He then entrusted it to his disciples as the new laborers.
A landowner went out early in the morning.
The working hours of the Israelites were 12, and they counted them from 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. So, the landowner went out before 6:00 A.M. to get the laborers.
To hire workers for his vineyard
The landowner has regular servants and slaves. So, the hired laborers were daily wage workers whom the landowner used only when there was need for additional workers. Since it was the harvest time, the landowner urgently needed more people to harvest before the rain or adverse weather would arrive. So, he hired daily laborers.
The daily wage laborers were poor because they had no steady job and income. They depended on the landowner to get work so they could gain some money to buy food for their starving families. They desperately needed job daily for their livelihood.
(2) He agreed to pay the workers the usual daily wage of one denarius a day, and he sent them to his vineyard.
The landowner agreed on how much he would pay for the 12-hour labor. One denarius per day was a just payment for the living expense of an unskilled laborer. There was no agreement on payment of wage with the late comers in the vineyard other than an offer of just payment.
(3) He went out again at about the third hour, and as he saw men idle in the square.
He went out again.
John the Baptist and Jesus called people in the sinful stage for repentance. They were sitting idle, detached from God and his vineyard. Unlike John to whom people went, Jesus went into the synagogues and marketplaces where people were present. He invited them to his kingdom. Jesus wanted many laborers because the harvest was plenty (Matthew 9:36-37).
At about the third hour
Since the usual work started at 6:00 A.M., this call of the second batch was at 9:00 A.M., or three hours later. Why the landowner called them late? They could be the late comers in the market. Or they might be there before; but were less skilled than the others whom the vineyard owner hired first. He might have found by 9:00 A.M. that he needed more laborers than he initially thought. When we apply the parable to Israel or the church, there were people faithful to God from their early life and others who came late in keeping God’s commandments like the sinners converted at different stages of their lives.
He saw men idle.
Unlike the servants and slaves who were part of the family of the vineyard owner, the daily laborers had to wait in the marketplace seeking the landowner’s mercy to hire them for each day’s work. They had nothing to do other than wait until hired for work.
In the square
The market square is a public place (Matthew 11:16) surrounded by buildings where people sell their products and assemble for public events and celebrations (Acts 16:19; 17:17). The marketplace represented the world of sin. Standing idle represents a sinful state of living apart from God’s vineyard and His covenant relationship. It could also mean a state of hopelessness and helplessness.
(4) He said to them: ‘You, too, go to my vineyard and I will pay you what is just.’ So they went. The owner went out at the sixth hour and again at the ninth hour.
The vineyard owner promised a fair wage for those whom he hired late. He did not specify what he would give. However, the laborers trusted him and went. If they did not get that opportunity, their family would starve.
No service in the vineyard of the Lord will go unrewarded. St. Paul reminded the Ephesians: “Work willingly for the Lord and not for humans, mindful that the good each one has done, whether slave or free, will be rewarded by the Lord.” (6:7-8). Jesus assured those who support his disciples: “I promise you if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, will not go unrewarded.” (Matthew 10:42). A Christian should not demand his reward but should trust that the Lord will give a fair reward at the end out of God’s generosity.
(5) And he did the same.
The vineyard owner went repeatedly at an interval of three hours each. Each time he found laborers sitting idle in the marketplace. Their reason for waiting showed their dire need for work so they could support their family with food and other necessities. The reason for the vineyard owner showing up in the marketplace searching for laborers shows his urgent need for more laborers so he could complete the harvest before sunset. He promised a fair wage to all the late-appointed laborers. They did not negotiate with the vineyard owner for the wages and there was no agreement other than a fair wage at his discretion.
(6) Finally he went out at the eleventh-hour and saw others standing there. So he said to them: ‘Why do you stand idle the whole day?’
He went out at the eleventh-hour.
The vineyard owner went to the marketplace looking for any available workers at the eleventh-hour. So, there was only one more hour left to close the day’s labor. That was an unusual time to hire laborers. It shows his desperate need for more laborers to complete the work before the sunset. The laborers whom the vineyard owner hired on a contract basis in the early morning were slowing down waiting for the end of the day. They were losing their enthusiasm and energy. The newly hired might be energetic because they were relaxing for long and were happy that they could get a job, at least for the rest of the day at a fair wage. So, they would be more productive at the last hour than all the others.
Saw others standing there.
The vineyard owner had hired all laborers to his field for harvest at each three-hour intervals of the day. He had selected all the capable laborers by that time. Still, when he came at the last hour, there were some leftover people still waiting for any chance for a part-time work. They could not return home without food for which they needed money. These were the hopeless and downhearted people. Jesus, the vineyard owner of the New Testament phase, came looking to redeem such people.
Why do you stand idle the whole day?
The enquiry here is on their reason for not working to which they gave a reasonable answer. They were not standing idle but were still seeking job opportunity. Nobody hired them because of their less skill, disability, or ill health. They were persisting because of their dire need.
The people whom God, the landowner hired late to the Kingdom of God were the Gentiles. Until Jesus’ public ministry, God had invited Abraham’s chosen children and Jacob’s descendants to the Kingdom of God. Many of them were not faithful laborers. So, Jesus the vineyard owner came at the eleventh-hour to invite to his church, the Gentiles whom God did not invite earlier. Though they came last, they also received a reward equivalent to the Jewish Christians.
(7) They answered: ‘Because no one has hired us.’ The master said: ‘Go you also and work in my vineyard.’
Because no one has hired us
Those hired at the eleventh-hour expressed their genuine reason for not working. No one had hired them. If the landowner had hired them to work early, they would have joined the team of workers. They went to work when they got the chance at least for one hour. The Israelites did not hire the Gentiles into their covenant group. When invited, the Gentiles accepted the offer and joined the church.
(8) When evening came, the vineyard owner said to his manager: ‘Call the workers and pay them their wage, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
God gave through Moses strict instruction to the landowners that they must pay the daily workers their wage on the same day before sunset. “You shall not exploit the lowly and the poor wage-earner, whether he be one of your brothers or an alien who resides in your land in any of your towns. Pay him daily before the sun goes down, because he is poor and he depends on his earnings. Then he will not appeal to the LORD against you, and you will have no sin.” (Deut. 24:14-15). The vineyard owner followed this command of the Lord.
The vineyard represents the chosen people of God, like Israel in the Old Testament and church in the New Age. God is the vineyard owner, and Jesus is the foreman who works on God’s behalf to distribute the payment.
According to Jewish calendar, 6:00 P.M. is the end of a day and another day’s beginning. It is a stage of transition. In the spiritual sense, the period of Israel was ending, and Messianic Era was starting. Jesus gave the late comers like the sinners, Gentiles, and Samaritans a chance to work along with the traditional Jews in the Kingdom of God that Jesus reconstituted.
It can also mean the end of this world and the beginning of the “new heaven and new earth.” (Revelation 21:1). Prior to that, the Son of Man would appear on the clouds and would judge or reward all according to their virtues and vices (Matthew 25:31-46). So those who are not in the vineyard of Jesus now, can enter the church and gain a just reward even at his last hour.
Beginning with the last and ending with the first
After summoning all the laborers, the foreman paid first to those who came in the last shift onwards so those who came first would observe how the others got paid. That helped Jesus to highlight the climax and message of the story to his listeners. The reverse order of payment corresponds to Jesus’s statement before this parable and at the end of the parable. Before introducing this parable, Jesus told his disciples, “Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30). Jesus concluded the parable saying, “the last will be first, the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16).
(9) Those who had come to work at the last hour turned up and were given a denarius each.
From a human standard, those who worked only one hour deserved payment for one hour only. However, the vineyard owner was generous to give them a one-day wage. There could be several reasons for that. (1) It was not their fault that the landowner did not call them first. (2) When the landowner did not hire them, they did not return home disappointed. Instead, they continued in the marketplace seeking a job and accepted the work even when hired at the last hour. (3) They might have worked hard during the last hour of the day to compensate the lost 11 hours. (4) Their family needed one-day wage for their sustenance.
Some were born Gentiles or Samaritans, and some became sinners because of their adverse circumstances of birth or growth. Such people had time to repent and join the Kingdom of God when Jesus came at the eleventh-hour. They readily accepted the invitation and compensated for their lost years of grace with their sincere and enthusiastic service in the church. So, at the last judgment, they are also eligible to receive the same reward of entry in God’s kingdom.
(10) When it was the turn of the first, they thought they would receive more.
The vineyard owner could pay the one-day wage to all without lining them up according to their hour of labor. He purposefully paid in the reverse order, by paying first those who worked only one hour, to bring up the reaction of those who started work at 6:00 A.M. The first comers who worked throughout the day were the Israelites. Their leaders were expecting more reward from God compared to the late converts like the Gentiles, Samaritans, and Publicans. The Jews, like the elder brother of the prodigal son, were unhappy at the entrance of the latecomers in God’s Kingdom (Luke 15:28-30). The owner did justice to them by giving them what he had agreed upon at the time of their hiring.
(11) But they, too, received one denarius each. So, on receiving it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
The vineyard owner showed compassion to the latecomers because they were poor and had been patiently waiting at the marketplace seeking job without losing hope. They desperately needed money to buy food for their starving family. The vineyard owner had sympathy for them and wanted to help them. However, the other laborers, who also very well knew the pathetic situation of their villagers, did not show any concern for them. Instead, they could not tolerate the landowner’s generosity to the latecomers. Though they knew that the landowner was not doing any injustice to them, they were envious of those who received a payment equivalent to them who did a full day’s work.
Jesus teaches that such feelings and reaction are unchristian. The Jewish Christians should not feel envious of the Gentile converts to Christianity.
(12) They said: ‘These last hardly worked an hour, yet you have treated them the same as us who have endured the day’s burden and heat.’
The work at the last hour had less heat compared to the noon hours. Those who worked only one hour did not suffer adverse weather. So also, the Jews had been following the laws and traditions of Israel throughout their lives. For them, laws and ceremonial observances were burdensome (Malachi 1:13) like the heat of midday. Jesus made others who were enjoying the worldly pleasures equal to them when he came and baptized them. This was an issue for the Jewish leaders and the early Jewish Christians.
(13) The owner said to one of them: ‘Friend, I have not been unjust with you. Did we not agree on one denarius a day?’
The complaint of those who worked 12 hours was that they did not get extra pay compared to the latecomers. However, the vineyard owner said he did not deceive or did anything contrary to the agreement made at the time of hiring them for work. The only issue was the generosity he showed to the latecomers. It was like the paradise Jesus offered to the repentant criminal who was on the cross with him (Luke 23:43).
(14) So take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last as much as I give to you.
The vineyard owner was not willing to give anything more than what he had agreed upon. He did not find any need of showing generosity to them. Rather, he was questioning them for their complaint. He felt that they also should show compassion to the latecomers as he did. So, he asked them to take what they deserved and leave the place.
(15) Do I not have the right to do as I please with my money? Why are you envious when I am generous?
The vineyard owner’s answer to those who complained was his justification through his questions. (1) He did them justice by giving them the payment he had agreed with them. (2) He is free to use his money the way he wished. (3) They should not be envious of his generosity to those who could not find work early.
The response of the early hired laborers was like the attitude of the prodigal son’s elder brother when their father generously welcomed the repentant son with all rights and privileges (Luke 15:25-32). Proverbs 27:4 says, “Wrath is cruel and anger impulsive, but who can withstand jealousy?” The jealousy of the Pharisees and Scribes, against the disciples of Jesus, who were poor, illiterate, nontraditional, and even sinners, was like the full-time workers of this parable. So, the Pharisees, Scribes, and other elite Jews denied the Messiahship of Jesus. The early Jewish Christians also had similar issues in accepting the Gentile converts.
(16) So will it be: the last will be first, the first will be last.
A repentant sinner and a late convert are equivalent to the righteous believers. They all inherit the Kingdom of God and are equal in front of God. The first became last because they did not embrace the message of love for the less fortunate that Jesus taught them. Thus, the humble prayer of the publican was more justifiable before God than the self-exalted prayer of the righteous Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). There will be a reversal of fortune and surprise to come at the end stage, as with the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).
While advising his listeners on the need to enter through the narrow door, Jesus concluded: “You will weep and grind your teeth when you see Abraham and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves left outside. But others will come and sit at table in the Kingdom of God, people coming from east and west, from north and south. Some who are among the last will be the first, and some who are first will be last.” (Luke 13:28-30). Jesus illustrated that surprise from the part of those who got the reward and others who got the punishment in the statements of the last judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).