My current series on the teaching of Jesus brought me to the parable on the workers and the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).
(Audio version here)
This is considered one of the more difficult parables to interpret but it reaches deeply into the human heart at a level that connects with all people. It exposes a common tendency to resent the blessings of others whom we think don’t deserve them (certainly not as much as we do!).
As with many of Jesus parables, he starts with the familiar and turns the story in unexpected and provocative directions. We could even say that Jesus turned stories in ways that were intentionally disruptive to established cultural assumptions. He did this to expose prideful and self-righteous hearts. It reminds us that God is willing to allow disruptive events to get to the true condition of our hearts.
In this parable, Jesus is also explaining what the Kingdom of heaven is like. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1).
The topic of kingdom was big for the disciples. Israel chaffed under pagan Kingdoms for centuries. They longed for a deliverer to lift the power of Rome off of them. Even after the Lord was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). I am sure Jesus stirred their curiosity when he said, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). Not long after Jesus gave this parable, two of the disciples requested prime positions in Christ’s kingdom, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).
Jesus’ early disciples did not have the right perspective of Kingdom. They viewed it as an opportunity for personal advancement based on rank and merit. They pursued the highest places of honor not the lowly positions of service. They had a lot to learn about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. They argued repeatedly over who should be considered greatest among them. Jesus had to repeatedly correct their misguided and self-serving way of thinking. It was in stark conflict with the entire mission of Jesus (see: Luke 22:24-30; Philippians 2:3-11).
This is the background for many teachings from Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like saying, “This is what God’s rule looks like this…” Or, “This is the way it works in God’s kingdom…”
Five parts to the parable of the workers in the vineyard
- Kingdom introduction v.1
- Hiring the workers vv. 1-7
- Paying the workers vv. 8-10
- Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12
- Answer from the owner vv. 13-15
- Concluding proverb v.16
Take a moment and read the entire parable
Kingdom introduction v.1 and the hiring the workers vv. 1-7
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
Paying the workers vv. 8-10
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12
When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
Answer from the owner vv. 13-15
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Concluding proverb v.16
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It is helpful to read the larger context for this parable. It deals with status, wealth, greed and discipleship in a context that reverses the expected values of the world (Matthew 19:13-20:34).
Looking more closely
The story is not unfamiliar to Jesus’ listeners. One day an owner of a vineyard goes into the market to hire day laborers. The pay offered was also typical pay for such workers (a denarius for the day). It was also typical and even commanded in the OT to pay these workers at the end of the day. Some of them depended on each days wage to survive for the day.
The work day pictured was also typical (12 hours). But the parable breaks from the expected in some provocative ways. It would have been unusual, for example, that an owner would make five trips to hire day workers (unless perhaps the vineyard was close to the market place). Such a miscalculation of needed workers, let alone hiring some to work for a mere hour, would have been exceptionally unexpected.
Why then does Jesus picture five separate hirings? Some take this to be an allegorical way of picturing the five successive stages of history:
- Adam to Noah
- Noah to Abraham
- Abraham to Moses
- Moses to Christ
- Christ to the Present
While this is possible, it is certainly not clear from the parable. The same is true of the efforts to spiritualize the parable in the following construction:
- Vineyard – the Kingdom
- Owner – God the father
- Forman- Jesus
- Workers – believers
- Pay – salvation
- Work day – the believer’s lifetime of service
- Evening – eternity
This seems to make the parable say more than Jesus intended and upon closer examination, the imagery breaks down in significant ways. All such efforts remind us to exercise caution when interpreting parables. Although parables intentionally invoke imagination and discussion, it’s generally not wise to make them say more than would have been understood in their original context.
Basic considerations in the parable of the workers and vineyard
- No one deserves to become a worker in the vineyard but no one receives a free gift of grace.
- Each worker and receives a wage, some more than expected; others less than they feel they deserve based on comparison with others.
- There is not a significant emphasis on generosity in the parable because the wage is not unusual. The goodness of the owner is contrasted with the evil eye of the first workers.
- The first workers would not have complained without comparison with the late comers.
Who is Jesus aiming for in this parable?
- Opponents – If Jesus had the religious leaders in mind, the parable emphasizes tax collectors, sinners and Gentiles entering the kingdom (those called last to work).
- Disciples – If Jesus was focused on his disciples, the parable warns against envy based on perceptions of rank and comparison as well as misplaced notions of merit.
What we know with more certainty
- By emphasizing who gets paid first (those who came last), and how those who joined in the middle of the day would receive “whatever is right or just,” Jesus exposed the condition of the hearts of the others.
- Jesus issues a clear challenge to human standards of ranking and merit (first and last).
- The contrast is between the goodness of the owner and the complaint of those who felt they should have received more.
- The first workers would not have complained without a comparison with others.
- God’s treatment of people and justice cannot be measured by human standards.
- We continually compare ourselves with others and judge fairness based on our perception of what we feel is due to us. Or, we think justice means equal pay for equal work and that no one gets an advantage.
Questions worth asking
- Why is goodness toward others often an occasion for envy and resentment?
- Is it possible to allow someone else’s advantage spoil your gratitude, contentment and joy?
- Does God allow things like this to happen to challenge and expose our hearts?
- Why do we find it difficult to rejoice over the good things that happen to others?
- I Corinthians 12:26 -If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
- Romans 12:10 – “take delight in honoring each other.”
5. Why do we tend to always calculate ways we feel slighted in comparison with others?
Deeper reflection on envy
“Envy is resentment of someone else’s good, plus the itch to despoil her of it. Its natural corollary is what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of someone else’s despoilment. The envier not only sorrows over another’s good fortune and wants it to change; he also rejoices in another’s misfortune and wants it to persist. Hence an envious conservatory student may feel privately delighted at the memory lapse of a rival during her recital performance” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to be, Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).
Envious people find sadistic pleasure in the downfall of others. Worse, they will appear publicly sympathetic while privately gloating.
“Envy (and its gloating subsidiary, Schadenfreude) shows us human antagonism in one of its basest and most unheroic forms. Wherever we find envy, we find the wreckage of human and Christian community. Envious people backbite. They deliver congratulations with a smile that, in another light, might be taken for a sneer.” (Plantinga).
“The envier gossips. He saves up bad news about others and passes it around like an appetizer at happy hour. The envier grumbles. He murmurs. He complains that all the wrong people are getting ahead. Spite, bitterness, discord which undoes all friendships, accusation, malignity—all these things flow form envy and together turn friendship and good fellowship into a rancorous shambles” (Plantinga).
Scripture warns: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). Remember this: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Alternatively, love “…does not delight in evil” (I Corinthians 13:5-6).
The history of envy begins with the ambition of angels (“I will make myself like the Most High,” Isaiah 14:14) and leads to the suspicion of Eden (“You will be like God…” Genesis 3:1-6).
Envy emerges in the first human family as an insidious motive to the first act of homicide (Genesis 4). Cain, “who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother” (I John 3:12), allowed envy to be a prelude to homicide (Genesis 4). But envy was also the motive behind the most vicious crime of history: “the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy” (Mark 15:10).
It’s particularly sobering to consider how envy is fueled by the all too common sins of ingratitude and discontentment. It feeds on a surveying spirit of resentment with the lethal potential of becoming hatred. Envy vandalizes joy and joyful community.