Wide angle picture of a vineyard, with row after row of vines.
Bible Study

The Laborers in the Vineyard – Justice or Generosity?

Jesus loved to teach through parables because of the richness and depth of the message often hidden in the story. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard seems at first like a straight-forward account, but it raises so many questions. It confronts us with the counterculture of the kingdom of God and our natural inclination to comparison and competitiveness. Does this story offend our sense of justice or is it more about the generosity of God?

The Parable of the Laborers in The Vineyard

This story is found in Matthew 20:1-16 and begins by Jesus declaring that this is a description of the kingdom of heaven:

“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

Jesus goes on to say that the landowner agrees a day rate with the workers of one denarius and sets them to work in his vineyard. But it doesn’t end there, the landowner goes into the marketplace again. He searches for workers at 9am, mid-day, 3pm and 5pm in the afternoon. Each time he agrees to pay the workers whatever is right and sends them also to work in his vineyard.

When evening comes the owner of the vineyard calls his foreman to settle up and pay the workers their wages. He is to begin with those who were hired last and work back to those who were employed first.

The foreman pays those who were hired at 5pm, one denarius. Then continues back paying each group the same rate. But those who were hired first grumbled when they received one denarius. They had expected to receive more.

Those who were hired first complained that they had worked through the heat of the day. But the landowner had made those who only worked an hour equal to them. Their complaint was not accepted by the vineyard owner.

The landowner reminded the workers that they had agreed to work for one denarius and had received their wages in full. He was entitled to treat everyone the same and spend his money as he saw fit.

Jesus finishes the story with an enigmatic statement:

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:16

The Parable of the Vineyard Owner

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, or the workers in the vineyard, is sometimes known as the parable of the vineyard owner. We tend to focus on the attitude of the workers – but is it more about the actions of the landowner?

The parable of the vineyard owner is the same story from Matthew 20:1-16 but from a different perspective. Jesus was challenging His listeners, then and now, to reflect on our attitude contrasted by the actions of God.

The story is framed by two challenging statements that bring us back to the Sovereignty of God. The first will be last Scripture closes Matthew chapter 19:

“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Matthew 19:30

This then leads Jesus into the story in Matthew chapter 20…

Picture of a large vineyard with rows and rows of vines and the text 'Parable of the vineyard owner, and the moral of the story.'
The Laborers in the Vineyard – Justice or Generosity?

The Meaning of Matt 20:1-16

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard appears in Matthew’s gospel after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah. In the following chapters Jesus tries to prepare His followers for His death. But instead they are focusing on the coming of His kingdom and their place in it.

The disciples begin to question Jesus as to who is going to be ‘the greatest’ in the kingdom of heaven. In response Jesus attempts to correct their worldly attitude with kingdom truth. There follows a series of teachings that describe the kingdom of heaven, which is radically different to anything we know.

In the parable of the vineyard the workers make assumptions about the landowner based on their own attitudes. This is not unusual, it is something that we all do. So often we assume that other people, and maybe even God Himself, will have the same view as us.

Remember that Jesus’ audience where predominately Jews. In His story those workers called early in the morning, certainly represented Israel and their religious leaders. But it may even point to the disciples themselves.

Those workers who were hired later in the day are the outsiders. They are those who had no expectation of being chosen. The ones who were standing around doing nothing – the hopeless. They represent most of us… the Gentiles.

“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Ephesians 2:12-13

This parable hints at the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. It speaks of the Sovereignty and generosity of God revealed through His actions. God is the vineyard owner reaching out to the whosoever. And He is willing to bless all who will accept His invitation.

Moral lesson of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

What is the moral lesson of the parable of the workers in the vineyard then? Does it challenge us, the latecomers, on any level? I believe there is a message for us all, if we are willing to accept Jesus’ invitation to enter into the story.

We are all the workers. The vineyard owner is God – a familiar analogy in Scripture. Are there times when we, secretly, question the generosity of God towards other people?

There is another interpretation of the ‘late workers’ as being those who turn to Christ at the end of their lives. There are some Christians who resent ‘deathbed’ confessions, that someone can ‘get into heaven’ at the very last moment. And that they will receive the same reward as those who have worked hard for the LORD most of their lives.

But Scripture is clear that God’s ways are not our ways. The way to enter the kingdom of heaven is with humility and child-like trust in God’s sovereignty:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:1-3

The kingdom of heaven is received through God’s forgiveness and mercy. The same forgiveness and mercy that we are required to share with others. (Matthew 18:23-35 Bible Gateway)

The moral lesson then of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is to rejoice in God’s grace, in His unfailing generosity. We don’t need to compare ourselves with others, or vie, or push for position. God’s love is enough for us all – this is our future hope!

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