Jesus’ Story about the Vineyard Workers
One of the many stories or parables that Jesus told was about an owner of a vineyard who went out to find workers for the day to help him pick the ripened grapes in his vineyard. The vineyard owner went out early in the morning and hired workers who came to the vineyard and worked all day and into the evening. Around noon the vineyard owner went out again and found more workers who agreed to work for the rest of the day. Later in the afternoon the owner went out again and found more workers who joined the work crew and worked just a few hours and then even more men were brought in to work in the evening shortly before quitting time. But at the end of the day the vineyard owner paid all his workers the same amount of money for their work whether they had worked all day or just for an hour!
My father read this Bible story and told me that he didn’t understand why the workers who worked longer hours didn’t receive more than the workers who worked fewer hours. My father worked for a local newspaper where he was responsible for hiring and paying employees and this parable troubled him. Let’s read the parable and see what we think.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day’s work and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out again and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He called to them, ’You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right. So they went.
The vineyard owner went out again about the sixth hour and again around the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he also 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.’
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 the eleventh hour 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. When they all received their pay, they began to grumble against the vineyard owner.
These men 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.’ But the owner of the vineyard answered them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the men who were 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? ‘ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-19)
Before he even begins his story, Jesus starts off by saying that the kingdom of heaven is like the story or parable he is about to tell. I believe that He wants us to understand that He is giving us this parable to tell us something about the kingdom of heaven. So what can we learn about the kingdom of heaven from His parable? Maybe we can see that things are done differently in the kingdom of heaven then they are here on earth. Also we can see that God, the owner of the vineyard, is debtor to no one. God sees and judges and gives out rewards differently than we do. Scripture says that “Humans look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
We judge God according to our faulty human standards. We do know that God is holy and merciful and loving and good. We know that He is all powerful and all-knowing and that He can do no wrong. But we still try to fit Him into our little human boxes!
Jesus parable also shows us that the first may be last and the last first. God has work for all the age groups. That some who come into the Christian faith late in life and go humbly about their Christian duties unnoticed, may grow in grace and love and faith more than some who were Christians all their lives and who held important positions in the church. The rewards will be given to the saints in heaven, not according to the length of time they served God on earth, or to how important a job they might have had, but perhaps according to the measure of the fullness of Christ in their lives and to their faithfulness. And to issues that we cannot understand and only God can see and measure.
Bible scholars believe that the “day” the vineyard owner called the workers to work in his vineyard represents our time of life here on earth. It isn’t a long time that we are called into service, just a day. Life’s little day. The human soul stands ready to be hired into some service or other. We are created to work. The gospel call is given to those who stand idly in the marketplace (the world) and we are called from our idleness in the marketplace to be laborers in God’s vineyard. God does not turn away any that wish to be hired. Some are called early and others later. We must go by our Master’s clock.
In Jesus’ parable the Church is God’s vineyard. It is of His planting, watering, and fencing or protecting. We are all called upon to be laborers in His vineyard. To dress it and keep it for Him. And to bring in the harvest. The harvest of souls. And the wages are sufficient. And at the end of the day when death calls us out of the vineyard to our rest we will also receive our reward.
In Jesus’ parable the laborers who had worked longer quarrel with their master and find fault, not because they weren’t paid enough, but because others were made equal with them. They were competitive and angry that they were not paid more than they had originally agreed to be paid. Angry that they weren’t considered better than the other workers.
Is Jesus showing us here in his story that in the kingdom of heaven God distributes His rewards by grace and sovereignty, and not because of debt? In His kingdom, we are under grace, and not under law. In the kingdom of heaven, we will put away competition and pride and envy and all those jealous status games. No more jockeying to see which one of us is better but then we will serve each other joyfully with love and generosity and humility.