Today is the 9th sermon in our current series titled “The Parables of Jesus”. Over the past 2 months we have been studying parables related to the Kingdom of God and to various characteristics of God. We have talked about His great joy whenever a person is redeemed, His desire to forgive sinners completely, and His neighborly merciful love. In each case, we have been challenged as Christians to imitate these virtues.
The parable in view this morning is called “The Workers in the Vineyard”. Like those we’ve discussed previously, this story highlights yet another remarkable attribute of God. It deals with His amazing grace, through which salvation is made available to all. The LORD’s gracious loving kindness is the only vehicle by which any person can be saved.
Matthew 19 opens with Jesus departing Galilee and heading southward. He comes into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, meaning that He is actually on the eastern side of the Jordan River. While there He confronts a band of Pharisees, blesses the children, and converses with a rich young ruler. At the close of the chapter, the disciples ask what reward they will receive for leaving everything to follow Him. Jesus answers their question, then tells this parable to reinforce and clarify His answer.
The parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard” is recorded only in the book of Matthew. It is one of the more lengthy parables of Jesus. It was spoken directly to the disciples. Following this event, Jesus recrosses the Jordan and proceeds to Jerusalem where He is arrested, tried, and crucified. Thus, we can date the telling of this parable near the end of the Lord’s earthly ministry. Over the centuries, this beautiful illustration has been depicted in various forms of art and literature.
In the verse immediately preceding this parable, Jesus states that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Then he tells the story of the workers in the vineyard, concluding it by repeating that the last will be first and the first will be last. Obviously this statement is critically to the meaning of the parable, as it is given both at the beginning and at the end. But what does it mean? Well, let’s find out...
I. HIRING THE WORKERS - Matthew 20:1-7
The parable begins with a landowner who needed day laborers to work in His vineyard. Early in the morning he went to the marketplace and found several people. They agreed to work the full day in exchange for one denarius each. After they have been working for a while, the landowner decided that he needed additional workers and went back to hire more. This time around he did not specifically state how much he would pay, but assured them that they will be given what was right. Apparently there was much work to be done, because as the day progressed the landowner went back to the marketplace 3 more times to hire more laborers, each time for an undisclosed sum.
In order to grasp the proper sequence of this story, we must have a basic understanding of how the time of day was measured by the Jews. The day started at 6am which was about the time of sunrise and ended at 6pm which was around the time of sunset. The 12 hours of the day were counted out based upon these endpoints. So, if we use our modern clocks, we could say that the landowner hired the first workers at 6am, more at 9am, even more at noon, still more at 3pm, and finally a few more at 5pm.
By the end of the day, the landowner had quite a few laborers toiling away in his vineyard. Some had been there much longer than the others. This applies to us a believers. God calls us at different times in our lives. Some people get saved when they are very young and are privileged to serve the LORD for their entire lives. Others hear His calling while middle-aged, and live the later half their lives for Him. Still others come to Jesus very late, perhaps even on their deathbed, and miss much of the blessing of working in God’s vineyard for a long time.
II. PAYING THE WORKERS - Matthew 20:8-12
At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard and his foreman called all of the laborers together in order to give them their pay. Those who had been hired last and had only worked for an hour were paid first. They received a full denarius. Presumably, the landowner continued paying those who were hired most recently, giving each of them a denarius apiece. By the time he came to the laborers he’d hired first, they expected to be paid more because they had worked all day long. However, the landowner also gave each of them a denarius. Upset, they began to grumble and complain.
I can understand their anger. Doesn’t it seem unfair that the owner of the vineyard paid everyone the same despite the fact that some worked much longer than others? A fair employer would have paid the workers differing amounts in relation to the amount of time they actually worked. It seems only right that the reward one receives should be based upon the amount of work that he or she does. Isn’t this the way it should be?
People are quick to react when they believe that they are being treated unfairly. As it pertains to the matters of this life, we should strive to treat everyone in a fair and just manner. But, as my mother often says, sometimes life is not fair and we have to accept it. However, when it comes to the issue of our eternal salvation, perhaps we should think twice about how “fair” we really want God to be. If the LORD offered us salvation upon the basis of our good works, no matter how many of them there might be, we would be in big trouble!
III. ANSWERING THE WORKERS - Matthew 10:13-16
At the end of the parable, the landowner reminded the grumbling workers that they’d all agreed to work a full day for a denarius. They were being paid accordingly and therefore had absolutely nothing to complain about. What the landowner chose to pay the other workers was completely up to him, and frankly not their concern. If he chose to be generous, so be it.
God is the gracious landowner and His children are the laborers. He is the sole provider of saving grace and it is His to distribute as He desires. Who are we as believers to question His generosity or accuse Him of being unfair? Instead, we should be thankful to have received that portion of His grace necessary to secure our eternal salvation in Heaven. Rather than grumbling, we such celebrate that the fullness of salvation is available to everyone.
An alternative interpretation of this parable compares the earlier workers with the Jews and the later worker with the Gentiles. It teaches that the Jews, who had received the calling of God centuries before, should be happy for the Gentiles who were just now being formally included into God’s covenant. Both Jew and Gentile would be covered equally by the grace of God.
Immediately after concluding the story, Jesus restated what He'd said at the outset - “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. Oftentimes we have used these words to promote the idea that the humble shall be exalted while the mighty will be brought down. While this is certainly true and taught elsewhere in Scripture, in light of the parable a more accurate rendering would be “The first shall be rewarded the same as the last, and the last shall be rewarded the same as the first.”
If you are a Christian, you have the promise of eternal life in Heaven someday. Whether you’ve been a believer for many decades or only for a few minutes this promise is still the same. That said, don’t wait to be saved. Working for the the LORD in His vineyard is not a burden, but rather a blessing. There is no greater way to spend your life than living for and serving God. I am so grateful to have worked in His vineyard all these years and look forward to many, many more. Want you join me in the vineyard today, by accepting God’s offer of saving grace through His Son Jesus Christ?