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The Life of Jesus - Series 10: Episode 8

The parable of the workers in the vineyard

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus taught this parable to show God's graciousness to even those who do not deserve it. Whoever responds to His call, receives eternal life.

Jesus taught this parable to show God's graciousness to even those who do not deserve it. Whoever responds to His call, receives eternal life.


Hello, welcome to Series 10 and Episode 8. We're going to study today ‘The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard’ and we're studying in Matthew 20: 1 - 16, 

Introduction and Recap

We are now well on in Jesus' ministry, and in Series 10 we are following the story of Jesus as he's heading towards Jerusalem for his final visit there, which will lead to his crucifixion and his resurrection. We've discussed this theme on many occasions in earlier episodes. Both Matthew and Luke provide a lot of material for us in terms of parables. It appears that at this time in Jesus' ministry he's telling a lot of stories and using parables to illustrate principles of the kingdom of God in a whole variety of different ways. We've looked at some very wonderful parables in Luke's Gospel in recent series and episodes, and this is a very powerful parable that's recorded only in Matthew, and is extremely helpful to understand some key aspects of the principles of the kingdom of God.

Before we look at the actual parable in Matthew 20, I want to go back and think about the last episode, which was also in Matthew's Gospel. If you listened to it, you'll remember it was the story of the rich, young man, who came to Jesus and knelt down before him, and pleaded with him to answer a very searching, personal question, which was, what good thing did he need to do to inherit eternal life? In that discussion between the young man, Jesus, and then Jesus' disciples, we see a remarkable insight into the place that wealth and material riches have in the human heart, and how they need to be released over to the control of God, if we are going to become the disciples of Jesus. Jesus invites the man to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and to join his group of disciples. The young man declines to do so; he goes away sad. He has great wealth; he doesn't want to part with his wealth; he thinks his money is more important than religion; his wealth is more important than Jesus' message and invitation.

In the concluding section of the last episode, verses 28 - 30, Jesus promises real tangible rewards for those who follow him, even though it's going to cost them in terms of their material security, and their family relationships. He ends up with a very important statement which is closely connected to what we're going to study now, because this parable follows on in the same discussion. He says, in Matthew 19: 30,

"But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."

Matthew 19:30, NIV

He's referring to the reversal that takes place in status, security, pride and wealth, through the coming of the Kingdom of God. People who are first, or prominent, or significant in this life through their wealth, such as the rich, young man who was the subject of that story, if they don't follow the way of Christ - become his disciples - then ultimately they're going to be last, they're going to be least significant, and those who have humbled themselves and become economically poor, vulnerable because of faith, will be raised up to a prominent position. Jesus indicates that this will happen particularly at the time when he returns for his Second Coming. We need to keep this idea in mind, "Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first" because that very theme is illustrated by the parable that we're going to read, which concludes with a similar statement in the last verse that we're going to read today.

The Parable

Turn with me to Matthew 20: 1 - 16,

"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 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 the 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. When they received it they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only an 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 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Matthew 20:1-16, NIV

Agricultural Israel

I find this a really fascinating story and I need to remember that there's always a main point to a parable, and we'll come to that main point, but I'm captivated by the story. It gets me animated and thinking very quickly, because there's a part of me that identifies with the people who've been working the longest. Let's paint the picture more thoroughly. In an agricultural society like Israel, the time of harvest was a time when the labour force needed to be as big as possible for a defined period so they could bring in the harvest. This is the situation that we have here. The vineyard owner is now in a harvest time and he wants as many workers to pick the grapes and bring in the harvest. But the situation of employment in those kinds of societies was mostly that people worked for a day at a time. They were what were called ‘day labourers’ and they were hired at the beginning of the day and continued to the end. They might be hired the following day, or not, according to the wish of the landowner, or the business owner. This was a characteristic pattern, and particularly in the harvest period, where people without regular employment make themselves available to fill the gap and help out in the harvest, and earn some good money in that way. The scene being described here would be characteristic across Israel, which was a thoroughly agricultural society and where vineyards were to be seen everywhere, and where harvesters and agricultural workers were required in the harvest period.

Hiring the Workers

The owner goes to the marketplace and he wants to hire people for the day. And the interesting thing about the Jewish society then was that those who are hired for the day, according to the Law of Moses, had to be paid immediately. This was one of the legal requirements in the Law of Moses. For example, in Deuteronomy 24: 14 - 15, it says this,

‘Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and they're counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.’

Deuteronomy 24:14-15, NIV

The day labourers were economically vulnerable. This was recognised in the Law of Moses, and they were protected by the regulation that they should be paid immediately on the same day. That, of course, is the situation that takes place and it's quite clear that the owner's intention was always to pay his workers what they had been promised. He went down to the marketplace. This is probably the place where people would gather, and they'd wait for people to come, in the centre of the village, or the community, and see who wanted them to work for them during that particular day. He goes down, according to the story, early in the morning, 6 o'clock in the morning approximately. The working day would last until 6pm, a twelve hour working day with only very short breaks during the day. It was a hard day's work in the vineyard. The landowner promised to pay them one denarius. This is a Roman coin, a unit of Roman currency that was used throughout the Empire, a small silver coin, which at that time represented an average working wage for one day. It was a fair payment that he was offering, one denarius, at 6 o'clock in the morning and so some people who were there said, ‘Yeah, we'll sign up. We'll come and work for you for the day for one denarius.’

The story is interesting because of the number of times that the landowner returns to the marketplace, or nearby, looking for more workers. He clearly hasn't got enough workers for his harvest. The weather is good and he wants to get on with the harvest, and he wants as many labourers as he can find. So, according to the story, interestingly enough, he returns at 9 o'clock in the morning, at midday - 12 o'clock, at 3pm, and even at 5pm, which is only an hour before the working day was scheduled to end. On each occasion he was looking for and found more people to come and work for him. He said that he would pay them fairly. People came and the workforce was added to all through the day, and no doubt the original workers, who started work shortly after 6 o'clock in the morning, would be seeing these other people come in and wondering why so many extra people were coming. He obviously had an urgent need of workers. All the later workers were promised to be paid what is right, according to the text here. The first workers at 6 o'clock were promised a specific sum, which is a denarius, the standard working days wage.

Paying the Wages

So far so good, but then the story takes on an unusual twist, because the owner instructs his manager to start paying the workers at the end of the day and they all gather for payment but he gives a very specific instruction that the people recruited at the last minute would be paid first, and he gives them one denarius. Those who had arrived at 5 o'clock and had only worked for approximately one hour, were given a whole day's wage. Then all the other groups, who'd only worked parts of the day, were given one denarius. The original workers who came at 6 o'clock in the morning and had been there at least four hours more than anybody else, and in the case of the last workers, eleven hours more, they were agitated, they were complaining. They were saying, ‘Why? Why is all this being equalled out when we've done far more work than most of these other people?’ There was agitation going on, resentment amongst the earlier recruited workers. But the owner said very clearly, "I'm not being unfair to you," to those people recruited at 6 o'clock in the morning, "because I paid you what I promised" which in fact he had.

"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?"

Matthew 20:14-15

It's his decision how much he pays people, and he questions them,

‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Matthew 20:15, NIV

No doubt they were envious because of his generosity. He wanted as many workers as possible and this is how he recruited them. This is quite a disturbing story when you read it for the first time and you wonder what the significance and what the meaning of it is, because many readers would identify with the earlier workers, as I indicated that I did as I first read this story. That's the very nature of parables. You tend to identify with part of the story, and then realise that there's another aspect to the story that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. That's why parables make you think.

The Undeserving Poor

The first question I want to address before we actually try and work out the meaning and the application of this parable, which lies slightly behind the text, it's a question that you can't help thinking about: ‘Why were some of the workers not ready at the beginning of the day and only available from 12 o'clock? only available from 3 o'clock? only available even from 5 o'clock? Why weren't they there early if they were keen to work?’ They knew that the recruiting for the vineyards and the fields would take place very early in the day for the obvious reason that the farmers and the vineyard owners would want to make the most of a day of harvest and get on with it as quickly as they can. Why are these people not there at the beginning? They say it's because no one hired us, but the man had been there earlier on to hire them and he didn't see them when he first came. That may not be the whole truth. We have to think about these people; were they disorganised? were they lazy? were they reluctant to work hard? had they been drinking alcohol the night before and had a bit of a hangover? were they people who were hoping that they could lean on their families, their parents, or other relatives to support them and not really willing to support themselves? We don't know the answer to this question, but the implication is that they were in some sense less deserving than the earlier, available workers, because they simply weren't around at the right time. Yet, despite being less deserving, they receive the favour, and the grace, and the benefit, of the landowner who treats them generously, and pays them more than they actually deserve in terms of the number of hours that they have worked.

As soon as we start talking about these kinds of issues, it becomes quite personal, quite emotional for us sometimes, because all of us, in our different societies, tend to distinguish between people who deserve help and people who don't deserve help; the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It would be very easy to think, why bother with that person who only turns up in the marketplace ready to work more or less at the end of the day, and he's hired at 5 o'clock in the evening? But the landowner took a completely different view and he hadn't been unjust to the earlier workers as he pointed out, very precisely in his conversation with them, ‘I promised you one denarius (one denarius is a standard wage for a working day), you've worked that day, I paid you the denarius. What's the problem? You've received what the contract stated.’

We need to think a little more about the implication of this story, to try and work out what Jesus is saying in this immediate context. We need to bear in mind, of course, that this story would be one that people would easily identify with because so many people worked in agriculture and so many people got involved in harvesting, even if they weren't farmers themselves, and didn't have their own land. It was a time to earn some money, and it was a time, particularly for the poorer people, to take an advantage to have short-term work that they couldn't get so easily at other times in the year.

The Significance of the Parable

I want to spend a few minutes reflecting on the significance of this story, connecting it with the last one, and trying to work out the things that we can learn from the story. I think at a fundamental level, the first thing that I'd want to say is that this story demonstrates God's grace and his kindness to people who don't always deserve it. Latecomers and the undeserving get access to God's grace if they respond to his call, in the same way that latecomers in the marketplace got access to the landowner's grace, if they responded to his calling, and if they were willing to come into his vineyard and to work. All of these people were willing to work. They responded to the call, but many of them came late. They were disorganised, lacking in motivation, lacking in focus. But latecomers and the undeserving get access to God's grace if they respond to his call. Everyone who responds to God's call gets the same ultimate reward, which is eternal life. That was the topic of the last discussion between the rich, young man and Jesus. He said, ‘What good thing do I need to do to enter into or inherit eternal life?’ But it looks like all these people have entered into the same reward, even though they came at different times and in different ways. Some of them were more focused and others of them were less clear, and less motivated, and they've been wasting time in the earlier part of the day. This is an amazing insight into how God deals with humanity and we'll find time and time again in the ministry of Jesus, and in the Acts of the Apostles and the Early Church history, that people, who from our point of view, are not particularly deserving of any blessing or grace from God, seem to receive that grace.

The most obvious and startling example of that will occur shortly in our narrative when we come to the crucifixion. But let's fast forward for a moment and just comment on this. You will probably remember that when Jesus died there were two criminals who were crucified with him, one on either side. Three crosses together on the side of the road outside the city of Jerusalem. Three men being punished for various different things. These two criminals had broken the law in some way and were being punished by execution. Jesus was being punished for a different reason related to his claim to be the Messiah and King of Israel. We'll come to that story more fully when we get to that part of the narrative. One of the criminals on the cross was cursing and talking in a negative way to Jesus, as he was in agony and dying. The other one called out to Jesus and asked him for mercy. He asked him that he would remember him and Jesus promised that he would enter paradise with him that very day. Luke 23: 39 - 43) We don't know what was going on in this man's heart, and I'll discuss this story a bit more fully when we come to it, but here is someone who is coming to the message of Christ, as late in his life as it is possible to do. You can't get later than being within a few hours of your death, a certain death on the cross. The Roman soldiers would make sure that every person crucified was certified as dead before they came down off the cross. At that very last minute he turned, there was repentance, there was change, he obviously believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Something had been going on. He would have heard of Jesus in Jerusalem in the days beforehand, and then suddenly he finds himself next to him. He's influenced by Jesus, he hears the things that Jesus says, and he believes, and he opens himself up to him. Here is a latecomer, here is an undeserving man in every human sense that we can imagine. He was a criminal; he'd lived a rough life; he'd not been one of those people who followed Jesus when Jesus had come into his area. He'd been living selfishly; he'd been living illegally; and he was dying for it. But he came late, and he was undeserving in every human sense, but he received the grace of God. Here's a parallel situation that actually happened in Jesus' life.

If we go back into this parable and imagine one of the men who was signed up at 5 o'clock in the afternoon with one hour to go, maybe suddenly that man or those men would have thought I've wasted the day, I really need to get on with some work, I've been distracted, I've been talking in the marketplace, I have been visiting friends, I need to work. Is there any opportunity still to work? Is it too late in the day? The landowner comes and he says ‘There's still time, come and work, come and work for one hour.’ So they work hard for one hour and then they get the rewards. Latecomers, undeserving, they weren't there at the beginning of the day when they could have been. Still God's grace reaches them. Everyone who responds to God's call gets the same eternal life.

Obviously, Jesus has just spoken to the rich, young man and Jesus is addressing here the mindset of that rich, young man who was religious and moral all his life, like the worker who started at 6 o'clock in the morning who was doing the right thing, working hard, obeying orders, doing what the foreman said. Jesus is challenging this lifestyle and saying this isn't the thing that qualifies you uniquely for eternal life. The rich, young man went away sad. The workers who'd been there for twelve hours went away discontented and resentful. People who are last are going to be first. People who are apparently undeserving, apparently latecomers, are going to enter into the Kingdom of God if they respond sincerely and wholeheartedly with repentance and faith.

For the twelve disciples there's another application here which is, not to adopt a superior attitude to people who come into the discipleship community later on. For us there can also be a social application. We can actually discriminate between people and say they're deserving of our help, they're not deserving of our help. We can form a social discrimination. We've got to be careful about that, because God often works even when people have wasted much of their life, and their opportunity.


Let me conclude by reflecting finally, from verse 15, on something about the character of God. "Are you envious," says the landowner to the earlier workers, "because I'm generous?" What we find in this story is an incredible generosity in God. The Gospel message goes out to all of humanity, and there are some people who respond late in their life. They waste a lot of their life; they appear to be undeserving of God's grace, they miss opportunities, and yet at the end of the day, sometime later on, they turn to Christ wholeheartedly, and repent and believe. Jesus is saying that there's a place in the Kingdom of God for people like that, because they'll be saved by God's grace, through faith, not through their own moral or religious self-righteousness and works. This is a message that comes through the New Testament in so many different ways. We've seen it time and again already, but it's vividly and powerfully illustrated by this amazing parable, the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Some would say they will live life the way they want and then in the end do the right thing and turn to God. What do you think about this?
  • Discipleship
    1. Make a study of God’s grace. Use tagging to help. Thank God for his grace towards you.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Why did the owner pay the later workers first? (If he had started with the early workers they would never have known!)
    2. What right did the landowner have to pay the wages in this way? Was it fair? What does that tell you about God?
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