READ : Matthew 20:1-16
Do you welcome God’s grace, or are you bothered by it? One of Jesus’ most arresting parables turns many of our ideas about the world—and the church—upside down.
Here is one of Jesus’ most arresting stories, from Matthew 20.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master . . . who went out early in the morning to
hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he
sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing
idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, `You go into the vineyard too, and whatever
is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the
ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others
standing. And he said to them, `Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him,
`Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.’ And when
evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, `Call the laborers and pay
them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about
the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came,
they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on
receiving it they grumbled . . . `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them
equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied .
. . `Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what
belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not
allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So
the last will be first, and the first last.
A Great Surprise
Like most of his stories, Jesus’ parable of The Workers in the Vineyard made use of
things that were familiar to his hearers from everyday life. This story would have been a
daily occurrence in the villages of first-century Palestine, or, for that matter, in many
villages of 21st century Africa or India. In Jesus’ culture, just as in some parts of the
world today, many people eked out a precarious living as day laborers. Those who weren’t
hired first thing in the morning would congregate in the town square, hoping to find
something later on. In places like this there are no unemployment benefits or social
services; if you don’t work today, your family won’t eat tonight.
Well, Jesus said, one morning at daybreak a landowner came to the marketplace to hire
some men to work in his vineyard. The owner agreed to pay the men the going rate — one denarius, which was just about enough for a laborer to live on for a day. So off they
went, only to be joined in the fields by others hired at intervals later in the day, and
finally a group who came out at the eleventh hour, that is, just an hour before quitting
time at sunset.
And then came the payoff. The owner told his foreman to start with the last men hired,
and he gave each of them one denarius, a full day’s wage. That was a surprise. When the
all-day workers saw it, their hearts began to beat a little faster. Surely this meant that
they had a bonus coming. After all they had worked right through the heat of the day, they
had labored twelve times as long as these johnny-come-latelys. Simple justice demanded
that they be paid more.
But now comes the bigger surprise. When each man opened his pay envelope, there was
just a single denarius. Well, of course grumbling broke out among the early crew, cries of
“Unfair!” Then the owner addressed them. “Listen, friends, didn’t you get what we agreed
upon. I haven’t cheated you. I gave you no less than you earned. If I choose to give
others more than they earned, it’s my money isn’t it? Do you begrudge my generosity?”
There is the story. But what does it mean? What was Jesus getting at? I really don’t
think he was all that interested in agricultural economics or labor relations. No, this is
a story about God and how he treats people. It’s a story about God’s generosity, in other
words, his grace.
God is the land owner, isn’t he? The workers are the people that God calls to himself.
The pay is the gift of salvation he gives to all. Does this mean that God treats people
unequally, or that salvation is something we have to work for? Not at all. That isn’t the
point Jesus is making. His point is simply this, whether you come early or late, everybody
gets the same thing, and what they get is grace. It doesn’t matter how long you serve; you
can’t be more saved for serving God for a lifetime, or less saved if it’s only an hour — it’s all grace, and nothing but grace.
Jesus’ meaning comes through most clearly in the story’s last sentence, where the owner
of the vineyard asks the complaining workers, “Can’t I do what I choose with what belongs
to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (v. 15). There it is, the key question. Do we
begrudge God his generosity?
I think that question was originally intended to get Jesus’ Jewish audience to begin to
examine their attitudes towards the Gentiles. It was the Gentiles who would be brought in
at “the eleventh hour,” as the gospel began to go out into the first-century world.
Shouldn’t the Jewish believers rejoice at the salvation of the lost, rather than feeling
bent out of shape, like the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, because their long service of
God seemed to be under-appreciated?
Here’s a further question for each of us. Doesn’t God always treat us with generosity,
giving us far more than we have ever earned or merited? Do you really want God to give you
just what you’ve earned? Would you like him to pay you exactly what you merit? I know I
A Great Reversal
The short sentence that appears after this story of the workers in the vineyard seems
to be Jesus’ comment on his meaning. “So the last will be first, and the first will be
last” (v. 16). Here he’s letting us in on one of the most important truths of the whole
gospel. We might call it the principle of the great reversal. God will turn things upside
down at the final judgment. Jesus is telling us here how things really are in the Kingdom
of God, which means how they really will be one day in the new creation that God is
bringing to pass. He’s telling us that God rejects the world’s value system; in fact he
turns it on its head, redefining success and failure. The people who thought they were
winners are actually losers, and the losers win; the last are first and the first last.
Jesus wants to challenge some of our most basic assumptions, things his listeners would
have believed unquestioningly, like the fact that their religion assured them of God’s
favor. Jesus’ original hearers were certain that they had a lock on first place in the
kingdom, and that Gentiles, who were not part of the covenant, didn’t belong in the
vineyard at all. Doesn’t that sound uncomfortably like the attitude of some church
Most of the people in Jesus’ audience were also sure that long and faithful service
entitles you to privileged treatment in the kingdom. Well, most of us do too, don’t we?
But Jesus says that the judgment is going to reveal many surprising twists. Some who
thought they were first with God will be put at the end of the line, or maybe even shut
out altogether, while others who thought they were far from him will be brought near in
Shouldn’t that make us stop and think long and hard about our own assumptions? Maybe we
need to reconsider what we think about winning and losing in life, about who is first and
who is last. Our culture believes — and frankly does a pretty good job of convincing
most of us — that the winners are those who finish first, who do more, accomplish
more, get more, spend more, pass on more. Winning is the bottom line, and doing whatever
it takes is the secret of success. As baseball great Leo Durocher once said, “Nice guys
But if the gospel is true, then life isn’t about winning according to the world’s
rules. It’s about salvation. It’s about coming to know God through his grace, and becoming
what Jesus is.
So here’s the point: many who appear to be last actually are first in God’s eyes, and
the first may be last. And that’s not just in the world, it’s also in the church. How many
times, in how many ways, must he tell us? It’s poor Lazarus who is taken to Abraham’s
bosom, while the rich man goes to hell; the young prodigal is embraced by the father, but
the cold-hearted, ever-so-proper elder brother stands off by himself. The prostitutes and
tax collectors welcome Jesus and eat with him, even as the scribes and Pharisees judge and
You know, in the kingdom, it’s all grace; it really is. So lighten up! Accept God’s
lavish generosity for yourself, and rejoice when other undeserving folks receive it too.
And always, always be thankful.