Matthew 20(01–16)


We come today to this parable which is only found in Matthew’s gospel. However, it’s connected to the previous passage by means of the repetition of the saying that ‘the last will be first and the first will be last’. Do you see how that saying appears in verse 30 at the end of the previous passage and in verse 16 at the end of today’s passage?

The previous passage began with the story of the rich young ruler who wanted to know what he had to do to get eternal life. And it became clear that he was trying to climb up to God by his own good deeds. He had clearly lived a good life, because he said that he had kept God’s commandments since he was a child. But it’s clear too that he still thought there was something missing: there was still some good thing which he lacked; and he wanted the Lord to tell him what it was so that he could do it and get eternal life. So, what must I do?

But we do not get eternal life by the things we do. Eternal life is not something we deserve or can earn. Eternal life is something we receive from God as his free gift to all who trust in Son, who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us. Salvation is not something we earn, but it’s something which God graciously and freely gives to us.

And the Lord’s saying at the end of the previous passage makes clear the upside down nature of God’s kingdom. Many of those who are regarded as first and foremost in this life – the proud and rich and successful — will end up being in the worst possible position in the life to come, whereas many of those who are regarded as being last in this life — the humble believer who trusts in Christ — will end up being in the best possible position in the life to come. And this is because salvation is not something we earn and deserve, but it’s something which God gives to all who trust in the Saviour.

And that’s the point of the parable in today’s passage, because while the parable is known as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the focus of the parable is not on the workers; the focus of the parable is on the landowner and it’s about his freedom to do what he likes with his money. Just as the landowner wanted to be generous with his workers, so God is generous with us and he give eternal life to us as a free gift which we cannot earn.

Verses 1 and 2

And so, the Lord tells us in verse 1 that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. It was probably around 6am. And we’re told in verse 2 that after gathering some men together, he agreed to pay them a denarius for the day. That was apparently the standard rate for a day labourer in those days. And the landowner sent them out to work in his vineyard. So far, there’s nothing unusual about what the Lord describes.

Verses 3 to 7

However, we’re then told in verse 3 that the landowner went out at the third hour. The third hour was roughly 9am. And he saw more men standing around the market place. The market place was the place where men who were looking for work gathered. But these men were doing nothing. No one had hired them. Perhaps they’d arrived at the market after the landowner’s first visit at 6am. But he was willing to hire them now. And so, he told them to go and work in his vineyard and he said that he would pay them whatever is right. He doesn’t mention a figure, but they are willing to accept that he’ll give them a fair wage for their labour.

And then the Lord tells us in verse 5 that the landowner went out again at the sixth hour and ninth hour. That’s around noon and 3pm. And he did the same thing. That is, he must have seen more men who were standing around with the hands in their pockets, doing nothing. And he hired them and sent them to work in his vineyard.

And according to verse 6 it’s now the eleventh hour. So, it’s around 5pm. Most of the day has gone. Most of the work has been done. But the man went out again and found some more men with their hands in their pockets, doing nothing. Before hiring them, he asked them why they’ve been standing there all day long doing nothing? And they answered it was because no one hired them. We don’t know why no one had been willing to hire them. But the landowner was prepared to hire them now and to send them into his vineyard, even though the day was almost over and most of the work had already been done by those who were hired earlier.

Verses 8 to 12

And when the evening came and it was time to stop work and pay the workers, the landowner told his foreman to call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired.

And so, the ones who were hired at the eleventh hour came forward and each received a denarius, which was the rate for a day’s labour. When those who were hired first saw that those who were hired last received a denarius, they began to think that they were bound to get more. After all, that’s how things work in the world, isn’t it? Someone who works a full day expects to receive more than someone who only works part of the day. That’s what we expect. That seems only fair to us. You get what you deserve and the person who works more deserves to get more than the person who works less.

But — the Lord tells us — each of the workers received the same amount. They all received one denarius whether they were hired last or hired first, whether they worked a little or whether they worked a lot. Each received the same amount.

And according to verse 11, whenever those workers who worked longer received their pay, they began to grumble against the landowner. And they didn’t just grumble once, but they began to grumble and they continued to grumble. They were not happy at all. And they began to speak out and to complain, saying that the men who were hired last only worked for one hour; and yet, the landowner has made them equal to the ones who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day. When the sun was at its hottest in the middle of the day, they were in the vineyard, working away. And they had done most of the work. And these latecomers have been treated the same as them! It’s not fair. That’s what they’re thinking. We deserve more than them.

And, of course, if we were in the shoes, we’d probably be thinking the same thing, because this is the way we all think. We all think that we should get what we deserve. The person who works less deserves less; and the person who works more deserves more. That’s what we expect. But it’s not what this landowner did, because the landowner stands for God, who is merciful and gracious and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and who does not deal with us according to our sins and who does not repay us according to our iniquities. In other words, God does not give us what we deserve, because what we deserve is to be condemned as sinners and punished for all that we have done wrong. That’s what we all deserve, because all have sinned and we’ve all come short of God’s glory. But God does not give us what we deserve, but he graciously and freely gives us eternal life in his presence for the sake of Christ.

Verses 13 to 15

And so, in the parable, the landowner answered his critics. He said to them in verse 13: ‘Friend….’ He’s about to correct them, but by calling them ‘friend’, he’s doing so gently. He’s got a smile on his face as he rebukes them. And he makes the point that he’s not being unfair to them, because right at the beginning of the day they agreed that they would work for him for a denarius. If he had paid them less then a denarius, then they had a right to complain. But he had given them the agreed amount. He was fair with them. And so, don’t stand around complaining and grumbling, but take your pay and go.

And then he said: ‘I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.’ And the important words there are ‘I want’ and ‘give’. So, he was not compelled to do this. He was not obligated to do it. He was not being forced to do it. He wanted to do it. And what he wanted to do was to give the same amount to them. It was his gift to them.

And the landowner went on to say: ‘Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?’ He’s free to do what he wants with his money; and he’s able to be as generous as he wants to be with whomever he wants.

And the NIV translates his last words as ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ More literally, he’s asking if their eye is evil because he is good. In those days, the expression ‘to have an evil eye’ meant to be unwilling to help those in need. We might say that someone with an evil eye turned a blind eye to the needs of the poor. But the landowner was not prepared to turn a blind eye to those men whom he hired late in the day. Instead of turning a blind eye to them, he wanted to be generous to them. By contrast, the workers who were hired first did not want him to be generous to them; they wanted him to turn a blind eye to them.

And that perhaps helps us to understand why the landowner was willing to go out at 9am and at noon and at 3pm and at 5pm and hire those men who had not yet been hired. It’s not that he was desperate for more workers. It’s not that the job was too big and he needed more help to get it done. No, he had gone out and he saw these men who had not yet been hired. And if no one hired them, they they would have earned no money that day. And if they had no money that day, how could they feed themselves and their families? And so, by hiring them and by paying them a day’s wage, which they did not earn, he was being kind and generous and good to them.

And the landowner stands for God, because do you remember what the Lord Jesus said back in verse 17 of the previous chapter? The rich young ruler asked him what good thing he must do to get eternal life. And the Lord said: ‘There is only One who is good.’ He was referring to God. Only God is good. And therefore the landowner in the parable stands for God, because the landowner was good like God.

And God, who is good, saw us in our need, because all of us are sinners who deserve to be condemned and punished forever; and we needed someone to save us from the punishment we deserve. And God, who is good, sent his Son to pay for our sins with his life and to cleanse us with his blood. God was not forced to send his Son to save us. He was not obligated to do it. No one had to twist his arm. He did it because that was his will and because he wanted to save us and he wanted to give us eternal life. And so, he deals with us according to his grace and his kindness and his goodness and not according to what we deserve.

Verse 16

And so, the last will be first and the first will be last. In the context of the parable, the first who became last were the workers who were hired first, but who were paid last and who complained about the landowner’s goodness. And the last who became first were the workers who were hired last, but who were paid first and who experienced the landowner’s goodness for themselves. And they stand for all those who receive eternal life from God, not as something which they get by their own good deeds, but as his free gift to them which they did not deserve and could not earn.