All of the parables of Jesus had an element of shock to them, but the effect of the Parable of the Vineyeard (Matthew 20) would probably have left people more stunned than any parable they had heard so far. The parable speaks of a group of workers who were hired to do a job. Some worked for a long time, while others came in at the eleventh hour, yet they were all paid the same amount. The workers who were hired first thought they would be paid more than those who came later, but they weren’t.
Jesus Himself taught elsewhere that a worker deserves his wages (see Luke 10:7). We know that God notices when people don’t treat their employees right: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). God knows when we are not being paid what we deserve. Yet here is a parable that seems to contradict that idea.
In Jesus’ time, a working day might have been as long as 12 hours. Manual workers would often have worked from dawn till dusk. We know that the people in the parable who began working at dawn agreed to work for one denarius—the standard pay at that time. But then more people came in at the third hour (around nine o’clock in the morning), and they agreed to receive whatever was right—that is the way it was put (Matthew 20:4–5). At noon some more arrived. At three o’clock still others came, and they also agreed to be paid whatever was right. Then at five o’clock, which would have been the eleventh hour if they stopped at six o’clock, the owner of the vineyard went out and found still more people standing around and 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’” (Matthew 20:6–7).
Despite the differing starting times, when they were paid, all the workers received the same wage. Naturally, this seems unfair to us, and it would seem logical that those who had worked the longest should get paid the most—or at least those who worked the least should receive a bit less. The workers in the parable grumbled about the situation but were rebuked by the vineyard owner, who got the last word. He pointed out that each man had agreed to work for the stated wage, and that it was his right as the owner to pay each man the same if he wished to. Then he cut to the heart of the matter:
“Are you envious because I am generous?… The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:15–16).
A Sovereign God ?Jesus did not give this parable in order to teach us about economics. This is not God’s view on how a nation should be run. Neither does the parable teach about equality, although we all have equal standing before God.
The topic is not efficiency—as if those who came in at the last hour somehow got more done and were entitled to a relatively higher wage. What this parable is teaching are the principles of the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 20:1). We see here that God’s ways are different than ours.
“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8–9).
The parable is about God’s sovereignty. He has the right to do what He wants with His resources. In fact, Kingdom rewards depend only on His sovereign grace.
The anointing comes by grace alone. God said to Moses many years before, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). ...?
Why Is This Parable Important?
This parable teaches that we must learn to live within our anointing and not look over our shoulders, asking, "Well, what about him? What about her?" We all have an anointing. Not everyone in the body of Christ will be used by God in the same way. We shouldn’t look at those with a higher profile and desire to function in their role. This is exactly what happened to Simon Peter when Jesus told him how he was going to die. Peter asked, "Well, if this is the way I am going to die, what about him?" (He was referring to John.) Jesus said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me" (John 21:22).
We all have a particular inheritance, and we all have our anointing. You may wish you had the anointing of another person, or you may even wish you were another person. Perhaps you wish you had lived in another day or that you had a different job. This parable is about living within the gifting God has given you and not looking over your shoulder.
This parable is also about the gospel of grace. It shows the sheer, outrageous grace of God. We are all saved by God’s grace, as Paul wrote: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8–9).
This means that the greatest sinner who may have lived the most wicked life can be forgiven by God and be acquitted of his sins, just the same as a child who comes to the Lord without having had much opportunity to sin. God could take an Adolf Hitler or an Al Capone and convert them as easily as converting a six-year-old boy. He can convert anyone because in one stroke the blood of Christ washes away all our sins. A person who receives Christ on their deathbed will go to heaven just as quickly as one who has been serving the Lord faithfully for 60 years. The scandal of the New Testament is that a person can live a righteous life— be moral, upright, highly respected and so forth, and yet still end up in hell.
Sometimes when I used to walk around Westminster Abbey in London and think of all the people who are honored there, I would wonder, Where they are now? What if they are in hell? Yet the most wicked person can receive the Lord and then go straight to heaven.
Interpretations of the Parable
There are various ways in which this parable may be applied. Take, for example, the way in which God chooses to use His servants for various tasks. You and I may bear the heat of the day having worked in God’s vineyard for years and years, then some "unknown" person turns up and God uses them for a much more prestigious task than ours! God can do that. Look, for instance, at Saul of Tarsus. Imagine how sore Peter, James and John must have felt about him—suddenly appearing on the scene and yet rising so quickly to a very high profile in the Church. It must have really gotten their goat.
Paul was one who came in at the eleventh hour. The disciples had worked hard—they had followed Jesus for three years, and they had been spoon-fed His teaching. Then Paul, born with a silver spoon in his mouth (which probably made matters worse), who had sat at the feet of the famous teacher Gamaliel, got saved and was used by God to write two-thirds of the New Testament. Those of us who think we have labored hard and done everything God told us to do need to be aware that God could raise up somebody else for whatever task He has in mind.
Another way the parable can be applied is to those who experience revival. Perhaps you belong to a church that has prayed faithfully for revival to come for years and years, and yet has never seen a move of God. Then perhaps a recently established neighbouring church begins to pray, and within a month the Spirit is poured out in revival. You may hear about it and think, Is there no justice in this world? God says, "Look, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious." He can do that.
This parable can also be applied to those who get in on what God suddenly decides to do. Here is an example. Imagine your church has been praying for revival. One day it breaks out, and everyone rejoices. A week or two later, crowds begin to flock into your church. They get it on what is happening, even though they had no part in praying for it to come about. They didn’t toil in prayer alongside you, but nevertheless they are getting all the benefit of the move of God. It would be tempting for any longstanding member to think, Who are these people? They don’t deserve to get in on this—we are the ones who have waited for this! If revival does come to your church, I can assure you that that will happen. Like it or not, other people will get in on the act.
Another way this parable can be applied is to our rewards in heaven. There are those who have been Christians for years who could, at the end of the day, be saved only by fire. This is because although they have been Christians for years, they built on the wrong foundation—instead of gold, silver and precious stones, they built on wood, hay and stubble. They are saved, but only by fire, which means they will have no reward. Then there are those who have been converted for only a short period of time, but who will get a reward in heaven. You can say that it’s not fair, but that is exactly what the workers said in the parable (Matthew 20:11–12). I expect there will be people in heaven who get a reward whom I didn’t think would get anything. And there will be people in heaven saved by fire whom I thought would have a reward.
Last, we are all like the eleventh-hour person sooner or later and in one way or another. Perhaps you always read this parable and think of someone else coming in at the eleventh hour. I want you to know, you will most certainly be seen that way by somebody else. Many of us know what it is to reap what we didn’t sow. If you ever think, Well, I didn’t actually deserve that, you are an eleventh-hour person too—never forget it.
"‘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 in the heat of the day’" (Matthew 20:12). These men, the complainers, thought they were a cut above those who had gotten in at five o’clock in the evening. Some of us, if we are not careful, will feel this way too because we have been very faithful and have worked hard. It is easy to develop a self-righteous spirit and think, even unconsciously, that you are a cut above others.
Grace and Justice
This parable calls for grace and justice. The workers were given a job—that is grace. They must have felt very fortunate, or they wouldn’t have agreed to it. When God has given us work to do, we feel blessed. It is a high honour to be chosen and to be given an anointing to work in God’s vineyard. But they were not only given a job; they were also given justice. "The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius… When those came who were hired first… each of them also received a denarius" (Matthew 20:9–10).
You may say, "How is justice served when people come in at the eleventh hour and get paid the same amount?" This is the way in which God can be just and merciful at the same time. Justice means that we deserve to be punished. Mercy means that God doesn’t want to punish us. But when Jesus died on the cross, His blood satisfied divine justice, so now God can save those who come in at the eleventh hour just as quickly as those who have been converted for most of their lives.
Finally, the workers are given a judgment. The landowner said, "Take your pay and go. If I want to give the same amount to somebody who has arrived in the last five minutes I can do that. Don’t I have a right to do what I want with my money?" (Matthew 20:14–15). That is judgment. God can do what He wants with each of us. Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’
Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? Romans 9:20–21 God says, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (Exodus 33:19). God can do what He wants with His fallen creation, because His judgment is right. This parable is about the grace of God and how He sovereignly bestows it upon different people in different ways. Ultimately God decides. My duty and yours is to let God be God.