Matthew 20:1-16 - God’s Fair Play
Matthew 20:1) “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2) After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3) When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4) and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5) When he went out again about noon and about 3 o’clock, he did the same. 6) And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7) They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8) When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9) When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10) Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11) And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12) saying, ‘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.’ 13) But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14) Take what belongs to you and go; I chose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15) Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? 16) So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Background: This parable follows on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples about who will be able to enter God’s kingdom. They are still concerned about whether or not they are ‘good’ enough to please God. They have given up a lot to follow Jesus and are still fearful that maybe they have paid this high price and will still not ‘make it in.’ Jesus goes on to tell them that all will be well AND that the realm of God is different from what they think. In God’s household they will not be ranked according to their good deeds, nor according to their longevity in following Jesus. Rather, they will be included and valued simply out of God’s mercy and generosity. A second concern that Matthew’s church may have wrestled with was resentment toward those who were coming into the movement later and had not had to survive the really hard times of the early years. To help his followers get a grip on that problem, Jesus tells today’s story.
What is a parable? The English word ‘parable’ comes from the Greek word ‘parabole’. It literally means ‘to place alongside.’ A parable is a story or image that compares one thing to another and invites the hearer to reflect on some aspect of the life of faith. They are not simply illustrations, however. An illustration is told to reinforce a speaker’s point. A parable is the point. In a parable the language and images themselves communicate insight about God, God’s kingdom and the response expected of those who hear. Some think that Jesus used parables to simplify hard truths. The reality is, though, that many of the parables themselves were difficult to understand or so shocking that people were befuddled by them. Many of the parables have an unexpected twist that leaves people aghast. The point is to make people think and to question their assumptions.
What is the Kingdom of Heaven? Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” in the same way the other gospel writers use the phrase “Kingdom of God”. The different words were a matter of cultural and religious sensitivity in Matthew’s church. Both phrases refer not so much to a place, as a condition. The Kingdom of Heaven is what happens when people are ruled by God’s values and priorities. It can happen anywhere at any time, both in the here and now, and throughout eternity. The Kingdom happens when God rules and where God rules. It happens within the world but also fundamentally apart from the world.
Vs. 1 – to hire laborers for his vineyard – Most large landowners had full-time servants to oversee daily operations. It was common during harvest time to take on day laborers to help bring in the crop. Men looking for work gathered early in the morning in the town square where owners, or their overseers, came to contract with them for the day.
Vs. 2 – agreeing – this term implies a negotiated agreement. The first workers entered into the traditional bargaining for wages and came out with a fair wage that they agreed upon.
Usual daily wage – lit. denarius. This was a fair subsistence wage.
Vs. 3 – standing idle – by this time (9.00 a.m.) if workers were not hired it was unlikely that they would find work that day. Many men waited all day in hope and also in solidarity.
Marketplace – the central gathering place for the village
Vs. 4 – I will pay you whatever is right – these workers do not haggle for a wage. They are glad for the work and trust that the landowner will do right by them. They are at his mercy. By saying he will do what is right, the landowner agrees not to exploit them.
Noon, 3:00 p.m. – It was very unusual for a landowner to still be looking for workers this late in the day. Perhaps somehow the crop was in danger. More likely the landowner is more concerned for the workers than the crop.
Vs. 6 – 5:00 p.m. – literally the 11th hour. Jesus’ hearers would have been completely dumbstruck that workers would be hired with only one hour left to labor before dusk.
Vs. 8 – when evening came – dusk – workers worked approximately 12 hours of daylight.
Vs. 12 – you have made them equal to us – the first laborers are scandalized because they assume a system where reward is based on merit. It is not that way in the kingdom.
Vs. 13 – friend – an ironic use of the word.
I am doing you no wrong – the landowner reminds them that he is not being unjust. They are getting just what they asked for. Because he is also generous to others does not mean he his being unfair to them.
Vs. 15 – Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? – the laborers are not in a position to tell the landowner how to manage his affairs.
Envious – lit. ‘Is your eye evil because I am good? – jealousy changes the way we view ourselves and others.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. With whom do you most identify in the story? The landowner? The first hired? The last hired? How does your perspective change what you get out of this parable?
2. What does this parable tell you about the character of God?
3. How do you think this parable applies to the church? Are those who have come lately entitled to the same consideration as those who have been around forever?
Spiritual Tool Box
This week make a concerted effort to notice any time that you feel jealous or unjustly treated. Is there a real injustice here? Are you unable to celebrate the good things that happen to others? Make a list in your journal of times that you have grumbled and complained this week. Ask God for guidance and to give you a generous spirit.