When Peter reacted to the unbelief of the rich young ruler by reminding Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow Jesus but were still wondering, “What then will we have?” Jesus answered by promising Peter rewards. “You who have followed me will … sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” However, God will be no man’s debtor.
But debtor is not quite the word to describe what is going on in this passage. Debt implies obligation, that God owes us something. It was what Peter meant when he asked, “What then will there be for us?” Actually, God owes us nothing, and whatever we receive from him we receive only because He is gracious. To make sure the disciples understood this concept, Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard. This parable occurs only in Matthew, where it serves to illustrate the principle of Matthew 19.30 (“many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”). This idea is repeated at the story’s close.
The parable itself is quite simple. A landowner needed men to work in his vineyard, so he went out early in the morning and hired all the workers he could find. He agreed to pay them a denarius, a normal day’s wage, for their work. About nine o’clock he went out again and found other workers. He hired them too, but this time there was no set wage. He merely said, “I will pay you whatever is right.” The new workers agreed with that arrangement and soon joined the others. The owner did the same thing at noon, at three in the afternoon, and at five o’clock, just one hour before quitting time.
At the end of the day he paid the workers, beginning with those he had hired last. He gave each one in that group a denarius, and so on with those hired at three o’clock, noon, and at nine in the morning. At last he came to those he had hired first. By that time they were rubbing their hands together happily, supposing that if those who had worked less than they had worked were being paid a denarius, they would receive more. But the owner paid them a denarius too, and they complained. The owner replied, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?”
The parable is followed by a statement that is close to the one that ended the previous chapter: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It is a version of one of Jesus’ favorite themes, appearing also in Matthew 18.4; 23.12; Luke 14.11; 18.14. Matthew 23.12 is a bit different but similar. It reads, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The story itself is clear enough, but that does not mean it is without difficulties. The first difficulty is that it presents us with an admittedly strange situation. We have a businessman who pays people who work only one hour the same wage he pays those who work all day. We may say, as he does, that the pay for the full day’s work is fair. That may be true, but what businessman operates that way? It seems irrational. It produces labor problems. More than that, it is bad business. A person who operated in this manner would soon be bankrupt.
But there is a further difficulty: The payment to the workers seems unjust. We may be reluctant to say it, knowing that the owner of the vineyard is God and that God is always just, regardless of what we may think. But still the procedure seems unjust. Why should those who were hired later be paid the same as those who were hired at the start of the day? Why shouldn’t those who worked longer be paid more?
Many have attempted to interpret the parable so as to eliminate these difficulties, but the interpretations do not work. Some have suggested that those who began early in the day did not work well. They took extended coffee breaks and talked on the job. They knocked off for two and a half hours at lunch. Those who worked a shorter day worked harder. They accomplished as much in their one, four, or seven hours as the early risers did in their twelve hours. It was a simple case of equal pay for equal work. Unfortunately, nothing in the story indicates that we should interpret it this way, and much goes against it. If nothing else, the concluding words stress the generosity of the owner and not his accurate evaluation of the quality or quantity of the work that had been done.
Others have suggested that the coins were different. In one case it was a gold denarius, in another silver, in another bronze, and so on. Still others have supposed that the parable teaches there are no rewards in heaven and that ultimately it will not matter how much or how little we do for Jesus. The problem with that view is that other texts teach there will be rewards and our work does matter.
So how are we to understand this parable? At the very least it is a story intended to teach about the grace of God in salvation.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org