Matthew 20:1-16

Maybe you remember this old line: A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.

Our notions of justice usually cannot help but be influenced by our own circumstances and by our opinions about what we and others deserve. We insist justice has to do with equality, but a lot of time it’s a word we toss around to keep people and things we don’t like at bay.

And then along came Jesus, eager to mess even more with our regular attitudes about what’s right and fair.

It’s a story about Generosity

Maybe no other words attributed to Jesus’ cause as much offense to ethical calculations as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. He compares “the kingdom of heaven,” or the way things are when God sets the standards, to a situation in which hardworking, reliable people get shafted. Or do they?

This story starts with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19: 16-24, then Peter’s question in Matthew 19: 27. Jesus responds with this Parable: early in the morning, a landowner hires people to work in his vineyard for the standard daily wage. He hires additional people at 9am, noon, and 3pm and again at 5pm, telling each of these groups he wills them “whatever is right.” When the hot workday ends, he first pays the folks who labored only a single hour the standard daily wage, the same amount he pledged to those who worked nearly sunup to sunset. When the members of the full-day crew get to the front of the line, they receive the same amount, exactly what they were promised.


The full-day workers are understandably resentful. We aren’t told how the one-hour shift responds. Maybe they hustled back to their homes thinking the land owner might have a change of heart.

Meanwhile, dismayed accountants back in the vineyard probably start updating their resume`s.

The actions of the landowner are all kinds of crazy. They make no sense, at least from an economic perspective. Yet that’s the point. Jesus’ parables often include absurd behavior to deliver their message, which in this case is a characterization of what it means to call God “righteous” or “just.” When the landowner promises to pay “whatever is right,” his words mean “whatever is just.”

It’s a Parable about God’s Graciousness

So excessive is God’s tendency to give and care, it violates our instincts about fairness. Such justice looks rash. It almost makes God out as inattentive to the kinds of people who, just by going about their usual business, easily exceed humanity’s lowest common denominators for effort, morality and piety.

But, then again, the landowner does give the complaining workers exactly what he promised them.

It’s a story about people in need

We learn more about God when we travel deeper into the world the parable imagines and considers its other characters.

We have to ask about who receives extravagance from the landowner. Some may say that working in the fields is an allegory for serving God or toiling away in the ministries of the church. But those who are hired a 5pm suggests to me types of people other than those who sleep in on Sunday mornings.

After all, this parable draws all its force and illustrative potential from the dynamics of economic life. Whom, then, should we think the landowner encounters when he’s looking for workers late in the afternoon? What kind of people are the last to find jobs, added to the rolls only when there’s no more labor available? Nothing suggests that those characters in the parable are irresponsible or lazy. More likely, they are unwanted.

Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired but doesn’t find success until the end of the day? In Jesus’ time, these would be the weak, infirm, and disabled, maybe the elderly also. And other targets of discrimination, such as criminals or anyone with a bad reputation.

A God who is “just,” is inclined to show special generosity to the poor and outcast. No wonder the respectable people get anxious.

It’s a story about value

In the end, it’s not about unfair payments. At the parable’s conclusion, the full-day workers don’t moan that they have been cheated. They complain instead to the landowner, “You have made them (the one-hour workers) equal to us.”

It’s not the generosity or extravagance that makes them angry. Rather, the issue is this: By dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their value and worth.

The landowner’s undue kindness thus denies the full-day laborers the bonus they think they can claim: a sense of privilege or superiority.

Discussion Questions:

 What is this parable about?

  • The parable makes it clear that the workers enter the kingdom of heaven when they are hired by the field owner. We enter the kingdom of heaven when God calls us and we accept his call.
  • Jesus uses an allegory. He compares the soon to come eternal reward process with the earthly reward process.

Who is the landowner?

  • The landowner in the allegory owns the field as God owns the earth. Both have absolute rights to do as they please.

Where and how did he get workers?

  • In the marketplace the workers are Christians, those who are true believers in Jesus.
  • We all have a job to do.
  • This world is God’s vineyard. He is raising fruit.

What can we learn here about God’s initiative of grace? (Matthew 9:9)

  • “Who went out” -This parable makes it clear that God is the one who initiates entrance into his kingdom. God calls us when we are still sinners (against God).
  • “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, and they will be like wool.  (Isaiah 1:18)

What did the owner of the vineyard pay the workers?

  • “He agreed to pay them” -Through this parable and many more Jesus is making a “contract” with us. An older term for contract is “covenant”. Jesus is making a binding agreement with us.
  • Jesus takes this contract seriously, we should too. Living according to the contract is living by faith in his words of promise. He promises to pay us.

What does this suggest about God who supplies our needs?

  • “His vineyard” When workers agreed to work in the field the owner agreed to supply their needs too. God provides what we need to do the work from his field

What did he agree to pay them?

  • He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”
  • “Whatever is right” Jesus is a fair and trustworthy owner. He will pay exactly according to what is right. We can trust him.

What can we learn here about God’s generosity?

  • Jesus gives freely and as we do not deserve. God is sovereign.
  • Those who worked all day received the blessing of working. Those who were hired last did not feel love and acceptance.

Sovereignty in this parable:

  • God initiates by looking for the worker
  • God calls
  • God sets the wages
  • God gives the task
  • God calls the workers in
  • God gives the pay

Paul Tanner August 21, 2013