Labourers in the Vineyard
- Main Text: Matthew 20:1-16
- Accompanying text: Psalm 16:5-8
What this passage means to us
“From the viewpoint of one moment in time, there are great inequalities in life. Some individuals seem to go ahead…others seem destined to much waiting about and looking on…According to the parable, they will all be called in their due place in the great undertaking although it may be at the ninth or eleventh hour. To the mind of the employee who sees only the present moment, it is most unfair” .
Matthew has shown already how Jesus challenged the status quo and upset the apple-cart of religious convention. Jesus is King, and all authority is his, and he is advancing his kingdom. But, is all of this fair? How are we to understand this parable, and how do we apply this understanding? Calvin explained it in terms of a warning against being over-confident because we have begun the Christian journey well. Irenaeus saw the various groups of workers as the OT faithful and the last called as the disciples. Others say the comparison is between the Israelites and the Gentiles. Or perhaps, it’s about the age when we are called…some in infancy, some in youth, some in adulthood, some in in old age.
Do we feel that life, or God, is unfair because our share of trials seems greater than that of others? Do we harden our hearts towards those who, we feel, have a better lot in life than we have, especially when it seems we work harder and longer? Would it not have been easier had we been called later in life, and then we could have had a quick death-bed repentance? When we compare ourselves among ourselves, we can get jealous because God is so generous. That’s the concept in this parable in which the landowner pays all the labourers the same amount irrespective of when they began to work. Those who have worked longer complain, and the landowner’s response is, “are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13). Let’s say that someone has been a Christian for forty years and another just for one year when Jesus returns to give each of them eternal life in full, is that cause for complaint? Note the English Standard Version, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
There’s no place for jealousy and envy in the Christian life. Paul tells us, “Let us not become vainglorious and self-conceited, competitive and challenging and provoking and irritating to one another, envying and being jealous of one another” (Galatians 5:26 AMPC).
Context and Story-line
Matthew records the mounting hostility of the religious élite towards Jesus and his teachings. If only they could catch him out in some way, then the scribes and Pharisees could win back their status in the eyes of the people. “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’” (Matthew 19:3). Was it a genuine question, or did they intend to entrap Jesus into a perceived contradiction of the law of Moses, and thereby find grounds to report him to the Sanhedrin? Or was the plan to get him to speak out against the divorce of Herod Antipas, in whose territory Jesus was? Judaism itself was divided on the subject of divorce, with the liberals saying a man could divorce on any grounds, even for his wife’s over-salting his food, while the more conservative rabbis thought such ideas odious. Jesus confounds them by appealing to the Genesis account of the marriage vows, which pre-dated the Mosaic law. The rabbis had taught that to be granted a divorce was a special privilege conferred to the Jews by God, but Jesus refutes that idea and calls it a concession because their “hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). The hardness of the hearts was an accusation, and it also described how the religious leaders had hardened their hearts against what Jesus was teaching. It would not have gone unnoticed. Matthew goes on to explain how his own disciples had hardened their hearts against receiving young children into Jesus’ company. Had they not listened to anything Jesus had said? That they should “become like little children” (Matthew 18:3)? The disciples thought that children were not important enough to claim Jesus’ attention, and Jesus rebuked the disciples for their approach. The next event creates a context for the parable of the labourer in the field. Just after Jesus had blessed the children, a young “man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him” (Mark 10:17), and he posed a question, which, on the surface of it, seems innocent enough, but it was a loaded question. Luke records that he was a “ruler” (Luke 18:18), meaning a member of the Sanhedrin or the ruler of a local synagogue. Maybe it was a setup, and the older leaders had put him up to it. “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”, he asked (Matthew 19:16). Would Jesus say something different from the obvious answer, which would have been that he should keep the law? To paraphrase Christ’s response, “You know the scriptures”, he says, and then he begins to quote the commandments that link to loving one’s neighbour. “Been there, done that” says the young man. But, Jesus continues, if you really love your neighbour, why not sell what you have and give it to the poor? Mark alone records the emotional reaction of Jesus to the young man’s dilemma, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). The seductive power of wealth won over, the young man goes away, his heart also hardened. “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”, Jesus says (Matthew 19:24). The mystified disciples, perhaps still reeling from being told off over their reaction to the little children, “were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Matthew 19:25). With God all things are possible, Jesus replies. “Peter answered him, ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus proceeds to talk about what happens when the kingdom is restored in its fulness, and he tells them the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. Compared to their forefathers in the faith, the disciples are among those who are last in time, but they shall be among the first to receive salvation. To put it in its context, the parable can be viewed as part of Jesus’ reply to Peter. Who are we to question God’s generous grace to all people, be they first or last to respond to his calling? Jesus proceeded on his way to Jerusalem. “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!’ (Matthew 20:18-19), he told the disciples, but their minds were on other things. It was as if they had not listened to or understood the parable of the labourers. “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom’” (Matthew 20:20-21). Selfish ambition, envy and jealousy once again.
- Galatians 5:26
- Hebrews 12:1-2
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Evelyn Francis Capel, The Timeless Storyteller (London, UK: Temple Lodge Publishing, 1995). 82.