The Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matthew 20) starts with Peter asking Jesus a question in Matthew 19:27, “Look, we have left everything and followed You. So, what will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them,
“I assure you, at the renewal of all things (Messianic Age, in some translations) when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses, brothers or sisters, father or mother, children, or fields because of My name will receive 100 times more and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
What did He mean? He explains it in Matthew 20;
In the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, Jesus starts by saying “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”. When we see a passage start with “for”, we need to ask ourselves, “what is the for there for”? In this passage, the ‘for’ indicates that what is being said refers back to what was just said previously; namely Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27 and the beginning part of Jesus’ answer in Matthew 19:28-30. In Matthew 20, Jesus is elaborating on what He had just said and that is what “the ‘for’ is there for”. That is, the Parable of the Vineyard Workers is a continuation of the explanation given by Jesus to Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27.
So let’s start off with what was Peter’s initial question and the answer that Jesus gave as it relates directly to the context of the entire parable in Matthew 20.
It is very important when coming to any passage of Scripture to seek to understand the context of that passage. Just before Peter’s question, the topic being discussed in Matthew 19:16-26 was treasure in heaven versus treasure on earth. It was into this context that Peter asks Jesus
“we” (i.e. the disciples) have left everything and followed You. What will there be for us?
Jesus replies by saying that in the age to come, the disciples will sit on 12 thrones and judge the 12 Tribes of Israel. This could be a whole article in and by itself, but we will not get bogged down in the details. Suffice to say that when Jesus says in verse 28 of Chapter 19 “at the renewal of all things” and when He says “when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne”, He is referring to post Judgement Day, the New Heavens and New Earth i.e. tikkun olum — the restoration of all that is broken. For more details, see Daniel 7:13-14 and multiple places in Isaiah chapter 60 – 66.
The focus of what Jesus says in Matthew 20, is based on what He said in verse 30 of Matthew 19;
“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus continues, elaborating in Matthew 20 using terminology the disciples would have been very familiar with and which needed no explanation as it comes from the Prophets, in the Tanakh (Old Testament).
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard…”
Jesus is playing off of imagery proscribed to God as a Vineyard-Keeper outlined in Isaiah 5:1-7 (which would be helpful to read, if you don’t already know it well). Verse 7 of Isaiah 5 reads;
“For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah,
the vines He delighted in.”
The Vineyard-Keeper is God and the vineyard is the house of Israel and the disciples would have understood Jesus’ parable in this context.
Knowing this, let’s look at the parable, itself.
A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius (a day’s wage) for the day and sent them into his vineyard. It is important to understand that a standard workday was 12 hours, from 6 am – 6 pm, so this would have been at 6 am.
Another thing that is important to understand is that the landowner told the first group of labourers exactly what He was going to give them in advance. There were no surprises.
In verse 3, the landowner goes to the market-place again at 9 am and hires more workers and says to them that he will pay them “whatever is right.” So the workers went. Then he goes to the market-place again at noon and again at 3 in the afternoon and does the same thing. There is nothing remarkable about these 3 groups, which is why it is phrased that way.
Finally, at 5 pm (an hour before the workday ends), the landowner went to the marketplace one last time and found others standing around not working and asked them why they have been standing around all day doing nothing. They reply “Because no one has hired us”. These were the workers that no one wanted. This group, like the first group he hired were highlighted, because there is something unique about the first group and the last group.
The landowner says to this last group;
“You also go and work in my vineyard.”
An hour later at 6 pm, the workday was over.
Then the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” This is the focus of the whole parable.
Going back to what Jesus said at the end of Matthew 19, at the restoration of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, those who come into the kingdom of heaven last will be rewarded first and those that were in the kingdom from the beginning will be addressed last. Hence, the 12 disciples will receive their reward and be sitting on their 12 thrones before the 12 Tribes of Israel are addressed.
Picking up the parable at verse 9, the workers who were hired at five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. These are the Gentiles; who in the history of the nation of Israel, were invited in at the very end.
Those who were hired first came and expected to receive more are the Jews that have been in the kingdom from the very beginning; that is since 6 am. But each one of them also received a denarius, just like those that came at the very end (the Gentiles) and as a result those that came first began to grumble against the landowner.
“These 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 and the heat of the day.” They were angry.
Yes. The Gentiles who came last are equal to the Jews that have been chosen of God since Sinai and the Gentiles are full heirs in the commonwealth of Israel, the vineyard, not second class citizens.
Jesus addresses the Jews, saying;
“I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one 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? ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’”
Jesus again is referring to something the disciples, as Jews were very familiar with and which needed no elaboration and that is that God said way back to Moses that because the Jews made Him jealous and angered Him by serving worthless idols, that He would make us envious and angry by choosing the Gentiles. Look at Deuteronomy 32:16-21, especially verse 21;
“They made Me jealous by what is no god
and angered Me with their worthless idols.
I will make them envious by those who are not a people;
I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding.”
In fact, Paul affirms that salvation of the Gentiles in the first century is exactly that and says this clearly in Romans 10:19. The Gentiles are those “who are not a nation” that God chose to make the Jews envious and “the nation with no understanding” that will make the Jews angry.
Don’t miss this; those brought into the vineyard at 6 am (the Jews) were angry and envious of those who were brought into the vineyard an hour before the end of the day (the Gentiles) because God had given these same as God gave them. The Jews felt they deserved more because they “have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day”.
What right did those who were brought in first have to complain? Did the landowner not tell them exactly what He was going to give them in advance? Did they not agree to the terms? Is it not God’s right to give the ones who were brought in last (the Gentiles) the same as He gave us, the Jews? This is what He says in this parable.
Salvation of the Gentiles has been part of God’s plan since the calling of the nation of Israel and any anger on our part is rooted in a sense of entitlement that stems from pride. If you’ve ever read the Prophets, you’ll know that this has been a long standing problem with us and since the covenant at Sinai, God has referred to us many times as a proud and stiff-necked people.
God’s choosing of those “with no understanding” of Him or His ways (expressed in the Law) does sometime elicit the kind of self-righteous anger and jealousy and grumbling against the God that Jesus speaks about in this parable. It ought not to. It is God’s prerogative to bring anyone He desires into His kingdom and “make them equal” to us and “give them the same as He gave us”, for it is His vineyard. Jesus says in this parable that we have no right to be envious because God is generous.
As He said He would do, God brought the Gentiles into the kingdom after 2000 years of Jewish history, at ‘one hour before the end of the day’, so to speak in terms of our history — as referred to in this parable. Even though we, as Jews have “borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day, the terms of the agreement were clear from the beginning. There are no surprises. It is God’s right as God to ‘give the one who was brought in last the same as He gave us‘.
This is the parable of the Vineyard Workers and as those who have come last, we want to welcome you to the Vineyard.