“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-2 NET).
This chapter of Matthew gives us a little insight into work practices in first-century Palestine. One of the first things we learn is that not all people had a regular job – these men who wanted to work would go out in the morning to a designated area, identified in verse 3 as the marketplace, and wait for landowners to come hire the men they needed for the day. The standard wage was a denarius. In Jesus’ story, this landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
As the story continues, it would seem that this landowner may have been different from others: he went out again at nine o’clock and found more men who had not been hired. He offered them work, as well, although this time he did not agree to the standard wage but, “I will give you whatever is right.” And they went to work.
This happened again at noon and three o’clock – more workers were found who had not been hired and he agreed to let them work in his vineyard.
At five o’clock the landowner went out to look one more time – and he still found men who had not been hired. You would have thought being so late in the day that they would have given up, but they were still there, waiting in hope that someone might hire them, even if only for an hour. This the landowner did.
In the evening, before the workers went home, the landowner told his manager to call the workers over and pay them for their work, beginning with the last who was hired. He could have started with the first hired and never had the objections which came, but he had a point to make. Those who were hired last and only worked one hour were given a full day’s wage – and it would seem that no matter how long they worked they all were given a full day’s wage. When they finally got to those who had been hired the first thing in the morning and had worked the entire day, they too received a full day’s wage.
When these workers saw they had received the same as everyone else, they began to complain. In their mind, what the landowner had done was simply not fair! Those who had only given one hour of work were made equal to them who had worked the full day and through the hottest part of the day.
The landowner replied that he was not being unfair; after all, he had given them what they had agreed to work for. Wasn’t he allowed to be generous to those who had not been able to find work earlier in the day?
What is the lesson for Christians today? The first verse tells us that this is what the “kingdom of heaven is like.” The application would seem to be very simple: those who serve Jesus longer won’t be given an advantage over those who only serve Jesus for a little while. All will equally receive their reward. To be honest, none of us will be able to complain about this because we are all equally saved through God’s grace due to Jesus’ paying the price for our sins. We serve a generous Lord who will equally welcome us into his eternal home.
Readings for next week
23 February – Matthew 25
24 February – Matthew 26:1-35
25 February – Matthew 26:36-75
26 February – Matthew 27:1-31
27 February – Matthew 27:32-66