Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 20:1-16’

We are looking at the parable of the workers this morning in Matthew 20:1-16. And I am asking the question, What is God asking you to do?

Matthew 20:1-16 – “1For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

8And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first last.”

There are a lot of different interpretation of this parable that go in lots of different directions. Here are some examples. 1) The first = the Pharisees, and the last = tax collectors. And they are made equal. 2) Similarly, the first = Jewish Christians, and the last = Gentile Christians. Certainly this is possible, but these are not being discussed before or after this, and the idea doesn’t fit into the flow or context here, especially of  19:30. 3) Along similar lines, but more remote still, the first = long time Christians, and the last = those saved late in life. 4) The parable is meant to teach that you shouldn’t serve Jesus for reward. It’s about motivations. It’s a rebuke to Peter, who in 19:27 asks “What then will we have?” But, as we will see, he is not boasting or serving for the wrong motives. He’s concerned about whether he will be saved or not. 5) The parable teaches that there are no levels of reward. We all get the same thing no matter whether we work much or little. But this goes against other teaching in Matthew, as we will see later, there are levels of reward in the kingdom. I will share with you my understanding. First some –


The vineyard owner hires day laborers in town. The workday at this time was 12 hours long. About 10 hours of actual work, with breaks for meals, prayers. The last worker only worked an hour. A “denarius” equals a day’s wage, something like minimum wage today. The workers get paid at the end of each day in accordance with Deuteronomy 24:14-15. Those who live hand to mouth, must be paid right away so that they can feed their families each day.

There are also –

Some basics from the parable

– that are fairly clear. 1. The point of the parable is that the first will be last, and the last first. The parable is sandwiched between two statements that say just this (an inclusion).

  • 19:30 – “But many who are first will be last, and the last first”
  • 20:16 – at the conclusion of the parable – “So the last will be first, and the first last” (This last phrase has “so,” or “thus” in front of it, meaning, in this way the last will be first. It offers an explanation for the saying of 19:30)

And the  language of last and first shows up throughout the parable itself.

Now, although in other places this phrase “the first will be last and the last will be first,” means reversal (e.g. Luke 13:30), 2. here “the first and the last” speaks of equalization. The last are treated like the first and the first are treated like the last, which is not about reversal.

The climax of the parable in v. 12 shows this. Those who worked the longest complained, “These last worked only one hour, and “you have made them equal to us” who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The issue here is how all the workers were treated equally, even though some had done more work.

3. The basic identities of the first and the last is clear. 

  • v. 10 makes it clear that “the first” are those who have worked all day, the 12 hour workers.
  • v. 12 makes it clear that “the last” refers to those hired last, who worked the least, the one hour workers.

This much is clear. But if we ask more specifically who is Jesus talking about when he speaks of the first and the last, I would say that –

The context of the parable is the key

That is, the preceding story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. Let’s look at this:

1) The rich young ruler asked, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” – Matthew 19:16

2) After enumerating many of the commands, Jesus demanded that he sell his possessions and follow him. (Both Mark and Luke make it more clear that Jesus means “all” his possessions). Then he will gain eternal life (19:16-22). Apparently Jesus saw that he had a problem with a desire for wealth and a desire to keep it for himself.

3) Then Jesus talks about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. It is, basically, impossible (19:23-24). Now, this is not talking about an actual camel’s gate in Jerusalem. This interpretation comes from the middle ages. It’s a proverb that expresses something that is impossible.

4) Well, the disciples are astonished by all this. They ask, “Who then can be saved?”

5) Jesus replies that God can make it possible (19:25-26). God can help those who have more than they need to give up self-indulgence and to share with the needy.

6) Peter is concerned about whether they, the twelve, will make it into the kingdom, because they are not doing as much as was demanded of the rich man. Peter said, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27). ‘Jesus, you told him to have life he had to sell all. We have left all. Is that enough?’

7) Jesus reassures them, Yes, they will enter the kingdom and will have 12 thrones and judge the people of God. Then he expands it beyond the 12 in Matthew 19:29. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

So we have a situation where:

  • Jesus is more demanding of the young man – sell all and follow me, and
  • Jesus is less demanding of the 12 & others – leave everything behind and follow me

Yet both would receive eternal life!

Now all of salvation is a gift of God, but it is also true that God requires that we obey him. And along these lines God asks some to do more by way of difficult obedience. And God asks some to do less to enter the kingdom or inherit eternal life.

The meaning of the parable

This rightly raises the question, “Is this fair?” – which is what this parable is all about.

The first are those whom Jesus demands much from – sacrifice and hard work, like the young man who has to sell all and follow Jesus in full time ministry. They work 12 long hours in the heat of the day.

The midday workers are those whom Jesus demands less from – perhaps the 12 disciples who leave all and follow Jesus, but don’t sell all; something less than what the first have to do.

The last are  those from whom Jesus demands relatively little from – perhaps ordinary Christians who don’t even leave all. They stay at home and support those who do.

So, we all have to obey; everyone in the parable worked some. But God requires of some more sacrificial obedience than others. God is sovereign and can do what he wants in this regard. He can be generous with some whom he doesn’t require as much from. Yet all who do what God calls them to do will receive eternal life. The last is like the first, and the first is like the last, in that they all enter the kingdom. So the parable is a footnote to the conversation about the rich young ruler and wealth and the saying in 19:30 about the first and the last.

What do we learn from the parable?

Don’t be alarmed if God requires more of others. 1. As long as you are doing what God has asked you to do, you are fine. Eternal life in the kingdom will be yours on the final day. So this is a word of assurance to us all just as it was to Peter and the 12 who were worried about what Jesus required of the rich young ruler.

2. If God has laid on you a difficult path of obedience, don’t complain that others don’t have to do what you do. Don’t be like the 12 hour workers in the parable.

A question, 3. Is God calling anyone here to leave all and follow Jesus? Or to sell all and follow Jesus? To a life of ministry as a pastor or missionary or some other form of service to God that is beyond being an ordinary Christian working in a local congregation? Are there any rich young rulers here today? Do you here Jesus calling you? What is God asking you to do?

Instead of comparing yourself with others – 4. Focus on doing what God has called you to do, and do it well.

Now some say that this parable teaches that everyone gets all the same rewards in the kingdom. But this doesn’t fit with many other passages of Scripture (Matthew 5:19, 11:11, 18:4, 23:11, 19:28, 20:20-28). There are rewards for diligent and sacrificial obedience within the sphere of what God has called us to.

The question is how well do you do what God has called you to do? If you are called to preach, for instance, how well are you doing this; how hard are you working at this? Or if you are called to support those who do full time ministry and to work in a local congregation, how well are you doing this: how hard are you working at this? This is where rewards come in. And this should be a challenge to us all to serve the Lord with our full obedience in the sphere to which he has called each one of us.

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