The parable of the labourers
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
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We’re looking at Matthew 19:27 onwards.
Peter answered him, ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
‘He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
‘ “Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
‘When evening came, 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.”
‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they 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.”
‘But he answered one of them, “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.’
Matthew 19:27–20:16 (NIVUK)
We’ve looked quite recently at a number of parables where Jesus begins his stories, his parables, with i“The kingdom of heaven is like… .” Sometimes we get derailed into the theology of the stuff. Sometimes we forget that Jesus is teaching different things, perhaps to different original hearers, to how we hear things. Perhaps sometimes it’s interesting to listen to what the speaker is saying but not get to the nub of what Jesus was saying about the kingdom. As I read through this parable a number of times in preparation, and as I looked at various commentators who wrote about it, I noticed that each one has a slightly different view on the thoughts, on the theme, but in the end, it was always about God’s overarching grace.
Since COVID-19 struck, there’s been a lot in the news about key workers and how much, or how little, they might be paid to do an essential job. Food delivery drivers, people who work in shops, those who work behind the scenes in distribution centres, as well as doctors and nurses and teachers and perhaps others that we don’t know about, were brought to our attention during lockdown. Every Thursday for ten weeks, communities applauded their ceaseless work when many people remained at home in order to keep COVID numbers down. Then as things began to ease, trade unions and others started asking questions about the importance of a fair or a better wage for those essential workers who kept the country going as so many were in lockdown. It got some people thinking about what was really important about the economy. For example, do we really need to choose from dozens of types of tinned food, tinned tomatoes for example, on one shelf? How many coffee shops does one area really need? If people are working from home all of a sudden, what will happen to all of those potentially empty office blocks as well as the cafes that exist for those office workers at lunchtime? What is it that the economy really needs: to be fairer, greener, and more sustainable for the unknown future?
The importance of how well and how compassionate was the employer in this parable made me notice it more than I have ever done before. As a former careers advisor, I think I always wanted to work for charities, local authorities, or employers who took seriously their staff welfare. The way that the landowner in the parable here treats his hired staff, is in the main what Jesus is talking about. Although it’s commonly known as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, is much more about the owner himself. Let’s look at how Jesus tells the story, and discover who He might have told it to and for, in order to see what it can tell us about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Part of the background to Jesus telling this parable is that Peter has exclaimed to Jesus that he and the others have followed Him. They’ve given everything up to follow Him, and he’s now asking, “Well, what’s in it for us?” Some theologians such as Tom Wright1 believe that the parable in its context of Matthew 20 is taught to show the disciples that they are a part of God’s story, that they have a part to play in the kingdom of heaven, but in the same way that everybody else who follows Jesus does. There is a certain equity about that. The disciples were first on the scene with Jesus. To Peter, it goes without saying that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That’s the way it goes according to Peter. As with so many people who want to be seen to get the glory or the status, grace is fine for everyone, but only if I get more. I guess it’s a similar point to what the trades union leaders are asking after lockdown, similar. Now we know how important these lowly paid staff really are, what about a pay rise?
In this parable, God is the landowner. Well, we could point out the social and economic rights and wrongs of the landed gentry employing minions to get the work done. It is important to realize this is just how things were in Jesus’ day, and Jesus seems to accept that the landowner does have power and status over those he wants to employ, and that’s an aside.
According to Michael Green,2 from time immemorial vineyards represented Israel, God’s chosen people, and so it would be normal for people to work in them, and for them to be paid a normal and decent day’s wage, a denarius. What wouldn’t be so normal was that the landowner himself would select the workers, go down to the Job Centre or the marketplace as it would be, select the workers himself on a day’s contract. That would normally be for his manager to do. In this story, the manager only gets a walk-on part right towards the end of the day when the landowner tells him to pay everyone the same. All a little bit odd. It seems that the landowner has been doing the legwork of the estate manager, not just once, but five times. He goes to the market to see who’s in line for work, and each time he goes to the market and asks the jobless folk why they are there, the response seems to be the same. “Well, nobody wants us.” This particular landowner does want them. We’re not told whether or not they are Jews or Gentiles and it doesn’t really matter for the landowner, it doesn’t seem. He just wants them in his vineyard to work. Although I guess this might be a surprise to those listening to the story. Surely God only wants His own people to work in His own vineyard. Maybe that’s how any Pharisees listening might interpret it. Why on earth would God want others who weren’t from his tribes to join in? It is that those five times the landowner goes down to the market to check to see if there’s anyone else who wants a job that day. The work itself would be hard, pruning the grapevines under a baking hot sun, or perhaps collecting the grape harvest, not glamorous jobs in themselves, but those who had nothing, the day’s wages would put food on the table for the family back home.
The first time he goes, there’s an agreement made, a day’s wages for a day’s work. Great. Everyone seems happy with that and off they go. I wonder why it is some of the workers in the marketplace don’t answer the offer the first time around. They seem ready enough as they’re standing around waiting energetically for someone to offer a day’s job. Anyway, it seems that there’s more work on the vineyard required, and so off pops the landowner again to see if any other staff are available partway through the morning, and sure enough, they are. Kenneth Bailey,3 in his commentary, he points out that on this occasion, the landowner doesn’t offer a price, only that he will pay them, and off go the next group of workers into the vineyard until sundown. The landowner does this the third, a fourth, and the fifth time, down to the market to see who’s up for work. What drives this landowner to keep going to the place where he knows he will find potential workers? All the theologians I’ve read seem to agree that the point being made here is that the employer is compassionate. He doesn’t want to have keen workers just standing idle doing nothing all day when he could be putting them to decent work.
At the close of the working day, the landowner gets his estate manager to ensure that those who started work only an hour before get paid first. Having not been informed of what the rate would be, those who were last got paid first. We assume they’re rather elated to be paid a whole day’s wage for one hour’s work, definitely worth waiting around for the whole day, but a little bit odd of the landowner, wouldn’t you say? Well, you can imagine everyone waiting in line to pick up their day’s pay, hearing that the ones who had come last had been paid a whole denarius for just one day’s work. If I were at the back, I’d hoped perhaps I might get even more for a whole 12-hour shift, and perhaps how frustrated or angry or upset I might be to get to the front of the queue to be given one denarius after all that graft. That’s the point, I think, Jesus is making here. The people who jumped at the chance early in the morning, who were offered a job and they took it, having agreed a contract, the ones who are still left there in the marketplace kicking their heels at five o’clock still took the job not knowing what they would earn, but money wasn’t the key in this story.
It’s the story of the landowner and his grace, his compassion on the unemployed folk who came to work for him at the earliest convenience, and also at the latest time possible. It’s the actions of the landowner who kept on seeking out workers at six o’clock in the morning, at nine o’clock in the morning, at noon, at three o’clock in the afternoon, and then again at five. God is outs on the marketplace and everywhere else looking for the people that everyone else perhaps tries to ignore. God welcomes those on the same terms that He welcomes you or I or anyone else, the rich or the poor, married, single, black, white, gay, straight, those who have PhDs or those who have a learning difficulty. It seems to make no difference to God. The grace, the compassion, and the mercy of this God covers it all for everyone. Depending on which worker you are in the story, of course, it depends on whether you feel rich, or feel hard done by at the end of the day. The landowner has completed his task. The work has been completed, and hopefully all those involved feel they have been paid enough, but no. The complaint is just from the just-be-paid who cannot tolerate grace. To quote Kenneth Bailey4 again, “Grace is not only amazing, it’s also for certain types infuriating,” and that’s another point.
Whether we feel we have been recently close to God or whether we have been sought by God and responded only very recently, the point is just the same. The kingdom of heaven is costly grace, and it’s where costly grace is offered to those who need it. The landowner has been paying the price all along and did not discriminate with those who came early or who came late. That was his choice. For trades unions, this will be a massive no, no, but for kingdom economics it’s not for the workers to question whether or not we turn up early or late. The one who pays the piper is entitled to play the tune. It’s my problem if I have an issue with God as to whether someone receives more in the kingdom than I do, but what I don’t know is what’s going on behind the scenes.
As Helmut Thielicke5 observed, when God in His goodness hands out bonuses to others and I grow jealous, I do not normally reproach myself and call myself a miserable grudger. You may think the other fellow, your talented room-mate, or your former colleague who had a tremendously successful career, or the girl who married her rich boss, you may think these people are the darlings of God’s goodness, that He showered them with good fortune. Then he asked “but would you exchange places with them in every aspect? After all, you only see the facade.” Maybe I should be content with what has been given me.
It’s God’s economy and maybe we should thank our lucky stars, thank God, that we are part of it thanks to His amazing grace. Maybe it’s enough that I know God is good and He’s good enough to invite me to be part of his kingdom in spite of my shortcomings, which in the scheme of things, and in so many ways, might not matter as much as we thought. He just wants me in His Kingdom so much. We need to be in the right place to be able to receive his offer. We can never see the total goodness of God with a jealous eye. Peter and the disciples might complain. The Jews who have been meticulously trying to keep God’s laws for centuries may well grumble. The Pharisees might be unhappy that gentiles are allowed into God’s kingdom on equal terms. One’s standing in the kingdom of heaven seems not at all to depend on human merit, whether I am righteous or whether I am a sinner. This parable is all about a gracious compassionate God purchasing my life for His kingdom. The kingdom that can and must be lived both now and on into the future. This compassion leads Him to go to the hurting people Himself, and therefore incarnate his deep concern as He demonstrates costly love to the poor. This is both Jesus’ own ministry, and as we follow Him, becomes our calling too.
1. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 57.
2. Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 210.
3. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 358.
4. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 360.
5. Helmut Thielicke, trans. John W. Doberstein, The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Cambridge, UK; The Lutterworth Press, 2015), Chapter X: The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
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