Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 43. Hiring Workers
Mt 20:1,2 For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard
This is one of those parables that particularly seems to confuse people and raise questions, and yet it is remarkably simple in the basic story: A landowner wants people to work in his vineyard and goes out at regular intervals throughout the day to recruit more workers and agrees to pay them all exactly the same amount, a single denarius, regardless of how long they will work. Now this is what confuses people for those employed early on only get a denarius for the whole day while those employed right at the end of the day and who appear to only work for an hour, get exactly the same, one denarius. How unfair, people say, surely those who worked longer should be paid more! The main content of this fairly long story is found in verses 1 to 9 and then we find this complaint being made obvious: “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 men 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.” (v.10-12)
Now Jesus has the owner responding, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?” (v.13-15)
Now I think this is a classic case of misguidance by Jesus because although it is absolutely true, the bigger issue, which we all have to face is that every person contracts with the ‘owner’ (God) in a unique way. On his side He gives us His forgiveness; on our side, we have noted in previous studies, we have to come empty handed in complete surrender and for different people that will mean different things. For the child who takes Jesus ‘as their friend’ at five say, that surrender is childlike and simple and, at that point at least, costs little. For the criminal at thirty who comes to Christ and realises he has to confess all and make restoration, his throwing himself on Christ’s mercy may mean going to prison. Every person comes uniquely to Christ. Yes, the basics are the same – repentance, surrender, forgiveness, cleansing, empowering etc. – but what that means is different for every one of us. What I have to be forgiven is almost certainly different from what you have been forgiven, and the consequences of my salvation will be different from the consequences of yours.
So yes, then there is the whole matter of what God then makes us. Some people appear little gifted or appear to have little faith, while others appear to have amazing gifting and amazing faith. God knows exactly what we can take and use (and doesn’t give what would ruin us) and no amount of pleading will change it. We may demand, “I want to be an apostle!” but His response might be, “I haven’t given you the faith and wisdom for that because I know that in your case that sort of role would blow your head off with pride and end up destroying you.”
No, this parable is remarkable in the clarity of what it says when you come to look at it. Each employee is just grateful for being ‘employed’ and that’s it. They agreed to the payment, simply to have some work. Call it a contract if you like and they are bound by it. Perhaps a denarius was the going rate for a whole day’s work and thus every person employed as the day went on, was a greater and greater example of the owner’s generosity, just as he said. The truth is that God didn’t have to take us into His kingdom. It was only possible because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, and that was entirely initiated by Him and comes as a free gift to us. When we are forgiven, God could leave us exactly as we were (but forgiven) but He chose to give each of us His own Holy Spirit, His free power resource for every one of us. He needn’t have done that, but He did. It was pure grace, pure mercy. None of us ‘deserved’ it, but He gave us these things anyway. The ‘owner’ is ‘generous’.
It doesn’t matter if you came to the Lord when you were five, say sixty years ago, or only two years ago when you reached sixty. The whole package is there for both. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages to both conversions. The one who came to Christ as a child has had a whole life to grow and develop in Christ and has this been kept free of the dark things of life, while the most recent convert might have gone through many bad things and be very badly scarred spiritually. However, on the other side of the coin, the one who came to Christ as a child, often feels they don’t know what it was like being forgiven big things while the recent convert is full of praise and thankfulness because they know the depths from which they have been saved. Yet, as both stand before the doors of heaven, they stand there in total equality. It doesn’t matter how long, humanly speaking, they have been in the kingdom, they are both children of God with a wonderful eternal inheritance to come.
But then Jesus concludes this passage with a bombshell: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (v.16) What! What does that mean? Jesus doesn’t explain but leaves us to meditate on it. OK, according to the story of this parable, those who were taken on first end up being grumpy, complaining and envious and think badly of the Owner. They are the ones with the least relationship with him. On the other hand, those who had been taken on last, thought this was going to be a day of poverty and yet found they were taken on and paid exactly the same as the earlier workers and they would be rejoicing wildly about their good fortune and feel really good about the Owner.
About the woman who poured scent over his feet, a woman clearly known as a sinner (Lk 7:39), Jesus said, “he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:49) and that after he shared the Parable of the two men who owed money to a moneylender, one a lot, the other a little, and then the moneylender forgave them both and cancelled their debts (Lk 7:41,42) where Jesus asked the simple and obvious question, “which of them will love him more?” (v.42b) In my earlier illustration, the later convert (and bigger sinner) is last in arriving but first with gratefulness. It is a simple challenge to each of us who have known Him a long time, to seek understanding and thus ever be thankful. The moment you stop being thankful is the moment you lost sight of the wonder of your salvation.
Perhaps we should add that to that teaching of, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” the recognition that often the ‘first’ in the world’s eyes, the rich and famous, are often the last to turn to Christ, while the last, the poor and insignificant, are often the first to turn to Christ. It is an upside down world!