Jesus has been teaching since chapter 18 about the hierarchy and value system of the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God), and how it is opposite from how the kingdoms of earth value people.
Chapter 18 started with the disciples asking the question of “who among us is the greatest?” They had been arguing while on the road to Jerusalem, arguing amongst themselves about who would be in charge, who was the most important disciple.
Jesus responded by saying they needed to humble themselves, to assume the completely vulnerable, dependent humility that can be found in a child.
He then goes on to provide teaching on what kingdom values look like when played out within the context of a community of imperfect kingdom citizens living together as a family. He explains, using both parables and direct instructions, how such a community should be characterized by humility, purity, accountability, respect, mercy, forgiveness, and love. These values should apply to every relationship in every aspect of life, from friends to neighbors to coworkers to spouses to parents to children to even those we would call “enemies.”
Last week, Mike brought us through the end of chapter 19, where Jesus again refers to children as examples of kingdom citizens, then disappoints a rich young ruler by revealing wealth and possessions as a potential idol, a potential stumbling block that prevents us from truly surrendering to Christ and worshiping God above all else.
Wealth and possessions were commonly viewed as signs of favor from God, not as things that should be surrendered to God, so this teaching came as a shock to Jesus’s disciples. They basically came to the conclusion that if not even rich people could be saved, then who could possibly ever be saved?
Jesus replies by, essentially, agreeing, it’s impossible for anybody to be saved! That is, humanly impossible. It’s impossible for humans to save themselves. Impossible for humans to enter the kingdom on their own merit, by their own power. But, in verse 26, Jesus makes the profound, statement that “with God all things are possible.”
With what God had done in Israel throughout the generations, this statement should not come as a surprise. We already know that God can do anything. But in this context, the implication is not just that God can do anything, but that he has chosen to save humanity, to personally open the gates to his kingdom to all those who are willing to enter, whether they deserve it or not. By becoming human and revealing the kingdom through his life, death and resurrection.
With people, it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.
Chapter 18 ends with the statement that again summarizes his teaching about the kingdom:
Matthew 19:30 LSB
30 “But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.
He’s explained the meaning of this using the example of children, and a parable of sheep, and he’s going to continue, in chapter 20, with another parable.
This parable is a direct follow-up to the statement in chapter 19 verse 30, and it’s yet another explanation of the value of humility in the kingdom of God. It’s one of many parables that describe the kingdom of heaven, using experiences which were common to the people of his day, the people listening to him, to help them understand the nature of his kingdom.
In this case, it’s an illustration of how an attitude of entitlement, or superiority, has no place in the kingdom. And how we should not begrudge the generosity and mercy with which God treats all humans, regardless of how long we serve him, or how many good things we do in life.
Matthew 20:1–16 LSB
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 “Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. 5 “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ 7 “They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 “Now when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 9 “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 “And when those hired first came, they supposed that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 “Now when they received it, they were grumbling at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 ‘Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
This passage is a good example of when it’s really helpful to compare with a few different translations.
I read this in the LSB, which is a very traditional, literal translation. This means it’s pretty transparent to the original language, and retains the original unites of measurement and time. Like the “denarius” and “the sixth hour” or “the eleventh hour.”
But those units are cultural constructs that are no longer relevant or relatable to us today. So there are other translations which choose to, instead of translating those units literally, translate them using conversions that we can more easily understand. I want to read it again in the NLT, which is much further in the other direction of the spectrum from literal, or word-for-word, to dynamic, or thought-for-thought.
Matthew 20:1–16 NLT
1 “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. 3 “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. 6 “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’ 7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’ “The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’ 8 “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’ 13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ 16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”
The most obvious differences are how the NLT says “the normal daily wage” instead of “a denarius.” And how it says nine o’clock, noon, three, and five o’clock instead of “the third hour” and “the eleventh hour” etc.
Another word that is translated in a variety of ways is the word used to describe the main character of this parable, in verse 1.
Literally, “a man, a landowner,” the “master of a house.” He’s a farmer who owns a vineyard, and is responsible for managing all the affairs of his estate. It’s a vineyard large enough that it requires hired laborers to maintain and harvest the crop.
In first-century Palestine, a landowner typically woke early in the morning and went to the marketplace, where day laborers gathered. He would select a few workers to tend his fields or harvest his crops and pay them their wage at the end of the day. In the parable, the owner returns to the marketplace every few hours to hire more workers.As a result of heavy taxation, high debt, and scarce resources, peasants in Jesus’ day were forced to hire themselves out on a daily basis. Only the truly fortunate had more permanent means of employment.
The landowner offers the first workers he hires a “denarius” in exchange for the day’s work.
The denarius was a Roman silver coin, and was considered a fair day’s pay for a common laborer, such as a farm worker or a soldier.
One coin could buy 15lbs of wheat in a basket, which is pretty substantial, so certainly enough to live on and get by, especially if you could manage to get paid to work every day.
On the coin, there was an inscription, some letters: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Essentially, the Romans claimed that Caesar was the son of God, a claim that would have rung with irony to the true Son of God, Jesus, and this inscription will come up again later in the story in Matthew when he’s asked about paying taxes to Caesar.
So why a vineyard in this parable? Well, as with all his parables, it was a reference to something common and relatable to his listeners. Vineyards, grape farms, were among the most common agricultural establishments for that region at that time.
But the image of the vineyard is also significant because Israel is symbolized as God’s vineyard in the Old Testament, and Jesus will use this analogy again later in Matthew.
In Psalm 80, we see Israel compared to a vineyard that had been saved and protected, only to later be plundered:
Psalm 80:8–13 LSB
8 You removed a vine from Egypt; You drove out the nations and then You planted it. 9 You cleared the ground before it, And it took deep root and filled the land. 10 The mountains were covered with its shadow, And the cedars of God with its boughs. 11 It sent out its branches to the sea And its shoots to the River. 12 Why have You broken down its hedges, So that all who pass that way pick its fruit? 13 A boar from the forest devours it And whatever moves in the field feeds on it.
Again, in Isaiah, we see Yahweh compared to the owner of a vineyard which has been mismanaged by those to whom responsibility of management had been given:
Isaiah 3:14 LSB
14 Yahweh enters into judgment with the elders of His people and His princes, “It is you who have consumed the vineyard; The plunder robbed of the afflicted is in your houses.
Again, later in chapter five, a song of lament for Israel using the same imagery:
Isaiah 5:1–7 LSB
1 Let me sing now for my well-beloved A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. 2 He dug it all around, removed its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it And also hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He hoped for it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones. 3 “So now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Please judge between Me and My vineyard. 4 “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I hoped for it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? 5 “So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge, and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall, and it will become trampled ground. 6 “I will lay it waste; It will not be pruned or hoed, But briars and thorns will come up. I will also command the clouds to rain no rain on it.” 7 For the vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He hoped for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
SO, in this parable which is being used to describe God’s kingdom, Jesus is comparing himself to the landowner, the owner of the vineyard, while the vineyard and its workers are God’s people and the workers of the harvest.
Remember, his disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them, and they would be counted as the first among the “workers of the harvest” when it comes to making disciples. This parable is meant to humble them and recognize God’s mercy as something given equally to all, and not to be weighed in amounts from one person to the next.
If you’re wondering about the times of day, and why “the third hour” means 9am,
The day was counted from 6 a.m. (first hour) to 6 p.m. (twelfth hour).
So, the third hour would be the third hour from 6am…9am.
The sixth hour would be noon, the ninth hour would be 3pm, and the eleventh hour would be 5pm…just an hour before the end of the day.
Again, some translations approach those measurements literally, the way they were written, to preserve as close to word-for-word translation as possible, while others choose to convert those measurements to the modern equivalent that we can more readily understand.
In the parable, the fact that this landowner continues to hire workers throughout the day, even near the end of the day, implies two things: that the harvest is urgent enough for the landowner to continue recruiting workers, and that there is an abundance of people in need of work, but doing nothing all day.
Compare this parable to the statement Jesus made back in chapter 9:
Matthew 9:37–38 LSB
37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. 38 “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
When it comes to the end of the day, the landowner calls for the workers to be paid. This is actually in accordance with Jewish law! We can see this specified in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
Leviticus 19:13 CSB
13 “Do not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages due a hired worker must not remain with you until morning.
Deuteronomy 24:15 CSB
15 You are to pay him his wages each day before the sun sets, because he is poor and depends on them. Otherwise he will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be held guilty.
So, at first this sounds like a normal, fair transaction to his disciples, but then Jesus flips the script a little.
First, he has the people who were hired last get paid first. This is highlighting the summary statement that “the last will be first.” And even the people who only worked an hour got paid a whole denarius!
Now, that would have been shocking to his listeners! And, in the parable, the people hired earlier in the day see this and think “Wow! This guy is really generous! If he gave them one denarius, I must be getting two, or three, or four! This is my lucky day!”
And yet, Jesus treats them all equally. Which, somewhat ironically, seems really unfair! The landowner is giving some people way more than they deserve!
It’s an illustration of God’s generosity, and a warning that as his children, we should not resent his grace and mercy to those we might deem undeserving of it, because ultimately, none of us are deserving, and ought to treat each other as equals, with dignity and respect and love.
There are actually a lot of parallels between this parable and the parable of the prodigal son, in Luke chapter 15. This chapter begins with this statement:
Luke 15:1–2 NLT
1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
In response, Jesus tells them the parable of the lost sheep, which we just had in Matthew as well, followed by a parable of a lost coin, and then this parable of a lost son, beginning in verse 11:
Luke 15:11–32 NLT
11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. 13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. 17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” ’ 20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ 22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ 31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ”
The “good” son who remains faithful throughout the story is much like the workers who were hired early in the day, because he resents the generosity of his father towards the rebellious son who repents and comes home.
In both parables, God’s grace is shown to two parties, while one grumbles about unjust treatment.
It’s also similar to the image of the one lost sheep, who when found is celebrated more than the ninety-nine who remained safe!
Jesus is using all these different parables and metaphors to try to describe one thing: the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, and in nearly every case, it’s an unexpected, even shocking perspective that contradicts the status quo of the day. It seems “backwards” and Jesus is essentially saying “Yes, it is backwards!” Or, actually, “YOU and your perspectives are backwards!”
One last verse I thought was interesting to compare translations is verse fifteen, so I want to take a closer look at that verse before we wrap up:
Matthew 20:15 LSB
15 ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
Matthew 20:15 LEB
15 Is it not permitted for me to do whatever I want with what is mine? Or is your eye evil because I am generous?’
Matthew 20:15 GNB
15 Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’ ”
Most translations do not translate this phrase literally, word-for-word, because it’s an idiom that would generally be lost on modern readers. The most literal translation I could find is actually the King James Version:
Matthew 20:15 NKJV
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’
“Is your eye evil because I am good?”
That idiomatic metaphor of an “evil eye” meant for someone to be stingy, to be selfish, and in that context, the contrast of being “good” meant to be generous. So, most translations make some sort of effort to reveal the meaning of that phrase, and many will put the literal word in the footnotes. In this parable, having a “bad eye” is the idea of begrudging God, being jealous of his indiscriminate generosity: his mercy and forgiveness and blessing upon his children.
We’ve actually seen this idiom before in Matthew!
Back in Matthew 6, during the sermon on the mount, Jesus talks extensively about the importance of generosity. He talks about giving to the poor, and forgiving others as God has forgiven us, about being humble and not drawing attention to ourselves, and then beginning in verse 19 he addresses the topic of wealth and generosity directly:
Matthew 6:19–24 LSB
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. 23 “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Again, we see this idiom in verse 23, and the literal translation is “if your eye is good,” and “if your eye is bad.” The “bad eye” meaning a stingy, greedy, selfish perspective, and the “good eye” meaning a generous, unselfish, giving perspective.
This whole parable in chapter 20 is sandwiched between the repeated statement that those who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so it’s clear that this is the main thrust, the main point the parable is meant to express, or illustrate.
In this story, the workers had no right to protest their pay since their wage was the normally accepted sum, and since they had agreed to work for this wage in the first place.
Just as this landowner was free to dispense his wealth as he saw fit, God is free to dispense his grace as he determines.
The first workers hired represent people who consider themselves to be of greater importance to God, like the self-righteous man back in chapter 19. The last workers hired represent people who live sacrificially, but will be rewarded far more generously than they expect or deserve.
The takeaway of this parable really points us to the heart of the gospel. It’s that God, in his abundant love and mercy is incredibly generous to his people, far beyond what we deserve. So far that he has given us the unmerited gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. None of us are deserving of that gift, and none of us could ever to anything to earn that as a payment for anything we do.
Because we have all sinned, and the payment for sin is death.
Romans 6:23 LSB
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus died for us, and rose again, as a beacon of hope and a promise that we too will rise and be with him forever in glory.
That’s the grace of God, the generosity of God.
Ephesians 2:8–9 LSB
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not of works, so that no one may boast.
Because none of us have earned salvation through works of righteousness, we must never dare to begrudge God’s mercy and blessings upon another brother or sister. Rather, let us reflect God’s generosity and selflessness, let us be merciful and gracious, never jealous or selfish or greedy. As Christians, as images of Christ, who is himself the image of God, we should be shining examples of God’s generosity to the world, and to each other.