Matthew 20:1-16 – “For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
I usually get into trouble over this parable because it flies right into the face of our modern world. With minimum wages, unions, and employment laws the owner of the vineyard would be in so much legal trouble today, but his words are true nonetheless, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
As with most of the parables we’ve looked into thus far, we need to see what precipitated Jesus telling this parable. As it happens, Jesus has just told the crowd how difficult it is for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom, and Peter, ever uncertain of where he is in following our Lord, asks Jesus where they (the disciples, but primarily Peter) stand since they have given up everything to follow Him. Jesus responds first with, “Every one 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 inherit eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.“ Then He goes into the parable.
In the ancient cultures a “boss” was free to pay his workers whatever he desired, though (as discussed earlier) the standard wage for an unskilled worker was about 1/2 denarius per day, so even at the start he was paying the first workers twice what they were expecting, they were elated at his generosity. We need to not think of ancient times as being the same as they are now, there was no such thing as regular employment, unless you owned a business. Workers were hired for the task at-hand, that could be a long term hire (as for masons building a large structure) or just for a couple hours to complete a task. In either case it was solely up to the person doing the hiring as to what they would pay, there were no labor unions to argue the point, the only driving force was how many people you needed versus how many were available, and how skilled they were at the task.
At the start of the day you had the largest number of workers available, and a varied skill set from which to pick. If you wanted skilled workers you would have to pay a premium at this time, because they could always hold out for a, hopefully, better offer from someone else. Later in the day the skilled workers, for the most part, were gone and you could get the remainder for quite a discount. At the end of the day you were left with those whom no one else wanted, and you could hire them for a fraction of what you would have had to pay earlier.
What happens at the end of the parable is especially telling. Normally you would pay the first workers ahead of everyone else, giving them their full day’s wages, then going down the line to the workers who were there the shortest amount of time. The reason is that the accountants would have leeway on what the workers were paid, as it was usually only the earlier highers that had any type of a fixed wage. As in the parable, those hired after the first group were simply told they would be paid “whatever is fair”, meaning whatever could be divvied out from what was left of money the owner gave the accountants at the beginning of the day.
So, to make this clearer, at the beginning of they day the owner would give his accountant, say, 50 denarius for the day’s expenses. Maybe to start the day he hired 10 workers, that would leave the accountant with 40 denarius to pay whatever expenses were incurred during the day, including the wages of the later hires. If he then hires 10 more at 3, 6, 9, and 11, the accountants would probably figure out wages based on a percentage of the day and whatever money was left. So they might expect to hand out 0.8 denarius to the second group, 0.6 to the third, etc., possibly leaving some money at the end of the day to give back to the owner. This is what everyone would have expected, and was only fair (think of it as hourly wage).
But at the end of the day the owner does something unexpected, he starts paying the last group first, giving them twice a full day’s wage! The same with the next group, and so on. When he gets to the first group, the only ones who struck a deal for how much to be paid, they expect a bonus for having worked the entire day. Everyone is surprised that they get paid only what they had bargained for! How unfair! Where is the shop steward? The EEOC? Anyone seen a lawyer?
Jesus’ lesson is a simple one, and great news for us some 2,000 years after the work began, for Jesus’ promise to His disciples then is as true for them as it is for us today, “every one 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.” We will receive exactly the same reward as His disciples were promised if we do not cling to the things of this earth, but work for the things that belong to Heaven. But, there is that second piece to His promise, what is that about?
“ many that are first will be last, and the last first“
The general consensus is that this was a comment directed at the Jews, who believed that, since they had been promised salvation since Abraham, that they would, somehow, received a greater salvation that anyone else, it was only fair. But the warning is not only directed at the Jews, but at us as well. Just because a denomination can trace her heritage back to Peter and Paul does not give her greater rewards than one that started yesterday – and is teaching the same Gospel. Of course, that is the key – the same Gospel (Gal. 1:9 – if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received…) for many today, as in Paul’s time, teach a Gospel different that the one handed down from the Apostles. We have not the right to change it, nor “correct” it under our own interpretation, we must teach that which we were given (tradition). But, so long as we hold true to those teaching we shall all be given the same reward – “will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.“