The following study is based on Matthew 20:1-16. This parable is unique just to Matthew, it is not found in any of the other gospels.
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
- This parable is about a man who would go out to the marketplace and he would find people standing around with no job. So he hires them and sends them into his vineyard to work.
- They agree to a penny a day. That was the standard wage back then. It was a day’s worth of work. We know because it is a mutual agreement. They don’t argue about it or negotiate over it. It was a fair rate.
- So these people go into vineyard to work. The working day in those times was from dawn to dusk.
- But what happens next?
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
- He goes out at about the third hour. The Jews reckoned time starting at 6am. So the third hour would be at 9am.
- The man goes out at 9am and he sees people still just standing around doing nothing. So he hires them too and gives a promise that whatever is right, he would give it to them, and so they go.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
- The parable says that he goes out at 12pm and also 3pm and finds more people standing around idle and he does the same thing – he hires them and promises to pay them fairly and they go.
But finally, what happens?
- Matthew 20:6-7
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
- At the eleventh hour, which is 5pm, he goes out once more and still sees people standing around doing nothing. And right there, he hires them to go work in his vineyard as well and promised a fair wage once more.
- This was one hour before work would finish!
- The Jews had daylight for around 12 hours. That is typical just like here in Malaysia. The longest day of the year goes for about 12 hours and 10 minutes. And the shortest day of the year is around 11 hours and 49 minutes. So that averages out to be around 12 hours of daylight each day. We’re so close to the equator, that’s why.
- Even Jesus validated it.
- John 11:9-10
9 Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. 10 But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.
- There was 12 hours of daylight. Anything after that would be walking in darkness. So the eleventh hour was right at the end. It would be dark after that. So this person hires people for 1 hour. And then now comes the pay.
8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
- That would have been logical thinking right? The last person was paid first. He only worked 1 hour and he got 1 penny. Definitely I should be getting more than him.
- It wasn’t unreasonable to think any different. I think 10 times out of 10 we all would have thought that if we were in the position of the first hour labourer. But what a shock to them when they only received 1 penny!
- You see, we’re missing one thing. Remember the first person that was hired? He was standing at the marketplace and the man came up to him and agreed to 1 penny a day? He had already agreed to that.
- So even though it was not unreasonable to expect more, he also should not have been surprised when he only got 1 penny! It was written in the contract. That was their agreement.
So what happened when the one that worked the whole day got that 1 penny? How did he react?
- Matthew 20:11-12
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 — Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
- He began to murmur. He was unhappy as anybody would have been unhappy in that situation. I worked a whole day. A whole 11-12 hours and I got the same as that person who only worked 1 hour? Where was the logic in that?
How does the boss reply?
- Matthew 20:13-15
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 — Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
- It is true. The man had agreed for 1 penny. And also it is true, it was fair for the boss to pay whatever he wanted to pay to all the others. It was his money after all. He was being fair – as he lived up to his end of the bargain. 1 penny for 1 day’s worth of work.
- The problem was not because the boss was being unjust. He paid the man what they agreed on. The only problem was – EVERYONE got the same no matter how many hours they worked!
- Moreover, the boss replies by saying, “Is your eye evil, because I am good?”
- He was calling the first hour labourer evil. Why? Why would he be considered evil? Because he ended up murmuring against the goodman of the house. His attitude was incorrect.
- You see, if the first hour labourer had gotten paid first and then left without knowing what the other received, he would have been happy and content. But it was only as he compared with the others that he became unhappy and discontent and began to murmur.
- It is true, it was up to the boss to pay whatever he wanted.
- So in this situation, it really showed the bad character of the first hour labourer who ended up murmuring.
And finally Jesus ends with this intriguing statement, a conclusion to this parable.
- Matthew 20:16
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
- What does this all mean? Would the first hour labourer not be chosen? Is he lost? And those that come in at the end will be saved?
- It seems to indicate that doesn’t it? So let’s interpret this parable.
Who is the householder? Who is the one that owns the vineyard?
- That is obviously God or Jesus. He is the One that will call and choose everyone at the end of time.
What does the vineyard represent?
- It represents the whole world. A world steeped in sin.
- And the labourers are called by God to assist in the cause of God – seeking to save everyone into the kingdom of God.
The first hour labourers are those that God called first. They are the ones that have worked longest for God in the vineyard.
- Well, who did God call first? In the Bible he called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – who would form the foundation for the nation of Israel. Always Abraham is first though because he is considered the father of faith.
- This really is representative of the whole Jewish nation. They were called first. They were the ones who had the privilege of receiving the Son of God in the flesh in their midst. Jesus didn’t go to China or India. He came specifically to Jerusalem and the Jews. They were the first hour labourers.
- Furthermore, we get more of a clue about the first-hour labourer from how Jesus ended the parable.
- Matthew 20:16
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
- What is interesting is what we find at the end of Matthew 19.
- Matthew 19:30
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
- Jesus says something almost exactly the same at the end of this chapter as well. But what was the context of it? Let’s go back a few verses.
- Matthew 19:16
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
- It’s the story about the rich young ruler. He comes and asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. How does Jesus respond?
- Matthew 19:17-20
17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
- Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and he replies that he has kept it from his youth. This man grew up a Christian in a Christian home! He is what we would call a first hour labourer!
Who then is the eleventh-hour labourers if the first-hour labourer is represented by the Israelites in their day and the Christian’s in our day?
- In Matthew 8 a Roman Centurion comes to Jesus to ask for the healing of his sick servant. His faith in Christ to be able to perform such a miracle is the reason that his servant is ultimately healed. Christ announces something very interesting.
- Matthew 8:10-12
10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- There would be others who would come from the east and the west that would come and sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Obviously this was not referring to the Jews because they are referenced in the next verse calling them the children of the kingdom. So it was not only the Jews that would be saved. And likewise today it will not only be the Christian’s that will be saved at the end of time.
- Matthew 21:31
Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
- The publicans and harlots would go into the kingdom of God before many of the Jews. However, it doesn’t mean that all the Jews would be lost.
There are 2 notable people that we can look at who represent this eleventh-hour labourers. Let look at the first.
- Luke 19:2
And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
- Zacchaeus was not just any ordinary publican, he was chief among the publicans. He was someone despised by the Jews. But there was a day that Jesus was passing through Jericho and Zacchaeus was excited to want to see Jesus. Because he was short he climbed up a sycamore tree for better viewing.
- By and by, Jesus passed under the tree and stopped and requested for Zacchaeus to come down because he was going to eat at his house today. Zacchaeus was overjoyed to have Jesus come into his house.
- During the meal, Zacchaeus stood up and made a very amazing declaration!
- Luke 19:8
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
- Look how Jesus responds.
- Luke 19:9
And Jesus said unto him, — This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
- Jesus declared that Zacchaeus was saved! He did that which the rich young ruler could not in Matthew 19. The rich young ruler was a Jew. He had grown up keeping the law of God. Yet when Jesus told him to sell everything and follow Him, how did he respond?
- Matthew 19:22
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
- He went away feeling really sad because he loved his riches more than he loved Jesus. But it was not so with Zacchaeus. After one meal, after one encounter, he had found the greatest treasure of this earth, more than all the riches that he had and he was willing to give it all up for Jesus!
Now let’s look at another person who is also quite notable. She’s not a publican but a harlot. Remember, Jesus said to the Jews that the publicans and harlots would enter into heaven before them?
- John 8:3-4
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
- This woman is traditionally known to be Mary Magdalene. The scribes and Pharisees were ready to stone her. But Jesus would eventually thwart their plans and set this woman free.
- John 8:11
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
- Later on, when Mary comes into the house of Simon to wash Jesus’ feet, Jesus declares this of her.
- Luke 7:47-48
47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. 48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
- Truly, the harlot and the publican would go into heaven before the Jews.
- And today the same can be applied. There are many now that would possibly go into heaven before any Christian, before those that have been going to church all their lives.
The focus on the labourers is not about the quality of work they did but rather their character and attitude at the end of the day.
- You see, God does not only look at how long you worked but also the spirit in which it is done. It is possible to really treat working for God like how many treat being a doctor or accountant or businessman. It is simply a job and nothing more. It’s possible to focus on the money and not on the blessings of the call.
- It was evident from the parable in Matthew 20 that the first-hour labourer cared so much about his reward. His focus was the money and not the privilege of working for the master of the vineyard.
- It is interesting that in the Bible where Jesus declared people had great faith, each time it wasn’t referring to anyone that was Jewish. The first we already read about, it was the Roman Centurion. The other is the Syrophenician (Canaanite) woman who asks for healing for her daughter who is demon possessed. This is the only two people that Jesus declares has great faith.
- Being in church does not mean you automatically quality for salvation. It means you know who Jesus is and have the privilege to work for Him. But it doesn’t guarantee a seat in heaven. I’m sure the first-hour labourer did his work well, but it was at the end that he let go of Christ.
The reward of receiving a penny is the reward that Jesus will give to everyone at the end of time. What is that?
- It’s eternal life!
- There are no extra perks of those who have served longer, or who have suffered more, or who were Christian’s longer. I’ll be happy to just sleep on the doorstep of God’s house. It won’t be cold there. I won’t feel tired. There won’t be neckaches or backaches or disease. Just let me get through the pearly gates. I don’t even need a house! If I get there, I will just be happy and that will be enough.
- That is what is represented by that penny. The reward is eternal life for everyone no matter how long you worked.
Friends, what is your focus today? Are you like the rich young ruler, still looking at your earthly possessions? Do you care so much about how much you have in your bank account and how full your house is with earthly things that you have forgotten to store up your riches in heaven?
The thief on the cross did not even have an opportunity to serve Jesus but look at what Jesus says to him.
- Luke 23:43
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
- How much would the thief give to just have one opportunity to come off the cross and show Jesus how much he loved Him! He had wasted his life away on this world and was full of regret, but yet so happy that Jesus gave him that promise. How precious it was to him in his dying hours.
- Do we treasure the privilege to serve God today? Or do we have one eye on the world, feeling sad that we are missing out while everyone else is enjoying and having fun? And then at the end we complain and murmur.
How can we be sure that we don’t miss out at the end of time? How can we avoid this murmuring and complaining? We need to keep our experience fresh. We can’t let the world pile up at our door. Each day we need to walk with Christ so that Satan doesn’t steal a march upon us. The rich young ruler did not amass all these possessions overnight. Step by step, day by day, his focus was changing, from Christ to the world.
So with us today, we need to re-focus. To make sure our eyes are set on things above and not things of this earth. Let’s come back to seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness so that God can give us the right priorities and keep our characters like His each and every day!