Sunday 25th September 2017
Matthew chapter 20 verses 1 – 16
Maggie Cogan – Reader
Money, money, money
Must be funny
In the rich man’s world
Money, money, money
In the rich man’s world
All the things I could do
If I had a little money
It’s a rich man’s world
The words from a famous Abba Song and of course from the film Mama Mia
Do any of us have any idea what refuse disposal officers as they are called get paid today? Do we
know what they are making per hour? Do we know what electricians and plumbers are making
these days? A lot of people want to be making as much as possible. As for those professional
footballers well their salaries are ridiculous. So are the salaries of some of our television
If we want to get people upset very quickly in today’s world, all we have to do is begin talking
Money, salaries, equal pay for equal work: these words cause all kinds of tensions within us. It is
with this tense and conflictive mood that we approach the parable for Jesus for today.
Jesus’ parables are never about church. Not one parable of Jesus is about church. Not one
parable is about candles, canticles or choirs. Not one of his parables is about preaching or
processionals. Jesus’ parables are from everyday life. They are from the market place, the farm,
the family. Well, today’s parable is about salaries, wages, and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s
work. Today’s parable is about the daily or hourly income.
Jesus was and is a master story teller. He always tells these wonderful stories. He is famous for
many reasons. He is the Son of God. He died on the cross and was raised from the dead. When
we examine the parables of Jesus, they are enormously creative.
There is nobody who tells stories with the imagination and quality with which Jesus does.
In the story for today, once again Jesus uses every-day, common life experiences. What was the
dominant farm crop in Israel at this time? Grapes. And so he would tell a story about harvesting
The workers in the vineyards didn’t stop to work out the meaning of the parable because they
were so upset about the story itself.
What is the purpose of this story of Jesus? Jesus’ parables are quite often referred to as earthly
stories with heavenly meanings. So what is the heavenly meaning of this earthly story for today?
The parable of the workers in the vineyard, is a story Jesus told to express several aspects of
God’s nature and character: His love, mercy, and compassion powerfully shown through salvation,
along with His unfailing care and rewards for those who love and serve Him.
This parable, like others Jesus told, starts with the words “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”
This phrase tells the listener that Jesus is going to give information about God and what He’s like,
and about how those who live within His kingdom and submit to His reign in their lives should see
The master of the house is translated as the landowner. Many landowners in first-century
Palestine would farm nearby land. In this story, the landowner had a vineyard which was large
enough to need extra workers to help during the times when it was important to get the work done
quickly. Even today our farmers hire extra people especially during the soft fruit season and in the
last few weeks help has been needed to bring in the grain – so “All is safely gathered in”
Needing extra men to work short term, the owner went to the marketplace where the day labourers
congregated in the hopes that someone would come and offer them a job, even if it was just for
the day. The life of day labourers at that time was a difficult one. They had no job security. They
had no income if they didn’t find work. Each evening they would face their families either with the
joy of coming home with enough to put food on the table or with nothing. To find employment, they
would stand in the town square, where everyone would see them and know that they were
unemployed. This was humiliating, but getting hired and being paid was vital to their families’
survival. The day labourers were on the low end of the economic scale, so much so that Scripture
required that day labourers be paid at the end of each day, as they needed the funds for their
The owner of the vineyard went out early in the morning to hire labourers to get a full day’s labour
from them. He chose some workers and negotiated the price that they would be paid for their
day’s work. Since people didn’t have watches, the workday for the day labourer began at sunrise
and ended when the first star could be seen in the evening sky. This made for roughly a 12-hour
workday. He agreed a wage for the work
A denarius for a day’s work was standard pay at that time. It wasn’t high pay, but it was enough to
sustain one’s family. The labourers agreed to this amount and were hoping that at the end of the
day they would be asked to return the next morning.
The second time the landowner went to the marketplace was midmorning, around 9 a.m. Upon
arriving, he found men still waiting to be hired for the day. He selected and hired some of them and
sent them off to the vineyard. He didn’t negotiate a price with them. Rather, he told them that he
would pay whatever was right; meaning that he would be just when he compensated them. The
workers took him at his word, which gives the impression that the landowner was trusted and
respected within the community.
At noon and again at three o’clock in the afternoon he returned to the marketplace, and each time
he hired more men. There is no mention made of the landowner discussing how much the
labourers would be paid.
A while later he returns to the marketplace for a fifth time, when there’s only one hour of daylight
One can only imagine how desperate these men were for work, and how discouraging it must
have been for them to stand in a public place all day long hoping to be hired, to no avail. These
men were determined to find work or they wouldn’t have still been in the marketplace waiting and
hoping. In a short while, they would return home empty-handed to face their families.
When asked by the landowner why they were still standing there, their reply was that no one had
hired them. So off to the vineyard he sent them. There is no indication what compensation these
eleventh-hour workers would receive for only one hour of work. Perhaps they felt that if they went
willingly at this hour, no matter how little the pay, the landowner might hire them for the following
day’s work. Shortly thereafter the workday was finished and it was time to pay the workers.
Some new and surprising information surfaces at this point. The landowner has a foreman, an
estate manager, someone who runs things for him. This would immediately bring up the question
in the original listeners’ minds as to why the landowner was the one hiring the workers and not the
manager. Landowners who had estate managers didn’t generally concern themselves with the
day-to-day running of the farm, neither did they traipse off to the market five times a day hiring
workers. For that matter, why didn’t the owner hire a sufficient number of workers in the morning
instead of going to the marketplace five times throughout the course of the day?
Of course, Jesus is telling a parable; He isn’t recounting an actual event. So the reason the owner
of the vineyard in the story is doing the hiring personally, and hiring at five different times of the
day, is that it helps to make the point that Jesus intends to get across.
The original listeners were probably also intrigued by the odd instructions the owner gives the
foreman regarding paying the workers. The foreman is instructed to pay those hired last in the day
first, and to pay those hired first – last. As we’ll see, paying the men in this order caused some
As we know, parables include few details, and in this one there’s only mention of payment made to
those hired first and last. The implication is that everyone who worked that day, no matter how
long they worked, received a full day’s pay of probably one denarius. When those who worked the
whole day saw that those who worked for just one hour received full pay, they anticipated that they
would receive more. From their point of view, that would make sense. However, they received a
denarius just like everyone else did.
This parable is telling us what God is like. God is just and He keeps His promises. He is also full of
mercy. Being merciful doesn’t have anything to do with fairness. Mercy isn’t about giving someone
exactly what they earn or deserve. It is an act of love. It is giving to someone who is undeserving,
which is exactly what God’s love, grace, and salvation is all about.
God isn’t limited by what we humans consider fair. If that were the case, there would be no hope of
salvation, no forgiveness of sin. If we were only given what we deserve, we’d all be doomed.
Instead, like the workers who didn’t deserve full pay, we are the recipients of God’s generosity,
compassion, mercy, and grace through salvation.
The beauty of the story is that because of the compassion and generosity of the landowner—the
employer—everyone got what they needed. It wasn’t a matter of overpaying some and
underpaying others. It was a matter of love, of meeting the need.
It paints a beautiful picture of God’s call to salvation. Some receive the call, or opportunity, early in
life, some later, and others on their deathbeds. God, like the landowner, comes to the marketplace
again and again, to see who is there, who is ready and eager. Whether a person comes to
salvation early or late, all receive the same salvation.
This parable tells us something about salvation, and of God’s loving and compassionate nature. It
also addresses some other important issues. As listeners, it asks us about our attitudes when God
manifests His love and blessings to others. The workers who toiled through the heat of the day
received the blessing of a day’s wage, a promise which was fulfilled. Yet when they saw others
who didn’t work as hard or as long as they did receive the same blessing, they resented it.
Besides giving us insight into God’s nature, we are reminded about those who are saved, and
especially those who serve the Lord, that the promise of reward isn’t meant to cause speculation
about whose reward is going to be greater. This parable shows that God’s reward system goes
way beyond the human perception of justice. His ways, His thoughts, and His means of judging
and rewarding operate on a much higher plane than ours do.
Along with speaking of rewards and God’s generosity, there are principles in this parable which
apply to our everyday lives. Being envious of others’ blessings or success, or being jealous of how
well God is taking care of and supplying another’s needs, is mirroring the attitude of those who
were begrudging the vineyard owner’s generosity. It runs contrary to the ways of God’s kingdom.
Rather than being envious, we should rejoice at how generous and gracious God is. We should
rejoice with those whom God is blessing.
We should revel in the realization that each of us is loved and accepted by God, not because of
what we do, but because of who He is. He saved us not because of our works, but because of His
loving grace. It wasn’t due to our efforts; it was due to His mercy. None of us could ever earn His
love, blessings, or rewards. Each of us has been given much more than we deserve by our
generous and compassionate Father. And whenever possible, we should do what we can to
imitate His love and compassion in our interactions with others.