“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 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 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.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one 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?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This devotional is brought to us by Joanne Tweedie a Leader in The Abbey. You can follow her work here.
THE PARABLE OF THE WORKERS IN THE VINEYARD
This will help you understand the way heaven’s kingdom operates: “There once was a wealthy landowner who went out at daybreak to hire all the laborers he could find to work in his vineyard. After agreeing to pay them the standard day’s wage, he put them to work. Then at nine o’clock, as he was passing through the town square, he found others standing around without work. He told them, ‘Come and work for me in my vineyard and I’ll pay you a fair wage.’ So off they went to join the others. He did the same thing at noon and again at three o’clock, making the same arrangement as he did with the others.
Hoping to finish his harvest that day, he went to the town square again at five o’clock and found more who were idle. So he said to them, ‘Why have you been here all day without work?’
‘Because no one hired us,’ they answered.
So he said to them, ‘Then go and join my crew and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard went to his foreman and said, ‘Call in all the laborers, line them up, and pay them the same wages, starting with the most recent ones I hired and finishing with the ones who worked all day.’
When those hired late in the day came to be paid, they were given a full day’s wage. And when those who had been hired first came to be paid, they were convinced that they would receive more. But everyone was paid the standard wage. When they realized what had happened, they were offended and complained to the landowner, saying, ‘You’re treating us unfairly! They’ve only worked for one hour while we’ve slaved and sweated all day under the scorching sun. You’ve made them equal to us!’
The landowner replied, ‘Friends, I’m not being unfair—I’m doing exactly what I said. Didn’t you agree to work for the standard wage? If I want to give those who only worked for an hour equal pay, what does that matter to you? Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Why should my generosity make you jealous of them?’
Now you can understand what I meant when I said that the first will end up last and the last will end up being first. Everyone is invited, but few are chosen.
Matthew 20:1-16, The Passion Translation
A parable by definition is multi-layered. When we attempt to pinpoint singular, precise, or literal meaning we restrict its ability to do its intended work upon the individual human heart. So friend, let’s explore together and allow God’s Word to do its work upon us individually and collectively, for when God’s word goes out it is attached to a promise that it will not return void but it works within the human-heart to do the good-work intended (Isaiah 55:11).
The title of the parable, perhaps misleadingly, puts our focus on the workers in the vineyards, when here we are dropped into two tandem stories – that of a wealthy landowner who is tending to harvest season within his vineyard and that of the workers who he calls to do the physical-labour of the harvest.
Let's first start with the physical backdrop of a vineyard ripe for harvest – throughout the Bible we see this metaphor of a vineyard used to depict both God's chosen people (the people of Israel) and the Kingdom of Heaven where God's original purpose for humanity reigns. The prophet Isaiah depicts this most beautifully in Isaiah 5 where we first see this picture of a vineyard owner lovingly tending to the promise, potential and fruitfulness of a vineyard designed to yield a crop of the most perfect vines:
“For I will sing for the one that I love song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up, and cleared it of stone and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it, and cut a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes...”
We can see the Lord’s heart for humanity and His never ending desire to tend His people into a fruitful crop worthy of His glory in this vision. Similarly, in Matthew 16 we have a vineyard owner anxious to harvest a great crop and returning time and time again across the day to recruit more workers for his mission.
Turning to the character of the vineyard owner, we see a landowner who is operating with a heightened sense of urgency for the work (the harvest) to be completed. He persistently visits the marketplace at dawn and time and time again throughout the day to recruit more workers for the ever-increasing scope of the harvest. We see a landowner who is unwavering in his vision and dedication to the cause. While he invites others into the work, we get a sense that success is not contingent on a single ‘yes’ of participation; that cause will triumph in the end, and while gracious, he is unrelenting in pursuit of what he knows must be done. The true revelation of the heart of the vineyard owner comes in both word and deed at the end of the passage, where the landowner instructs his foreman to pay equally the workers who were hired at the start and the end of the day.
When questioned, he says, “I am not being unfair to you friend. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was 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?”
Scholars parallel the act of generosity of the landowner to the mercy, justice and good-grace of the Lord, a grace that knows no boundaries. Indeed as Jesus himself speaks into this parable,
“So it will be [in the kingdom of Heaven] the last will be first, and the first will be the last”.
The Message version calls this “the great reversal”– where God’s ministry here on earth turns upside-down our definitions of reward, success and justice.
Isn't this so like the Kingdom of God? Where the King of this world entered the world not in priestly robes or a royal palace, but as a baby left out of the inn and born in a manager? Personally, I always come undone by the fact that it was the love, mercy and goodness of God that chose to come down to earth to walk amongst us, reconcile us to Heaven and be born as the most vulnerable of all –a baby in a manger.
Ann Voskamp writes,
So God throws open the doors of this world. And enters as baby. As the most vulnerable imaginable. Because He wants unimaginable intimacy with you. What religion ever had a god that wanted such intimacy with us that He came with such vulnerability towards us? What god ever came so tender that we could touch him? So fragile that we could break Him? So vulnerable that His bare and beating heart could be hurt? Only the one who loves you to death.
Yes, in God’s Kingdom we are asked to suspend the world’s logic of giving in order to get, and model ourselves on this ultimate model of servant leadership where the last amongst us (true servants) will be first at the end of days.
If we are honest, how much more does our flesh lean towards the reaction of the workers in this parable who fall quickly into comparison? Beginning to grumble against the landowner, saying, “Those who were hired last worked only one hour...and yet we have been paid equally who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
While we may deem ourselves “more worthy” through the toil, burdens, and work we perform for the Lord, only God knows our true heart-motives, and admonishes us in this parable not to think of ourselves higher than we ought or be envious for His act of generosity towards all of humanity. Perhaps we can think of this as the great leveler, both because we have ALL fallen short of glory but for the grace (unmerited favour) of God, and that we ALL receive a promise that we will be co-heirs in Christ no matter how early or how late we come to the table. It is a promise and inheritance held only IN CHRIST not conditional upon our own doing, as Paul so beautifully writes in Ephesians 2,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, It is the gift of God not by works, so that none can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works for which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
It is within the beauty and tension of this invitation that we find ourselves today walking by faith not by sight into the inheritance that is promised, and within the honour of doing God’s work here on earth. Yes, it might cost us something (even the disciples asked this in Matthew 19:27, saying “Lord we have left everything to follow you, what then will there truly be for us?”), but God surely answers then as he does now that there is a unique place for you around the table, and as we give-up (surrender) our quest to be first, more of his greatness, mercy and goodness will be released (the first will be last).
God longs to reveal this paradigm to us as a community, and to each of us individually. This is an unfolding revelation that God's ways are not of this world, and that we can find freedom from so many things (comparison, jealousy, hustling for our worthiness, competition) as we trust in His ways that are both sovereign and pure.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
The enemy of this world would like to seed doubt, insecurity, bitterness and competition, but this parable is a reminder both of the urgencies of the work to be done and an open invitation for us to step up and out to do God's work faithfully. Doing God's work comes with a coating of protection, peace and favour that is found nowhere else. Who God calls, He relentlessly equips, and friend, you will NEVER miss out from leaning in to the divine invitation upon your life. He will chase you down, heal you, make you new and bring new things for you and others around you.
May we keep our eyes relentlessly fixed on Jesus as we continue to follow this road together.