PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 20.1

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 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?’ 7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8  “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.’ 9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came, and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘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.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus told this parable to expand and reinforce the issues raised by Jesus and the disciples when a young man came seeking assurance, but when faced with his primary trust in wealth he withdrew.
  2. The parable that explains how the kingdom of God works.
  3. The owner of a vineyard went out early in the morning to hire people to work for him.
  4. He offered them the usual amount for unskilled labour – a denarius would be worth about $A200 in today’s currency.
  5. At nine o’clock he went to the village again and hired more workers.
  6. He offered them work and told them he would pay what is right.
  7. At midday and again at three in the afternoon he did the same thing, hiring more workers.
  8. Finally, at five o’clock he went and saw men who were waiting because no one had hired them.
  9. He told them to go and work in his vineyard.
  10. At the end of the day, he told his foreman to have the labourers come to be paid, starting with those who were hired last, going through to those hired first.
  11. The ones who were hired at five o’clock in the afternoon were paid a denarius for the work they had done.
  12. The ones who were hired at the beginning of the day saw that the others were paid the amount they agreed to work for and were expecting the owner to pay them more.
  13. They were paid the agreed amount, the same as the others.
  14. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
  15. They told him that it was unfair for them to receive the same amount since they had worked harder and longer than the others.
  16. The owner replied to one of those workers that he was not at all being unfair to them because they were receiving the amount agreed to when they were hired.
  17. He told them to take their pay and go.
  18. He decided to be generous to those who came late in the day.
  19. He said that he was entitled to be generous with his money in any way he wanted.
  20. He challenged them by suggesting that they were just envious of his generosity, not aggrieved because of some injustice.
  21. This is what he had meant before when he said that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

Chapter divisions in the Bible were created for a good purpose but, like sub-headings, they can sometimes hide as much as they reveal. In this case, it would be easy to think that the new chapter would announce the beginning of a new sub-story when, in fact, it brings us to the second of a two-part sub-story.

The story began when a wealthy young man asked Jesus a question about eternal life. Jesus drew the young man to the edge of his comfort zone and then challenged him to take the next step. When he sadly walked away the disciples realised that they had given up a lot of things valued by people in this world’s kingdom in their commitment to follow him. Jesus then pointed out that the values of the kingdom represented a much bigger, longer picture. He finished that segment with the ‘punchline,’ “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (19:30) This parable also finishes with the same punchline, “So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (20:16) Jesus introduces the parable with the word, “so.” In this context, it is a conjunction that introduces a result or consequence of what was said previously. It just tells us not to disconnect the two segments. It also tells us that the second point illustrates the same issue as the first one does. All of this demonstrates how easy it is to miss the point by separating a verse or even a passage from its wider context. Context should be discovered and proven, not assumed.

Jesus and his disciples had just seen how the deceitfulness of wealth could rob an excellent young man of the opportunity to connect with and serve his Father in heaven. The disciples realised that they had forsaken this wealth to follow Jesus. Jesus showed how different the kingdom of God was to the kingdom of this world, first by responding to Peter’s question, “What happens to us?” and then by telling them this parable. What it comes down to is that the people who serve the kingdom of God seem to be the ones who are on the bottom of the pile as far as this world is concerned. They leave their family homes and set aside the opportunity to have successful careers and earn lots of money, have comfortable homes and go on expensive holidays. They rarely have social status and are often treated as rejects or criminals. In the kingdom of this world, the people who are thought to be at the top of the pile are the people who are wealthy, smart, educated, attractive, clever people who have successful jobs, travel often, live in comfortable homes and drive expensive cars. Like the rich young man who started this discussion, they are envied by the wider community. In themselves, these values mean very little – or nothing – in the kingdom of God.

The King of the kingdom of God accomplished the purposes of God without relying on any of them. Jesus was not wealthy. He did not parade his wisdom and teaching in a “know-it-all” way. He was not physically handsome (Is. 53), there was nothing about his life or background that gave him cultural status. His popularity, though significant was not the measure of success, in fact, he avoided the possibility of becoming a popular “cult-hero.” His arrest, trial and death numbered him among the worst of criminals according to the Roman system. He is the example for us of someone who, in the eyes of this world, was a loser. As such he is the leading exhibit for someone who looks like a loser, but became the greatest “winner.” Just for the record, that victory gained nothing for him as an individual. In fact, it cost him more than we will ever be able to measure. We were the beneficiaries of his work. I wish we could get that. I wish we could understand that personal gain at the expense of others is as destructive as any list of ugly sins you might want to make. Jesus didn’t change as he grew up in Nazareth. He didn’t change inside when he walked to the Jordan to be baptised and to Galilee to begin his ministry. The night he was arrested he didn’t summon any previously hidden aspect of his character. He was the same. He was a man demonstrating what God was like – all the way. It is the nature of God and the essence of godliness to lose what you otherwise may possess for someone else to get something they need. Personal ambition is so heinous and ungodly. That’s why Jesus added a parable to the lessons already offered through the encounter with the young man and then in the plenary with his disciples. We need to hold those two lessons in the front of our mind while we listen to this parable so that we can discover the further treasures of life as members of the kingdom of God.

 

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

When we are seeking insight into how the kingdom of God operates in parables such as these, there are two things to notice. The first focuses on the activities of the owner of the vineyard. When we get to see some of the crazy ways people have interpreted parables over the years, we should only listen to Jesus when he tells us that the kingdom message of this story has to do with the vineyard owner and what he does. At this point in the story, everything the vineyard owner does is the same as all of the other vineyard owners who go to the marketplace to look for labourers early in the morning. The negotiation with them included an agreement about how much they would be paid. The denarius was the standard day’s wage for a worker at that time. Once again, every other owner would have come to the same place and done the same deal.

 

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 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?’ 7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

Now it starts to get a little weird. Four other times during the day the owner goes back to the marketplace to find more men to work in his vineyard. Remember that we are looking at the owner to discover how the kingdom of God works. This has nothing to do with wage negotiations or work conditions. It is not a brief for a union leader’s meeting any more than it is expounding moral values for Christian employers. It is explaining how the kingdom of God works.

It seems to me that the owner intended to offer work for everyone. Each time he finds unemployed men in the marketplace he offers them a place to work in his vineyard. When the matter of payment is raised the amount is not stipulated except the promise to pay “whatever is right.”  He just rounded up anyone who was willing to work and then went back in case there were more who had not found employment. When he goes back with only an hour or so to go, he sounded somewhat surprised or displeased that there are still people there who had not been employed. We can only assume that the ideal underlying this attitude is that everyone should want to work and should have the opportunity. The fact that the owner continually returns to the marketplace looking for workers is because he is concerned that there will be people looking for work but no one to offer them a job regardless of what time of the day it is.

 

“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.’ 9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came, and each received a denarius.

Now the story starts getting even more strange. If this were a normal ‘employment’ situation, the owner would have paid the first workers what was agreed and then the others according to the number of hours they had worked. No one would have been surprised, and no one would have challenged the owner’s actions. Instead of doing that the owner paid the late starters the wage they would have earned if they had started at the beginning of the day. As each of the groups came, beginning with the latest, they were each paid a full day’s wage regardless of how little or much they had worked. As the workers who were hired from the start of the normal working day saw what was happening, they were not immediately upset. They presumed that this employer was generous and if so, they would be receiving more than they had agreed when they signed on. Here comes the second strange incident.

10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘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.’

The first workers would have been surprised by the owner’s payment to the late starters. They figured that if the owner were as generous as he had been with the others, they would receive more than he had initially offered. That idea came crashing to a halt when they were given a denarius and nothing more. They voiced their complaint loud enough for the owner to hear. The point they made is straightforward and reasonable: “We worked the whole day when it was hard and when the sun was hot. The last group to be hired only worked for one hour. Why should they be paid the same?” I find myself in agreement with their complaint and am keen to listen to the owner’s response. As has been the case all the way through the gospel stories, the surprise-point has been a signpost to the revelation of the kingdom.

 

 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

We now come to the third abnormal action by this owner. The first was when he returned to the marketplace to find more and more workers. The second was when he paid the late starters the full amount and then the early starters the same (agreed) amount. It seems this “employer” wants everyone to be working and can’t stand the idea that there might be some waiting around in the marketplace looking for work, but not having the chance to be hired. The truth is that he has been entirely fair to them. He offered them work and offered the going rate. They agreed. They worked a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. When they complained about his generosity toward the newly hired workers, they were thinking like members of this world’s kingdom. This kingdom is about me – and when someone else gets something I don’t, a little red light goes on to tell me that this is not fair. This is the world that is built around me. It is not the kingdom of God. These workers are a lot like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. He was upset because his foolish young brother was getting what he didn’t deserve. He had lived his whole life in proximity to a father who was gracious, merciful, forgiving and generous. What did he think when his father went out to the edge of the farm to see if his lost son was coming home? But nothing registered. He saw his father through the lens of his own self-righteousness. In his world, there was no place for redemption or forgiveness. There was no seeking and saving what was lost. It was all about doing the right thing and being rewarded for it. But we have to wait for the last piece of information to get the biggest picture in focus.

 

 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This is the key moderating statement for the whole parable. In other words, it is a revelation of the nature of the King of the kingdom. We are all witnesses when a young man who, by the values of his own society was someone to be admired. He was young, rich and righteous. Everyone, given an opportunity, would have swapped places with him. He was the epitome of the “blessing of God.” In his community, he would have rated as one of the “first.” That was until he came face to face with the person who knew what the eternal kingdom was like. When the young man was called on to choose between the most basic kingdom value – i.e. following Jesus and his wealth and status, his value system was shown up, and he chose to remain a citizen of a contemporary version of the kingdom of this world – albeit a thoroughly religious one.

The disciples then realised that they had made a very different choice. They saw supreme value in following and serving Jesus Christ. As a result, they had left behind all the things that people work hard to achieve in this life. When they said as much to Jesus, he told them that their choice would be seen by the people of this world’s kingdom as the losing option. They lost the comfort of their family presence, their home village and their livelihood. They would be challenged and condemned by the religious and the political establishments of their day and would be misunderstood by most of their contemporaries. Jesus said they only seemed to be losers. In fact, they would gain family; a new kind of family – followers of Jesus, sons and daughters of a heavenly Father. To use Jesus’ words, they would lose their life for his sake and, in doing so discover fully who and what God had made them to be.[1] They look like losers, but they are eternally winners.

Now, this picture of losers and winners is expanded. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard isn’t just about generosity. It is about the late-comers being treated with the same honour as the ones who were at work from the very first hour of the day. This reveals a grubby set of attitudes that so easily creep into groupings of humans. The original people easily form themselves into an exclusive club or IN-group. You can experience this almost anywhere at any time. Notice a group of people who have known one another for a while and go try to join it. You will either advertently or inadvertently be treated as the outsider. Pressure will be latently applied for you to have to earn your right to belong. It is one of the most common toxicities of all the churches I have ever known. Usually, there will be a range of “in-groups”, and there will almost always be people who don’t have any “in-group.” They will always be treated as “outsiders.” It can be simple friendship groups. It can be ethnicity, interests, gender, age, education, employment to mention just a few.

It is different in the kingdom of God. The actions of the owner of the vineyard are a metaphor for what was happening through the gospel. The original workers (i.e. servants of God) were the people of Israel. They had started to work for God from the beginning. Jesus was heralding the kingdom message they should have brought but didn’t. Jesus referred to this when he told them that the Temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a place where people of every nation were to be honoured for the fact that they, like the people of Israel were created in God’s image and likeness and were to be loved and called into the family. This is the pay-check in God’s account waiting to be claimed by all who would “work in his vineyard.” As the message would be proclaimed, new groups of people would join the workforce of heaven. It was always going to be in the heart of the father for the most recent sons and daughters to be honoured and esteemed. Unlike the “in-group” and “out-group” experience, these outsiders would be welcomed as insiders from the very beginning. In the case of the prodigal son, he was longed for a looked for by the father. When he finally came home he was given a robe and shoes to wear and was honoured with a party. This was going to be played out in every part of the world.

It will always be powerfully counter-intuitive for a group of people to reserve their greatest welcome and their highest accolade for the newest member. We are told that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-ninety-nine who don’t need to repent. In case you think that’s unfair, the ninety-nine who don’t need to repent should also be experiencing more joy over the fact that the outsiders are no longer outside. In fact, I think it is probably incorrect to refer to them as outsiders. They are insiders who have just become aware of it. They were created in the image of God before they decided to repent and were sons and daughters of their heavenly Father every day they were living apart from the family.

This is the message of the parable. Instead of being treated as less worthy people, the late-comers to the vineyard were regarded by God as or equal status and worth as those who carried the responsibility of the work from the “beginning of the day.” I’m sure the disciples listening to Jesus had no idea how this kingdom of God value would be tested among them. Gentiles were going to be accepted with equal joy, equal worth and equal status as Jews, in fact, those distinctions were going to lose their meaning as the wall of partition was broken down (Ephesians 2) and as they all became one in Christ (Galatians 3). This is easy for the mind to agree about but hard for the heart to embrace.

The model for these attitudes begins with God who is three persons in perfect oneness. If you were to read through the New Testament and focus only on the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another it would give you a picture of fully inclusive oneness. That oneness never gets a chance to become status because the commitment of each to the other and the commitment of all to the task transcends it. What you will see is a community of people who exist entirely for everyone who is not part of that group. It is totally inclusive. As we see with Jesus, there is no relationship border to cross to get from the “out-group” to the “in-group.” There is no qualification to gain. The embrace of Jesus’ love pre-empts it. Just think of all the different kinds of people who gained access to Jesus in the gospel stories. There is not a single common qualification apart from the fact that they were “sick” humans in need of a “doctor.”[2] To put it another way, with Jesus, and of course the Persons of the Godhead, there is no such thing as “them-and-us.” There is only “us.” People who are lost are no less loved and are no less worthy than those who are not lost. This is always a hard thing for religiously inclined people to fathom because they think God likes them more because they keep a set of rules. The Gospels paint a very good picture of the contrasting attitudes toward sinners between Jesus and the religious leaders. The religious leaders considered themselves members of a very exclusive club. They presumed wrongly that God liked them and hated the ones they deemed as sinners. Wrong, very wrong.

I have witnessed a lot of groups of Christian people who have achieved significant levels of oneness. It seems that the greater the oneness, the more likely they are to become exclusive rather than inclusive. They may not intend it to be so, but it seems to happen. They often project an invisible wall that separates them from people who are NOT part of that group. They tend to talk about experiences which are common to the members but not to non-members. They gravitate toward each other in a larger social setting. They sit together and talk together. They seek on another out and enjoy each other. This is so ungodly. It looks and can sound godly, but it is ungodly. God is nothing like that. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are constantly seeking those outside the group. They exist for them. They give themselves to the work of drawing the “outsiders” to the “inside.” They treat the outsiders like insiders long before they join.

This is the message of this parable. It is the only message that makes sense of the owner’s actions. He spent the whole day seeking more workers, right up to the end of the day. He treated all of them the same regardless of how long they had worked. As such, they all received the same wage. It wasn’t a reflection of how long they had worked, but of their intrinsic worth.

IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

  1. In a room full of people, I would gravitate to the persons I knew least, rather than spend my time with the few I knew best.
  2. I would summon all the strength that comes from team bonding and use it to reach and affirm people who were not part of the team.
  3. I would eternally think of people outside my social groups as “us” and not “them.” And I would treat them as equally worthy of my attention, my interest and my resources.
  4. I would love to show hospitality to strangers as much as to close friends and family.
  5. I would make a point of treating the people I knew least with special attention so that they would feel as included as those I knew best.
  6. I would treat the newest person(s) in my world with more acute care and attention than the older acquaintances.
  7. I would make a special effort to find ways of loving and including those people in a group who are the more difficult to love and include so that they would always be accorded worth due to them as from God.
  8. I would never require someone to earn worth or acceptance. I would always offer it and work hard to make sure they got the message.
  9. I would never look at behaviour and use it to measure worth.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

Through the three parts of this story, Jesus was proclaiming a gospel message that, if received, would challenge and transform personal and social culture. The young man heard a message that would challenge him to re-think his value system when it came to wealth and status. The disciples saw that same message regarding the new community and new family Jesus would build through the gospel where people would set aside cultural priorities to serve the kingdom and discover a sense of family and find treasure beyond compare. This parable, as much as any other highlights the fact that in the relational focus on the kingdom of God is not toward those who are already members. It is an inclusive club that exists only for the sake of its non-members. The most important person in this kingdom, apart from the King, of course, is the next person encountered who is outside the kingdom. They will be afforded the same worth as the longest-serving member.

This is both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. It requires a Holy Spirit transformation to happen to our hearts and minds. We need to think differently and value differently. Just consider for a moment what any congregation of believers would be like it if existed exclusively for the sake of everyone who was NOT a part of it. Instead of members whinging about not having their needs met, they would be looking to afford special honour to the newest member. The leadership meetings would be given to finding better ways to love non-members – and so on. I don’t know any congregation like this – but I want every group of Christians I relate to, to grow to become like our Father God, and his Son, Jesus. I want us to develop a culture where the last can be first, and the first can be last.

[1]                 See Matthew 16:24-26

[2]                 See Matthew 9:12, “On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.