Matthew 20 1 – 16
Jesus said to his disciples.
“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.
Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.
He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’
They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He told them to go to work in his vineyard. When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’
“Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’
He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money?
Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’
Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”
Jesus uses this parable to challenge our sense of justice and the worldly context in which we put it. In fact, that is explicitly what the owner of the vineyard promises to the labourers who harvest his fruit — justice, in the form of just compensation for the labour involved.
And yet he delivers what seems at first blush to be a most unjust result, paying everyone the same amount of money for different amounts of labour, and doing so based on what appears to be a somewhat misleading offer. That apparent injustice is so much a part of the story that it’s clear that this is not a lesson on economic justice, but something else altogether.
In this parable, as in so many others, Jesus prepares His disciples and all other listeners for salvation by putting it into understandable, human terms. His larger audience in this case were the Israelites (the group from which His disciples came), who saw the Messiah as the mechanism for temporal salvation, and their identity as the mechanism for eternal salvation. Seen from the perspective of a timeline of salvation, this parable warns the Israelites that they will not be alone in eternal salvation, nor will they have a greater share of it than others. In fact, the last will be first — not in rank or grace, since all will be equal, but at least in precedence. As in His other parables, Jesus warns against the arrogance of presumption, even for those who are saved.