Lessons learned from the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

This is one of my favorite parables for a number of reasons. As a trial attorney, most of my practice for the last 25 years was in employment law. It was always a challenging area, one I often referred to as “weird law” because so much of what I did was counter-intuitive. One of the greatest challenges in that area of the law was exactly what happened here in this parable. Employees would see an employment issue and would see it through the lens of their own circumstances and apply their own “intuition” or logic to it. On some occasions, that lens filtered what happened to the point that all the employee saw was “that isn’t fair.”

It was always a challenge in litigation to demonstrate that perspectives vary and that “fair” is a very relative term. Nothing shows that better than this parable. Jesus showed that fair was relative and that He was “fair” as well as just.

Matthew 20:1-16
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.”

To the workers who struggled with hot, hard work for twelve hours, receiving the same pay as men who worked only one hour late in the day was “unfair.” In fact, any employer following such a practice would soon have trouble finding any worker early in the morning and would likely go out of business. But Jesus isn’t suggesting this as a business practice. Instead He is illustrating a point. But His point is not about God’s “fairness,” but instead He is showing God’s incredible grace and generosity.

Fair is relative, but fair matters to people. Justice matters to God. Many people can’t tell the difference between the two. The best way to illustrate that difference is to admit that I don’t really want justice, I want my idea of what is “fair.” As a sinner, justice demands death. Romans 6:23. Instead, I want mercy and fairness, at least my idea of fairness. This parable gives a very good image of the problem in the workplace. And when this moves from the workplace to salvation, the appearance of unfairness can be magnified even more.

Is it ”fair” that the thief on the cross sinned his entire life and made a “death-cross” (as opposed to a death-bed) acceptance of Jesus as Lord? But you have served years and years. Is that “fair”? What about Jeffrey Dahmer’s reported conversion to Christianity in prison after his commission of multiple heinous murders? What is “fair” about that? Or, how about that other murderer, Saul, who became the apostle Paul? Is it fair that Paul, a murderer and a man who because of his record of cruelty to the church and to Christians, and his part in the murder of Stephen and doubtless many other believers, not only was saved but also is now considered by most believers to be the greatest Christian of all? Is that “fair”?

Yes, it is fair – in God’s eyes. Salvation is not payment for purity, work, long and faithful service or any other effort. It isn’t that those who work hard enough are saved and go to heaven but if you fall just a little bit short you are sent to hell. If you think about that, that would be unfair in every sense of the word. And it isn’t that those who hold firm to the end are saved, but those who falter, even after a lifetime of good works and service and love of God are doomed to hell. If you want to talk about unfair, that is it!
This is a kingdom parable where Jesus begins with the words, “the kingdom of heaven is like …” The use of similes is the style of the kingdom parables. This isn’t an exact comparison, but it means that there are similarities we need to look for in the parable.

The landowner of this parable represents God. The field where the work is done is the kingdom work done by saved persons. The field is not all work by all people on earth; the field is for those who have been called to work for the landowner.

Another interesting point is that the field is actually a vineyard. They are expected to harvest fruit. Those who work for the Lord can be recognized by Him as harvesters. We are expected to bear fruit.

John 15:5-6
5  “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
6  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.

So, we can be recognized as followers because of our fruit. It isn’t our talk or our church attendance (although corporate worship is important for other reasons); it is by our fruit:

Matthew 7:15-20
15  “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
16  By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
17  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
18  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
19  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

The workers who started early and worked hard did receive the reward they were promised, a reward that should have been all they expected. But they came to expect more because they filtered the later hirings through their personal lens of what was, and was not, “fair.”

What did they miss? They did not factor into their thinking God’s enormous grace. Grace so far surpasses “fair” that it is hard to filter through the world’s lens of fairness. We think of things as fair because we see through our own eyes and experiences, and because in our hearts we know that justice is not what we really want. The wages of sin, including our sin, in the eyes of God’s justice, is death. Romans 6:23. The grace we receive is a gift, a very undeserved and unearned gift from God.

That part of this parable is relatively easy. What about that ending, though?

Matthew 20:16
16  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In isolation, that ending may seem odd, because it could be argued that it means those who come last to salvation get an advantage over those who have lived long lives of faithfulness and service. But this comment about the last and the first is not alone or in isolation. This parable follows an event in Matthew 19 that ends with the same passage, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

This is not a parable where Jesus gave us an explanation of the parable’s meaning. However, putting different passages together, there is a reasonable explanation. In Matthew 21 Jesus was questioned by the chief priests and elders of the temple. In Matthew 21:31b Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.
Based upon that statement in Matthew 21:31 and others at Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30, as well as Matthew 19:30 and Matthew 20:16, it appears likely that Jesus was saying that those who expect privilege based upon position or religiosity (“I’ve earned the right to be first” or “I’m more important”) will be last while those who come sincerely to Him and serve Him will be first.

In Matthew 19, Jesus is approached by a man wanting to know what he needed to do for eternal life. This man was less than honest with Jesus, claiming he had kept all of the commandments without fail. Jesus, knowing the man’s heart, then gave him one more task,

Matthew 19:21-22
21  Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus and His disciples then discuss the impediments to the wealthy making it to the kingdom. Matthew 19:23-24. That discussion includes the well-known comment by Jesus, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24.

There is another point that appears in this parable. Throughout His ministry Jesus emphasized that salvation was a faith issue. It isn’t money that gets someone into the kingdom. In fact, wealthy people appear to face many challenges. Matthew 19:23-24. It isn’t experience or long life that earns the kingdom – little children receive it. Matthew 19:13-14. We reach God’s kingdom by His act of grace, His generosity to us.

Lessons for the church and for believers

What lessons are there for the church and for the believer in this parable of grace? The lessons are many.

Salvation is not a “reward,” but there are rewards for faithful service. All who accept Jesus as Savior receive life, but there are rewards of an unknown nature for believers. See Matthew 5:10-12 and Revelation 22:12 among many others.

That there are eternal rewards for service needs to be made clear but that the greatest reward of all, being in the presence of Jesus in heaven, is a gift of God’s generous grace. John 3:16 and Revelation 22:17.

There is also a message of hope that is more difficult to see in our time. Roman taxes were high and Jewish law was violated by it. God had commanded that land was not to be taken away from His people. The right of redemption existed by God’s Word. Leviticus 25. But under Rome, many small farmers lost their land and did not have any redemption rights.

The result was not different than the lines at unemployment offices and work pools today. Men would line up and wait (and hope) for work so they could buy bread to take home for their family. This parable offers hope for the worker. God pays a full day’s wage even to those who start at the last hour of the day.

There is also a call for generosity in Matthew 20:15. Jesus says that the landowner, representing God in this parable, describes Himself as generous. And we are to follow God’s example, Ephesians 5:1 (NIV), or as translated in the NASB, to imitate God. Ephesians 5:1 (NASB). Many pastors and preachers are reluctant to speak of giving. But God’s generosity is so central to the gospel of Jesus Christ that it is a shame for the message of God’s generosity to be left out of the lesson options.

At The Idlewild Foundation we try to live lives of radical generosity and both encourage and promote radical generosity in the lives of believers. God started with generosity in Genesis 1 and even gave us His Son’s presence and His Son’s life. The lesson here is this parable of the laborers in the vineyard demonstrates God’s love for those living on the edge and His radical generosity to them. May our lives reflect that same love and generosity.


About the Author

John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.

This is the eighth in a series of articles on financial and other issues facing the American church in this no longer very new millennium. These articles represent the personal thoughts and reflections of the author and are not necessarily a statement of The Idlewild Foundation. These articles are based upon parables told by Jesus and stories from the gospels on events in His life, applying His life and teachings to the lives of believers and to the church as a whole and not to any one church in particular.