Scripture reading – Matthew 20-21
Perhaps it is due to my privileged upbringing on a small farm in rural South Carolina, but the story of the farmer who hired day laborers to work in his vineyard is among my favorite of the parables (Matthew 20:1-16). The contextual timeline is near the beginning of Christ’s final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Background for Matthew 20
The LORD, had traveled south along the eastern shore of the Jordan River, and encountered a man that Luke identified as a “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18). His identification as a “ruler” was most likely indicative of his role as a leader in his local synagogue. The young man came asking Jesus, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16)
Boasting he had kept all the Commandments, Jesus asked him to give up the thing he loved most, his possessions: “Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor…and come follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Sadly, “when the young man heard [i.e. and understood] that saying, he went away sorrowful [grieving; sad]: for he had great possessions [estate; property]” (Matthew 19:22).
As the rich man turned and walked away, Jesus declared to His disciples, “a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Peter, often the spokesman for the disciples, then inquired of Jesus, “Behold we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” (Matthew 19:27)
The disciples had left everything and endured three years of sacrifice to follow Jesus. They had forfeited their homes, families, and friends. They had endured hardships and suffered mocking, scorn, and persecution. All this had left Peter wondering; “LORD we have been with you from the beginning, what is our reward?” That question is the backdrop for the Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16) that serves as an illustration of God’s grace and justice.
Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Laborers
The owner of a vineyard realized his harvest was greater than his family and servants could harvest in a timely manner. In our parable (Matthew 20:1-16), the farmer goes into the village on five occasions, in the same day, to hire men to work in his vineyard. The first workers were hired at the 6:00am shift (Matthew 20:1-2) and agreed to work in the vineyard for a “penny a day” (actually one “denarii”, the daily salary of a Roman soldier and a large sum for a day laborer). Four additional hires would follow that day: 9:00am, 12 Noon, 3:00pm and the final hire at 5:00pm. All were hired without a stated salary, but with the promise the owner of the vineyard would give them “whatsoever is right” (Matthew 20:4, 7).
With 6:00pm marking the end of the workday, the owner’s foreman was directed to pay the laborers beginning with those who were hired at 5:00pm, meaning the last hour (Matthew 20:8). To their amazement, the one’s who worked only one hour were paid the same wage (a penny or denarii) as those who labored at the 6:00am hour.
Demonstrating the jealousy and covetousness that abides in the heart of sinful man, those who had negotiated a penny wage at 6:00am had “supposed that they should have received more” (Matthew 20:10). Those jealous workers began murmuring and complaining against the owner of the vineyard, and accusing him of being unjust, protesting they should have received more (Matthew 20:11-12).
Matthew 20:13-16 – A Lesson in Grace and Salvation
The owner of the vineyard had paid the 6:00am workers what they had negotiated and agreed to; however, it was his business how he chose to reward the other laborers (Matthew 20:15).
Application: Whether a sinner comes to Christ as a child or, like the penitent thief on the cross in his last hour, every believer is assured of heaven and eternal life (Matthew 20:16). Why?
Because every sinner is saved by a gift of God’s grace, and no sinner can earn or merit salvation and forgiveness of sin. Whether you have served the LORD since being saved as a child, or you have come to accept Christ as Savior in the latter years of life, all sinners are saved on the same basis: God’s mercy and saving Grace, His favor that no works can merit.
Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Titus 3:5 – “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;”
Copyright 2020 – Travis D. Smith