The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard

Once a rich man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to “gain” eternal life. We know that we cannot do anything to gain eternal life or even our salvation as it was freely given to us. But the rich man was persistent and Jesus’ standard answer of following the commandments did not seem satisfactory to him. So Jesus told him to sell off all his possessions, give them to the poor and then follow Him. At this, the rich man went away in sadness as he had a lot of wealth and the thought of parting with it would be unimaginable to him.

On hearing the conversation between the rich man and Jesus, Peter wanted acknowledgement of the fact, that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. Although not as much as the rich man would have had to give up but still in Peter’s mind he had sacrificed a lot and wanted perhaps a premium package of eternal life. Though this incident is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels, the Parable that Jesus told in response to Peter’s question is found only in Matthew’s account.

The Recruitment Drive

While describing the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus narrates a parable about a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed to work for him for a denarius and he took them to his vineyard. But the man kept coming back to the marketplace to recruit more workers. He hired a fresh batch of workers at nine in the morning, at noon, at three in the afternoon and five in the evening. To each, he said that he would pay them whatever is right for their time. Perhaps the landlord’s vineyard had a bountiful harvest and he needed more and more workers to gather the grapes, or maybe, this man was a generous landowner who went out to the marketplace looking for out of job labourers and recruiting them to work in his 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.’

Matthew 20:8

Seems like an odd practice to pay the newly appointed labourers first, and those who have been working since morning in the end. In our offices, everyone gets paid at the same time and one’s tenure does not dictate the disbursement of their salary. Or maybe the scenario is like having two housemaids and us being strapped for cash. We would choose to pay the maid who has joined us recently hoping that the maid who has been with us for a longer duration would understand our situation and expect a delay in her payment.

Jesus always gave preference to his new followers like the Samaritan woman, the Centurion, Zaccheus and the Syrophoenician woman as He expected His disciples who had been with Him for nearly three years to be mature enough to know His heart. But the disciples also kept grumbling when they thought they were being treated unfairly. Even in this situation when the rich man came to Jesus, Peter and the disciples wanted recognition for what they had given up in their pursuit to follow Jesus all over Israel. Seeing the workers who were hired last get paid a denarius, the ones hired first expected to receive more but were disappointed to receive the same wage that they had agreed upon and started grumbling against the owner. The owner replied,

Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Matthew 20:15

It is a human tendency to compare our income and achievements with that of our peers. The slightest inclination of knowing that our coworker earns more than us sends us off in a frenzy. We start making mental calculations about years of experience, age, gender etc. into consideration to justify the gap. In the parable, the vineyard owner wanted everyone to receive an equal payment, out of the generosity of his heart. It did not matter to him how much effort each of them had put but he wanted to do right by everyone.

The denarius represents Jesus’s love on the cross that was shed for us which has been freely given to each and everyone. Our God is a generous master who has given the gift of salvation to all, irrespective of the work that we have or have not done (with most of us falling in the second category). It is up to us to receive what is allotted to us without grumbling that we deserve more. We should always remember that this gift is because of His grace and not something that we have earned.

A Typical Vineyard

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

Matthew 20:16 (NIV)

First In, Last Out

Often times while waiting in the lobby of my office building for the elevator, I see people huddling close to the doors in attempts of being the first ones to enter in. What they don’t realise is that while exiting, they would be the last and their efforts to save time would be in vain. The disciples were like our modern-day early adopters. They thought that they had embraced Jesus at an initial stage, while others were still getting used to the idea of the Messiah. They expected to reap rewards like early investors of a unicorn company.

We live in a competitive world, and with it, the system of rewards and recognition has been seeped into us. Every action of ours is motivated by recognition, if not reward. Whether it is being top of our class or the best performer in our office or even at home while helping our family, we need recognition for our efforts. We have come to expect the same in our relationship with God. People come to Jesus for miracles, healing or to know what has been planned for their future. Only a few come to Jesus to have a relationship with Him. Like the disciples, we too believe that our efforts in spreading the Gospel or running the church service or leading the worship choir will reap us extra benefits in heaven. The fact is that we are all God’s children and all of us have been given the gift of salvation freely without us having to earn it.

Questions Discussed

  • What can you say about the Landowner who is constantly finding new people to work for him?
  • Why were the workers who were hired last paid first?
  • What does a denarius mean in our lives?
  • “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Does this seem fair?

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