Since we began studying the Bible with our Christadelphian brothers and sisters, I have enjoyed the parables of Christ. They can teach us so much, and they deserve special attention. Jesus used them to teach his disciples. I freely admit that some of them can be confusing. I am much happier with the parables that our Master clearly explains.
Let us consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16).
There are some unusual events in this story. I imagine they were also unusual 2,000 years ago.
Probably, it was not unusual to hire ‘day laborers’ to work in your vineyard. Very early in the morning, the owner would go into town and find people willing to work for the day. He agreed with them to pay the wages for the day — a denarius, or what the KJV (rather misleadingly for us) calls a “penny”. This sounds peculiar to us today, because today’s “penny” is worth practically nothing. But we know from other references that the denarius was a common payment for a day’s work. It would have been a long day, about twelve hours, from dawn to sunset.
The unusual thing comes with the second group hired by the landlord at the third hour, about 9 o’clock in the morning:
“And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.’ And they went their way” (Matt 20:3,4).
When he says, “I will pay you whatsoever is right,” I suggest this would be unusual, for any time or place. How many plumbers would come to your home to unstop the drain if you said when you called, ‘I will pay you whatever I decide is right’?
This same unusual behavior continues at noon, at 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock. So now we have five groups of workers in the vineyard, but only the first group knows what their wages will be.
Also, there is an unusual aspect from the workers’ point of view. The workers hired later should have negotiated their wages. They should not have expected to receive the full day’s wages, but there was no bartering, no negotiation.
Finally, there was the order of payment when the day was over. The Law of Moses tells us the basis for payment:
“Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning” (Lev 19:13).
Workers were paid at the end of the day, but you would expect that those hired first would be paid first. Instead the landowner first pays the last ones hired. There appears to be only one reason to do this, and that is to highlight what the last group is being paid. They are paid a full day’s wage. In fact, all five groups are paid exactly the same.
How would we react?
My initial reaction when I read this story comes, I think, from my business school education. ‘That’s not fair!’ ‘The union won’t allow that!’ And finally, since I am a product of the sixties, ‘That sounds like communism!’ You know, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’
Our culture, especially in the United States, is obsessed with fairness and equity. “Fair,” according to the dictionary, means free from bias, dishonesty or injustice; proper under the rules. Let’s remember that second part. “Equitable” means characterized by fairness, just and right.
My initial reaction is that paying a person who works one hour the same amount as the person who works twelve hours could not be fair and equitable. I know that if this happened at my place of employment there would be big trouble and lawsuits. It also reminds me of Paul’s comment when writing to the Corinthians:
“For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1Cor 9:9,10).
It is certainly natural in our part of the modern world for workers to expect fair compensation. But when we examine ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ more completely in society today, we find that often when people use these words they mean either ‘what I want’ or ‘what I think I deserve.’ And this leads us to the next section.
The essentials and meaning of the parable
Like others, this parable is designed to demonstrate and describe things of importance to us. These parables tell us about God’s character.
First, the payment method. The workers are paid last to first. As I mentioned before, the only reason to do this is that people will notice and ask questions. Does this tell us something about God’s character? Yes, I think it does. It shows us that God can accept our questions. He gives us answers in His word.
Job questioned God and was still judged to be a righteous man. Moses, Abraham and Jesus likewise questioned God. There are times when the answer is not as clear or as obvious as we would like it to be. Sometimes the answer may not be what we want to hear, but He still answers.
Second is the spirit of the master. It is by no means ordinary. He returns to find more workers throughout the day. He does not ask just once, but over and over again, for people to work for him.
This characteristic of persistence is very beneficial for us. God and His Son keep asking us to join them, to come and work in their vineyard.
Thirdly, generosity and fairness. The Lord is generous to some while being just to all. He is merciful to all of the workers, regardless of when they start or how long they work. They all provided faithful service. Thus the landowner displays a characteristic of God:
“And [Moses] said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (Exod 33:18,19).
God’s character, I think we can all agree, is a higher standard, something to which we should all aspire.
Finally, a principle is put forth that is mentioned in the New Testament several times: The first will be last and the last will be first. The scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like these parables because they knew Jesus spoke to them, and they feared that being last would mean they would be excluded. Also, they didn’t want to give up their exalted positions, and especially not to the son of a carpenter. Jesus had discussed this a bit earlier when he spoke to the rich young man:
“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt 19:21).
He told him to give up his wealth, and his position of preeminence. Then he tells us that this is a difficult lesson. He also gives us hope:
“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (vv:22-26).
So the first hired in the vineyard still received their reward:
“Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (vv 28-30).
As we continue in our walk toward the Kingdom, awaiting our Lord’s return, we should remember with gratitude the fact that we have already been called to work in His vineyard. Some of us have been called earlier than others, but that is not important. What is important is our faith and our work for him. We have our assigned tasks: working in the vineyard, and recruiting more workers to help us. Let us go into the world this week and do our best, as we await his return.