“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1 – 2)
In reading this parable one has to keep in mind what Jesus was trying to teach about the kingdom of heaven. And it is important not to cast anyone person in any role of that in heaven, but to see the situation as a whole as a description of heaven.
Barnes sees this parable as applying to the church on earth, and as such the application and morale of the parable differ slightly. Barnes sets it as who is given more or the most of gifted-ness, ability, and blessing. Other commentators see the parable speaking to the issue of who has known of the gospel and been saved the longest. Those who have been saved for a longer period of time should have the greater reward than those who came later to faith.
This parable is very apropos to the consideration of new believers (as has been the passages from the Old Testament). Those newer to faith and having lived out a long life according to Christian faith should have more privilege and prestige than those who only recently accepted Christ and professed belief.
It is interesting that Jesus is having this conversation with his disciples, supposedly before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Almost as if the telling of the story is recasting it according to what the disciples came to understand about the parable. Or . . . it is the commentators who have applied a meaning to the parable as seen in hindsight. Let us try to read this parable with fresh eyes, and not place any weight of meaning according to the context of understanding of what Christianity is about.
“When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ “ (Verses 4 – 8)
The normal expectation is that there will be a difference of reckoning between those who were hired first and worked the day, and those who have only been working for an hour or two.
“When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.
And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Verses 9 – 16)
We know that Jesus has told his disciple that they will suffer because of their faith, as Jesus criticized and talked against because of his teachings. He is warning them, I think, that those who have withstood oppression and persecution the longest shall receive the same reward as those who were only oppressed and persecuted for a relatively shorter amount of time. That following Jesus is not a matter of reward based on human accounting but is rewarded according to the Lord God’s accounting.
The clue, I think, to this passage came in chapter 19 where Jesus said about the rich young man, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” (Verses 23 – 25) The disciples were concerned about who would and would not be saved – that is, who merits being saved and who does not. If a rich person can not count on being saved because of his/her position in the world, that how is one to judge. Jesus, I think is trying to tell then that anyone who believes, that is anyone who has worked and labored for the Lord God is worthy of being saved. Sometimes it will seem like the person who should come first will actually be in a less prominent position; and someone who is not seem to be accorded and accounted much in the world will receive great honor in the kingdom of heaven. But all who believe will be saved, based on the judgment of the Lord God.
While I greatly appreciated the work that commentators have done, and will most assuredly do in the future, sometimes it is good to discern for one’s self what the scriptures are saying. May the Spirit of God quicken your understanding, beloved reader, as you labor in the Lord God’s vineyard. Selah!