Terry Barnes

author, award winning novelist, adjunct professor of religion



The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Unfair Story: The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

Nothing offends us more than to have a coworker receive the same wage for less work. Quite honestly, it’s not fair.

Yet in Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus tells such a story. This is a story of a landowner who goes to the marketplace at six in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He negotiates with them for a denarius, a generous day’s wage, then sends them off to work. At nine in the morning, this landowner returns to the marketplace to find others desiring labor. To this group, he merely promises to pay, “whatever is right.” He returns at noon and at three in the afternoon, hiring more workers. At five o’clock he returns one more time to find still more workers. These too he hires.

At the end of the day, the landowner orders his foreman to assemble the workers, beginning with those who were hired last. To these one-hour workers, he pays a denarius, a full day’s wage. Seeing this, the group hired first assumes they will be paid more. Yet when they receive their pay, they too receive a denarius.

Grumbling, they approach the landowner. “We have borne the burden and heat of the day, yet you have made this last group equal to us.”

The landowner rebukes them. They didn’t complain because he had been unfair. Indeed, he fulfilled everything he promised. They complained because he was generous.

End of story.

We cannot help but sympathize with the first group of laborers. They indeed worked all day and bore great burdens. Shouldn’t their pay reflect the extra work?

Yet the group hired last also has worries. Consider this.

A man has a wife and several small children, and it is imperative that he finds work. After all in that economy, if he doesn’t work nobody will eat. So at six in the morning, he searches for work but finds none. He inquires at nearby fields. He checks in the town’s marketplace several times, just missing the master. He searches neighboring farms. Necessary workers have been hired. Everybody turns him away.

By noon he feels panic. By three o’clock, he has sunk into despair. The day is slipping away, wasted. He’s been a failure. The only reason he is in the marketplace at five o’clock is that he can’t bear to go home and face the shame.

Yet at five his fortunes change.

He meets the master who asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” It’s as if outside the vineyard is idleness. Certainly for the unemployed, being outside is awful. But idle?

“Nobody has hired us.”

“Go to my vineyard.”

So this man and fellow workers rush off to the vineyard. Anything, even a cheap copper coin (what’s fair), is better than nothing. Though it won’t feed the family, it will at least mitigate the shame.

Imagine his reaction at six o’clock when he receives a full day’s wage, a silver denarius. He will rush home, squeeze his wife, toss the kids in the air, then with great joy tell them about his day. Together they will rejoice and praise the master.

However the first group of workers will be complaining when they arrive home. After all, it wasn’t fair.

Same vineyard. Same master. Same wage. Yet two different reactions.

The immediate context for this parable begins in Chapter 19 when Peter announces how he has given up everything to follow Christ. In effect, he asks, “What will I receive?” or “What’s in it for me?”

Jesus responds with this story.

So what’s the point?

Let’s ask Peter if he really wants a wage from God. Does he want to stand before Almighty God and announce what he has done for Him? Lost and sinful Peter, saved only by the grace of God, asking this holy God for what’s fair? Seriously?

And consider this. What if there’s a second day of harvest? Where will the grumbling workers be? Possibly at the vineyard at six. After all they need to work too, so they'll be there, working and grumbling.

But where will those who were hired last be? They’ll be at the vineyard long before six in the morning. Why? Because they’ve been changed. They've been touched by the grace of the master. They will not idly stand outside the vineyard in unemployed horror. They will work with great joy, for after all, that’s the heart’s response to grace.

So don’t stand before God and boast of your works nor ask for a wage. You will receive your wage, and a fair one. But that’s not what you really want, for you too will walk away grumbling. You see the kingdom of heaven is unlike the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world operate by the principle of the wage, a day’s pay for a day’s work. In fact in our fallen world, it is essential that they operate this way. But the kingdom of heaven works by a different principle, and that principle is grace.

One final thought. Place yourself in the story. The day is over, work is done, dusk is settling, and the workers line up to receive their wage. Now look past the foreman through the descending gloom at the face of the master. There, by the power of story, you’ll see the face of God.


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© 2017 by Terry Barnes