In Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus tells the parable of a landowner who hires labourers to work in his vineyard. This parable is designed to show us something about Jesus and his kingdom. Accordingly, the landowner represents Jesus and the vineyard represents his kingdom.
In the story, the landowner goes to the market place at dawn to select workers from those who are offering themselves as labourers. The custom was that day-labourers usually supplied their own tools; so landowners typically would have looked for fit, hardy people with strong, sharp tools.
The landowner selects some workers and offers to pay them a denarius, the usual pay for a day’s work. A few hours later, the landowner goes back to the market place and sees others, still standing and still waiting to be chosen. He tells them to go and work in his vineyard for a just rate of pay, but he does not specify the amount. The landowner does this again at noon and at three o’clock in the afternoon. There was plenty of work to do in his vineyard. Planting, nurturing and harvesting vineyards is hard work and extra workers mean greater productivity.
At around five o’clock the landowner sees that there are people still standing in the market place. He asks them why they have been standing there for the whole day doing nothing. They reply, “Because no one has hired us.” The landowner then does something unexpected. With only an hour or so of daylight left, he tells them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
These people were the rejects – the workers that no one else wanted to employ. Perhaps they appeared weak and scrawny, or, in some other way, appeared ill-suited and unfit for work. But they go off and toil in the landowner’s vineyard.
An hour later, when the work day was over, all the workers gathered to receive their pay. The ones who were employed last receive their pay first. Surprisingly, they receive a denarius – a full day’s pay.
The workers who have laboured all day are unhappy that the latecomers receive the same pay as the first-comers. They complain to the landowner saying, “you have made them equal to us” (Matt. 20:12 NIV, my underline.)
There are several messages that can be drawn from this parable. One of them is a message of equality. “Equality” is a word found several times in the New Testament. Equality is a kingdom concept.
Jesus ends this parable with: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus’ meaning here is that concepts such as first or last have no meaning or relevance in his kingdom. Moreover, the things that have primacy or prestige in our carnal culture, have no importance or value in the kingdom. As followers of Jesus we are already part of his kingdom: his kingdom is among us (Luke 17:21).
Jesus has made us equal, so we need to be careful that we do not judge people, including his workers, by physical appearances or by worldly standards. Jesus selects and calls his workers from among those who appear foolish, and from among the weak and the humble (1 Cor. 1:26-29 cf 2 Cor. 5:16-17).
There are workers who are still waiting to be used. While it is good to keep standing, to keep making yourself available, to keep sharpening your tools, and to keep looking for opportunities to labour in the kingdom, there is work for you to do now. Don’t stand around and do nothing.
It is the last hour and Jesus is still looking for more workers. To those who have thus far been denied ministries he says, “Go and work in my vineyard.”
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 The Greek word for “equal” used in Matthew 20:12 is the adjective isos. Paul uses the cognate noun “equality” isotēs a few times in his letters. More on this here.
More about the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew chapter 12 here.
Image credit: Woman picking grapes © SurkovDimitri (Source: iStock #27560810)
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“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
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Shepherds and Harvest Workers: Matthew 9:36-38
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