Untangling the vine

Matthew 20:1-16 The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

 1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

   3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

 

   “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

 

   7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

 

   “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

 

   8 “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.’

 

   9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

 

   13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

 

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

 

            I have heard a number of interpretations for today’s passage and that is the beautiful and challenging thing about parables: there can be more than one credible ways of reading the text.  Instead of telling you all what I believe you should think I want to take some time to look at this parable, look at some of the interpretations that make sense to me, weigh the pros and cons of each interpretation, and then allow you to make your own decisions on which, if any, are correct.  Let’s get to it!

            Our text begins with Jesus talking about the kingdom of heaven.  And remember that the phrases kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are pretty much interchangeable and I will likely use them interchangeably.  Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard.  It must be harvest time because the landowner is looking for workers for his vineyard; lots of workers.  So the landowner goes into town at about 6 am, the sun is just coming up and people are looking for work for the day.  The landowner invites them to work for him for the day for a denarius, which would have been the average day’s pay in Jesus’ day.  A denarius is the amount that a person would have to earn to be able to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of his family.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The workers agree and they go to work.

            Three hours pass and the landowner needs more help.  So he goes back into town and sees more people looking for work, so he hires them.  He doesn’t specifically mention how much he will pay them, but he says that he will pay them what is right or fair.  The landowner does this again at noon and then at three, each time offering to pay them what is fair.  Finally he goes into town at 5:00 pm and finds more people, standing around, looking for work.  The landowner hires them only this time, no mention of pay is made.  The workers probably just assume that they will take what they can get.

            When quittin time rolls around, the landowner tells his manager to call in the workers and pay them, beginning with those last hired.  If a denarius is the going rate for a day’s worth of work it would make sense for these workers to get a fraction of what the other workers made.  The ones hired at 6 am worked about 12 hours, so one might expect these workers to get 1/12 of a denarius.  But they don’t.  The get paid a full denarius for working a partial day.  This got those hired at 6 am pretty excited.  Maybe, just maybe they will receive up to 12 denari!

            The manager goes right down the line, from those hired last to those hired first, and puts a single denarius in the hand of each of the workers.  The laborers who worked all day long are a little ticked off at this.  Why did those who only worked one hour receive as much as they did?  They grumble loudly saying in verse 12, “These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

            The landowner replies, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

            I was right there with the guys hired early in the morning.  I felt that they should have received a little something extra for their work.  To me it just doesn’t seem fair.  Perhaps it is all of the times that I had to get up and milk cows before the sun came up.  Maybe it is the way I had to work to put myself through college.  Regardless, I have been taught and I have learned to value hard work and hard work should be rewarded.  That’s the backbone of Capitalism!  Even in Jesus’ parable of the talents the workers that multiply the talent that they were given were praised by their master.  So what is up with this parable? 

            It would seem to some that Jesus is endorsing laziness.  If everyone is going to receive the same pay, then why would anyone start working at 6 am?  You might as well sleep in until noon, do a little yard work, catch a little Oprah in the afternoon, and then go to work for one hour.  Everyone is getting a denarius regardless of whether they work 1 hour or 12.  It makes sense to me to work the one hour!

            This seems to be the shortcoming of Communism as well.  If everyone is going to make the same amount of money at the end of the day, what is the motivation to work harder, or to even work at all for that matter?  Yet we have seen communities of faith that have made this work in the past.

            No, I don’t think that Jesus is trying to teach Communism (note, capital “c”).  I would say that any effort to interpret this parable as Jesus either condemning or condoning a certain kind of economy is missing the point.  I would say that this parable is meant to provide insight into who God is. 

So the first credible interpretation that I want to consider is that this is a parable about God’s compassion.  Remember that the denarius was considered to be the amount necessary to provide food for one’s family.  Some would interpret this parable as saying that God is gracious in that he looks at his children and provides the things that we need.  In his commentary on the book of Matthew, Myron Augsburger says, “This is a story of God’s compassion: the worker that started at the end of the day needed as much money to feed his family as the person who worked all day.”

            The person who began work at 6 am agreed to work for a single denarius because that is what he needed to feed his family.  The worker that began at five never imagined that the landowner would be so compassionate as to provide him with a full day’s pay.  He was simply looking to get what he could.  Maybe he could make enough money to earn some scraps for his children.  Maybe he would end up going hungry himself and use the money to feed his children.  Regardless, the landowner was filled with compassion and gave all of the workers enough to feed their families for the day.  He wouldn’t have had to, but he chose to.

            Another interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is trying to show the love of God and how it is given equally to everyone.  Some have noted that when the landowner went into the town at 5 o’clock to hire the last workers, he asked the question in verse 6, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”  They didn’t sleep until noon and then watch soap operas.  They have been in town all day long looking for work.  Granted, they haven’t been doing anything while they have been in town, but they have been there all day long.

            When they are asked this question by the landowner, they respond in verse 7, “Because no one has hired us.”

            This hits too close to home for most of us.  You may be aware that our country has been in a bit of a recession lately.  I don’t blame one president or another; as we all know this is a complicated issue that goes back over a period of time and involves many, many variables.  Without getting bogged down with the numbers, we know that unemployment is high and underemployment is higher.  People who want to work can’t find a job and some who are working are doing jobs below their level of intelligence and skill.  The people that are hired at 5 o’clock in Jesus’ parable are looking for work, but nobody has hired them.

            It is hard to say why nobody wanted to hire these people, but if we think about it, we can make a few assumptions.  If you were hiring a harvest crew to go into your vineyards and retrieve your crop, what would you look for?  Healthy individuals that are in good physical condition, right?  They would have good endurance, able to work all day in the hot sun.  They would be flexible, able to reach low to the ground and pluck the grapes at the bottom of the vine.  They would probably have long arms, able to reach deep into the vines to pull out the grapes.  And they would be people that looked trustworthy, because you wouldn’t want them to eat more grapes than they harvested for you.

            The ones that are left in the city at 5 o’clock would have been the lame, the crippled, the old, the weak, the scoundrels, the wicked.  Nobody chose them to be on their harvest team because they were not able to pull their weight.  They were not worth a denarius.

            But along comes the landowner.  And the landowner looks at these misfits, the left-overs, the left-behind folks and he says, “You are worth just as much to me as the others.  I want you.”

            This interpretation makes verse 12 a little clearer.  “After those that had worked all day received their denarius the said, ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’” 

            The issue that the all-day-long workers take isn’t that they received the same amount of pay as the workers who were added late in the day.  The issue is that the landowner had ascribed the same amount of worth on those that only worked an hour.

            This seems to be Jesus critiquing the mentality that we can earn our worth from God, that certain people are more valuable than others.  But time and time again we find in the Bible Jesus telling us that God loves everyone equally, regardless of what they do or what they have done.  The pastors and the prostitutes, the treasurers and the tax collectors, the deacons and the demonic.  All are loved, all have the highest worth to God, even when society says otherwise.  So when the landowner goes out and hires the old broken-down workers that nobody else wanted at the end of the day and pays them the same as those that have worked all day long, Jesus is telling us that everyone has value in the eyes of God, regardless of how much you can or chose to do for God.

            That is a hard pill to swallow right there.  I like to think that the more that I do the more God will love me.  Maybe if I preach the best sermon I can preach God will love me more.  Maybe if I visit more sick people God will love me more.  Maybe if I give more money to the poor God will love me more.  I believe that it is human nature to think this way, or at least human nature in a capitalistic society.  The more we do, the more we earn.  The more we earn the more we are worth…right?  Not in God’s eyes.

            This would be a good time to back up a bit in our scripture and look at the context of what is going on.  In the previous chapter we find Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, which we will come back to in a few moments.  But after the RYR leaves, Peter, ever the shy one, boasts, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”  It seems to me that perhaps Jesus’ teaching of this parable could be an effort to correct Peter’s perspective on God.  Maybe Jesus is trying to correct Peter’s belief that through his work he can gain God’s favor.

            This brings me to the last interpretation that I want to highlight this morning, and that is that this passage is entirely about grace.  We come back again to this Rich Young Ruler.  The RYR originally approached Jesus with a question.  He asks Jesus, “What must I do to get eternal life?”  Jesus invites him to follow the Ten Commandments, and this very religious young man informs Jesus that he has kept all of the commandments since his days as a boy.  Jesus then tells him that liars don’t go to heaven…no, he tells the RYR to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him.  Then he will be perfect.  But the RYR leaves disappointed because he didn’t want to give up his many things.

As the RYR is leaving, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  It is in response to this that Peter boasts that he and the other disciples have left everything behind and followed Jesus.

            The context of this passage is about how one becomes a citizen of God’s kingdom, a kingdom set forth by Jesus which will continue into eternity with God.

            When you read today’s passage from the perspective of entering into God’s kingdom, we find that the parable of the workers in the vineyard is about grace.  The workers that labored all day long seemed upset that the landowner gave the late comers a denarius for their hour worth of work.  They were upset because the people that didn’t work but for one hour did not earn their reward.  And Jesus seems to be saying That is the point.  It’s called grace.  You don’t earn it, it is God’s to give and God gives it to people who don’t earn it.

            So we have looked at about three different ways to interpret today’s passage of scripture.  We can read it as Jesus teaching that God is a compassionate God who gives us what we need.  Even if we only are able to work an hour or two, God provides us with the minimum that we need, even though we know deep down that we didn’t earn it.  We can read this passage as Jesus teachings that God is a loving God who loves each and every one of us the same, regardless of who we are and what we have done.  God loves the tax collectors and the sinners as much as he loves good church-going folks; God ascribes us all with unsurpassable worth.  Or we can read this passage as Jesus teaching us that God is a god of grace and that God provides entrance into his kingdom freely, that we cannot work for grace, but God choses to give it out to whomever God choses.

            So which is it?  Is this a parable about the compassion of God, is this a parable about the love of God, or is this a parable about the grace of God?  Yes.  As I said in the beginning of this sermon, one of the beautiful things about parables is that they can be interpreted in multiple ways and multiple ways can be correct.  And I believe that the parable of the workers in the vineyard reminds us that we serve a compassionate, loving, and gracious God.  May we live in this reality today and every day.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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