The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (vv. 14–15).

- Matthew 20:1—16

In the parables of Jesus, we find a great deal of teaching on such things as the value of the kingdom of God (Matt. 13:44–46) and the way in which the kingdom grows (Mark 4:26–32). Many parables also tell us about how our Creator deals with His people, and that is the focus of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

Grapes were one of the most valuable commodities in ancient Israel because they could be transformed into fine wines. So important were the vineyards that the prophets often describe the salvation of God’s people as including the restoration of the vineyards of the Promised Land (for example, Amos 9:14). Vinedressers and vineyard owners know, however, that the profitability of their vineyard depends on harvesting the grapes at just the right time. Wait too long, and the wine produced from the grapes will not be as good and will not command as high a price as it could. Consequently, when the time of harvest comes, vineyard owners often employ many day laborers in addition to their regular staff so that all of the grapes can be picked before it is too late. That is the setting of today’s passage, wherein the master of the house must find “laborers for his vineyard” (Matt. 20:1).

As we see in the passage, the grape harvest is so large that to get sufficient help, the master must keep returning to the marketplace, which was where men who were searching for work gathered. Although the laborers are hired at various points during the day, all of them receive the same wage—one denarius—at day’s end (vv. 2–9). This upsets those who were hired at the beginning of the day, for it meant that they were getting the same amount of money as those who worked far fewer hours. When they complain about what they view as an injustice, the master responds by correcting their understanding and taking their pay from them (vv. 10–16).

The laborers who complained made the error of thinking that the master had no inherent right to determine how he would allot his resources. Jesus’ point is that like the master, God has the right to determine how much grace He will give to people. The Lord is not obligated to give anyone grace, let alone the same grace to all people. As the master in his treatment of the laborers was not unjust, God is never unjust. People get what He has promised them. Yet some people get more than others, and since the Lord owes us nothing but wrath, we may never complain about our portion.

Coram Deo

In our fallen condition, we are tempted to believe that God somehow owes us something other than justice. However, if the Lord were to pour out His justice on us, we could not stand. But He shows grace to His people, saving them from their sin when He owes them no such salvation. Grace, by definition, is not owed, so we have no right to complain when it is shown to others as much as it is shown to us.

Passages for Further Study

Jonah 4
Mark 2:13–17
Romans 11:6
1 Corinthians 15:8

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