Reading Time: 8 Minutes
Peter watched a rich young man walk away from Jesus. Then, he heard Jesus talk about how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God. This led Peter to ask Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19.27).
Jesus answered Peter’s question, but ended his words with this saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19.30).
Jesus then told a parable to explain what he meant. He said, “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. 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” (Matthew 20.1-4).
When Toni and I visit her family in California, we stay across the street from a Home Depot. Every morning there are men in the parking lot waiting for someone to hire them for the day. Some of the men are immediately put to work, while others stand idle waiting and hoping that someone will need their services. This is a familiar scene in Kansas City and across the nation.
Jesus continued the parable of employing day laborers and said, “When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same” (Matthew 20.5).
When we think about it, either the owner of the vineyard wasn’t able to calculate the proper number of laborers he needed, or some other motive was at work.
As Jesus continued the parable, the behavior of the owner became strange indeed.
Jesus said, “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'” (Matthew 20.6-7).
Once again, imagine the crew of laborers at the California Home Depot or somewhere else in the country. Some go to work right away, others are hired a various times throughout the day. Some, strange as it may seem, stand all day until five o’clock with the hope of getting work.
Now, imagine the owner. What compelled him to hire every willing laborer? There is obviously something more than pure business sense at work here.
Time To Settle Up
Day laborers are paid at the end of the working day. What took place in Jesus’ day is repeated all over the world in 2020. If you get paid, you are able to eat and care for your family for one day. The next day, you will go again to the parking lot of Home Depot or some other location, seeking employment.
Jesus described the end of the day like this, “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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage” (Matthew 20.9).
Let’s assume that the day’s labor was 10 hours at $15 an hour. The five o’clock crew received $150 for their one hour of work. Some of the other laborers may have been thinking, “If they got $150 for just one hour, maybe the boss is paying $150 an hour, rather than $15.” I am sure they anticipated getting a big payday on this very unusual day.
But it didn’t work out as they had thought. Jesus said, “Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage” (Matthew 20.10).
I think we all can feel the pain of these laborers. In fact, if these words weren’t in a leather bound book and printed in red letters, we’d probably be much more indignant. They had provided 10 hours of work and they were being paid the same as those who had only worked one hour.
Most everyone can agree with their sentiments: “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?’ (Matthew 20.11-15)
Could it be that we have misunderstood the owner of the vineyard? Maybe he is not a poor planner after all? Possibly, he had great compassion on all of the laborers, who spend their day at Home Depot waiting and hoping to get some work so they could feed their families. What if he drove past the parking lot and said to himself, “If these people don’t go to work, bills will go unpaid and children won’t get to eat.”?
The laborer in me still wants to protest. I say to myself, “I’m glad that you are compassionate, but spread some of that compassion around and pay me more for my hard day’s work.”
What if Jesus answered me by having me take a look at another one of his parables? What if he invited me to to turn to Matthew 18.23-35 and recall the story of another laborer who owed his boss more money than he could pay in a hundred lifetimes? The boss, like the one in this instance, had compassion and forgave an enormous debt.
Like the calculating laborer in the Matthew 20 parable, the one in the Matthew 18 parable demanded his rights with one of his fellow laborers. His lack of compassion was revealed and his boss was quite unhappy to say the least.
Jesus ended the parable by explaining what he meant when he answered Peter’s question in Matthew 19.27-30. When he said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20.16), he indicated that the parable was a interpretation of what this saying meant (see also Matthew 19.30).
Rejoicing in God’s Goodness
Here’s an illustration of how I understand Jesus’ words.
Toni and I were literally leaving Charleston Missouri and heading to Independence to begin our ministry with Maywood Baptist Church. A waitress from my favorite restaurant in town stopped in front of our house and asked me to visit her brother who was dying from cancer. Her brother was the first person I had ever seen go through the DTs (delirium tremens) from alcohol withdrawal, while he was being treated for cancer in the hospital.
I went by his mobile home for a visit and still can’t believe how rude I was in my approach to him. I said with a hurried tone, “I’m leaving town in a little while. We need to do this quick. Do you want to get saved?”
His response to me was as kind as my response was abrupt. He said he wanted to give his life to Jesus Christ. We prayed a prayer together and I was back home in less than ten minutes.
This man was a “last place” finisher. He didn’t fare well in life and he came to Jesus in the last weeks of his time on earth. However, he and I will get re-acquainted when I get to heaven. The compassion of God is so abundant that our mountain of sin debt has been forgiven (Matthew 18.23-27). Even more, God’s grace is so rich that we, sinners though we are, will receive the reward of eternal life because of God’s abundant mercy (Matthew 20.1-16).
The parable in Matthew 18 and the one in Matthew 20 both highlight God’s great compassion, but also our willingness to be stingy with grace as it applies to other people. Let’s rejoice in God’s grace and embrace his compassion toward all people.
Dear Jesus, thank you for your abundant compassion and grace. Thank you for parables that challenge us to have your measure of compassion and grace. Please help us to be more like you in every way.