Matthew 20:1-16, CSB
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the workers on one denarius, he sent them into his vineyard for the day. 3 When he went out about nine in the morning, he saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into my vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is right.’ So off they went. 5 About noon and about three, he went out again and did the same thing. 6 Then about five he went and found others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one hired us,’ they said to him.
“‘You also go into my vineyard,’ he told them. 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, starting with the last and ending with the first.’
9 “When those who were hired about five came, they each received one denarius. 10 So when the first ones came, they assumed they would get more, but they also received a denarius each. 11 When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner: 12 ‘These last men put in one hour, and you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat.’
13 “He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? 14 Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The market place in a first century Jewish community was also the hiring office. Land owners who need laborers would come there early in the morning to get day laborers. If you needed a job that’s where you went. Typically, you brought the tools, and waited until you were hired for the day’s work. The standard pay was a denarius a day.
Agriculture was always an irregular business.
There were times when no workers were necessary, and then there were times (harvest) when you couldn’t have enough. Grapes were the biggest crop, and vineyards needed to be cultivated, but that took only a few; and probably more skilled men.
The weather was always an issue, harvest time and the rainy season happened pretty much at the same time. The trick was to get the harvest in as soon as possible. It was always a race against time, rains could come at any moment, and if they came too early, the entire crop would be lost. That’s why even a worker who only worked just an hour was welcomed.
The workday was divided up into four 3 hour increments: 6–9–12–3–6.
After the 6 am group was hired, the landowner made four other visits to the marketplace. Laborers were needed in the worst way—he would take anyone, even if only for an hour. Things were critical, and every worker made a difference. With each group, he told them that their wages would be appropriate. This was his agreement with them. “I’ll give you whatever is right.’”
When the day was done, a table was set up; the day laborers stood in line, the men who were hired last went first. They received a full day’s wage for just one hour’s work! The one-hour guys couldn’t believe it. This was generosity in the extreme. They were elated.
Word quickly spread down the line.
The men who worked the hardest—(they were the dirtiest and sweatiest), just knew that they were going to get even more than they ever expected. They were already figuring out in their heads what their adjusted wages were going to be. “If the landowner was forking out a full day’s wage for just one hour’s work, we’re going to get far more.”
It’s not going to happen. Everyone down the line gets one denarius. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked, or how long, or how many blisters you got. Everyone gets the same! That dear one didn’t seem right or fair. The Greek word used here is γογγύζω, we translate it as “grumble, muttering or angry whispering. To be extremely discontent.” They were offended. Plain and simple.
The guys who worked all day complained. It wasn’t right. They confronted their employer, “how could you do this to us?” They were angry. What the landowner did, in their minds, was wrong—how could he “reward” those who barely broke a sweat. “You made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat.”
Verse 16 smashes our conceptions of law and grace.
The law tells us that we get what we deserve. That seems logical; everyone receives what is reasonable. We like the logic of it. But grace doesn’t work that way. Law is man’s perspective; grace is God’s. We don’t understand it, it doesn’t compute. We “get” the law, it’s an automatic; it makes sense to us—grace on the other hand is foolish. “Who in the world gives out salvation to those nasty, evil people?”
God deals with us according to who He is, not according to who we are.
The landowner isn’t unfair to anyone—true, he’s more generous to some, but he’s not wrong or unreasonable to anyone. We read this in verse 13. He has been completely appropriate. He paid what he said he would. Grace is totally foreign to us, we find it offensive. We can’t understand it—we come to God complaining about the grace he lavishes on junkies and homosexuals.
I shudder to think that I’ve accused him of being too merciful, too gracious to some others. The reality is that we deserve nothing. If God gave us what we deserve, none of us would be here, we’d all be damned to hell. But he is good to all of us. And really, in the final analysis, what does it matter if we’re the first or the last? I should be thrilled that someone else is blessed by a grace that they never deserved.
I get it mixed up sometimes, and I don’t really understand all of it.
Art by Eugène Burnand