Have you considered a study on the Parable of the Laborers (Workers) Matthew 20:1-16? This may be the most misunderstand parables in the scriptures. The purpose of the Parable of the Laborers is to observe and model the life of the owner (Jesus). If interested, you can also read the Parable of the Sower.

Parable of the Laborers

Parable of the Laborers | History

We have always understood this parable as relating to salvation. In other words, if someone gives their life to the Lord at the last hour, they have just as much of the blessings as those who have been serving the Lord all their lives… including spending an eternity with the Lord. But this is not what the parable is about. Let’s get started.

Parable of the Laborers | Scripture -Part One

“For the kingdom of heaven is like

A 1A landowner who went out early in the morning

to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he            Agreement Made

had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day,

he sent them into his vineyard.

B And he went out about the third hour and saw

others standing idle in the marketplace, and said        Biblical Living (Demonstrated)

to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and

whatever is right/just I will give you.’ So they went.

Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth

hour, and did likewise.

C And about the eleventh hour he went out and

found others standing idle, and said to them,                 Eleventh Hour

‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’

They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard too.’

Parable of the Laborers | Scripture -Part Two

D 8 “So when evening had come, the owner

of the vineyard said to his steward,                                   The Wage (Need Met)

‘Call the laborers and give them their wages,

beginning with the last to the first.’

C And when those came who were hired about the     Eleventh Hour

eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.

B 10 Now when the first came, they supposed that

they would receive more; and they likewise

received each a denarius. 11 And when they                  Biblical Living (Misunderstood)

had received it, they complained against the

landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have

worked only one hour, and you made them

equal to us who have borne the burden

and the heat of the day.’

A 13 But he answered one of them and said,

‘Friend, I am doing you no injustice. Did you

not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take                      Agreement Kept

what is yours and go your way. I wish to give

to this last man (group) the same as to you. 15 Is it not

lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?

Or is your eye evil because I am good?’

16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”

I am indebted to the scholarly work of the late Dr. Ken Bailey in regards to some of the finer points of the study on this parable. Overall, the parable is broken by sections A through D. D is the Center and the important piece. The owner is both compassionate and faithful to His Laborers (workers) meeting their needs and wants.

Parable of the Laborers | Three surprises

  1. Vineyard owner oddly hires workers 5 different times in one day.
  2. As the sun sets, all are paid the same wage… beginning with the last rather than the first. The owner (not the steward) reverses the order. No, the parable has nothing to do with Calvinism.
  3. Suddenly, a steward appears. He is not mentioned or involved all through the day. On top of that, he pays the wages and not the owner.

Parable of the Laborers | verses 1-2 and 3-4

verses1-2: In the first scene, the vineyard owner appears at the corner market where people are found for employment or work. He selects some workers. An offer and acceptance (agreement) is made. But it is the type of agreement whereby it is as if they are under contract.

verses 3-4: Here, we have the second scene. Halfway through the morning, the owner returns to the marketplace. In this scenario, no pay rate is mentioned. He only says, “what is just/right, I will pay you.” The men trust and accept the terms. However, the question is why?

Some things to consider. A) We are not told how many workers are standing or waiting. It could be 20, 100 or more. B) Neither are we told the amount (or size) of land they will work.

Meanwhile, the laborers (workers) already begin to notice the character of the owner; they see something in him.

Parable of the Laborers | verse 5

verse 5: Surprisingly, the vineyard owner goes out again and again. Something does not seem to make sense. Every three hours, He returns to the marketplace to hire new workers. Suddenly in verse 8, a steward appears. The steward could have gone out. We know the owner tells the steward to pay the wage, but why not go out to the marketplace?

Something bigger is going on here. The parable does not say the vineyard owner is young or inexperienced.

Think about it. He would know how much work was needed to be completed for the day. Therefore, he could figure out how many workers were required. He is not stupid. He is intentional and fully aware of what he was doing.

Let’s take a step back. Where is he? Well, he is in the marketplace. Thus, there is a reason. Whenever he goes out, the owner never mentions what needs to be done on the job. Additionally, as he appears before the people waiting and standing on line we do not hear the words, “I only have enough work for 3 or 4 more people.”

Once again, Jesus tells us the owner himself goes out and not the steward. All the leg work is done by the owner. Before we go any further, I want to describe or create a picture of what the owner is doing and what the owner is about.

Parable of the Laborers | Exercise One

Let’s do an exercise by using our imagination. Remember, parables are stories with a picture.

Picture the unemployment line. Imagine there is a line of about 10 people wanting/needing work for the day. It symbolizes the daily struggles of life each person faces. “Give us this day our daily bread.” People need to eat and provide for their families, but we can take it a bit further outside the need of food, clothing, shelter and paying the bills.

We can safely consider a bunch of people in life standing and waiting in regards to the need or struggle(s) they face over and over again in their life. They want and need help. As the owner went out over and over again, likewise Jesus will come to you and I over and over again. Remember, the owner went out 5 times even up until the last hour. My friends, that is love and compassion. A Savior who appears and visits us over and over again to help us in our need and want.

Basically, no matter how many needs you have, no matter how many times you face that struggle in your life… the Lord will return again and again. He will go out the 1st hour, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th… over and over again; returning each time to embrace you and take you into His care.

Thus, the reality is the owner wasn’t interested in the land or the work; he was interested in the people. His compassion and love for them was more important to him than the land or the work. Is that not true of Jesus with you and I.

Parable of the Laborers | verses 6-7 -Part A

verses 6-7: Let’s look at verse 6. Why does he ask a question?

“Standing idle…” This is a very poor translation in English. It sounds derogatory, as if the vineyard owner was chiding these people for not working all day, but that is not the case. There is no hint that these were lazy people or indifferent workers. Notice, they are standing and not sitting.

He is not looking for an answer. This is similar to Jesus’ question to his hearers in regards to the lame man in Mark 2:1-12. “What is easier (not ‘better’) to say to the paralytic, your sins are forgiven you or to say, arise, take up your bed and walk?” The Lord was not looking for an answer so much as to give them something to think about. For Jesus, it is just as easy to forgive as it is to heal.

Back to the parable. The question is basically, “you are still here, why has no one come to meet your need? You are empty and waiting… no one has taken the time to take you into their care? Why has no one extended such similar love and compassion toward you?”

Parable of the Laborers | verses 6-7 -Part B

Here is the deal. The owner is hoping others will be kind and generous like himself… helping those in need. You and I are beginning to see it has nothing to do with the laborers or the money (as if he is stingy). Finally, it is not about any injustice toward the workers though we may read it that way initially. We need to put aside our capitalistic society mentality.

“Has no one hired you yet?” In other words, what God’s people should be doing (those who are in his kingdom) was reaching out and embracing the want and need of these people, but they were not doing it.

They answer or affirm, “no one has hired us.” But the owner like Jesus reaches out and takes them into his care… into the vineyard. Keep in mind; this parable does not provide any details of the type of work they performed. Once again it is about the people. The love and compassion for the people! Should this not be true of us as believers toward others?

Parable of the Laborers | verses 8-10

verses 8-10: Fourth Scene. The big surprise, a steward walks on

the stage. He only pays the guys, but remember did not do any of the footwork.  Here is a quick thought on stewards. No matter what God does through us or with us we are only stewards and servants… recipients of His grace. It is the owner, Jesus himself.

At this point, when we read the parable we are thinking and it makes sense, “why do they all get the same amount of money?” Shouldn’t they get paid based on what they worked (did) or how long they worked? But at the end they all get the same. We do not like to read that since it seems like God is unjust. However, this is not the case at all.

Consequently, the orders are reversed. The last are paid first. The owner is wise. All of this is done very purposefully. Otherwise, if the first group received their wages and left they would have missed the love and character of the owner. In other words, the master or owner wants each group to observe the grace that he extends to all. God is so different than us. The love and grace of God is all inclusive. Therefore, the owner is the model and example we should follow. This is the purpose of the parable.

Parable of the Laborers | verse 16 and Exercise Two

verse16: The last shall be first is not about humility in this case. It is about those who were waiting all day who perhaps themselves felt unimportant and left out. But Jesus the vineyard owner says, “No, I will love them and treat them like the first.”

Again, we can try another exercise. Put on your imagination with 10 people gathered on a line. This time picture the first and last person, but almost like the line at the checkout in the local Supermarket. Some of us feel, well I am at the end of the line. But no, Jesus puts the last first. This means you are first in God’s eyes and not last.

Parable of the Laborers | verses 11-14b and verse15b

You are just as important and valuable as everyone else. Yes, you! Your needs, your pain, your struggle and your hurt are at the top of the His list. This is what God’s Kingdom is like.

verses 11-14b: His response to them who complained was basically this, “What I have done for you, I also want to do for them and their family. I have showed you love and concern, I want them to know as well.”

Remember, the owner is on the road back and forth trying to demonstrate compassion to others who, like the first are in need. He went himself and did not send his steward or manager. Mercy and compassion define justice. It is not about the laborer or the wage or even the land. Observe, nothing is mentioned on whether they completed their work or not. There is no status report or anything, because it is the actual person that God values. Hence, each of us are priceless and worth it all in his eyes.

verse15b: The owner asks, “Is your eye evil?” But what is the evil in their eye? Basically, they cannot see the same want and need in others. Notice, it says, “evil and not sin.” Indeed, perhaps evil is worse than sin in that we forget to have sympathy and compassion toward others who are still in pain, emptiness, and need when once our own hurt and pain is healed or our need and want is met.

Parable of the Laborers | Application

What others should have been doing; likewise, we should be doing? The owner asks, “You are still standing here?” In others words, it should not be the case. Someone should have taken you into their care or embrace. Similarly, to the vineyard owner we need to go out to those whose hurt and need has not been met or resolved. Over and over again, we need to extend the power, love and healing of Jesus. The vineyard owner did the same.

Parable of the Laborers | Conclusion

Don’t you love this God we serve? No matter how down and out; no matter what the need and want, Jesus keeps returning to help us, love us, anoint us, empower us, and heal or meet our need.

Finally, in the Parable of the Laborers consider this! The owner has so much compassion whereas if it rains, He will pay them (meet their needs). He is committed to them. Thus, He is committed to you and I.