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 with the workers on one denarius for the day, and sent them off into his vineyard. 3 About mid-morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place with no work to do, 4 and he told them, “Off you go into the vineyard as well, and I will pay you whatever is fair.” 5 And off they went. He went out again about mid-day and mid-afternoon, and did the same. 6 Late in the afternoon he went out and found others standing there, and he said to them, “Why are you standing here all day and not working?” 7 “Because no one has hired us,” they replied. He said, “Off you go too into the vineyard.” 8 In the evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last and so on to the first.” 9 When those hired late in the afternoon came they were given a denarius each; 10 so when the first came they assumed they would get more, but they too were given a denarius each. 11 When they had received it, they began to grumble against the landowner: 12 “These who came last have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal with us who have put up with a whole day’s work in the heat of the sun.” 13 “My friend,” he replied to one of them, “I am not cheating you; didn’t you agree with me on one denarius? 14 Take what you have earned and be off with you. It is my wish to give to this last person the same as to you; 15 or don’t I have the right to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you jealous7 because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16) [1]

1.     Background

This parable describes the kind of thing that frequently happened at certain times in Palestine. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and then close on its heels the rains came. If the harvest was not gathered in before the rains broke, then it was ruined; and so to get the harvest in was a frantic race against time. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour to the work. 

The pay was perfectly normal; a denarius was the normal day’s wage for a working man.

The men who were standing in the market place was the equivalent of the job centre. The men who stood in the market place were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them stood there until even 5 pm is the proof of how desperately they wanted it. These men were hired labourers; they were the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious. Slaves and servants were regarded as being at least to some extent attached to the family for whom they worked; they were within the group. It was very different with the hired day labourers. They were not attached to any group; they were entirely at the mercy of chance employment. As we have seen, the pay was one denarius a day; and, if they were unemployed for one day, the children would go hungry at home. For them, to be unemployed for a day was disaster.

The hours in the parable were the normal Jewish hours. The Jewish day began at sunrise, 6 am, and the hours were counted from then until 6 pm. Counting from 6 am therefore, the third hour is 9 am, the sixth hour is 12 noon, and the eleventh hour is 5 pm.

This parable gives a vivid picture of the kind of thing which could happen in the market place of any Jewish village, when the grape harvest was being rushed in before the rains came.[2]

2.     Problem

Trade unions would have been horrified at the story Jesus told about this employer and the workers who laboured, some for the whole day, others for part, and others again for only the last hour. Indeed, we are not surprised when the workers themselves grumbled. Where is the sense of fairness in paying the last workers the same as the first?


Jesus doesn’t intend the story to serve as a comment on the social justice of his day. Jesus probably intends the parable as a warning to the disciples themselves about their own attitudes. When he said, at the end of the previous chapter, that those at the front would end up at the back, and vice versa, that saying was part of the answer to Peter, after his somewhat self-centred question in Matthew 19:27 (‘We’ve left everything and followed you; so what is our reward?’). Jesus is intending the riddling saying about first and last, the front and the back, to be a warning to the disciples themselves: don’t think that, because you’ve been close to me so far, you are now the favoured few for all time. It is a warning to the disciples about the danger they are in, because Jesus is bringing in the kingdom of heaven, they are going to become rich and famous in their turn. That’s not the sort of thing, Jesus warns them, that God’s kingdom is about. They may have set out with Jesus from the very beginning; but others may well come in much later and end up getting paid just the same daily wage, (i.e. the eternal life).[3]

4.     Meanings of the Parable

The parable highlights God’s generosity (Matthew 20:15). It refers to Israel’s labor throughout salvation history and climaxes with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the New Covenant. Despite complaints, there is no violation of justice; God is not unfair to Israel, He is simply generous to late-coming Gentiles, making them equal members of his people (Matthew 20:12; Ephesians 2:11–13).

Morally (Origen): the hours of the workday correspond to stages in life when people turn to God. When converted, they are rescued from idle living to serve Christ in his vineyard, where they harvest much fruit for God before the sun sets on their earthly life. Whether converted early in life or later, all are awarded the generous and equal gift of eternal life.[4]

5.     Present Day Applications

5.1. Israel

It is a warning to the Jews. They knew that they were the chosen people. As a consequence, they looked down on the Gentiles. Usually they hated and despised them, and hoped for nothing but their destruction. This attitude threatened to be carried forward into the Christian Church. If the Gentiles were to be allowed into the fellowship of the Church at all, they must come in as inferiors. In God’s economy, there is no such thing as a most-favoured-nation clause.

5.2. Church Leaders

It is a warning to church leaders. They have received the great privilege of coming into the Christian Church and fellowship very early, right at the beginning. In later days, others will come in. You must not claim a special honour and a special place because you were Christians before they were. All men and women, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God. In the Christian Church, seniority does not necessarily mean honour.

5.3. Spiritual Principles

The following spiritual principles can be learned from this parable:

  1. God sovereignly initiates and accomplishes salvation. The landowner went out looking for workers, and it was he who asked them to labor in his vineyard. And because God does the seeking and the saving in His own initiative and power, we have no demands on His special favor. Every person who believes has first been sought out by the Father and given to the Son (John 6:39). And whether He sought us early in our lives or late, and whether we answered His call early or late, all merit and glory belongs to Him.

  2. God alone establishes the terms of salvation. Because the laborers in the vineyard came at different times, they worked a different number of hours, and we can assume they worked with many different degrees of productivity. But they did not receive different pay. The measure of God’s gift of salvation is not man’s merit or accomplishments but His own grace, which does not vary.

  3. God continues to call men into His kingdom. He keeps going back and going back into the market places of the world calling men to Himself. And He will continue to call until the last hour of this age. The night of judgment is coming when no man can work, but while it is day, the Father will continue to draw men to Himself. “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working,” Jesus said (John 5:17), because the Lord does not wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

  4. God redeems everyone who is willing. “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out,” Jesus said (John 6:37, 39). All the laborers who went to the vineyard recognized they were needy. They had no hope of work except what the landowner would give them, and they received it gladly and thankfully. They had given up dependence on their own resources and looked only to him.

  5. God is compassionate to those who have no resources and acknowledge their hopelessness. He reaches out to those in need who know they are in need. When the men in the last group told the landowner they were standing idle because no one would hire them, he hired them. And when anyone comes to God knowing he has no other prospect for life but Him, the Lord will always lovingly and mercifully accept that person for His own. All who come into the vineyard worked. They may have come at the last hour, but they worked. Even the penitent thief on the cross, who died within hours if not moments after confessing his faith in Christ, still testifies today to the saving grace of God. The history of the church is replete with stories of those whose deathbed conversions were used by God to lead others to Himself.

  6. God has the divine authority and ability to keep His promises. At every hour of the day that the landowner went to the market place, he hired all who wanted to work, and at the end of the day there was no shortage of funds to pay each one the full amount. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world, from the Fall of Adam until the day of judgment.

  7. God always gives more than is deserved. The 6:00 a.m. workers were envious of those who came at 5:00 p.m. because, in their selfish view, they deserved to be paid more. But the landowner was no more obligated to hire the first workers than the others. He would have been entirely justified to have passed them all by, and all of them were paid more than they were worth.

  8. Humility and a genuine sense of unworthiness is the only right attitude in which a person may come to the Lord. Like the elder brother who was resentful when the prodigal son returned home and was royally received by their father, the early workers lost some of their humility at the end of the day because of their jealousy. But they had come to the vineyard in the same attitude of submissiveness in which the others came.[5]

[1] France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 746–747). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.

[2] Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 259–260). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

[3] Wright, T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (p. 57). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] Mitch, C. (2010). Introduction to the Gospels. In The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament (p. 42). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

[5] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 3, pp. 216–217). Chicago: Moody Press.


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