Have you ever felt like God cheated you? Like others are getting a better deal than you’re getting? While we might not say it that way, it is easy for these sentiments to creep into our hearts, especially during times of trial. Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard Workers can help us see our work and God’s wage in the proper perspective.
In Matthew 20:1–16 Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who goes into town and hires day laborers to work in his field. In the parable, the owner starts early in the morning and hires a certain number of workers for a certain wage. He returns three hours later and sees others who have not yet been hired. He hires some of them, promising to pay “whatever is right.” He repeats this process again at mid-day, mid-afternoon, and then one hour before quitting time.
It’s important to consider the work force that would have typically been hired at each point in the day. Those hired first, at the beginning of the day, would have likely been the strongest, fittest, most able-bodied workers, those in the prime of their lives. The next tier of workers, those hired at mid-morning, would be capable but not ideal. As the day progressed, those left unhired would have been the least fit, least productive options—the old, weak, injured, and sick.
After the day’s work is over, the owner brings in the men to pay them for their labor that same day (as was commanded in Lev. 19:13 and Deut. 24:15). He begins with those who only worked one hour. After promising to pay them “whatever is right,” he gives them a full day’s wage. Obviously, those hired earlier in the day, began to get their hopes up, thinking, “If they got that much, I will surely get even more!” However, the owner paid all the workers the same amount, regardless of their time in the field. Those hired first began to grumble against the owner, complaining they had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” and should be paid more.
It is important to remember that this is a parable, not a treatise on managerial practices or labor relations. Jesus isn’t demonstrating how one should run a business. It’s a kingdom parable, illustrating the way God’s kingdom functions. So what can we learn about the kingdom from this parable?
First, God never gives us less than He promises. After hearing the complaints, the owner in the parable responds, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius. Take what belongs to you and go” (vv. 13–14). The entirety of Scripture is testimony to a promise-making and promise-keeping God. Just as God initiated His covenant with Abraham, so, too, the landowner in this parable sought out workers. And as God has been—and continues to be—faithful to fulfill that covenant through the person and work of Christ; the owner was faithful to do as he had said and pay his initial workers for their time. God is faithful and can be trusted! He will never give us anything less than what He has promised (Num. 23:19)!
Second, God always gives us more than we deserve. In the parable, everyone received more than they deserved. Those hired mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, and late afternoon all were paid much more than they had earned. Even those hired at the beginning of the day experienced the generosity of the owner just by being chosen to work.
This gracious generosity is particularly evident when we reconsider the likely condition of those left without work in the afternoon. The last ones hired were the least impressive of all the workers and yet, having only worked one hour, were paid twelve times more than what was usual practice for those who were physically fit.
Lastly, when we forget these first two truths about God, we tend to grumble against Him. In the parable, the workers complained about both the amount of time they worked as well as the conditions of their labor (v. 12). However, the initial workers seemed fine with the arrangement until they saw that others were paid the same amount. They allowed the owner’s generosity to others to prevent them from being grateful for his generosity to them.
In order to help us fight against being envious of God’s goodness to others, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- God has a right to do as He pleases.
- God sees all and knows all and is working in ways that we can’t see.
- God has proven in the past that He can be trusted.
- Others’ gain is not our loss.
- Don’t compare what you receive to what others receive. Compare it to what you deserve.
Spiritually, all of us are the late afternoon crew. We have very little to contribute to the work of the kingdom, and yet God in His grace invites us to join Him, gives us the tools we need to be productive, and then rewards us with a full wage that we do not deserve.
Jason Mackey, PhD
Adjunct Professor, Memphis Extension Site
- Pray that as students make sacrifices to pursue ministry training they and their families would always remember that God is both faithful and generous in His dealings with us.
- Pray for the work of Bethlehem extension sites—Memphis, where I have the privilege of serving, Cameroon, and two new sites launching this Fall in Hawaii and Rochester. Ask God to continue to bless these sites with more and more students who gain and spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.