The Parable of the Workers (Matt. 20:1-16)

by Spiros Zodhiates

The Lord gives this parable to illustrate two categories of workers-those who contract for set wages and those who instead trust in their manager's just discretion. The parable shows the need for laborers in the kingdom of God and the Lord's reward of those who serve Him. [vv. 1-3] The manager goes out "to hire"(from mistho to hire; cf. misths, wages, payment for services rendered) the first group at 6 a.m. and they agree to work for a specific amount of money.

The second group goes to work without an agreement for a predetermined wage. The householder had found them "idle" (fromargs, inactive-in this case, not gainfully employed). To this group of people belonged also those found at the third (9 a.m.), sixth (12noon), ninth (3 p.m.), and eleventh (5 p.m.) hours-the twelve-hour workday beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m.

Among other things, this parable teaches that the work of the kingdom requires many laborers and that the Lord will reward those who serve Him. The work in the vineyard-the church's work in the world-remains undone to a great extent, not because there are no tasks to be performed, but because not enough people are willing to do them without first receiving some guaranteed, immediate reward.

The illustration is all too realistic and is graphically described in this parable. The work of the kingdom is partly done, but there is much more to be done, and it will be, if we who are redeemed truly understand the spiritual nature of the work involved, the rewards in the world to come, and our true individual responsibility. As the Lord Jesus gave Himself sacrificially for the redemption of His church, so should we contribute to building its superstructure (1 Cor. 3:10; Col. 2:7).

The parable also illustrates the Lord's concern for His work, for He says, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder [from oikodesptes, despot of a house or ruler].""Like," stresses the similarity between a man's concern for the productivity of his vineyard and God's concern for His. The vineyard, which represents the Kingdom of God, the church (Matt. 16:18), after all, is His alone. When we are saved, we become partakers not only of this vineyard but of its Master's nature (phsis [5449]; 2 Pet. 1:4).

[vv. 4-7] The first group hired accepted the wage of one dinar (penny' in the KJV) for a twelve-hour day, but the manager promised the other groups only that he would "paywhatever is right [from dkaios, right, just]" (niv). The recruiter was to be trusted for his sense of justice-which, in this case, turns out to be unmerited grace.

It should be borne in mind that the twelfth hour was the end of the working day. That means the eleventh-hour laborers had only one hour to work. In spite of this, they seized the opportunity and made the best of it.

[v. 8] The time for payment came at the end of the day. The master of the vineyard summoned his "steward" (from eptropos, domestic manager, paymaster) and said to him, "Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first." The last was paid first because the householder was gracious and rewarded them generously for their unconditional faith in His justice.

[v. 9] Those who worked for one hour received a proportionately greater hourly compensation rate than the hired workers, who had labored for twelve solid hours. The first workers-hired in the earliest part of the day and working the longest and through the hottest hours-complained that it was unfair for those who labored only one hour to receive equal pay.

The natural man hates sovereign grace, which gives more to some, wholly apart from merit (Eph. 2:8, 9: "by gracenot of yourselves"). Here, man audaciously demands equality when some are favored with higher pay for less work.

[v. 10] When the first hired workers came in, the Lord says, "they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a dinar." Each worker in this group was treated fairly and compensated as he had been promised.

[vv. 11,12] Having expected higher pay, the first workers complained: "And when they had received it, they were murmuring [eggguzon, the imperfect tense of goggzo to murmur, grumble] against the goodman of the house [from oikodesptes, the master of the house as in v. 1], saying that these last ones have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden and burning heat of the day" (a.t.).

The parable deals not only with justifying grace but also with work done by those already under grace. The first workers' incessant complaining (reflected in the imperfect tense) was well justified from a human standpoint, but the parable illustrates how far God's standards are above man's.

[v. 13] The word translated "friend" is not from phlos, a personal friend, but is from hetaros, a business partner or associate. The word is used three other times in the New Testament: In Matthew 11:16, it is used of the companions (fellows') of the children playing in the market place; in Matthew 22:12 it is used by the king to address the guest who dared come to the wedding feast without the proper garment; and in Matthew 26:50 it is used by Jesus Himself to address Judas as he comes to betray his Lord.

That hetaros here means a worker for a salary is evident in his agreement to the terms of a proffered contract. Now we find that he is covetous of the tougher offer of a personal relationship without the security of a contract that had been offered to others-namely the opportunity to unconditionally trust in the master's justice.

The lesson concerns the proper response to the terms the Lord offers. Faith-work for the Lord, without a stipulated contact, is always better than human justice, and His rewards are always superior to any man has to offer. The Lord confirmed this in Mark 10:30: "He shall receive an hundredfold now in this timeand in the world to come eternal life."

The emphasis here is not on a specific reward but on the character of the Lord. Jesus did not want to give His disciples the idea that the promise of some material blessing was intended to motivate them to do more. His doctrine was not the human philosophy, which teaches, "You do this for me and I will do more for you!" Now, there is nothing wrong with reward for work, but this should not be the primary motivation of our actions, especially in regard to service for our Lord.

The first group agreed to work for a definite compensation; they were not called to hope, to a faith in the justice of the caller. Such is the difference between natural and supernatural faith-the natural, insecure one, secures a promise with a contract, while the hopeful other unconditionally trusts. As we see here, there will be both unwelcome and welcome surprises when the day of rewards comes and the Lord gives the faith worker a hundredfold more than expected.

Note the question at the end of this verse: "Did you not agree with me for a penny?" (a.t.). It is wrong to negotiate with God. What is man that he should bargain with his Creator? Considering what the Lord has done for us, we should be willing to do anything for Him at any cost.

Because God is gracious and grace means benefits beyond what is earned, how can anyone who contracts for less than grace complain of injustice? Such purely profit-seekers (from hetaros) are trapped by their own words: "Did not you agree?"

[vs14] The master responds: "Take what is yours and go [from hupgo, to go quietly] thy way; I will give unto this last, even as unto thee" (a.t.).

The Greek text is a bit stronger-literally, "I determine [thélo; to wish, desire] to give [from ddomi]." Thélo is the verb associate with the nounthélema, will, determination. In Ephesians 1:11 the "counsel [from boule] of His will [from thélema]" is called inverse 9 a mystery. [v. 15] The owner does not let the servant depart without demanding that he first consider another question: "Or [e, a disjunctive] is it not for me to do what I will with mine own?" (a.t.).

[v. 16] The Lord concludes the parable: "So [hotos, thus, in this manner] the lasts [from éschatos] shall be firsts [from protoi], and the firsts lasts: for many be called, but few [from olgos] chosen [from eklekts]" (a.t.).

The "last" are those who heard the call, responded, worked for the remaining hour, and were included among all those who heard and went out. The "many" here stands for the workers that were called to a contract, while the "few" represent those who trusted in the justice of their master.

The last part of verse 16 also represents Jesus' additional teaching on salvation. Matthew 7:13,14 describes the search for life from man's view: many will travel the broad way to destruction, while only a few enter the straight gate to eternal life.

Here, Jesus describes God's part in the search for true life by presenting the role of election. Many hear the call to eternal life, but only a few answer it. The few who are saved are described as the "chosen ones" (from ekléktos, chosen for one's self), out of the many [in this case, all].

Just as we choose some words out of our vast memory of words to express our thoughts, so God selects and speaks some out of the whole. He foreknows who will respond and who will not respond. The few "chosen ones" are contrasted here to the many "called ones" (from klets, from kaléo, to call), which is used elsewhere as a synonym for the elect (e.g., Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 1:2,20; Rev. 17:14), but here and in Matthew 22:14 means only "the called and chosen ones."

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