Grace Unlimited: The Workers in the Vineyard

Grace Unlimited: The Workers in the Vineyard Matt 20:1-16Alive@5 12.11.17

Read from 19:23. ““For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”” (Matt 20:1-16).

Beyond a Parable

The purpose of parables is not to inform our ideas but to empower us to live differently. I came across this rather startling example of how parables should work in a recent article, “Many years ago I was employed as a summer casual at a law firm. Two weeks after starting, I was invited to the staff Christmas party where, like everyone else, I received the annual bonus. I objected to one of the partners, saying I had barely arrived and didn’t deserve it. ‘Haven’t you heard of the workers in the field?’ he asked. You only need to work an hour to earn the full reward.’ As a broke young student, that full reward meant more to me than he will ever know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Christians sought to live like this lawyer; recognising God’s culture of abundant generosity, giving freely with a cheerful heart and believing that the worker is worthy of the full reward?” I called this a “startling” example because such generosity is very rare.

Context in Matthew

To appreciate Jesus’ teaching in this parable we need to go back in Matthew to the middle of chapter 19 where he is approached by a rich young man who asks him, ““Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”” to which Jesus replies, 17 ““Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”” (19:16-17). In the end the young man chooses to keep his wealth rather than to follow Jesus to eternal life. Peter, who always seems to say what he’s thinking, proceeds to contrast the disciples’ sacrifice in following Jesus with the failure of the rich to enter the kingdom of God, ““See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matt 19:27-29). It’s at this point, remembering that there were no chapter divisions in the original text, Jesus continues with, ““For the kingdom of God is like a master of a house…””and tells a story which demonstrates what the rich man didn’t understand, the goodness of God in action making the first to be last and the last first. To further grasp this parable we need to appreciate something of the socio-economic conditions of Jesus’ day.


Parable details

Things were tough for ordinary people; there was high unemployment, no social security, no trades union and a 12 hour working day. The agreement settled with the workers in the early morning for a denarius was a normal day’s wage.  When the workers hired later in the day heard the master say he would pay them, “whatever is right” (v.4), they would have assumed this to be the appropriate fraction of a denarius. These workers hired later are completely passive in the story.

At centre stage are those who “grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (vv.11-12). In reality no hired hand would use such shocking and offensive language towards their boss as they would never be hired again.  In the Bible grumbling is no small matter, it is dangerous; the classic example being the complaining Israelites in the wilderness whose murmuring drew out God’s wrath so they never entered the Promised Land (Num 14 cf. 1 Cor 10). The way the owner speaks to these grumblers indicates they are in real spiritual danger.

When he addresses them as friends, 13 “‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?””, he is showing he is not personally mean towards them, but in Matthew’s gospel those who are called “friend” never enter the kingdom of God. The man who tried to get into the wedding feast without being invited is addressed as “friend” but he is cast into the outer darkness to weep and gnash his teeth, and when Judas comes with a mob to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane he too is addressed as “friend” but his destiny is destruction (Matt 22:12-13; 26:50; John 17:12). It is what the master says to the complainers that exposes the dreadful and condemned state of their hearts.

(Consider the tone of voice of Jesus/the master in these words.) 14 “Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’” Literally this last sentence reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good”. The expression “evil eye” in the Old Testament stands for covetousness and stinginess; “Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release (from debt) is near,’ and your eye be evil (look grudgingly) on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin.” (Deut 15:9; Prov 23:6; 28:22) Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matt 6:23). To have an evil eye/mean eye is a frightening prospect for those whose hearts are graceless stand condemned before God.

The conclusion of the parable holds out a promise and a warning; ““So the last will be first, and the first last.”” (v.16). But who exactly are these first who will come last, and last who will be winners?


A few weeks ago Dale preached on the parable of the lost sons where the grumblers in that story were the scribes and Pharisees (Luke 15:1-2), represented by the older brother, and the receivers of unmerited grace were the tax collectors and sinners, represented by the younger brother. The one who on the face of it fairly deserved everything from his father enjoyed nothing and the one who deserves nothing enjoyed everything. sadly, the resentfulness of religious people towards newcomers in God’s kingdom didn’t end with the Pharisees.

Professing Christians can be jealous of the grace of God shown to seeming less “deserving” others. In Acts we read how when the Gentiles were accepted by God simply by believing in Jesus, “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”” (Acts 15:1-2). I remember when the so called “machine gun preacher” spoke at Perth Prayer a few years ago and a man in the audience, whose tone of voice gave away his motives, had to ask him, “When you fired the machine gun at the rebels (Lord’s Resistance Army) to defend the orphans, did you kill anyone?” What’s wrong with people who try to pull others down to their level? There are plenty of “kill joys” in Christianity. (The parable doesn’t say so, but surely those who got a day’s pay for an hour’s work were overjoyed)

Grumblers are book keepers, account managers and clock watchers, men and women who are always conscious of their own efforts and who always think they deserve more than they get. Their eyes are on themselves and never on the glory of God. The message our society gives us all the time is something like this, to quote, “You need to say goodbye to those things that don’t deserve YOU. You are special, you are important, and you deserve more.” But isn’t the root of our social problems that people believe and act that they are more worthy than others?

Is God Fair?

Those who grumble about life never understand unmerited grace. They are right in thinking “life isn’t fair” but sin when think that God should run things according to their rules. They think God should work in terms of some contract, the more you put in the more you should get out; “I’ve earned it”, “I’ve worked for it so I deserve it.”  When the world doesn’t run their way they always feel hard done by. Evil eyed grumblers cannot comprehend that God isn’t fair because they don’t understand that he doesn’t play by rules at all. He acts beyond our human ideas of fairness. In our parable the master showed large hearted compassion for the needy because the kingdom of God is grace from first to last.

Application and Conclusion

Is there any hope for evil-eyed grumblers? Can any power silence the mouths of murmurers about the unfairness of the grace of God? The only revelation that enables us to see that before God the first and the last are in no way different in themselves is the cross. (

If we are not constantly centred on the grace of God given us in the death of Jesus (Heb 2:9) we will naturally identify with the hard working labourers who felt that the master was unfair. Which is to identify with the unmerciful opponents of Jesus because we more “under law” than “under grace” than we want to imagine. Never hold the Lord to account by thinking in your heart, “God could have/should have done more for me (or others)”. All who doubt God’s justice will fill themselves with spiritual misery. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,” (Phil 2:14-15). Let’s rejoice in the fact that it’s all of grace, this is the secret of the happy Christian life.

If you have any regrets for a wasted past let this parable comfort you, your reward in heaven will be full –for Jesus’ sake.


Comments are closed.