In the Fulness of Time/Part 124

By: Dr. Thomas O. Figart; ©2010
The parable in this passage tells of a the landowner who hired people at different times during the day, and at the end, paid each the same amount – one day’s wages. We might wonder, from a purely human standpoint just how the landowner reasoned, and we may never come to a satisfactory conclusion; but if we reason from God’s standpoint, remembering the context of the parable, there is a solution.


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The Lord and His Laborers. Matthew 20:1-16

The Hiring: At Various Times of the Day. Matthew 20:1-7

Matthew 20:1-7 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man that is an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market place, And said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went about the sixth and ninth hour, and did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatever is right, that shall ye receive.”

Because of the close connection with the previous chapter, a number of the commentators correctly treat 20:1-16 as a continuation of the discussion concerning rewards. Unless this is recognized all kinds of inaccurate interpretations of the parable will follow. There is also the ever-present danger of trying to fit each part of the parable into a preconceived system. Unless the Lord Himself interprets each detail, there remains no other recourse but to seek contextual associations, as mentioned above. Peter has reminded the Lord that the disciples had left all and followed Him (in contrast to the rich young ruler); thus, the question that followed had nothing to do with salvation. Rather, it was: “What shall we have, therefore?” Jesus’ answer definitely had to do with rewards, even to “an hundredfold.” His last statement in 19:30, however, had to do with the last being first and the first last. Then the parable of the laborers was given with the repetition at the end: “the last shall be first, and the first last” (verse 16).

It is rather curious, therefore, to find that MacArthur presents this parable as a picture of salvation:

To understand the parable’s spiritual meaning it is necessary to understand who and what are represented in it. Jesus explicitly said that the parable is about “the kingdom of heaven” (v. 1). The vineyard is therefore the kingdom itself, the landowner is God the Father, and the foreman is the Son, Jesus Christ. The laborers are believers, and the denarius is eternal life, which all received equally for trusting Christ. The work day is the believer’s lifetime of service to his Lord and the evening is eternity. (MacArthur, John, Matthew. Chicago: Moody Press, 1985-89. Vol. 3, p. 213)

On page 214 he continues: “Here the Lord is not teaching about the differences of rewards but the equality of salvation.” It would seem that this is a case of ignoring basic facts in order to present a theory. Throughout the parable there is labor and pay for the labor. If the denarius is eternal life, then it is payment for work the laborers have done, not for “trusting Christ.” It just cannot be both! Paul put it strongly in Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.”

It is better, therefore to allow 20:1-7 to tells its basic story; a man hired a group of day laborers and: “agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day” (verse 1), which was the standard pay for a day’s work. It is useless to compare actual monetary values with today’s rate of exchange. The nearest thing would be to take a typical day’s wages of a vineyard worker in Israel at the present time as the comparison to the denarius of Jesus’ day. The first group agreed to this amount; the other groups, hired at the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hour respectively, agreed to be paid “whatever is right.” In each case it was payment for labor, not a free gift!

The Payment: Equal to All the Laborers. Matthew 20:1-10

Matthew 20:8-10 “So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a denarius.”

This paragraph is the main thrust of the parable since it superficially presents inequality of pay for the amount of work accomplished and the injustice on the part of the property owner (the oikodespote, the lord of the house). Some might say that if this is dealing with rewards, then it contradicts 1 Corinthians 3:11-4:5, but in reality it does not. In 1 Corinthians 3-4 the emphasis is on the different kinds of works; here, the emphasis is on the sovereignty and generosity of the landowner.

The Reaction: Murmuring of the First Group. Matthew 20:11-12

Matthew 20:11-12 “And when they had received it, they murmured against the householder, Saying, These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us who have borne the burden and heat of the day.”

The judgment of the first group is based upon time spent and effort expended for the reward given. Again, on the surface this argument seems sound and sufficient to support injustice on the part of the employer.

The Answer: From the Householder. Matthew 20: 13-15

Matthew 20:13-15 “But he answered one of them and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong. Didst thou not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is thine, and go thy way. I will give unto this last, even as unto thee: Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?”

Three things are notable about the reply of the landowner. First, he was faithful to his agreement. He paid the first group fully, and he certainly paid the other groups what was right (verse 13). Second, he was free to pay all the workers equally; it simply depended upon his will: “I will give unto this last, even as unto thee” (verse 14). Third, he was fair (verse 15). What he did was lawful and good. There was no injustice since he was sovereign over his own goods.

Conclusion: The Sovereignty of God. Matthew 20:16

Matthew 20:16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called, but few are chosen.”

We might wonder, from a purely human standpoint just how the landowner reasoned, and we may never come to a satisfactory conclusion; but if we reason from God’s standpoint, remembering the context of the parable, there is a solution. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan suggests a twofold resolution, by going back to the answer of Jesus to Peter’s statement in 19:27-30: “The answer of Jesus moved within two distinct realms; first, a definite answer to his question about reward; and secondly, a warning against what is revealed in his asking the question” (Morgan, G. Campbell. The Gospel According to Matthew. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1929. pp. 242-243).

Morgan goes on to point out that Peter and the other apostles will be given thrones and rulership over the twelve tribes of Israel, and that everyone who follows Jesus will receive an hundredfold, much more than could be imagined. Then came the warning, first to the disciples, but also to everyone, that the first shall be last and the last first. Morgan’s suggestion here is: “This parable is intended to teach one simple truth, that a man’s reward will be, not according to the length of his service, not according to the notoriety of his service, but according to the fidelity to the opportunity which is given him” (p. 243).

If fidelity to one’s opportunity is kept in mind, it will help to give reason for the latter half of 20:16: “For many are called but few chosen.” But why, then, did Christ add these final words here in the parable about the rewards of believers? It is no problem to explain why it occurs in Matthew 22:14 since there, the contrast is between those prepared and those unprepared (who are cast into outer darkness). Only the chosen are permitted into the wedding feast. Perhaps here in 20:16 Jesus used the contrast between those called and those chosen to remind His disciples (and especially Peter) what a privilege it is to serve Him, even if you are not to be rewarded as fully as your human mind expects or can even comprehend. What Peter needed to realize was that God is not only sovereign and righteous in generously giving the same reward to the last as to the first but, backing them up one step in their thinking, God is also sovereign and loving in His willingness to extend the offer of salvation to the many, at the same time declaring that only the few are those chosen as: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:2). Could this parable of Matthew 20:1-16 have been in Peter’s mind when he wrote his first Epistle? Assuming it was, then 1 Peter 1:2 may be the record of Peter’s understanding of God’s sovereignty to the extent that he would not have understood it before. “In the fulness of time” we will all know!

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