In Matthew 20:1-16, the Lord Jesus presents a parable that is still part of his response to the Apostle Peter’s question, “What then will we have ?” (Matt. 19:27 ESV) All of this is framed within the context of the rich young ruler who clung to his earthly comforts rather than to Christ. Now this parable, like all parables, can be difficult to understand. Historically, this particular parable has had various interpretations, but the wisdom of the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin rings true, “if any man should resolve to sift out with exactness every portion of this parable, his curiosity would be useless.” The goal with every parable is to see the big idea and ask, “Who are we in this story?” and “What do we learn about God?”
The parable begins with a master of a vineyard seeking out day-laborers. He seeks out men at various points of the day. He begins at the crack of dawn and establishes a contract with this first wave, “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day he sent them into his vineyard.” (Matt. 20:2 ESV) A denarius was the typical wage for a day’s labor. The first wave receives this contract but the master wants more men to work his vineyard.
To that end, the master finds another group at 9:00am and another at noon, another at 3:00pm and the last at 5:00pm. Every one of these subsequent groups was given something different than the clear contract the dawn-workers were provided. The master said unto them, “whatever is right I will give to you.” (Matt. 20:4 ESV) A wage is not given, only a promise.
The end of the day finally came and the master did the most unexpected thing: everyone received the same wage. To those who worked 1 hour, a denarius was given. To those who worked 3 hours, 6 hours, 9 hours, and even 12 hours, a denarius was given. If you were one of those who received a whole day’s work of pay for a fraction of work – you would likely be dancing for joy! However, to those who worked all day, they were less than pleased. The text tells us that “they grumbled at the master of the house.” (Matt. 20:11 ESV)
How does the master respond? He began by calling them “friend” just as Jesus had called Judas Iscariot “friend” at his moment of betrayal (cf. Matt. 26:49-50). The master reminds them that he hasn’t broken his contract with them, but is instead gracious. The laborers were not zealous for their master’s money, only their own wallets. That alone is why they grumbled at the pay they received.
We learn in this parable about the graciousness of God. We are drawn back to the LORD God’s self-declaration before Moses on the mount, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” (Exodus 34:6 ESV). The story is meant to point us towards God’s grace in calling us to labor in His kingdom.
We have no right as laborers to boast in our time or our abilities. Nor do we have the right to demand from God what He chosen to freely give to others. The gift of forgiveness is wholly gracious. This is what the led the Protestant Reformers to protest against Roman Catholicism (hence the name “Protestant”). The glory of salvation wholly rests on the work of God; not on our merits or our performance which is why Protestants believe that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We are reminded that when we have enough time to complain about God’s grace given to others, its likely because we have failed to consider our sins well enough.
Our passage today is most fundamentally a reminder that God is God, and we are not. He alone decides what is best because He is All-Powerful, and we are not. God decides if one receives justice or mercy, we do not. God decides how things will be and not us. He has revealed what He demands from us through Scripture, and this is our ultimate and final guide.
The laborers complain that God appeared unjust or unfair. Are we doing this in our world? Are we angry with the grace others have received, or even the lot God has assigned to us? When we do these sorts of things we demonstrate how little we comprehend both the depths of our sins, and heights of God’s grace bestowed upon us in Christ.
May we never withhold from others the grace which God has so freely given to us. May we encourage our fellow laborers in the task set before all of us by the King of Kings. May you reflect the grace which God poured upon you towards those who have wronged you. For when you do so, you look more like the Lord Jesus Christ.
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