For some, this is a marvelous parable about the grace of God. Hultgren placed it in his section on parables revealing God’s extraordinary forgiveness and grace. Jülicher said it presents the gospel in a nutshell, Montefiore thought it one of the greatest parables of all, and Fuchs and Jüngel considered it the climax of Matthew. I think all this is hyperbole and consider this one of the three most difficult parables (along with the Unjust Steward and Matthew’s account of the Banquet) (p. 362)
As with any parable, so with the the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the context is crucial for understanding the things Jesus is trying to teach. And understanding the context will require us to go back at least as far as 19:16 in order to get the proper background.
1) It gives the assurance that there will be rewards for Peter and the rest of His true disciples, as well anyone else who has sacrificed in order to follow Him (vss. 28-29).
2) It also gives a kind of warning that God will not distribute these rewards in a way that they might expect: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (vs. 30).
The parable may be broken up into four scenes, and we will briefly consider each of them.
NKJ Matthew 20:1-7 For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and said to them,“You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”
“early in the morning” (vs. 1) – This would have been at dawn, which would be about 6:00 AM.
“the third hour” (vs. 3) – This would be about 9:00 AM.
“the sixth and the ninth hour” (vs. 5) – This would be about noon and 3:00 PM respectively.
“the eleventh hour” (vs. 6) – This would be about 5:00 PM, when there would have been no more than one hour of the workday left.
1) The first workers who were hired had agreed with the landowner “for a denarius a day” (vs. 2). This was the common wage for a day laborer in first century Palestine.
2) The workers hired later in the day were simply promised by the landowner that he would give them “whatever is right,” and they accepted this arrangement (vs. 4, 7).
NKJ Matthew 20:8-10 So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.” 9 And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.
Key in interpreting the parable is v. 10: those hired first thought they would receive more. The parable breaks any chain of logic connecting reward, work, and human perceptions of what is right. God’s judging is not regulated by human perceptions of justice, and lurking behind that statement is a whole theology of mercy. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 377)
NKJ Matthew 20:11-12 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”
NKJ Matthew 20:13-15 But he answered one of them and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good [ἀγαθός]?”
NKJ Deuteronomy 15:9 Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,” and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the LORD against you, and it become sin among you.
NKJ Proverbs 28:22 A man with an evil eye hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him.
NKJ Matthew 19:16-17a Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good [ἀγαθός] Teacher, what good [ἀγαθός] thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” 17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good [ἀγαθός]? No one is good [ἀγαθός] but One, that is, God.”
NKJ Matthew 20:16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.