What Jesus Really Said: Laborers in the Vineyard

Young blond man reading the Bible with bright green background

Matthew 20:1-16

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 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.” i

This text marks the beginning of our look at Jesus’ parables of judgment. Jesus parables about the general nature of the Kingdom of God come about the time of the feeding of the 5,000. Following that miracle his parabolic teaching centers primarily on God’s upside-down, unearned, unexpected grace (one-way love). His parables of judgment begin around the time of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the final week before his cross work and resurrection.

When we hear the word “judgment” in church, we tend to make the same assumption as Jesus’ first disciples. We have in mind, “anything that promises to even scores and administer comedowns to the mighty.”ii We jump immediately to an end of days’ scenario where we good guys get our props and the bad guys get the eternal comeuppance.

But Jesus has precious little to say about the end of days and the great eternal comeuppance. The disciples were so enamored of their ideas of divine crises management and right-handed score-evening, Jesus had a hard time conveying his left-handed teachings on God’s authentic judgment.iii

The church, like the disciples, has been more interested in judgment as a settling of scores with “bad people” than with the judgment Jesus is teaching in his parables. After all, law and final judgment sermons sell the addicting over-the-counter drug of relative morality; and sales are brisk. Grace remains a rarely prescribed cure, as if all the research has not been done yet and overdoses may be fatal.

We will see over these next few studies together that the judgment of which Jesus speaks comes by way of his cross work and resurrection. The parables of judgment are told in the context of a Savior who has spent months speaking about death as the principle device of God’s one-way love. So the judgment parables will show us not vindictiveness, but vindication.iv

As mysterious self-generated growth was the point of the kingdom parables, and as death/resurrection was the point of the grace parables, inclusion before exclusion is the principle point of Jesus’ judgment parables. The judgment of the cross is that salvation is available to whoever believes in him (Jn. 3:16).

The blessed accept their acceptance in the cross; the cursed reject it in favor of wages to be earned as day-laborers. But EVERYONE is offered inclusion. Grace remains the overarching theme of the universe and judgment is the rejection of grace for which hell is the final (but by no means the only) consequence.

PARABLE’S CONTEXT (Matt. 19:16-22)

This parable of Laborers in the Vineyard comes as Jesus is leaving Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. It contains themes of grace and judgment, so we could just as easily call it a grace parable, except for the context in which Jesus chooses to tell it.

Rich, Young Winner

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include the account of the eager young man who comes to Jesus seeking that one thing he must do to ensure his winning life will extend into eternity; only Matthew includes this parable. From our rich young winner’s point of view, riches demonstrate God approves of his success as a ruler and as a child of Abraham. But all his God-approved works cannot assure him he has done enough to secure a blessed eternity.

He deserves some props for thinking past his earthly success, grand as it appears to be. He understands that being a winner on earth doesn’t guarantee he can continue his winning ways in heaven. But, he cannot conceive of any pursuit of heavenly reward that does not involve more of his winning. There has to be some technique for earning spiritual profit he can apply in the same way he has followed earthly investing techniques.

Jesus ultimately responds to the winner’s question with one technique: lose; die, in other words. “Take up your cross and come die with me; throw away your merit badges.” The rich, young winner trudges off depressed because he cannot accept an unearned wage that comes only to meritless losers.

Judgment

Jesus responds with a word of judgment in Matt. 19:23-24, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.v How tough the winners make it for themselves, Jesus says, with their refusal to stop earning, to stop winning. Inclusion is available; they chose exclusion and judgment.

Jesus, of course, is speaking of the upside-down spiritual reality rather than teaching some particular economic theory. But Peter (God bless him!) speaks up for all the disciples who are worried Jesus is a closet Marxist. “Look, we have left everything to follow you. What will we have?My cousins and I left the lucrative Zebedee Fishing and Canning Corporation behind. I have some beautiful boats sitting idle at home. What do I get out of it?

Don’t you find yourself asking Peter’s question? When you are startled awake way too early by rowdy children, or when your alarm signals time to get up and put on your work clothes to go out and deal with your ungrateful supervisors and nasty customers only to trudge home exhausted at the end of the day knowing tomorrow will bring the same – “What do I get out of it?” is the most reasonable question in life.

Inclusio

Jesus gives the disciples a foretaste of heavenly glory with a brief promise they will share in his royal honor in the age to come. Then Matthew sets the theme of this section by quoting a statement to begin and end (inclusio) this judgment parable: “30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” vi

VINEYARD LABORERS (Matt. 20:1-16) vii

Harvest Time

Jesus pictures a vineyard owner. Let’s call him Francis Ford Coppola. Francis has had perfect wine-growing weather – a nice warm dry month of September during which his grapes have achieved 20 degrees Brix. But it’s mid-October in No Cal, 1 hour, 27 minutes up Hwy 101 from San Francisco, and a cold snap is on its way threatening to lower his grapes’ sugar content.

So Francis jumps into his van before sunrise and heads to the local day laborer pick-up site before the other vintners in the area (who all heard the same weather report) can take the strongest and best workers. He offers those he picks out $120 for a day of harvesting, crams his van full of workers and heads back to Coppola Winery.

Just before nine A.M. Francis gets a weather update. The soupy weather due in on Tuesday night is now scheduled to arrive Tuesday morning. Francis needs all his grapes gathered today. So he heads back to the marketplace for whatever workers he can find. Then, with growing urgency, he heads back for more workers at Noon and 3:00 P.M. to pick over the left-over workers nobody else wanted.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

He tells the 9, 12, and 3 o’clock workers that he’s Francis Ford Coppola, by gum. He has a good name to protect and he will pay them whatever is fair. Even though not one of the day laborers has ever seen The Godfather, much less sampled Coppola Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (and you really should!), they decide he sounds important enough to trust. Besides, they’re the left-overs no other vintner wanted to hire so they can’t be picky anyway.

The harvest is huge. By 4:45 the wind has kicked up and it’s getting cooler. With only an hour left before dark, Francis heads back to the marketplace which, by now, is only populated by some stoners sharing a 7-11 burrito they bought by pooling their loose change in an attempt to stave off the munchies.

An hour’s worth of work is about all they’re good for and they decide with a little extra cash they can buy better weed and a couple of more burritos without having to pawn their bowling balls or surfboards. Off they go with Francis at the wheel.

Every time a new van-load of workers enters the vineyards, they ask what Francis is paying. One of the sunrise workers spills the beans: $120 for a full day. As the 9, 12, 3, and 5 o’clock workers are snipping away at grape stems they’re also doing some bookkeeping in their heads. They have calculated their respective wages to be $100, $70, $40, and $10.

But as the last truckload of grapes heads for the mechanical presser, Francis tells the foreman to line the workers up in inverse order with the stoners at the head of the pay booth. With a twinkle in his eyes, Francis himself has stuffed each pay envelope. As the first stoner takes his envelope and opens it up, he notices not one $10 bill, but six $20 bills. He takes a breath, closes the envelope and walks off quickly hoping the foreman doesn’t catch his mistake before The Dude can make it home.

But right away The Dude’s buddy, Donny, catches up to him and says, “Dude, did you get $120 too? No more stinkweed for us, man!” Soon they’re joined by their buddy Walter waiving his 6 crisp $20 bills in the air for all to see while suggesting they stick around for happy hour at the tasting room since Francis has generously invited all the laborers to his after party. Free wine and tapas!viii

Refusal

Since Walter was none too subtle about his unexpected windfall, the laborers in line who were on the job longer begin to do some bookkeeping based on the wages paid to Donnie, Walter, His Dudeness, and Jeff Spicoli. Those who have moved to the front of the line expect $480. Those behind them are waiting on their $840 envelopes. And those last-in-line-but-first-to-work guys are already calculating how they will spend their $1,440.

Like God, the vineyard owner has arranged to pay everybody based solely upon his strange goodness rather than according to their own sense of bookkeeping. Soon the grumbling begins as the 3 o’clock workers receive their $120, followed by the Noon workers at $120 each, with the all-day workers fuming over their agreed-upon $120. One of the all-day workers (who bears a striking resemblance to Robert De Niro during his Godfather 2 days) storms over to Francis as he’s shaking hands out front of the tasting room welcoming people into his after party.

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,”ix says De Niro to Coppola. “Those stoners who just walked into your after party got $120 for an hour’s worth of work. AND they were stoned the whole time. You may win Oscars for your movies, but you stink as a vineyard owner!

Friend,” says Francis, “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?x

Interestingly, the word “Friend” (Ἑταῖρε) is not remotely friendly. It’s like saying, “Look, Pal” or “Hey Bud, what’s your problem?” Matthew is the only NT writer to use the word and in each case (20:13; 22:12; 26:50), it points out a deadly-serious conflict. Jesus uses it to address Judas at the betrayal.xi If Don Vito Corleone addressed you that way, it would be the last word you ever heard as Luca Brasi wrapped a piano wire around your neck.

Francis Ford Coppola is telling the Robert Di Nero-looking guy that his angry rejection of the great director’s more-than-fair offer is rapidly making him an enemy, not a “friend.” “Hey, Pal,” says Francis, “I came and found YOU. I made you a more-than-fair offer you couldn’t refuse. You got more than you would have by hanging around the marketplace starving all day.

All I did was pay the last first and the first last but everybody gets paid. Put your envelope away and come on into the after party. Have a few glasses of Coppola Reserve. Pick your favorite variety and relax. Creedence Clearwater Revival is tuning up in there. Have some tapas and celebrate with me and the stoners.”

Or, go to Hell. Take your pick.

Grace and Judgment

Can you see how judgment works only in the face of grace? Grace goes out into the marketplace, where nothing is taking place, and rewards the stoners – the last, the lost, the least, the little. Grace raises the dead. And ONLY the dead.

But it also offers the same, equal reward to the winners – the first workers of the day. And THERE IS THE OFFENSE; there is the judgment in the face of grace. Since this radical, upside-down grace is offered up to all – even to the all-day workers studiously keeping their books – it is radically offensive. The offensiveness brings judgment to those who reject this no-holds-barred offer that lets in wasteful younger brothers, mafia-style tax collectors, and stoners too baked to even give an honest hour’s work to the cause.

When the Lord of the vineyard addresses the angry workers, he says (literally), “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (v. 15b — ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;xii). There is the judgment in the face of grace. Judgment, as Jesus describes it here, is the immediate rejection of grace offered.

The angry all-day worker storms off into the outer darkness willingly, deliberately, even proudly, as the Fogerty brothers begin belting out “Suzie Q.” in the tasting room and as Francis is pouring his best wine. The party has started. But the winners refuse to enter.

The angry worker will take his contract with him to Hell all of his own accord because he has decided God’s goodness is evil in his eyes. It is the evil eye that loves darkness, the black ink in his accounting book, rather than the light of the world. “Bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven.”xiii

“For if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus.”xiv For a good millennium, the law held out salvation for perfect books. But not one person’s books were perfect. There was “no one who was righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10; Ps. 14:1-3).

Jesus came to put an end to God’s bookkeeping once for all time by perfectly keeping God’s law and paying the death penalty for law-breaking, by paying the full day’s wages. He holds out a new creation in the resurrection of the dead.

The judgment that falls on the world falls on those who offer up a winning life God cannot use. It falls on rich young rulers, and all-day workers all intent on skipping an eternal after party full of dead people raised to life by an upside-down Messiah – a strangely-living Lamb with a slit throat.

The vineyard owner stands at the door of the tasting room, clanging on a bell that signals Happy Hour has begun. It’s Happy Hour in heaven and all the world’s cedar choppers, red necks, last-minute day laborers, and even the rich young rulers who gave up on winning have bellied up to the bar, put down a full day’s wage, and plunged into the joy that makes the new creation go ‘round.xv

“It is a bash that has happened, insists on happening, and that is happening now – and by the sweetness of [the final verdict], it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.”xvi

Heaven is fun. It’s Happy Hour! And if you don’t like that, Friend, you can take your books and merit badges and go to Hell. Your call.

17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. xvii

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 20:1–16.

ii Capon, 349.

iii Id., 350.

iv Id., 353.

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 19:23–24.

vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 19:30.

vii Capon, 391-96.

viii Yes, I know The Dude, Donny, and Walter are The Big Labowski characters in a Cohen Brothers film, not a Francis Ford Coppola film. But thanks for your attentiveness! Give yourself $120.

ix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 20:12.

x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 20:13–16.

xi Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 701.

xii Cambridge Greek Testament: Greek Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), Mt 20:15.

xiii Capon, 395.

xiv Id.

xv Id., 397.

xvi Id.

xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Rev. 22:17.