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Parable of the workers in the vineyard - Jacob Willemsz de Wet (1675)

After telling the disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter heaven, Jesus said,

“Many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.”

Parable of the workers in the vineyard - employer paying workersTo explain, he then told them a parable about workers in a vineyard. Jesus said,

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out in the early morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for a day’s work and sent them into the field.

Later, about 9:00 in the morning, he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace with no work. He told them, “Go and work in my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.

He went out again around noon and again about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon, he went out and found still others standing in the city with no work. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day?”

“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.

He told them, “You can also go and work in my vineyard.”

When evening came the owner of the vineyard told the foreman, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going to the first.”

The workers who were hired later in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those who were hired in the morning came, they expected to receive more. But each also received a single denarius. When they took the money, they began to grumble. “Those who were hired last worked for only one hour and yet, they made the same amount of money as those of us who bore the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

The vineyard owner answered their complaints, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? That is what I paid you. Be happy for what you received. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So the last will be first and the first will be last.”

What the story means to us today

Grace is not an act of fairness, it’s an act of generosity

Parable of the workers in the vineyard - Rembrandt (1637)Although the parable told here is often called “The parable of the workers”, it’s not a parable about workers. It’s not about fairness in wages or the proper length of a working day. It’s a parable about the generosity of the workers’ employer and how something that may not seem fair on the surface, may be equitable to all when given more thought.

Jesus used this lesson to impose on the disciples, how quantity and quality of deeds on earth do not guarantee more rewards in heaven. Grace is not an act of fairness, it’s an act of generosity. By God’s grace, everyone is equal in his eyes. Just because a person comes to salvation later in life, does not make them a lesser Christian than someone born into a Christian family. Just because a person does more good things than another does not mean they are a better Christian. Christianity is a dedication to following the example that Jesus set for us – and it is not quantifiable in the manner we are used to measuring things.

Additional thoughts and considerations

See the bigger picture

When studying this parable, look at the bigger picture. Some ponder why the employer kept returning later in the day. Were the workers hanging around later in the day lazy? Was the arrival of evening and the distribution of the workers’ pay an allusion to the judgement? Was the parable intended to represent the lateness of Gentiles to the Christian movement (as compared to the Jews)? None of these isolated, granular points are relevant to the parable. Like any biblical verse, story, or book, resist taking fragments of the parable out of context. Look at the bigger story Jesus was telling and the theme he built his parable off of – counter to what we may believe on earth, in heaven, some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last.

The science and history behind the story

The value of a Denarius

Outside historical records confirm the accounting in Jesus’ parable. A denarius was a silver coin with the value of about a day’s worth of labor.

Recording time in ancient Israel

The verses say,

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“When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace with no work.”

The original Greek tells us the employer went back into town at “the third hour”.

Ancient Israel divided the day into two halves – the dark half and the light half. The light half began at 6:00 AM. Thus the “third hour” was three hours later – 9:00 AM.

Parable of the workers in the vineyardHarvest in ancient Israel

Many Galileans were farmers or workers hired for agriculture businesses. During harvest time, crops needed to be taken in quickly before they spoiled. Employers would hire day laborers during harvest time to assist. The law required the employer pay the day laborer at the end of each day.

Bible Text

NIV

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 20:2 And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 20:3 When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. 20:4 He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ 20:5 So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. 20:6 And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ 20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’ 20:8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ 20:9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. 20:10 And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. 20:11 When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 20:12 saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ 20:13 And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 20:14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 20:15 Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 20:16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Jesus teaching - Artist UnknownBiblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

20 “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.’

8 “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. 11 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.’ 13 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?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

2 20 “God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

3–5 “Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

5–6 “He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’

7 “They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

8 “When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’

9–12 “Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

13–15 “He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

16 “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

20 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny 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 unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 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? 7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database

 

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