Matthew 20:1-16

How do you respond when someone is late? Are you concerned about their welfare, wondering if they have had car trouble? Are you immediately upset that your time is being wasted? Do you conclude this is characteristic of the person, chronically late, expecting people always to wait on him? I’ve had all of these reactions as well as others to people who are late. My reactions vary with the people involved, the circumstances, what my agenda is, and my history with the person. Basically I am not very accepting of latecomers.

Jesus told a parable about latecomers. The parable about latecomers was one of many that Jesus told to portray something of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. This parable, like so many Jesus told, challenged the religiously well established. The people who live properly and correctly usually complain about any kindness shown to the disreputable people of society. If they show some effort to improve their lives, some intention to change, the religious and self-righteous usually agree they aren’t beyond hope, but they are not acceptable until they have given some evidence of change.
But Jesus accepted them immediately. He didn’t wait to see the outcome before he committed Himself to them. What if He had waited to see the outcome of Peter or Thomas or Judas? What if God waited to see how we’re going to turn out before God was willing to get involved with us? Where would we be? The parable about the latecomers tells all of us where we stand in relationship to God’s grace, love, and generosity.
Near my hometown are farms where the owners grow strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers. When one of those crops is ready to be harvested, the word goes out that a farmer is looking for workers. A designated time and place is given. People who want to work are to meet the farmer in front of Keith’s Grocery on Monday morning at 7 a.m. The farmer arrives with his truck, the workers pile in, and he takes them to his fields to work for the day. They are paid an agreed amount per pound of product they harvest.
The marketplace in Jesus’ parable was the labor exchange. That was where the person needing work and the person needing workers met. The setting for the parable about the vineyard workers is the grape harvest in September in Palestine. When the grapes ripen they must be harvested immediately because the heavy rains come at about the same time. The rains will destroy the grapes.
Workers gathered in the marketplace hoping to find work. The vineyard owner went early in the morning and apparently hired all the available workers for one silver coin each. They had a contract to work for the day, twelve hours from six in the morning until six in the evening, for one denarius, one silver coin. That was enough money to provide food for a family for one day. It was enough money to keep a family marginally surviving. It was urgent for the workers to have work so they could earn wages. These hired workers were economically the lowest class of people in the culture. The servants and slaves were much more secure financially than the hired workers. Although the standard of living for the servants and slaves depended on the status of their masters, there was security there. They knew that food, clothing, and housing would be provided for them. The hired workers had promise and assurance of nothing.
The vineyard owner monitored the progress of his harvest. After only a brief time he could see that if he wanted the crop harvested by the end of the day, he needed more workers. Back to the marketplace he went at 9 a.m. There were more workers there. Where had they been at six o’clock? Maybe they had been late getting to the marketplace. Perhaps they had had other jobs that only involved a couple of hours, although this is unlikely. He promised them a fair wage to work the remainder of the day harvesting grapes in his vineyard. They agreed and went off to work. This scene was repeated at noon and at 3 p.m. Each time the owner found workers at the marketplace and promised to pay them a fair wage to work for him that day.
As the owner observed the work in progress, he continued to be concerned about the harvest. He returned to the marketplace one last time at 5 p.m. There was only an hour left in the working day, but he found laborers waiting at the marketplace. Exasperated, the owner asked, “Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?” I get the impression that the owner was frustrated his crop might not get harvested that day. A terrible rain might come in the night and destroy what was left of the crop, all because he could not find enough workers to do the job.
At his five o’clock trip to the marketplace he found more workers. His immediate reaction was, “We easily could have finished the job if you guys had been willing to work all day. Why haven’t you been working?” The workers said no one had hired them. Had they been working for someone else and finished early? If no one had hired them, where were they the previous four times the owner had come searching for workers?
Regardless of what had transpired earlier in the day, the owner simply told these workers to go work in his vineyard, and they did. No mention is made to them about payment. The workers went assuming they would be paid. Any payment they received at this late hour would be better than to have nothing to show for the day.
After these last hired employees had worked only one hour while the first hired had worked twelve hours, the owner instructed the job foreman to pay the workers. He instructed the foreman to pay in reverse order beginning with those who came to work last.
Now what kind of economic policy is this? We know that the best economic philosophy says, “Last hired, first fired.” This is how we understand the saying that the last shall be first and the first last. We also know that it is just sound business sense to pay the first people hired first. We also know it is not good business practice to let employees know what other employees are earning. If they know and discover they aren’t being treated fairly and generously, they might organize, form unions, and make some demands on management for equity.
Obviously, the one-hour workers were pleased with their pay. After all they had been paid twelve times the going rate. To work for one hour and receive a full day’s pay was indeed generous. They were delighted. Then the three-hour workers were paid. Each received the same amount as did the six-hour workers and the nine-hour workers. Although each of these workers received the same pay for varying number of hours worked, no complaining is recorded.
The twelve-hour workers had watched all of this. The longer they observed, the more people were paid one denarius each, the more excited and eager they became to receive their pay. If all of these workers had gotten a full-time pay for part-time work, just think what they were going to receive for their work.
One denarius. One denarius! Outrageous! What kind of fools did this vineyard owner take them to be? They weren’t going to take this lying down! Who ever heard of such an unfair tactic, getting them out there to slave away all day in the hot sun and not pay them any more than the part-timers were being paid?
It is worth noting that only after they had taken their money did the full-time workers start grumbling. The complaint of the full-timers was leveled against the one-hour workers. Nothing was said about the same pay being given to the other part-time workers.
Sometimes as I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry I think He deliberately tried to get into trouble. Surely He wasn’t naive. He had to know by some of the things He said and the actions He took that He was going to get into trouble. But He never let any threat of difficulty or personal trouble deter Him from saying what He thought and doing what He felt was right. And the common people loved Him. The rich and famous, the powerful, the people with prestige and clout were so troubled by Him that they concluded early in His ministry that they could not let Him run around loose. They would have to control Him, shut Him up, eventually get rid of Him.
Why did the owner create this conflict and trouble? He could have avoided problems by paying people in the order in which they came to work for him. That way the full-timers would not have known what the others received. Maybe the one-hour workers accomplished as much in the time they worked as did the all-day workers. There is wisdom in the comment of A. T. Robertson, “After all, one’s work does not rest wholly on the amount of time spent on it.”1 Although we have known some workers who did more in an hour than others did all day, this is unlikely in this situation since nothing is said about that.
But the owner did have some things to say. First, he noted that he had not cheated the all-day workers. He had a contract with them to which they had agreed. He promised to pay each of them one denarius to work all day in his vineyard and they were glad to have the work and the wages. They agreed to the arrangements. Then he urges them to take their money and go home. He wants to pay the one-hour workers the same as he had paid the all-day workers. And he poses a question to them, “Don’t I have the right to do with my money as I wish?” I can almost hear the “Yes, but,” response of the all-day workers between the printed lines. Then the owners asked a troubling, disturbing question, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” I see the workers’ glaring eyes and taunt jaws as their sounds of silence scream, “You’d better believe we’re jealous.”
Another way to translate the word jealous is “evil eye.” The evil eye was the term used for envy or stinginess. The worst thing that could happen to any of us in a relationship would be for someone to treat us like we deserve to be treated, as we have treated them. If a ledger were kept on every relationship you have, wouldn’t it be terrible to be paid what you’re due? Every relationship I have exists because of the grace, the generosity of another.
That is parabolic of my relationship with God. When it comes to my relationship with God, I’m on the “gravy train” and I don’t know that there is any way to determine who is receiving the most grace. I know this: I am receiving more than I deserve and more than I paid for because grace comes generously and freely from God. I don’t like to admit this, but those of us who have been involved in the life of the church — involved in taking religion seriously for any length of time — are the all-day workers in Jesus’ story. The all-day workers had grudging eyes, but the owner had a generous eye.
Then Jesus added the closure, “Those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.” I wish He hadn’t said that. It’s so troubling, so aggravating. Aren’t there any perks for being faithful over the long haul? Why not just wait until the last minute to get on the bandwagon headed for the kingdom? Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is where the first are last and the last are first.”
This story is Jesus’ way of saying that all people, regardless of when they come to God’s place, are equally precious and valuable to God. God does not place a premium on when you arrive but on the fact that you arrive. William Barclay observed, “There are people who think that, because they have been members of a church for a long time, the church practically belongs to them and that they can dictate and control its policy; such people resent what seems to them the intrusion of new blood into a congregation, or the rise of a new generation who have different plans and different ways. In the Christian Church seniority does not necessarily mean honor.”2
In God’s economy, there is no such thing as most favored status. Whenever people enter the Kingdom of Heaven they are equally dear, valuable, and important to God. In the book of Revelation the writer identifies twelve gates to the city of God. The gates are on all sides of the city. The gates on the East face toward the dawn and may represent those who enter the city at the dawn of their lives. Those on the West are toward the setting sun and may represent those who enter the city at the dusk of life. But whichever gate one enters, it leads to the same city and all are welcomed equally.
This is difficult for us, isn’t it? Why? Is it because we’re in the church for the wrong reasons? Is it because we wrapped ourselves up in religion with the idea that we could make God indebted to us? We have difficulty with these one-hour workers in Jesus’ story because we are so competitive, so determined to be a leg up on everybody, so eager to get something for ourselves but want everyone else to have at least as much trouble and difficulty in life as we have.
In interpreting this parable F. F. Bruce observed, “If some think this approach gives the latecomers an unfair advantage, let it be considered that they were terribly disadvantaged to begin with. If it be urged that their rehabilitation should involve some payment for their past misdeeds, the truth may be that they have paid enough already.”3
We just cannot resist asking whether those who have turned to God at the eleventh hour and given God only the last twelfth of life get as much of heaven as those who have given a whole lifetime. T. W. Manson has the cogent response to our wondering. He points out that there was a coin worth one-twelfth of a denarius: “It was called a pondion. But there is no such thing as a twelfth part of the love of God.”4
The one thing we can be sure we will receive as a result of our serving God by serving others, whether our time of service is an hour or all day, is a bounty of grace. But grace is difficult to receive. Often grace is even more difficult for us to see others receive.
The point of Jesus’ story is that it doesn’t matter when a person decides to relate to God and receive God’s grace, all are equally dear to Him. With God it is not the number of years of service given that is important, but the love in which people serve that matters.
Grace is what happens between two people when relationship develops. Grace is giving oneself to another without reservation and being surprised at how warmly one is received. Grace is face-to-face encounter with another. In a world of people turning their backs on each other, exploiting one another, trying to possess each other, killing one another, gossiping about each other, grace is one person facing another person and reflecting care and acceptance.
Primarily, grace is a face, the face of Christ seen and reflected in the faces of people who serve God and us by accepting us and loving us as we are. Many faces scream criticism, rejection, or threats. These faces are negative and do not communicate grace.
Karl Menninger, in his book The Vital Balance, discusses the negativistic personality which at first says “no” to almost everything. These “troubled patients,” as he calls them, have never made an unsound loan, or voted for a liberal cause, or sponsored an extravagance. They cannot permit themselves the pleasure of giving. He describes them as rigid, chronically unhappy individuals, bitter, insecure, and often suicidal.”
The grace of God means: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift, too.5
Actually, all of us are latecomers to the kingdom of God. Was there not a time when we could have entered the kingdom before we did? We are fortunate indeed that God is not like us. Rather, God is seeking to shape us and make us like God. We are created in God’s image. God is not created in our image. Indeed, we are all latecomers to God’s kingdom. We are all latecomers in receiving God’s love and grace.
There are only two places in the kingdom of God, first and last. Since we are all latecomers, that makes us last in the kingdom of God, doesn’t it? But when it comes to entering the kingdom of heaven, when it comes to experiencing God’s love, when it comes to receiving God’s grace, pray tell what difference does it make whether you’re the first or the last? Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like this … the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930, vol. 1, p. 161.
2. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew Volume 2, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958, p. 247.
3. F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983, pp. 197-198.
4. T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, 2nd edition, London, 1949, p. 220.
5. Frederick Buechner, “Grace,” A Theological ABC’s, New York: Harper and Row.

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