By: Raymond Harris
Regarding Scripture: Matthew 20.1-16
Note to the Reader
The reader may be aware that I was involved in an in-depth study and research project during the closing months of 2009. The study was about the influence and use of the Old Testament within the New Testament. Considerable information has been found of which I am reflecting on, meditating about, and asking God for more guidance to understand. The study was highly rewarding, informative, and leavening for the maturation of my spiritual understanding. While I am concluding my study, I encourage the reader to invest additional time reading the Gospel of Matthew in conjunction with this article, and may the reader have a blessed and prosperous New Year.
The vineyard is a powerful location in which to place a parable. Vineyards can occupy acres of land; some are planted on a terraced hill, but all have long rows of vines encouraging the ripening grapes. There is much labor to do in a vineyard beyond bringing in the ready succulent fruit. From the earliest hours to the latest, vineyard workers labor being compliant to the owner’s desires so that a bountiful vineyard leads to a bountiful enjoyment of labor.
In a culture like ours much emphasis is placed on work, and rightly so. The more willing you are to work, the more you should receive compensation for a “day’s labor.” Our capitalist system rewards the increased willingness of the individual to labor. Those willing to work and work hard receive a bigger reward, called income or their living wage, which then is measured by a standard of living. So when I come to a parable about the vineyard workers1 it really forces me to take a step back. Simply stated, from my cultural point of view, it seems quite unfair that the early laborers receive the same pay as the late laborers.
Early and Late Laborers
In this parable there are five groups of laborers. Group one is the early morning workers.2 Groups two through five are hired around 9:00 A.M.,3 12:00 P.M.,4 3:00 P.M.,5 and 5:00 P.M.6 respectively, with the final group going to work because they finally had someone hire them.7 Their statement about “not being hired” could be interpreted that they did not show themselves early in the day and therefore they could not have been hired, but that conclusion would not be taking their statement at face value.
Upon completion of the workday, the vineyard owner gathered the laborers in order to dispense their pay.8 Upon seeing that the late hires were contracted to receive the same amount, the early laborers retorted – crying, “unfair and fowl.”9 Now we would certainly be amiss to see how Matthew reveals the parable’s core message being that the last is first and the first last.10 So the parable’s bottom-line is that the land owner defrauds no one when he pays the contracted amount – even when the contracted amount is equal pay regardless of length of labor tenure – labor tenure being the individual’s working “time” whether all day or an hour.
To be fare to the all-day labor, this writer would have also cried fowl, but as we learned in our last article, Parables are for those in the know in order for them to see the greater spiritual teaching, while those on the outside hear the powerful truism yet it confounds their intellect.
Early and Late Laborers as Converts
It seems entirely appropriate to consider the laborers parabolic disciples. And the various times in which the vineyard owner asked them to work can be equated to five various times during a disciple’s life. Group one represents those individuals who are called very early in their lives. Group two are a little older than group one, but are still relatively young. Group three represents those called in the middle of their life. Group four is older than those in the middle of the life, but younger than those toward their later years. And group five would be those who are the oldest of the called groups. But in the end, all groups, regardless of labor tenure, receive the same eternal compensation.
It is even possible to take this parable and make it time oriented toward the person’s death. Some people pass from this life with what we consider to be “a lifetime in front of them,” while others pass from this life in the fullness of days. It is possible to parabolically reveal that, regardless of age, there is a possibility of an “eleventh hour” conversion, where eleventh hour converts are accepted and compensated as thoroughly as those who came at the earlier hours.
Early and Late Laborers as Participants in God’s Plan
The previous laborers were placed in a parallel comparison to converts, and while it seems they work (no pun intended) as explanation, there may actually be an additional, perhaps more full, explanation. Consider placing the workers as people throughout biblical time being called to work in God’s vineyard during this temporal day.
The day would be defined as post-flood to judgment day. The times (early morning hours, 9:00 A.M., 12:00 P.M., 3:00 P.M., and 5:00 P.M.) represent the unfolding of God’s Covenants and therefore sections of the unfolding of God’s plan which works to the closing of the workday when the compensation will be given. The early morning workers would represent Noah. The 9:00 A.M. workers represent Abraham. The 12:00 P.M. workers represent the children of Israel. The 3:00 P.M. workers represent the House of Israel and the House of Judah. Finally, the 5:00 P.M. workers represent the Gentile inclusion.
Noah and the first laborers were called back in Genesis 6-9. The second wave of workers were called under Abraham in Genesis 15.1-21 and Genesis 17.1-27. The third wave of workers are the children of Israel contracted at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19-24. The fourth wave of workers are contracted in Acts 2 in fulfillment of the New Covenant with the House of Israel and House of Judah in Jeremiah 31.31-34. The final and fifth wave of workers is the invitation of the Gentile laborers in God’s vineyard in Acts 10.
When the vineyard owner gathers the laborers, it will be the end of time, or judgment. Regardless of when the laborers were called (Noah, Abraham, the Children of Israel, the house of Israel and house of Judah, or the Gentiles), if they worked according to the vineyard owner’s directive, they have all been contracted to receive the same payment. Some laborers worked in the heat of the day, like Israel of old, and workers like the Gentiles have come into the vineyard after most of the labor has been done.
Working in the LORD’s vineyard, regardless of the time called or the application that one prefers, requires one thing: labor. Work means work. Work is not always fun, nor is it always enjoyable, Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” for a reason. Additionally, working for the LORD is not a hobby and it is not a past-time, it is real honest tiring labor, but a labor that has a compensation package to die for.
1. “Parable: Vineyard Workers.” Matthew 20.1-16, NASB.
2. “Group One: Early morning workers.” Matthew 20.1, NASB.
3. “Group Two: 9:00 A.M.” Matthew 20.3, TNIV.
4. “Group Three: 12:00 P.M.” Matthew 20.5, TNIV.
5. “Group Four: 3:00 P.M.” Matthew 20.5, TNIV.
6. “Group Five: 5:00 P.M.” Matthew 20.6, TNIV.
7. “Final Group, ‘no one hired us.’” Matthew 20.7, NASB.
8. “Gathering the Laborers for compensation.” Matthew 20.8, NASB.
9. “Unfair and fowl.” Matthew 20.11-12, NASB.
10. “The last is first and the first last.” Matthew 20.16, NASB.