SET-1: Seasons of Elijah-Cross-Moses
In response to Peter’s question, “You see, we have given up everything to follow you. What will be our lot?” (Mt 19:27), Jesus promised, “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory, you who have followed me will yourselves sit on twelve thrones to rule the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Mt 19:28). He also offered a hundred times more of what they had given up and eternal life’s inheritance (Mt 19:29). He then concluded saying, “Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first” (Mt 19:30). As a continuation of this, Jesus presented the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Through it, Jesus taught that God’s generosity surpasses human thinking. So, the late converts and ministers in the church also might get a fair reward. The early disciples should be ready to appreciate the magnanimity of God in favouring the latecomers in his kingdom.
(Matthew 20:1) The kingdom of heaven is like this: A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. (2) He agreed to pay the workers the usual daily wage of one denarius a day, and he sent them to his vineyard. (3) He went out again at about the third hour, and as he saw men idle in the square, (4) he said to them: ‘You, too, go to my vineyard and I will pay you what is just.’ So they went. The owner went out at the sixth hour and again at the ninth hour, (5) and he did the same. (6) Finally he went out at the eleventh-hour and saw others standing there. So he said to them: ‘Why do you stand idle the whole day?’ (7) They answered: ‘Because no one has hired us.’ The master said: ‘Go you also and work in my vineyard.’ (8) When evening came, the vineyard owner said to his manager: ‘Call the workers and pay them their wage, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ (9) Those who had come to work at the last hour turned up and were given a denarius each. (10) When it was the turn of the first, they thought they would receive more. (11) But they, too, received one denarius each. So, on receiving it, they began to grumble against the landowner. (12) They said: ‘These last hardly worked an hour, yet you have treated them the same as us who have endured the day’s burden and heat.’ (13) The owner said to one of them: ‘Friend, I have not been unjust with you. Did we not agree on one denarius a day? (14) So take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last as much as I give to you. (15) Do I not have the right to do as I please with my money? Why are you envious when I am generous?’ (16) So will it be: the last will be first, the first will be last.
Only Matthew presents this parable. Jesus was talking about the reward his disciples might attain for giving up everything and following him. Jesus’ disciples were not from the conservative Jewish leaders. They were ordinary people like fishermen or tax collector like Matthew. Hence, they were not strict in their adherence to Jewish practices. However, Jesus promised them a glorious reward (Mt 19:28-29). So, God will reward even the latecomers to His new kingdom.
To the rich young man who kept all the commandments of the Lord, Jesus said: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all that you possess and give the money to the poor, and you will become the owner of a treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me” (Mt 19:21). He declined to give his material goods for the Kingdom of God. Unlike that rich man, the apostles had given up everything for Jesus and followed him. To them, Jesus said, “Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first” (Mt 19:30). In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus illustrated how God welcomes even the less prominent like the apostles into his kingdom and rewards them for their labours out of his sheer graciousness.
(Mt 20:1) The kingdom of heaven is like this: A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard
The kingdom of heaven
Matthew used “the Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God” that other evangelists used. This was to avoid using the term God because Matthew wrote for the Jews who do not use God’s name. Both Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God mean the same. This kingdom is of divine origin, governed by God, eternal, peaceful, free from any struggle, and is open only for the faithful children of God. Jesus reestablished the unfaithful nation of Israel and formed his church as a foretaste of God’s kingdom that will happen later in its fullness. Jesus will establish the perfect kingdom at his second coming. Some examples illustrate the criteria for entry into the kingdom. In this parable of the workers in the vineyard, the one dinar given as wage at the end of the one- day work stands for the reward of entrance into the Kingdom of God.
A landowner… his vineyard
According to the Old Testament, God is the landowner, and Israel is the vineyard. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant vine” (Isa 5:7). The leaders of Israel are the labourers that God had assigned to take care of his vineyard. In the New Testament, the church is the vineyard that Jesus gained as his inheritance from his Father. Jesus regained this vineyard from the unfaithful servants of Israel by giving his life as a ransom. He then entrusted it to his disciples as the new labourers.
A landowner went out early in the morning
The working hours of the Israelites were 12, and they counted them from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. So, the landowner went out before 6:00 am to get the labourers.
To hire workers for his vineyard
The landowner has regular servants and slaves. So, the hired labourers were daily wage workers whom the landowner used only when there was a need for additional workers. Since it was the harvest time, the landowner urgently needed more people to harvest before the rain or adverse weather would arrive. So, he hired daily labourers.
The daily wage labourers were poor because they had no steady job and income. They depended on the landowner to get work so they could gain some money to buy food for their starving families. They desperately needed a job daily for their livelihood.
(2) He agreed to pay the workers the usual daily wage of one denarius a day, and he sent them to his vineyard
The landowner agreed on how much he would pay for the 12- hour labour. One denarius per day was just payment for the living expense of an unskilled labourer. There was no agreement on wage with the late hires other than an offer of just payment.
(3) He went out again at about the third hour, and as he saw men idle in the square
He went out again
John the Baptist and Jesus called people in the sinful stage for repentance. They were sitting idle, detached from God and his vineyard. Unlike John to whom people went, Jesus went into the synagogues and marketplaces where people were present. He invited them to his kingdom. Jesus wanted many labourers because the harvest was plenty (Mt 9:36-37).
At about the third hour
Since the usual work started at 6:00 a.m., this call of the second batch was at 9:00 a.m., or three hours later. Why did the landowner call them late? They could be the latecomers in the market. Or they might have been there before, but were less skilled than the others whom the vineyard owner hired first. He might have found by 9:00 a.m. that he needed more labourers than he initially thought. When we apply the parable to Israel or the church, there were people faithful to God from their early life and others who began keeping God’s commandments only later in life.
He saw men idle
Unlike the servants and slaves who were part of the family of the vineyard owner, the daily labourers had to wait in the marketplace seeking the landowner’s mercy to hire them for each day’s work. They had nothing to do other than wait until hired for work.
In the square
A market square is a public place (Mt 11:16) surrounded by buildings where people sell their products and assemble for public events and celebrations (Acts 16:19; 17:17). The marketplace represented the world of sin. Standing idle represents a sinful state of living apart from God’s vineyard and His covenant relationship. It could also mean a state of hopelessness and helplessness.
(4) He said to them: ‘You, too, go to my vineyard and I will pay you what is just’ and so they went. The owner went out at the sixth hour and again at the ninth hour
The vineyard owner promised a fair wage for those whom he hired late. He did not specify what he would give. However, the labourers trusted him and went. If they did not get that opportunity, their family would starve.
No service in the vineyard of the Lord will go unrewarded. Saint Paul reminded the Ephesians: “Work willingly for the Lord and not for humans, mindful that the good each one has done, whether slave or free, will be rewarded by the Lord” (6:7-8). Jesus assured those who support his disciples: “I promise you if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, will not go unrewarded” (Mt 10:42). A Christian should not demand his reward but should trust that the Lord will give a generous reward at the end.
(5) And he did the same
The vineyard owner went repeatedly at an interval of three hours each. Each time he found labourers sitting idle in the marketplace. Their reason for waiting showed their dire need for work so they could support their family with food and other necessities. The reason for the vineyard owner showing up in the marketplace searching for labourers shows his urgent need for more labourers so he could complete the harvest before sunset. He promised a fair wage to all the late-appointees. They did not negotiate with the vineyard owner for the wages and there was no agreement other than for a fair wage at his discretion.
(6) Finally he went out at the eleventh-hour and saw others standing there. So he said to them: ‘Why do you stand idle the whole day?’
He went out at the eleventh hour
The vineyard owner went to the marketplace looking for any available workers at the eleventh-hour. With only one hour left for the close of the day, it was an unusual time to go hiring. It shows his desperate need for more labourers to complete the work before sunset. The labourers whom the vineyard owner hired on a contract basis in the early morning were slowing down waiting for the end of the day. They were losing their enthusiasm and energy. The newly hired might be energetic because they were relaxing for long and were happy that they could get a job, at least for the rest of the day at a fair wage. So, they would be more productive in the last hour than all the others.
Saw others standing there
The vineyard owner had hired batches of labourers at every three- hour interval of the day. He had selected all the capable labourers by that time. When he came to the market at the last hour, he came across some people still looking for part-time work. They just could not return home without earning at least some money for the day’s food. These were the marginalised and abandoned people. Jesus, the vineyard owner of the New Testament came looking to redeem precisely such people.
Why do you stand idle the whole day?
The enquiry here is on their reason for not being employed to which they gave a reasonable answer. They were not standing idle out of choice but because nobody had hired them, probably because they were unskilled or had some disability or looked unfit. They were persisting because of their dire need.
The people whom God, the landowner, hired late to the Kingdom of God were the Gentiles. Until Jesus’ public ministry, God had invited Abraham’s chosen children and Jacob’s descendants to the Kingdom of God. Many of them proved unfaithful labourers. So, Jesus the vineyard owner came at the eleventh-hour to invite to his church, the Gentiles whom God did not invite earlier. Even though they entered the scene at the fag end of the day, they also received a reward equivalent to the Jewish Christians.
(7) They answered: ‘Because no one has hired us.’ The master said: ‘Go you also and work in my vineyard’
Because no one has hired us
Those hired at the eleventh-hour expressed their genuine reason for not working. No one had hired them. If the landowner had hired them to work early, they would have joined the team of workers. They went to work when they got the chance at least for one hour. The Israelites did not consider the Gentiles sharers in the covenant. When invited, the Gentiles jumped at the opportunity and joined the church.
(8) When evening came, the vineyard owner said to his manager: ‘Call the workers and pay them their wage, beginning with the last and ending with the first’
God gave through Moses strict instruction to the landowners that they must pay the daily workers their wage on the same day before sunset. “You shall not exploit the lowly and the poor wage- earner, whether he be one of your brothers or an alien who resides in your land in any of your towns. Pay him daily before the sun goes down, because he is poor and he depends on his earnings. Then he will not appeal to the LORD against you, and you will have no sin” (Deut 24:14-15). The vineyard owner followed this command of the Lord.
The vineyard represents the chosen people of God, like Israel in the Old Testament and church in the New Age. God is the vineyard owner, and Jesus is the foreman who works on God’s behalf to distribute the payment.
According to the Jewish calendar, 6:00 p.m. is the end of a day and another day’s beginning. It is a stage of transition. In the spiritual sense, the period of Israel was ending, and the Messianic Era was starting. Jesus gave the social outcasts like the sinners, the Gentiles, and the Samaritans a chance to work alongside the Jews in the Kingdom of God that he had inaugurated.
It can also mean the end of this world and the beginning of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1). Before that, the Son of Man would appear on the clouds and would judge or reward all according to their vices and virtues (Mt 25:31-46). So those who are not in the vineyard of Jesus now, can enter the church and gain a just reward even at his last hour.
Beginning with the last and ending with the first
After summoning all the labourers, the foreman paid first to those who came in the last shift onwards so those who came first would observe how the others got paid. That helped Jesus to highlight the climax and message of the story to his listeners. The reverse order of payment corresponds to Jesus’s statement before this parable and at the end of the parable. Before introducing this parable, Jesus told his disciples, “Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first” (Mt 19:30). Jesus concluded the parable saying, “The last will be first, the first will be last” (Mt 20:16).
(9) Those who had come to work at the last hour turned up and were given a denarius each
From a human standard, those who worked only one hour deserved payment for one hour only. However, the vineyard owner was generous to give them a one-day wage. There could be several reasons for that: (1) It was not their fault that the landowner did not call them first. (2) When the landowner did not hire them, they did not return home disappointed. Instead, they continued in the marketplace seeking a job and accepted the work even when hired at the last hour. (3) They might have worked harder during the last hour of the day to compensate for the idle time. (4) Their family needed one-day wage for their sustenance.
Some were born Gentiles or Samaritans, and some became sinners because of their adverse circumstances of birth or growth. Such people had time to repent and join the Kingdom of God when Jesus came at the eleventh hour. They readily accepted the invitation and compensated for their lost years of grace with their sincere and enthusiastic service in the church. So, at the last judgement, they are also eligible to receive the same reward of entry in God’s kingdom.
(10) When it was the turn of the first, they thought they would receive more
The vineyard owner could pay the one-day wage to all without lining them up according to the hours put in. He purposely did so in reverse order, by paying first those who worked only one hour, to bring up the reaction of those who started work at 6:00 a.m. The first comers who worked throughout the day were the Israelites. Their leaders were expecting more reward from God compared to the late converts like the Gentiles, Samaritans, and Publicans. The Jews, like the elder brother of the prodigal son, were unhappy at the entrance of the latecomers in God’s Kingdom (Lk 15:28-30). The owner did justice to them by giving them what he had agreed upon at the time of their hiring.
(11) But they, too, received one denarius each. So, on receiving it, they began to grumble against the landowner
The vineyard owner showed compassion to the ones who were not hired because they were poor and had been patiently waiting at the marketplace without losing hope. They desperately needed money to buy food for their starving family. The vineyard owner had sympathy for them and wanted to help them. However, the early hires who very well knew the pathetic situation of their co- villagers did not show any concern for them. They also could not tolerate the landowner’s generosity towards them. Even though no injustice was done to them, yet they felt envious of those who received equal pay for less work.
Jesus teaches that such feelings and reactions are unchristian. The Jewish Christians should not feel envious of the Gentile converts to Christianity.
(12) They said: ‘These last hardly worked an hour, yet you have treated them the same as us who have endured the day’s burden and heat’
The work at the last hour had less heat compared to the noon hours. Those who worked only one hour did not suffer adverse weather. So also, the Jews had been following the laws and traditions of Israel throughout their lives. For them, laws and ceremonial observances were burdensome (Mal 1:13) like the heat of midday. Jesus made others who were enjoying the worldly pleasures equal to them when he came and baptized them. This was an issue for the Jewish leaders and the early Jewish Christians.
(13) The owner said to one of them: ‘Friend, I have not been unjust with you. Did we not agree on one denarius a day?’
The expectation of those who had endured the heat of the day was to get paid more than the late hires, on the principles of natural justice. However, the vineyard owner said he was merely honouring the terms of the agreement, so they didn’t have a genuine basis for complaint. There was no deception or mistrepresentation involved. They could not question his generosity – that was his prerogative. It was like Jesus’ magnanimous assurance of paradise to the repentant criminal who was crucified alongside him (Lk 23:43).
(14) So take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last as much as I give to you
The vineyard owner was not willing to pay the early hires more than the agreed amount. He may have had good reasons for doing so. Rather than justify himself, he questioned the very basis of their complaint. He felt that they also should show compassion to the late hires as he did. So, he asked them to take what they deserved and leave the place.
(15) Do I not have the right to do as I please with my money? Why are you envious when I am generous?
The vineyard owner’s answer to those who complained was his justification through his questions:
(1) He did them justice by giving them the payment he had agreed with them.
(2) He is free to use his money the way he wished.
(3) They should not be envious of his generosity to those who remained unhired for no fault of theirs.
The response of the early hired labourers was like the attitude of the prodigal son’s elder brother when their father generously welcomed back the repentant son with open arms (Lk 15:25-32). Proverbs 27:4 says, “Wrath is cruel and anger impulsive, but who can withstand jealousy?” The jealousy of the Pharisees and Scribes, against the disciples of Jesus, who were poor, illiterate, nontraditional, and even sinners, was like the full-time workers of this parable. So, the Pharisees, Scribes, and other elite Jews denied the Messiahship of Jesus. The early Jewish Christians also had similar issues in accepting the Gentile converts.
(16) So will it be: the last will be first, the first will be last
A repentant sinner and a late convert are equivalent to the righteous believers. They all inherit the Kingdom of God and are equal in front of God. The first became last because they did not embrace the message of love for the less fortunate that Jesus taught them. Thus, the humble prayer of the publican was more justifiable before God than the self-exalted prayer of the righteous Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14). There will be a reversal of fortune and surprise to come at the end stage, as with the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).
While advising his listeners on the need to enter through the narrow door, Jesus concluded: “You will weep and grind your teeth when you see Abraham and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves left outside. But others will come and sit at table in the Kingdom of God, people coming from east and west, from north and south.
Some who are among the last will be the first, and some who are first will be last” (Lk 13:28- 30). Jesus illustrated that surprise from the part of those who got the reward and others who got the punishment in the statements of the last judgement (Mt 25:31-46).
1. From an allegorical perspective, God is the landowner, the world is the market place, the field is Israel and later the church, the early selected labourers are the Israelites or Jews, the late hired workers are the gentile and late converts, the evening is the time of last judgement, the foreman who distributed money is Jesus upon his second coming. Even if God called us for conversion late, if we answer Jesus’ call and work for him, God will reward us generously at the last judgement.
2. In the New Testament, the church is Jesus’ vineyard. He hires labourers at different hours or stages of its growth according to his need and the need of the labourers. Let us thank the Lord for hiring us as his labourers. We must focus on our work and should be happy with what God gives us without grumbling on the grace others receive, even if they are unworthy for it.
3. Jesus the landowner rebuilt church as his vineyard and hired disciples to take care of them at various stages of the church. The wage he promised to his disciples was entry into the Kingdom of God. Jesus offered his paradise even to the late hires like the repented criminal who was on the cross with him.
4. Jesus told his disciples: “The harvest is abundant but the labourers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out labourers for his harvest” (Mt 9:37-38). Let us pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and lay ministries.
5. The labourers could reject the invitation to work in the vineyard even though the owner desperately needed labourers. Let us pray for the conversion of those who decline Jesus’ invitation to work in his vineyard, the church.
6. There is the sure guarantee of reward for the labourers. For some, it can be far beyond what they deserve because of God’s magnanimity. Like the vineyard owner, who represents God, let us also be generous to the less fortunate in society.
7. Even at the eleventh hour that is at the close of one’s life God might offer a chance for redemption like the criminal crucified with Jesus who sought for salvation. We do not know when our eleventh-hour is and whether we will get such an opportunity. So, the present is our best time to reconcile with God or to improve our spiritual life.
8. Though we can expect God’s generosity, we cannot ‘demand’ any compensation from God. Everything we have is by the grace of God.