Laborers in the Vineyard




Matthew 20:1-16

1‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage,* he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.* 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.* 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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 the usual daily wage?* 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”* 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’*



A young preacher, having finished seminary, took a church in the hills of Kentucky. On his first Sunday in the pulpit, he preached on the evils of smoking. When he finished his message, some of the Elders met him at the door. “This is a tobacco raising state,” they said. “About half this congregation makes a living off tobacco. You might want to remember that the next time you preach.” The preacher thanked them for enlightening him.

The next Sunday he preached against liquor and drinking. The same Elders met him at the door when he was finished. They said: “Even though it is illegal, you ought to know that we have several members who run moonshine stills back in the hills. They give a lot of money to the church.” “I didn’t know that,” the preacher replied.

The next Sunday he preached a stirring sermon against gambling in any shape or form--the lottery, racehorses, any sort of gambling. The same group met him after the service: “What are you thinking?” they said. “This is Kentucky. We have the best thoroughbred racehorses in the world.”

Being a quick learner, the next Sunday, the young man preached against the evils of scuba diving in the central Pacific Ocean.

Obviously, this was a very bright young man who was destined to do well, because he really only cared about the approval of people. But this was not what Jesus did. Ultimately, Jesus was crucified because he said things that made people uncomfortable or upset.

And Jesus often used parables in order to help us see the great truths of the kingdom of God. That is something to keep in mind when we the about the parables of the Bible. A parable illustrates a spiritual truth.

Let’s take a look at the parable of the workers in the Vineyard. Like most of Jesus' parables, this one comes from ordinary life in ancient Palestine. In Palestine, the grape harvest ripened toward the end of September, and soon after the rains came. If the harvest was not gathered before the rains came, it was ruined. So to get in the harvest was a race against time, and the owner of the vineyard would go to the village market-place to hire anyone he could for any hours that they would work.

The men in the market were not street-corner idlers. They were there because they wanted a job. Workers came there in the morning carrying their tools, and waited for someone to hire them. In the parable, the fact that some men were still to be found in the market late in the afternoon indicates how desperately they wanted a job.

This parable then gives us a vivid picture of the kind of thing that could happen in the market of any Jewish village when grapes were being harvested. The astonishing thing about the parable is the wages that the landowner paid. He paid the first laborers the same as the last—which seems unjust. What is that about?

First, let us say what the parable of the vineyard is not. It is not a lesson in economics. Jesus is not suggesting that we set up some sort of socialist state and adopt the Marxist credo, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The Parable of the Vineyard is not a lesson for worldly employers and employees. Jesus tells us in the first verse that this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, about spiritual things. But having said that, it is also a parable for here and now. It is a parable about God's action in this world and our action for God in this world.

The landowner in the parable is God. The vineyard represents the world. The workers are us—humankind. God is the owner. That is the first spiritual lesson here, and it is a hard lesson for us to learn. We think that we are the owners of stuff. We teach our children from an early age, “This is yours and this is mine.” However, there is an old saying about ownership that we would do well to remember: “If you think that anything is yours, come back in a hundred years and see who it belongs to.” Not you.

God is the real owner. God created everything. Thus, he owns it all. God owns the vineyard and the workers. God owns every grape they pick and every breath they breathe. God owns us.

Sometimes we talk about how much of what we have we should give to God in the church offering on a Sunday. Really we do not have anything. God already owns it all and God owns us as well. We are stewards, managers, workers in God’s vineyard. Thus, when we give to God out of what we have, we are only giving back a portion of what God has entrusted us with. Put it this way: it is God’s dime. If I give a penny of it back in the offering, I am only giving what belonged to God anyway.

So why should I do that? Why should I give to support God’s church and God’s kingdom? Because that is part of my ministry. The parable is not only about God. It is also about the workers. Remember that this is not an ordinary vineyard. This is about our spiritual work for God. In other words, it is about our ministry.

It is unfortunate that the popular definition of a “minister” has come to be the preacher or the pastor of a church. By that definition, the only one who has a ministry is the preacher. Not so. Hear me on this if you do not hear anything else: In the church of Jesus Christ, everyone is a minister and everyone has a ministry. In the ARP Form of Government (chapter 4) we read: “’Ministry’ as used in the Bible designates the whole body of believers. We are all to be ministers of the One who came not to be served, but to serve.” If you are a Christian, you are a member of the body of Christ, and a minister of Jesus Christ. Christ calls you to work for his kingdom here and now.

Jesus, when he came in the flesh, came not to be worshipped and adored. He came to serve. He came to work in the vineyard. He healed, he taught, he did miracles. Finally, he died on the cross and was resurrected on Easter Sabbath. Christ was no passive Lord and he does not desire passive followers.

To quote from the ARP Form of Government again, “Every member of the Body of Christ has a ministry to fulfill as the church seeks to realize its mission in the world. The Christian’s total life should be regarded as the exercise of his or her ministry.” Again, we belong to God. Your whole life belongs to God and God has a purpose, a calling, for your life. That you are here in this church at this moment is not a accident. You have a place in God’s plan. That may mean many things. It means supporting the church. It means being a living light for Christ wherever you are. Christ was about love, so a Christian ministry is always a ministry of applied love.

The ministry of the church as a whole is the same thing, applied love. How to apply love is the difficult question and sometimes, for practical reasons the church chooses certain members for specific tasks. For example, today, we have ordained Newton to the office of Ruling Elder. That is a job in the church with certain responsibilities. By the way, Newton, the job does not have any privileges that I know of. I suppose that they did not tell you that, did they? Officers in the church do not have privileges. Jesus did not have privileges. He was the servant of servants. He calls us to be servants.

Again, let me quote from the ARP FOG: “Certain members are chosen to specific tasks for which they may be particularly suited. They are to labor as the Church and for the Church. This division of labor, while necessary to maintain orderliness, does not create a difference in status, but a difference in function only.” Does the preacher have a higher spiritual rank than the “ordinary Christian”? Is there some sort of spiritual ladder that we are all climbing and the deacons and elders are higher up the ladder than other believers?

No. Church offices are just to make sure the different jobs in the church get done. There are no differences in status.

Think back to our parable. I pointed out earlier that the one thing that absolutely jumps out at you here is that the workers all got the same pay. The man that worked one hour was paid the same as the man that worked 12 hours. That does not seem fair and the first workers took offence at the landowners generosity. Their complaint is not that he has cheated them. In fact, he has not. Nor do they do not object to the latecomers receiving a denarius, a day's wage. Their point is if the latecomers receive a day's wage, they should receive more, they should receive a bonus for working all day. But they get no bonus and the landowner said to them, in effect, it is none of your business what I paid these latecomers. I paid you what I promised you so you are not cheated, no matter what I give to the others.

Keep in mind, we are talking about spiritual truth. The workers did their work in the vineyard. They lived their lives for Christ, and their reward was the New Jerusalem, eternal life in the presence of God. All God’s people receive that same reward. There is no hierarchy in heaven. God, being present everywhere to all his people, does not need a chain of command. And God does not reward some more than others. All get the same reward.

And that is fair because the reward is so great, any work we do for it is insignificant. To put it in human terms, if a person agrees to pay you a million dollars for a days work, the number of hours you work that day is trivial. And Salvation is much more a million dollars. So who cares how long you worked? That is not important.

The one thing we should focus on in this parable is that the landowner went to the market and asked the people, do you want to work in my vineyard, and they said, “Yes,” and they went to work. And he went again and asked again and again they said, “Yes.” Every time he asked, they said, “Yes,” and they went. God comes to you and asks, “Do you want a part of my kingdom? Do you want to work in my vineyard? Do you want to be a minister of Jesus Christ?” What do you say?


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

HOME About YARPC Sermons Prayer Center

Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Last Modified: 01/14/12