By George Huang
This is another parable Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven. Based on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard found in Matthew 20:1-16, this sermon focuses on the attitudes of the followers of God and the concept of salvation. Yes, there is a condition for salvation and it’s clearly stated in this parable. This sermon also answers one of the strangest statement by Jesus — “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Note: the PPT is more updated than the video and the sermon text which is right under the videos. I made a correction to avoid a possible confusion.
Parables are made-up stories told by Jesus to teach us some truths. Depending on the audience, a parable can sometimes have multiple focuses and meanings. A common interpretation of this parable is the contrast between Jews and Christians. Jews are like the earliest workers but Christians gained God’s grace even though they came later. That is an interesting topic as well, but today let’s focus on a topic that matters to us Christians more — The seemingly uneven or unfair generosity of God.
There are three main and obvious symbolisms in this parable:
- Owner = God
- Workers = followers of God
- Wage = salvation
The wage here should represent salvation because everyone got the same amount. If it is about rewards in Heaven, then it should be different based on the amount of work done relative to the resources given by God, etc. This is discussed in many of the other parables we studied before.
As we all know, God is very generous about salvation and that has gotten some people upset. God is represented by the vineyard owner in this parable. As you will see, the owner in this parable is not a typical businessman. He made many strange business decisions which do not make sense for a typical businessman.
The owner went out early in the morning to look for workers. To get allcthe work done, one likely wants the earliest workers because they are likely more dedicated. One also wants to get as many workers as one needs to get things done faster. This phenomenon still happens today as evident in the crowd of jobseekers in front of large hardware stores every morning.
It seems the earliest workers negotiated the wage rate with the owner. It says, “He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day”. One denarius was the typical wage for a day of labor so both sides felt it is a fair arrangement and so the deal was done.
Later, the owner went out at 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and even 5pm and got more workers. This is strange because most owners would hire all workers early and get the work done. Therefore, there are far fewer people looking for workers as the day goes by.
People think those who are still looking for work so late in the day are probably weaker or lazier. If they were not so, they would have come out early in the morning to find work. So as the day goes by, it is harder for these laborers to find work. And so many workers who did not get jobs in the morning probably gave up too. That means fewer workers would be looking for work as the day goes no. Thus, no owner should be out there looking for workers unless there’s an unexpected need for more laborers that day.
But those still looking for work in the afternoon are likely very willing and desperate to work. Otherwise, they would not be out in the sun waiting for work despite the much lower chances of getting hired by that time.
When the owner hired these later workers, they did not negotiate for their wage rates. They probably assumed they would get pro-rated pay based on the full-day wage rate already promised to the early workers. Perhaps they knew they are at the mercy of the owner and so would accept anything because they were desperate for work and did not have many options to choose from, if at all.
Surprisingly, the owner paid the later workers the same full-day wages and intentionally made sure the earliest workers saw this. The later workers must had been overjoyed. They got much more than what they expected and deserved.
Not everyone appreciated the owner’s generosity, however. The earlier workers were upset and for good reason. Their frustrations were understandable. Their logic was sound too – people who did more work should get more pay. Probably the earlier they came, the more upset they were. They did not feel they were treated fairly, and most observers would agree with them.
Then the owner got upset too! He said he paid the earliest workers what they negotiated so he did no wrong. He said he has the right to be generous to whomever he wants and earlier workers have no right to be upset since he fulfilled his promise to them. They all received the wage they negotiated, and their agreement likely did not include any conditions on the wages for other workers. The owner asked if they are envious because of his generosity towards others. They did not respond to this question but it was clear that they were.
At the end, the owner said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This is a very strange statement that did not quite seem to fit into the rest of the parable.
This parable may seem like a simple story at first, but a lot of things do not make sense. In Jesus’s parables, things that do not make sense tend to hide the deeper messages. These messages are only revealed to those who really seek the truth.
First, since everyone got the same pay, the pay should be referring to our salvation. If it were referring to the rewards in Heaven for our work, then it would not be equal for all.
In this parable, the workday may represent our lives. The workday is the same length whether you use it or waste it, or when you come into the vineyard. Workers who came to work in the vineyard all received the wages at the end of the day even though some did a lot more work than others.
Salvation is free, but there is something people have to do. They have to come and stay till pay time. If one leaves before the pay time, he would not get paid by the owner no matter how generous the owner is or how much work the person did before he left the vineyard.
It takes effort to get salvation even though it was freely given. One must stay in the field. Salvation requires perseverance till the end – when you die or when Jesus comes.
The earliest workers negotiated for and expected one denarius of pay, which they received. They felt they deserve the wage and so did not see this as the generosity of the owner. They represent the people who feel they can earn their way to salvation through their hard work. For them, others who do less work should get less from God. They think it is salvation by work, not grace.
A reminder: this parable is not about our rewards in Heaven for the works we did relative to the resources we were given. That particular discussion is covered by the Parables of the Minas (Luke 19:11-26), Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), and the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13).
So when later workers came, the earlier workers assumed the later workers would get less pay than they do. This was a reasonable assumption, but the owner saw it differently. The owner thought he can pay them whatever he wants, with one denarius perhaps being the minimum. He seemed to care more about the workers than his profits. That is not how most business people think, but then again the owner was not a typical businessman. We will explore his mentality later. It tells us much about our God.
The later workers were desperate for work and income and so did not bargain for wages. They assumed they would get prorated partial pay and they accepted that and worked. They probably heard from earlier workers about the negotiated wage rate so they know what to expect. So when they got more than they expected, they knew it is due to the owner’s generosity and not their work. They knew they did not deserve the full pay, and so they understood it is the grace of the owner. Did they stay and see the earlier workers’ pay? It did not matter. They were grateful to the owner regardless of how much the others got paid.
Earlier workers were upset because they did not get more pay than the later workers. Even though they received their negotiated wages, they still felt the owner was not being fair.
All this drama would not have happened if the owner was not so strange! There were many things he could have done to avoid the drama and conflict. It is as if he deliberately caused this conflict for himself.
First, he should have gotten all the workers he needed or wanted early in the morning. That would be the smartest thing to do — to get the best workers and get the work done faster. Pay them the negotiated wages and no one would leave unsatisfied.
Second, he could have paid prorated wages and everyone would be satisfied. No one would be particularly happy, but there would not be the conflict at pay time.
Third, he could have paid the earliest workers first and sent them away so they did not find out his generosity towards later workers. This may not work perfectly, but it could at least reduce the number of upset people.
But he did none of these things that could have avoided the problems with the early workers. In fact, he intentionally told the foreman to pay the latest workers first so others can see it. Why would someone intentionally cause problems for himself? It did not make sense at the first glance.
A smart owner would want his work done fast, at the lowest cost, and with as few problems as possible. The vineyard owner here did the exact opposite and that is very perplexing.
There is one plausible explanation: what he cares the most were these workers and not his own profits. Since the vineyard owner represented God in this parable, this is not unthinkable. The strangeness of this owner reveals the heart and intentions of God.
In this parable, it seemed to be hard to find work. People were looking for work throughout the day. The last workers said no one would hire them. Maybe they were not strong or had disabilities. The owner knew there would be people looking for work all the time. So he went out to find these workers four more times during the day.
He seemed to have hired anyone willing to work regardless of their conditions. Being “willing” is the key here. If anyone came out to look for work, he would have gotten one from this owner.
God’s grace is freely given to anyone willing to accept it. This is the basis of the Christian faith.
Earliest workers felt they earned their pay purely because of themselves. They did stay till the end so they did get paid. They were just not happy. That is not the owner’s fault. These earliest workers did not know the owner’s intentions and kindness. They were envious, which upset the owner.
At the end of the day, the later workers would understand the generosity or grace of the owner. They might have appreciated the owner for giving them work, but they would be much more appreciative when they got paid more than what they expected and deserved.
The owner might be thinking: “All are paid because of my grace. It may seem unfair to some people, but please do accept my generosity.” It was clear that the owner wanted all these workers to understand his grace and generosity. Maybe that is why he intentionally asked the latest workers to be paid first. God really wants people to know that their salvation comes from the grace of God and not because of their own efforts.
It may be fun to speculate what would happen the next day. The owner was so generous to people, we can assume the work environment was not bad either. People who got the most grace from the day before will likely come early to get the job again. They did not want to miss the chance to work for this generous boss.
Something like this has happened before. In 1914, Henry Ford started paying his workers $5 a day to build the Model T. Five dollars per hour was twice the normal rate at the time. People lined up outside the factory trying to work for him. Ford got really committed workers as a result. That lowered absenteeism and increased productivity. So the owner might be creating a more dedicated workforce by being generous to them.
On the other hand, the earliest workers from the day before who were upset may not come early. They may even want to come later so they could get the same pay while doing less work.
This might be why Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The owners got more eager and dedicated workers because of his generosity. The owner was generous towards the workers, but he also wanted dedicated workers. It was clear that he cared a lot about the mentality and attitudes of the workers. That might be why he was upset with envious workers – their mentality was not pleasing to him. Their mentality directly affected their work ethic and their attitude towards the owner and their work.
What kind of worker are you? Do you understand God’s grace and want to come work for Him?
We have a generous boss. We need to be dedicated workers because that is the best option for us. Salvation is free because of the grace from God, but we need to be willing to receive it. Once we understand God’s thinking and grace, our attitude towards Him and His work should change. We need to stay till the end because that is when we get paid. Salvation is realized at the end.
Remember God’s grace all the time. Don’t lose faith and leave Him when you encounter hard times. Our boss is full of grace and very generous. He is our best and honestly, our only option.
Here is a story to ponder:
One day Abraham Lincoln was traveling and saw a mother and a child being sold as slaves. He had compassion on them, and so he bought them at great cost and set them free. Lincoln told her that they are free to go. But the woman insisted on going with him and working for him as an employee instead.
“Where would I go to find another kind and generous boss like him?” She would rather work for him instead of anyone else.
God is generous to us. He lets us choose to follow him or not. Would you follow Him and stay till the end?
We hope to see you in front of God’s vineyard each and every morning!