The Parable of the Gracious Landowner

The Parable of the Gracious Landowner

Thoughts on the parable of the Gracious Landowner – Please read Matthew 20:1-16.

THE CONTEXT. Jesus is here addressing questions about salvation, about the last being first and the first being last. The parable is an illustration of what that idea looks like in the kingdom of God. Jesus is addressing the pride of the self-righteous law-keepers, and he is addressing any questions the disciples might have about those who started following Jesus later in his ministry, and have sacrificed so much to be with him.

OVERVIEW. God/Jesus is the landowner, the master, the vineyard owner. The vineyard is the kingdom of God in which the laborers are invited to work for the owner. There are a few surprises in the story: In the beginning, the owner was the one doing the driving to town, the hiring of workers. The owner didn’t have one of his managers or stewards to do this chore. The owner took it upon himself, five different times, to establish personal contact and hire the laborers. In the middle of the story, a steward pops out of nowhere. Why wasn’t he doing the hiring earlier? Where has he been? Also, the generous owner decided to cut his profits by paying a living wage, a day’s wage, to everyone who worked, even those who only worked an hour. Another surprise… the steward was instructed to reverse the order of payment, starting with the workers who labored least and ending with the workers who labored the longest. And in the end of the story, we are left wondering about the final responses of the early workers. Will they continue to complain? Will they finally accept their day’s wage and go home? The parable is open-ended, as are so many of Jesus’ parables. The listeners are to fill in the blanks themselves. The law-keepers are to think about how they figure into the story, and to respond accordingly.

THE OWNER. The vineyard owner is almost generous to a fault. He graciously keeps returning to town to hire anyone willing to work. He respects those who are unemployed, and he wants to provide a living wage, as well as the dignity of work and self-reliance.  God is an equal opportunity employer, welcoming all those who are willing to follow Jesus and go to work in his kingdom. The owner is evidently trustworthy, because none of the later workers were promised a specific wage. The owner said the wage would be just and fair, and the laborers trusted the owner to be good to his word. And, he was. The owner wanted to demonstrate his grace and generosity personally, so he hired all the workers himself through direct personal contact. God wants a personal relationship with his workers.

THE FIRST WORKERS. Since they were paid last, they got to witness what all the other workers were paid. They were indignant that the others got a full day’s wage. They grumbled to the owner, that it wasn’t fair, that the owner should not have shown grace. These early workers resented grace, and attempted to force the will of the owner. But the owner wouldn’t budge. The owner says that he can do what he wants with his money, so get over it. They still got paid for their work, and are honored to be laboring in the vineyard of a righteous owner. Don’t complain. God’s mercy is generous, maybe to a fault in the eyes of others.

THE LATER WORKERS. They joined the work later in the day, yet were still paid a full day’s wage… Pure grace on the part of the owner. Mercy outweighs sensible fairness. Grace trumps strict justice. Compassion is more important that keeping the law.

THE PHARISEES. These strict law-keepers were seen as the early workers, the full-day laborers. They have been following the law for years, long before Jesus ever showed up, and were first in line when it comes to religious believers. Therefore, in their eyes, they deserve a higher wage, merit pay for heaven, they get the most brownie points. They resent not getting bonus pay for all their religiosity, since those believers coming later are less worthy, are new to the scene, have accomplished less for the owner, God Himself.

THE SINNERS. Jesus welcomed tax collectors, lepers, the unclean, sinners of all stripes, whoever wanted to follow Him. They are new to the scene, they haven’t worked in the vineyard yet, but they want to work now, belatedly, and so are brought onto the labor team by the Lord. They are resented by the religious crowd, because the law-keepers don’t want to be seen as equal to the late-comers, the sinners, who haven’t been slaving away for so many years. The later workers, the sinners, didn’t dare make any claim as to what they deserved to be paid for joining the work. They know it all depends on the divine generosity, the grace of God. Whatever they get is an unexpected bonus.

THE OWNER. When the master in the story confronts a grumbling early worker, he addressed the worker as “mister,” a term reserved for strangers. The owner claims to not even know the complaining worker. Jesus seems to be saying that he considers the Pharisees to be strangers to him. This is reflected elsewhere in the gospels when the Lord says, “Depart from me, I don’t know you.” Here they are, strangers, even after all that work, all those years of keeping the law so strictly.

FINAL THOUGHTS. a. So the workers who are first to join, and consider themselves to be more worthy, are actually the last to get paid. The workers who joined up later in the day, who knew they were not worthy, got paid first. Jesus loves both the sinners and the righteous, and all the workers get paid the same in terms of salvation. No one is more worthy than the other. Interestingly, Jesus said the following to the chief priests and elders in Matthew 21:31: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

b. Ibn al Tayyib said, “In the Gospel, salvation through Christ is open to Simeon who held the baby Jesus in the Temple at the beginning of his life, and to the thief who believed at the end. Jesus opens it to the believer who dies today even as He opened it to Abraham the friend of God.”

c. Working as God’s laborers… What is the motivation? Not to earn heaven, not for special blessings, not out of fear or obligation, not for merit pay. Our service for the Lord is not a business transaction, where you get bonuses and benefits. Serving God is a privilege, an end in itself. The work is its own reward. Working for God is a gift to bring the worker closer to God. Working for the Lord makes us coworkers with God. Every work, whether secular or sacred, is full-time service in the employ of God. Continue to work as Jesus Himself would work… with Gospel values, in the strength of the Spirit, for the glory of God.

d. Do last minute conversions, after a lifetime of rejecting God, receive full salvation? Even when compared to those who have been following God their whole lives? The answer is YES, God is so full of grace, that He welcomes deathbed conversions into the fold as readily as long-term believers. The magnanimity of God. Awesome.

e. “The workers in the parable found that no matter what time in their lives they got in on the work, they were still needed. They also found that no matter how many or how few hours they had put in, they were treated with dignity and grace.”  (Eugene Peterson, notes in the Message).

GOING FURTHER

  1. One wonders… Would this same owner the next day have everybody showing up late, figuring they could make an easy buck, full pay for just a little work? Likewise, since God is so gracious and generous, does He risk that people would wait their whole lives to finally make a last-minute deathbed confession of faith?
  2. The sincere deathbed confession indeed secures salvation, but what has that person missed out on during his whole life?
  3. What would you have felt like if you were one of the early workers? What would you have thought of the owner’s character?
  4. Did the early workers finally stop complaining and just accept the pay?
  5. As you look around you at the world, and you observe all the apparent inequities, can you still trust in the Lord who said in this parable, “Whatever is just, so shall you receive?”
  6. The divine vineyard, God’s work in the world, requires laborers. Do you ever feel idle in the Lord’s employ? How can we go from loiterers to laborers without getting hyperactive?
  7. The early workers seem to feel they were more worthy of the pay. Does this mean the later workers should feel unworthy? Why not?

Resources: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes; Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father; Henry Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus.

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