The Master Seeks His Workers (Matt 20:1-16)
“For the situation in the Kingdom of Heaven is like what happened when a householder went out first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. When he had come to an agreement with them that they would work for 4 pence a day, he sent them into his vineyard. He went out again about nine o’clock in the morning, and saw others standing idle in the market-place. He said to them, ‘Go you also into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ And they went. He went out again about twelve o’clock midday, and about three o’clock in the afternoon, and did the same. About five o’clock in the evening he went out and found others standing there, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here the whole day idle?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘Go you also to the vineyard.’ When evening came, the master of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the workers, and give them their pay, beginning from the last and going on until you come to the first.’ So, when those who had been engaged about five o’clock in the afternoon, came, they received 4 pence each. Those who had come first thought that they would receive more; but they too received 4 pence each. When they received it, they grumblingly complained against the master. ‘These last,’ they said, ‘have only worked for one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have home the burden and the hot wind of the day.’ He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not come to an agreement with me to work for 4 pence? Take what is yours and go! It is my will to give to this last man the same as to you. Can I not do what I like with my own money? Or, are you grudging because I am generous?’ Even so the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
This parable may sound to us as if it described a purely imaginary situation, but that is far from being the case. Apart from the method of payment, the parable describes the kind of thing that frequently happened at certain times in Palestine. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and then close on its heels the rains came. If the harvest was not ingathered before the rains broke, then it was ruined; and so to get the harvest in was a frantic race against time. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour to the work.
The pay was perfectly normal; a denarius or a drachma was the normal day’s wage for a working man; and, even allowing for the difference in modern standards and in purchasing power, 4 pence a day was not a wage which left any margin.
The men who were standing in the market-place were not street-corner idlers, lazing away their time. The market-place was the equivalent of the labour exchange. A man came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. The men who stood in the market-place were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them stood on until even five o’clock in the evening is the proof of how desperately they wanted it.
These men were hired labourers; they were the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious. Slaves and servants were regarded as being at least to some extent attached to the family; they were within the group; their fortunes would vary with the fortunes of the family, but they would never be in any imminent danger of starvation in normal times. It was very different with the hired day-labourers. They were not attached to any group; they were entirely at the mercy of chance employment; they were always living on the semi-starvation line. As we have seen, the pay was 4 pence a day; and, if they were unemployed for one day, the children would go hungry at home, for no man ever saved much out of 4 pence a day. With them, to be unemployed for a day was disaster.
The hours in the parable were the normal Jewish hours. The Jewish day began at sunrise, 6 a.m., and the hours were counted from then until 6 p.m., when officially the next day began. Counting from 6 a.m. therefore, the third hour is 9 a.m., the sixth hour is twelve midday, and the eleventh hour is 5 p.m.
This parable gives a vivid picture of the kind of thing which could happen in the market-place of any Jewish village or town any day, when the grape harvest was being rushed in to beat the rains.
Work and Wages in the Kingdom of God
C. G. Montefiore calls this parable “one of the greatest and most glorious of all.” It may indeed have had a comparatively limited application when it was spoken for the first time; but it contains truth which goes to the very heart of the Christian religion. We begin with the comparatively limited significance it originally had.
(i) It is in one sense a warning to the disciples. It is as if Jesus said to them, “You have received the great privilege of coming into the Christian Church and fellowship very early, right at the beginning. In later days others will come in. You must not claim a special honour and a special place because you were Christians before they were. All men, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God.”
There are people who think that, because they have been members of a Church for a long time, the Church practically belongs to them and they can dictate its policy. Such people resent what seems to them the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian Church seniority does not necessarily mean honour.
(ii) There is an equally definite warning to the Jews. They knew that they were the chosen people, nor would they ever willingly forget that choice. As a consequence they looked down on the Gentiles. Usually they hated and despised them, and hoped for nothing but their destruction. This attitude threatened to be carried forward into the Christian Church. If the Gentiles were to be allowed into the fellowship of the Church at all, they must come in as inferiors.
“In God’s economy,” as someone has said, “there is no such thing as a most favoured nation clause.” Christianity knows nothing of the conception of a herrenvolk, a master race. It may well be that we who have been Christian for so long have much to learn from those younger Churches who are late-comers to the fellowship of the faith.
(iii) These are the original lessons of this parable, but it has very much more to say to us.
In it there is the comfort of God. It means that no matter when a man enters the Kingdom, late or soon, in the first flush of youth, in the strength of the midday, or when the shadows are lengthening, he is equally dear to God. The Rabbis had a saying, “Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime.” In the picture of the holy city in the Revelation there are twelve gates. There are gates on the East which is the direction of the dawn, and whereby a man may enter in the glad morning of his days; there are gates on the West which is the direction of the setting sun, and whereby a man may enter in his age. No matter when a man comes to Christ, he is equally dear to him.
May we not go even further with this thought of comfort? Sometimes a man dies full of years and full of honour, with his day’s work ended and his task completed. Sometimes a young person dies almost before the door of life and achievement have opened at all. From God they will both receive the same welcome, for both Jesus Christ is waiting, and for neither, in the divine sense, has life ended too soon or too late.
(iv) Here, also, is the infinite compassion of God. There is an element of human tenderness in this parable.
There is nothing more tragic in this world than a man who is unemployed, a man whose talents are rusting in idleness because there is nothing for him to do. Hugh Martin reminds us that a great teacher used to say that the saddest words in all Shakespeare’s plays are the words: “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” In that market-place men stood waiting because no one had hired them; in his compassion the master gave them work to do. He could not bear to see them idle.
Further, in strict justice the fewer hours a man worked, the less pay he should have received. But the master well knew that 4p a day was no great wage; he well knew that, if a workman went home with less, there would be a worried wife and hungry children; and therefore he went beyond justice and gave them more than was their due.
As it has been put, this parable states implicitly two great truths which are the very charter of the working man—the right of every man to work and the right of every man to a living wage for his work.
(v) Here also is the generosity of God. These men did not all do the same work; but they did receive the same pay. There are two great lessons here. The first is, as it has been said, “All service ranks the same with God.” It is not the amount of service given, but the love in which it is given which matters. A man out of his plenty may give us a gift of a hundred pounds, and in truth we are grateful; a child may give us a birthday or Christmas gift which cost only a few pence but which was laboriously and lovingly saved up for—and that gift, with little value of its own, touches our heart far more. God does not look on the amount of our service. So long as it is all we have to give, all service ranks the same with God.
The second lesson is even greater—all God gives is of grace. We cannot earn what God gives us; we cannot deserve it; what God gives us is given out of the goodness of his heart; what God gives is not pay, but a gift; not a reward, but a grace.
(vi) Surely that brings us to the supreme lesson of the parable—the whole point of work is the spirit in which it is done. The servants are clearly divided into two classes. The first came to an agreement with the master; they had a contract; they said, “We work, if you give us so much pay.” As their conduct showed, all they were concerned with was to get as much as possible out of their work. But in the case of those who were engaged later, there is no word of contract; all they wanted was the chance to work and they willingly left the reward to the master.
A man is not a Christian if his first concern is pay. Peter asked: “What do we get out of it?” The Christian works for the joy of serving God and his fellow-men. That is why the first will be last and the last will be first. Many a man in this world, who has earned great rewards, will have a very low place in the Kingdom because rewards were his sole thought. Many a man, who, as the world counts it, is a poor man, will be great in the Kingdom, because he never thought in terms of reward but worked for the thrill of working and for the joy of serving. It is the paradox of the Christian life that he who aims at reward loses it, and he who forgets reward finds it.