Chapter divisions in the Bible are usually helpful as they allow us to find our way around the Scriptures. Occasionally, however, they can hinder our understanding of a passage if they cause us to look at it apart from its context. This often is the case with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16). Because of the chapter division at the end of Matthew 19, we fail to understand the parable in its context of Jesus’ teaching in 19:16–30.
Because that section of Matthew has already been treated in another article, we will not look at it now, except to observe that the occasion of the parable is Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27: “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Like many of us today, Peter thought he related to God on the basis of merit, and he was already adding up his merit points.
The parable is part of Jesus’ reply to Peter, which begins in chapter 19, verse 28. The message of the parable can be summarized in this statement: The operative principle in the kingdom of heaven is not merit but grace. We readily understand this principle in the context of our salvation. We know Paul’s words: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. …not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9), but many believers assume that we earn God’s blessings by our works — apart from God’s grace.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, however, teaches us that not only our salvation, but also our entire Christian lives are to be lived on the basis of God’s grace. Then the parable also teaches us about two amazing qualities of grace: the abundant generosity of His grace, and His sovereignty in dispensing it.
Consider first the abundant generosity of His grace. The master hired laborers for his vineyard first at 6 a.m., then periodically throughout the day. Finally, he hired some at 5 p.m. to work only one hour. This man, who obviously represents God, was both fair and generous. To the first group of laborers he was fair, as he readily agreed to pay a denarius, the ordinary wage for a day’s labor. Then he was progressively more generous to each group of laborers hired throughout the day. The master could have paid them what they earned, but he chose to pay them according to their need, not according to their work. He paid according to grace, not debt.
The parable focuses particularly on those workers who were hired at the eleventh hour. They were treated extremely generously, each receiving twelve times what he had earned on an hourly basis. Why did the landowner hire these laborers at the eleventh hour? Was it because an extra push was needed to complete the work? More likely, since Jesus was not teaching about Jewish agriculture, but about the kingdom of heaven, those eleventh hour workers were hired because they needed to receive a day’s wages. Laborers of that day lived a day-to-day existence. That is why the Law required land owners to pay hired men at the end of each day (Deut. 24:15).
This is the way God treats us. Over and over again, the Bible portrays God as gracious and generous, blessing us not according to what we have “earned” but according to our needs — and often beyond our needs. He has already blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3), and He promises to supply every temporal need, again in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).
The truth is, we cannot “earn” anything from God apart from His grace. As Jesus said elsewhere, when we have done all that we are commanded, we should say, “We have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). We have not obligated God or earned His blessings. Rather, all blessings come to us “in Christ,” that is, by His grace.
God, however, is not only generous with His grace; He is sovereign in dispensing it. We often speak of “sovereign grace.” In one sense that is a redundant expression. Grace, by definition, must be sovereign. The master of the vineyard expressed it this way, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with my belongings?”
Many are troubled by the apparent unfairness of the landowner. After all, it does seem unfair to pay one-hour workers the same as was paid to those who worked a full twelve hours, who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But the one-hour laborers did not think the master was unfair; rather, they considered him very generous. If we are troubled by the apparent unfairness, it is because we tend to identify with the twelve-hour workers. And the more committed we are to serious discipleship, the more apt we are to fall into the trap of envying those who enjoy the blessings of God more than we.
The truth is, we are all eleventh-hour laborers. None of us have even come close to loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. None of us have come close to loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–39). So let us learn to be thankful for all God gives to us and not begrudge blessings He gives to others.