Many of Jesus’ stories are about our relationship with God. As humans, we have such a privileged vocation — working with and for our heavenly sovereign in his earthly realm.
That’s the background for this parable:
Matthew 20:1 For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. (NIV)
Earth is a kingdom of heaven, for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Exodus 9:29; Psalm 24:1). Since the nations were no longer serving their true sovereign, God planted Israel as his vineyard, but they had not produced the harvest God intended either (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-16).
In Jesus’ story, the property owner never gave up on his original goal. The emphasis falls on his effort seeking people who would work for him: early morning (20:1), mid-morning (20:3), midday (20:5), mid-afternoon (20:5), and late in the day (20:6). That’s keen insight into what it’s been like for God to have earth as his kingdom.
But God never gives up! At the end of the day, it comes time for God to reward those who have worked for him. But the workers are not graded as they expect. Surely those who worked hard and long, through the heat of the day, deserve greater remuneration?
The twist is that the reward is the same for everyone. Jewish people who suffered terribly at the hands of the nations end up with their reward — the kingdom that had fallen apart. People of other nations who joined God’s project late in the day receive the same reward: the kingdom re-established by the Jewish Messiah. At the end of the day, the reward is the same for us all: the earth restored as a kingdom of heaven.
Doesn’t sound fair? We’re so hung up on individual rewards, on comparing ourselves against others. God isn’t stingy. He called humans to work for him from the beginning of the project, and in the end he delivers exactly as he promised. If there’s a problem, it’s the absurd generosity of God’s character in giving the same kingdom reality to everyone. Jesus realized this was likely to upset some of those who had borne the heat of the day.
God’s kingship overturns all our expectations of being treated as we deserve, all our human conventions of social honour, all our natural desires to be recognized as great. The kingdom of God restores our essential humanness, for all of us, regardless of status:
20 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
What does this say about the way we treat each other?
Open Matthew 20:1-16.
What others are saying
The landowner sets them in their place, politely shaming them by reminding them that they are objecting not to injustice but to generosity.
Jeannine K. Brown, Matthew, Two Horizons NT Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 185:
The kingdom brings about a new reality in which those with little status and no honor will be granted an equal place at the table.