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?
Matthew 20:1-16 (my translation)
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like someone with a small business. He went out at the start of the day to hire some workers for his vineyard. 2 Agreeing with the workers for a denarius for the day, he sent them to the vineyard.
3 Going out around mid-morning, he saw others standing around in the marketplace doing nothing, 4 and he said, ‘You go work in my vineyard too, and whatever is right I’ll give you.’ 5 They went. Again, around midday and mid-afternoon he went out and did the same thing. 6 An hour before sundown he went out and found others standing around and asked them, ‘Why have you been standing around all day doing nothing?’
7 They tell him, ‘No one hired us.’ He says to them, ‘You go to my vineyard too.’
8 Evening came, and the lord of the vineyard says to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, starting with the last group, back to the first.’
9 The ones who arrived an hour before sunset received a denarius. 10 The ones who arrived first thought they would get more, but they also received a denarius. 11 On receiving it, they complained to the business owner, 12 ‘This last group only worked for one hour. How come you treated them the same as those of us who carried weight of the day through the heat?’
13 He replied to one of them, ‘Mate, am I doing you wrong? Didn’t you agree to work for me for a denarius? 14 Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last group the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t you think I should be able to do as I want with what is mine? Or does what you see give you evil thoughts because I’m being good to them?
16 This is how it will be: the last first, and the first last.
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.
Update 2022-04-08: Original translation added.