Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

In Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus tells the story of workers in a vineyard.  In the parable a landowner goes out to the marketplace to find workers for his vineyard.  Those he chooses agree to work all day for a fair day’s wage.  Later the landowner goes out and finds others who have not been hired.  He sends them to work, promising to pay what is fair. Three more times throughout the day, the landowners returns to the marketplace and hires additional workers.  At the end of the day, he pays them each the same amount–a fair day’s wage.  Those who had worked the longest grumbled that they should have been paid more than those who had worked only a portion of the day.  The landowner responds that he is not being unfair, as he paid them the agreed-upon wage.

Many scholars interpret this parable as having to do with salvation.  Eternal life is promised to those who accept Jesus as their Savior, regardless of whether they make that decision early in their life, later in life, or at the very end of their life.  As a parable reflecting salvation, I am thrilled that Jesus continues to offer the free gift of salvation to people throughout their lives, particularly as I don’t find ‘laboring’ for Jesus to be hard work.  I find that living for Jesus makes my daily life rewarding, fulfilling, and more meaningful. I am glad that Jesus allows people to make the decision to follow him even up till the time they take their dying breaths.

Taken literally, however, I would be equally bothered as the first workers were.  This parable violates our sense of fairness.  If I’d been toiling hard for many hours, I would feel that I deserve more pay than someone who only worked for a few hours and particularly those who only worked one hour.

Yet, as Jesus pointed out, all the workers got the pay they agreed to accept when they were hired.  The owner of the vineyard paid those who worked all day a fair day’s wage.  He simply chose to be more generous with those hired later. Of course, this wouldn’t be permitted in our society today, unless the employer did it clandestinely.  Those workers who had labored all day would file a lawsuit and the landowner would be forced to pay them more or those hired later less. 

As I read this story this week, God opened my heart and I envisioned this story in the present day with the workers as unemployed people (and perhaps homeless) who have been waiting all day for an opportunity to work as day laborers. My attitude toward the workers changed. Many day laborers wait all day hoping and praying for the opportunity to work. Their need to provide for their families and pay their bills is no less great than the laborers who get hired.  These men and women want to work and they want to meet their obligations. 

So, how can I feel indigent if a kind employer shows mercy to them by paying them for more time than they worked? 

Jesus demonstrated once again that God’s thoughts are higher than ours and that He cares deeply for each individual. I pray that as I study God’s word and spend time in prayer that I will come to see people through Jesus’s eyes.  The world would be a much better place if we all worried less about what is “fair” in our own eyes and considered how we could show Christ’s love and compassion to our neighbors.

Author: Susan Elizabeth Ball

Author of the Christian fiction series Restored Hearts. Book 1, Restorations, was published in October 2010 and Book 2, Reconciliations, in October 2011.

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