Several years ago, as I was spending some time in the parables of Christ, I found myself drawn to a portion of Matthew 20, specifically the first 16 verses, which are as follows:
Matthew 20:1-16 (KJV)
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
Now, having read through the parable, consider the three main points that are typically drawn out from the parable and preached in some form/fashion. In my opinion, the three main points are:
- The Eleventh Hour Laborer
- The Last Shall be First
- Many be Called, but Few Chosen
Is there anything wrong with focusing on the above points and crafting sermons that revolve around those points? Absolutely not! However, as I have emphasized in prior articles, context is everything and, if we are not careful, we can preach things that sound good, but fail to the pass the test of Biblical context. I, at the least, think this is very important-don’t you? That being said, let’s take a look at the parable often identified as the Agreed Wages of the Vineyard Workers.
Typically, the way my brain works when I study, I will read through a portion of Scripture and questions will begin to cascade through my mind. In this instance, these following questions began to formulate:
- Who is the parable addressed to?
- Why did Jesus spend this much time on this parable?
- Is the premise as simple as we typically think?
- What is the significance of the “hours”
- Who are those that work in the vineyard since they are sent in groups?
- Why are they sitting idle in the market?
- Who are the FIRST and who are the LAST?
- How does the phrase “many be called but few chosen” fit into the parable?
While these questions were just the tip of the iceberg for the myriad other questions, I feel the first question is easy to answer and it is one that sets the context for the parable: Who did Jesus address this parable to? The answer to this, after reading the prior context, becomes simple to answer. Jesus is addressing the parable to His disciples, who were also the last audience of the parable which ended chapter 19. Let’s take a look.
Matthew 19:23-30 (KJV)
23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. 27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? 28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. 30 But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
Notice, the closing words of chapter 19 are dealing with Jesus’ response to a question presented by Simon Peter:
Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (vs. 27)
Why does Peter ask this seemingly disconnected question, especially after Jesus declares, “with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible?” To make sense of this we have to recognize that the declaration of the difficulty for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (likened to a camel going through the eye of a needle) immediately followed the prior instance of a certain young ruler that had approached Jesus asking: “what shall I do to obtain eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). What was Jesus’ response to this certain young ruler?
Matthew 19:21-22 (KJV)
21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Immediately following the response of this young man, Jesus then tells his disciples how difficult it will be for rich men to enter the kingdom of Heaven, at which point the disciples declare, “who then can be saved?” Suddenly we have Jesus making His declaring that, “with God all things are possible,” but the following question by Peter seems to reveal that he hasn’t heard a single word Jesus said, but rather, is still focusing on the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man.
Notice that the rich young ruler was a man with great possessions and Jesus told him, “you lack one thing; go and sell that thou hast, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.”
Peter, in reflecting over his life, knew that he had done just this! He forsook his home business, obviously forsook great amounts of time with family, left the comfort of his known world and had “straightway followed Christ.” Suddenly, like an epiphany, Peter exclaims: Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? Why is Peter asking this? He is still focused on the promised reward of “treasure in heaven” that Jesus had declared to the rich young ruler if the young man would follow after Christ. Can I translate this into 21st century verbiage the attitude that had gotten ahold of Peter?
What’s in it for me!
Notice Jesus’ response to Peter’s question:
Matthew 19:28-30 (KJV)
28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. 30 But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
What a mouthful! Let’s break down what Jesus was saying in response to Peter.
- Ye which have followed me
- In the regeneration when the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of his glory
- Ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel
Jesus is revealing to Peter and the disciples their reward for forsaking house, brethren, sisters, fathers, mothers, wife, children, and lands for His name’s sake. Not only would the receive a metaphoric hundredfold and the incredible reward of everlasting life but, during the reign of Christ over a new heaven and new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2Pet. 3:10-13; Rev. 21-22; I Cor. 6:2-3), the disciples would be given thrones and they would judge the nation of Israel! WOW! What a reward!
Suddenly, we end the chapter with a statement that should begin to ring some bells of similarity.
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
Guess what? Jesus is not done talking to the disciples and, because we have chapters and verses in the English versions of the Bible, we miss that the last verse of chapter 19 is introducing us to the parable of chapter 20:1-16. Jesus is still dealing with Peter’s attitude of “what’s in it for us!”
Remember, Judas Iscariot is sitting in that group of disciples as the one that holds the bag of money. Judas is full of greed and is motivated by earthly treasure. Suddenly, Judas hears Jesus declare, “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”
Imagine the thought going through Judas Iscariot’s mind at the moment:
What? You mean the reward for following you, aside from eternal salvation, isn’t going to happen during my physical lifetime? We were first! We sacrificed the most!
What the disciples failed to understand is that they were not making sacrifices, they were making investments! However, Jesus would need to hammer down the point of “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” by bringing them through the parable of chapter 20.
Matthew 20:1-16 (KJV)
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
Let’s break down this portion and the rest of the parable:
- Early morning laborers
- Agreed with them for a penny a day
- First ones on the job in the vineyard
- Third Hour Laborers
- Go ye to the vineyard
- Whatever is right I will give you
- They went on their way
- Sixth and Ninth Hour Laborers
- Same as the third hour laborers
- Eleventh Hour Laborers
- Why are you idle?
- Because no-one has hired us!
- Go to the vineyard, whatever is right I will pay you
Notice, when evening was come (the work had been finished), all the laborers were called to receive their wages but the householder told his steward to pay the wages beginning with the last unto the first. In other words, start payment with the 11th hour workers and work your way to the early morning workers who were first on the job.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny…
Remember the attitude of Peter following the promised reward to the rich young ruler? The rich young ruler wasn’t there at the beginning! He was late to show up! Essentially, Peter declares: Hey! We were the first to follow you! We were the first to sacrifice! What’s in it for us? Ah, this sounds just like the early morning workers in the parable who “supposed that they should have received more.”
This is one of the most vexing attitudes that can overcome the people of God; the sense of privilege gained by those who consider themselves to have given more for God than others. If you and I are not careful, we can easily get caught up in a “what’s in it for me mentality,” and overlook the point the parable was trying to establish with Peter and the other disciples. The disciples (identified as the first workers in the parable) had elevated themselves above everyone else because they had been first on the job. Notice their statement of contention:
These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
This is a dangerous mentality that has broken, divided, and segmented churches all across the nation! How many people, first to sacrifice and assist in building a church from the ground-up level, reach a point where they somehow feel they have earned a greater right than others in the church simply because “we sacrificed more?” Think about it!
Are you doing the work of God in order to build and elevate your own self-worth? Are you sacrificing and giving to the kingdom through an attitude of “what’s in it for me?”
This was the problem Jesus was addressing within his petulant, child-like disciples who had gotten their priorities messed up. Judas Iscariot would never fix this issue in his life, whereas we can see that Peter does! Notice the finality of the parable and the response of the householder.
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
Take what I give you and go your way! You knew what you were getting into when you first started this journey! As the householder, I will give the last the same as the first…why? Because I can do what I want with what is mine! Recently, I heard a tremendous message on the aspect of “justice and fairness” being entertained here and, trust me, God’s justice and fairness is not our justice and fairness!
Then, closing out the parable to his disciples, Jesus reiterates the last words given in Matthew 19: (the last shall be first, and the first last), and then declares “for many be called, but few chosen.”
Consider the audience once again. Jesus is talking to the disciples! In context, Jesus is reminding them that they had been hand-selected. They had been chosen by Jesus Christ Himself! How many can convey such an honor on their lives? How many can declare that Jesus Himself, during the time that He walked the earth, were sought out by Jesus Christ to serve as one of his close, intimate disciples? Exactly! Thus, within context, Jesus is throwing back in their face the honor, prestige, and privilege they had been given! Instead, the disciples were focused on trivial rewards and feelings of superiority!
Sadly, as future instances would reveal, the disciples would still continue to struggle for power, some desiring the right and left hand of Christ at the seats of judgment which had been promised in Matthew 19. Again and again, the disciples would fall short of comprehending their investment into the greatest kingdom the earth had every known and the privilege they had been given to be the first chosen to lay the foundation for the Bride of Christ on earth; the church.
I hope this has helped shed some light on a passage in Scripture that is often disconnected and overlooked.