02. Workers in the Vineyard

Workers in the Vineyard
Matthew 20:1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’e16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The Story Told

The people, who were part of the audiences that heard Jesus, had a very difficult time understanding His version of the Kingdom of God.  They had been raised on a diet of false expectations.   Their view was that the Kingdom of God embraced only the deserving. They were convinced that a PerfectGod loved only those who were pretty perfect themselves.  They held the view that God is for the good, but the enemy of those who aren’t.

Jesus has little desire to create such a kingdom.  It would be just as corrupt as the one he was trying to change.  So he told them a story about a landowner at harvest time.

Can I update the language to the 1950’s? The reason is, this story reminds me of what transpired during my teenage years every summer.

The farmer had heard a hard frost was coming, and he would need to get the tomatoes gathered. So in his pickup truck he went down to the market square to hire anyone he could find to harvest the crop.   He met some who had gathered very early that morning.  He offered them $50for the day.  They were glad for the job and glad for the money, so they climbed into the back of the truck and went out to the fields.

The farmer got the crew startedbut he knew he would need more hands to get the crop in before nightfall.  So he went back to the market square.  It was now about 9:00 a.m.  But there were some who were still waiting to be employed. He offered them work.  They were glad to have it. He said he’d give them a fair wage.  They climbed on board and headed out to the fields.

The crop had been very good.  The picking was going slower than he thought.  So into the pickup he jumped, and headed back to town.  It was now noon hour.  But good news.  There were some new arrivals, looking for work still.  He promised them work and a fair wage if they would join him.

He did the same at 3:00 p.m.and finally at 5:00 p.m.   By nightfall, the harvest was in and shipped off to the distributors.  And now the men are standing around, waiting for their pay.

I know the scene well. As a young person during my high school years, each summer morning I was one of those who waited for someone to take me out to the fields to pick strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn or any other item.  It was often back breaking work.  The mornings started out too cold and the afternoons were always too hot, but it sure was nice to get paid at the end of a day.

The farmer in the story knows why the men are now waiting around.   They want to get paid.  He called the workers up in groups. The first workerscalled are the ones he hired last.  He put $50 into their hands.  They are stunned.  The others observing are stunned too. Wow!  $50 for an hour of work!

Then the ones hired mid-afternooncome forward and they too are given the same amount.  They too are surprised.  They thought maybe the boss had made a mistake.  None the less, they took their pay with joy.  Then as each group came before the paymaster they too got the very same amount.  Can you imagine the conversations around the dinner table that night!

Finally, the ones hired at 7:00 a.m. came forward.  They’ve seen what’s been happening.  They are filled with anticipation.  If the latecomers are given so much, just think of what they will they receive? They stick out their hands to receive their wages.  A crisp $50 bill is paid out to each of them.  But now they are furious.  They start to protest.  “Scuse me! Those who worked only for an hour got 50 bucks.  How come we only get 50?”

The owner of the farm responded.  “Wait a minute fellows. I do you no wrong. Didn’t we agree on $50 for the day? What I pay these other workers is between them and myself.   Why are you so envious just because I happen to be generous?”

The Generosity of God.

Question:  Why does Jesus tell this story?  He is not interested, of course in developing a new economic policy with this story.  He is telling his audience something about the way God is and the way those in his church are intended to act.  This story is told to give guidance to those who are members of His Kingdom.

God has never been interested in mere justice, with everyone getting exactly what they deserve.  That is the minimum way of God’s working.  He will never give less that justice requires.  But to require that God would give us only what we deserve would be tragic.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice,the words of Portia carry the same message.  Portia is speaking to Shylock who is crying out for justice.  She says, we need something more than justice.  We need mercy.  Hear her words.

The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
upon the place beneath; It is twice blessed;
It blesses him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown…
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings
It is an attribute of God Himself…
Though justice be thy plea, consider this –
That in the course of justice none of us
should see salvation; we do pray for mercy.

These men, standing around in the market place, needed a job.  To be unemployed is tragic.  Some of them at the close of a day were saying, “No one has hired us.”  They want work.  They need work.  They may have families to feed and care for.  They need money for the basic supports of life.  Every day they needed to take home a full day’s wage.  The ones that worked 12 hours and the ones that could only find work for an hour still share the very same needs.

Jesus in this story is saying that God, is not prepared to give people merely what they deserve, but to give them what they need, regardless of how much value they have been to him or to others. Thanks be to God!


I have long been a sacramentarian. I love participating in a service of holy communion.  This story reveals to us one of the crucial elements in partaking of communion.  As we come to receive bread and wine at the Lord’s Table, let us not come to this moment saying, “I’ve been pretty good lately.” It’s OK for me to take communion. I have earned the right to come to the table.”  Welcome to the world of the Pharisees and the self-righteous!

We don’t want to go there!  All of us live our lives so close to the edge of spiritual poverty, that we need the constant engifting of the God of all grace just to make it through a day.  For this reason, we pray, every day, “give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”

At the time of communion, we need to approach God and say some version of,
“O God, I have worked so little for you.
Much of my life has not been spent wisely,
but I still need your extravagant generosity.
Have Mercy upon me too, O God.”

And God, who is the Father of all mercy, enriches our lives, not because we deserve it, but because he knows how critically we need it.

Communion is not for those who think they deserve it, having made all the right moves.Communion is for we who sense our own frailty, are aware of our weakness before temptation and stress, and keenly sense the need for God to forgive us once more and then to strengthen us by His Spirit.

 If that is the way we feel about ourselves, we will always be welcometo this celebration of the generosity of God.