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# 76: 1-10-20 1

Matthew 20:1-16
Part 1: The Parable of the Day Laborers

Following the completion of His ministry in Galilee, Jesus traveled on through many cities and villages,
teaching and healing. He was gradually making His way to Jerusalem over a period of several months.

During this time, Jesus also taught His disciples more intensively, especially concerning the kingdom of
heaven - the realm of God’s rule. The disciples were learning that God’s kingdom was not like a worldly

First you had to lose your life - for the sake of Jesus - in order to even find it, in that kingdom (16:25).
Then to be the greatest, you had to serve the least (18:1-5). The path to glory? That led through shame and
suffering (16:24).

As a son of God, you were free (17:26) - but not to do what you please, of course - but to serve all others in
love (Gal 5:13). And the service of love meant that forgiveness must never, never be withheld (18:22) - for
love is the royal law of God’s kingdom (Jam 2:8).

The most recent lessons about the kingdom that the disciples had been taught by Jesus developed from
some encounters that they had together. When some little children had approached Jesus, the disciples
began to rebuke their parents, but Jesus rebuked the disciples.

Jesus enjoyed the little ones, making their way to Him - but more importantly, He wanted His disciples to
see in it the way men enter the kingdom of God; they simply come to Jesus, believing in Him.

Matthew next records the account of a rich young man, a Jew, who was seeking eternal life on the basis of
his keeping of the Law - his own good works. But then Jesus showed the young man that he must keep the
Law perfectly, which meant that he must give all that he possessed to the poor. Freed of worldly
encumbrances, the young man could then follow Jesus.

But the young man was attached to his prestige and his wealth; he was unwilling to lose his life in this
world, for the sake of Jesus. He found the request of Jesus unreasonable, and so he went away, sorrowful.
But there is always the hope that his sorrow eventually led to repentance, isn’t there? Perhaps he had a
change of heart, later.

It was shocking to the disciples to hear Jesus say that it was virtually impossible for a rich man to enter the
kingdom of heaven. They bought into the Jewish thinking that the rich were especially blessed by God - so
God must be especially pleased with them. They deduced that the rich were more likely to get into the
kingdom of heaven - not less likely.

But Jesus made it clear that wasn’t so; the more blessings a person has in this world, the less likely it will
be that they will recognize their need to be saved. The young man had riches, and prestige - and prided
himself on his ability to keep the Law - his good works. All of these served as impediments to his receiving
eternal life.

This caused the disciples to become introspective; they had given up their lives and livelihoods to follow
Jesus; what would they gain from that? I want to read the answer of Jesus again to them in chapter 19,
which starts in verse 28.
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[Matthew 19:28-30] Jesus was speaking of the time when the heavens and the earth will be regenerated -
following the seven-year Tribulation. It is at this time that Jesus will return in His Second Coming to the
earth, to set up His kingdom. He will rule and reign for 1000 years.

During that time, those who have followed Jesus - not just the disciples here, but all of the true church -
they will rule and reign with Jesus over the earth from their heavenly home, the New Jerusalem. The
church will judge Israel - meaning administer over Israel, which will be the head nation on the earth.

In addition, believers will be richly rewarded, and inherit eternal life - the ultimate reward. Of course, the
disciples would not have known of the church, at that time; it was still a mystery. Other than that, they
would have understood most of what Jesus said, from OT prophecies.

And then, Jesus ends on a rather cryptic note - “But many who are first will be last, and the last first”. No
doubt, that wasn’t clear to His disciples, as Jesus spoke it - as perhaps it’s not clear to some of us, even

But then Jesus went on to relate a parable, to explain His statement. We know the parable is an explanation
of his statement in two ways. It begins with the little word “For” - an explanation word, in the Greek. And
when Jesus ends the parable, He essentially repeats His cryptic statement - “So the last will be first, and the
first last” (v. 16).

The disciples and Jesus were in a public setting when the young ruler had approached Him, and presumably
they were still in public for the exchange of words that followed, as well as for this parable. The audience
for the parable, then, was likely greater than just the disciples.

So let’s continue now with the parable so we can understand what Jesus meant. First, we’ll look at the
parable just as Jesus spoke it, then consider its meaning.

20:1-2 Jesus begins by saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner”. This is similar to the parables
in Matthew chapter 13, and the one in chapter 18, which began in the same way.

What we learned previously is that the entire parable must be taken into account, which then portrays some
aspect of God’s kingdom. Who are the residents of God’s kingdom? The sons of God - believers in Jesus,
such as the disciples here.

Jesus begins to paint a picture for his disciples. There is a landowner. We know this landowner is wealthy,
because he apparently has much land; many hands are needed to work it.

This landowner would have regular servants for his fields - while the soil was plowed, and the seed was
sown, as the crops were watered, and the fields weeded.

But now it was harvest time. All crops must be harvested in a timely manner, in order to avoid loss. So
additional laborers were needed - these would be day laborers, who were commonly hired for a day’s work.
What is the harvest? Fruit - grapes - the landowner has a vineyard.

The landowner went out early in the morning - the Greek means he did so at dawn - first light. His purpose
was to find and hire some laborers to gather his grapes, from his vineyard. And he finds them.
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The landowner and these laborers enter into a contract together - an agreement. And what’s the agreement?
A denarius for a day’s labor. The work day was usually considered to be 6 AM to 6 PM - longer hours than
most work today.

A denarius was considered a fair wage for a day’s labor. So both parties are in agreement with the contract,
and the landowner sends them into his vineyard to harvest the grapes.

20:3-7 So we see that the landowner goes out again - and again - and again- and again; four more times!

Now, when he went out the first time, it would have been before 6 AM. The time is given according to how
the Jews reckon time - we would say 9 AM; then 12 noon; then 3 PM, and then finally 5 PM - that’s one
hour before quitting time.

This time, Jesus specifies that the landowner goes out to the marketplace - the agora. That was where
merchandise and food were bought and sold, but it was also where unemployed men would tend to hang
around - both those who wanted work, and those who were just loafing about.

Although our translation mentions that the men were standing idle, the Greek word specifically means they
were not working; there’s a more specific word for idle, indicating laziness. So these men simply had not
found work.

Day workers had a particularly precarious life. They didn’t even have the security of a slave, with a stable
home and a master. They often lived hand to mouth. To be without work was to be without food.

Well, the landowner offers them work. Is there a contract? Did the men ask for an agreement? No. The
men were no doubt thrilled to be offered work at all, at that late time in the day - which kept getting later
and later.

The landowner told them to just go into his vineyard, and he would give them whatever was right. Well,
what did that mean? Who could tell? But the men, grateful to be offered work, simply obeyed the
landowner, and went into the vineyard. Clearly, they had to decide to trust this landowner.

But there’s something else to take note of here - the unusual conduct of the landowner. Didn’t he have any
sense of how many laborers it would take to harvest his vineyard? Why did he go out four more times,
seeking laborers?

We could assume that there weren’t enough workers in the first place to harvest his large vineyard - and
that more showed up in the marketplace as the day progressed. But that doesn’t explain why the landowner
would go out at the eleventh hour, and hire the laborers he found there. Those men would no sooner have
arrived at the vineyard, learned where to go and what to do, and gotten started then the work day would

It made no sense at all - not from a business perspective. It was as if this landowner was hiring them for
their sake - and not his own - as if the landowner’s real purpose was to provide them with what they
desperately needed. And in fact, as we continue the parable, this unlikely explanation becomes more and
more likely - for we discover that this landowner is a remarkably generous man.

20:8 Evening had come. It was 6 PM; quitting time. A steward was a servant who acted in the name of his
master, as his representative. This trusted steward functioned as the agent of the landowner; he was
authorized to pay the laborers.
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Now we see more unusual conduct, on the part of this landowner. He instructs his steward to call all of the
laborers, and to give them their wages; but the landowner specifically indicates that the laborers were to be
paid from the last to the first; from those hired latest in the day, to those hired at the beginning of the day.
So those who were hired last were to receive their wages first.

Not only that, but all the workers were to be paid the same wage - one denarius. Although it is not spoken,
this directive must also have come from the landowner. So the men who worked all day - presumably 12
hours - were to be paid one denarius; and the men who worked only an hour - if that - were to be paid one
denarius. What do you think those listening to the parable thought about that? The same thing we do:
“That’s not fair!”

Which is what those who worked all day concluded.

20:9-12 From this point forward in the parable, Jesus only speaks of two groups of the laborers: those
hired at the beginning of the day, and those hired at the eleventh hour - 5 PM - effectively, the end of the

Since all the workers were called at once, those who worked all day were present while the steward gave
priority to the men who had come to work at the eleventh hour. They come to the steward first, and what
does he give to them? One denarius.

Can you imagine how those eleventh-hour workers must have felt? Not only had the landowner taken them
at the last minute; not only were they being given priority in receiving their wages; they were actually
being given a whole day’s wages for just one hour of work! This wasn’t wages; this was a gift!

These men must have been beyond grateful, at the generosity of the landowner. They would have been
exuberant - we might say, they were jumping with joy.

And who was present, watching all of this? The all-day workers. No doubt, they didn’t like waiting for
their wages - especially when those who had worked so little - virtually not at all - were being paid before
they were. What’s with that?

And then they saw those who worked so little being paid so much - a full-day’s wage! This landowner sure
didn’t know how business was conducted, in this world!

But seeing what the landowner did caused them to make an assumption - that if he overpaid those who
hardly labored, he would pay those who labored all day much, much more. So when their turn came to be
paid, they were expecting to receive much higher wages, than the others. But what happened? The steward
gave them the same as the others - one denarius.

So the all-day laborers began to murmur against the landowner - which would be considered rude and
ungrateful. Their complaint makes it evident that they thought the landowner was unfair. The landowner
was treating all the laborers the same way - as if they’re all equals, in his eyes!

Hmmm. The all-day workers clearly saw themselves as superior to the eleventh-hour workers. Why did
they think they were better - in verse 12? Because they had borne the burden and the heat of the day;
because of the hard, laborious work they had done. It wasn’t right for the landowner to make those who
hardly worked at all equal with them. And the world would agree with them.

But the landowner did not agree.

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20:13-15 The “friend” of verse 13 is not used of a friend in the true sense of the word. This Greek word
refers to a comrade or companion who seeks only his own advantage; who associates with another only to
promote his own selfish interests.

True friends have shared interests. To use this word indicates that these all-day workers had no genuine
relationship or attachment to the landowner. And the landowner knew this - and addressed them

But the landowner had not treated them wrongly, in any way. They had negotiated their wage with the
landowner in the beginning, a denarius for a day’s labor. And it was a fair wage. That was their agreement,
and the landowner honored it.

It’s interesting that in verse 10 and 11, Jesus says that the all-day workers each received a denarius from the
steward; but in verse 14, the landowner tells them to take what is yours - and the word “take” means to take
it up. It’s as if the denarius was set before them, but they had not taken it up into their hand; they saw it,
and then began to complain about it.

The landowner is urging them to take it - and go their way; he was dismissing them. We would expect they
eventually did take it and go, but this is left open-ended in the parable, which we’ll see is significant to the

And then the landowner brought up a valid point, which the all-day workers - and perhaps those hearing the
parable - neglected to consider. The landowner was free to do whatever he wanted, with his own things.

And apparently, what he wanted - what he desired to do - was to give those poor fellows who couldn’t find
work all day a lovely gift - a full-day’s wage; and to also treat them with dignity, putting them first. When
they chose to trust the landowner to do “whatever was right”, the landowner was delighted to do that for
them - with lavish generosity.

The landowner left the all-day workers with a question to consider - Is their eye evil because he is good?
An evil eye refers to envy or jealousy. They had no problem with the wage, when they first agreed to it, did
they? It was only after others were paid the same wage that they began to complain.

The all-day workers were jealous, because the landowner had been generous to others. But if you think
about it, his goodness was even-handed to all - one denarius - because he was concerned with people.

Jesus then concludes the parable, returning to His original thought.

20:16 So the parable is meant to explain the words of Jesus concerning priority. Priority concerning what?
What had Jesus been teaching His disciples, right before He made the statement, the first time? Look back
in chapter 19, at the end of verse 29.

Jesus was talking about the reward for those who would leave all to follow Him - and He ends with the
ultimate reward - eternal life. The priority, then, would have to do with who receives eternal life, and when.
Let’s look at this in the context of the parable.

Now before we begin, remember that a parable has to make sense as an actual story - so the meaning of the
parable usually doesn’t reflect each and every point of the story. You have to hold a parable up to the Light,
in order to see the meaning correctly. We have Light that will help us do that, don’t we? The Holy Spirit.
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Jesus began with a landowner. The Greek word literally means the master of the house. It is the one who
exercises authority. The word emphasizes his absolute rule. Who would this landowner represent? God -
the Father - whose purposes are always realized; whose sovereign will is always done.

The landowner has a vineyard. What is produced in a vineyard? Grapes - a kind of fruit. Here we see the
purpose of God, for mankind - to bring forth sons of God. The sons are the fruit of God’s labor, which are
being obtained through creation, and then redemption. From His work, God is bringing forth a harvest -
sons for His kingdom.

The landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. These laborers - the first
group - entered into an agreement with the landowner - a contract - a denarius for a day’s labor. When they
had their contract, the landowner sent them into his vineyard, to work.

The denarius is a silver coin. What does silver symbolize, in the Scriptures? Redemption. The denarius
represents redemption in Christ - which, when received, brings forth eternal life, to a man.

But this first group has contracted with the landowner to receive the denarius based on their working for it -
all day. What group of people entered into a contract with God to work for their redemption? The nation
Israel. Their contract with God is the covenant of the Law.

And we immediately would say, “But no one can keep the Law perfectly”. Quite so. But there was more to
their contract than the righteous requirements of the Law. God also put in their contract the ceremonial

When Israel discovered that they couldn’t keep the righteous requirements of the Law, the ceremonial Law
would then lead them to Christ - to receive the redemption in Him.

The Law was to be their tutor, to bring Israel to Christ (Gal 3:24) - and in believing, they would receive
eternal life. It was a fair contract - one which the nation Israel agreed to from the beginning - in their
seeming desire to do, and to be obedient to God (Ex 19:8, 24:7).

The LORD took Israel as His people, to serve His purposes, as His servant - to hold out the light of truth to
the Gentiles, that they might see, and believe. We can see this reflected in the landowner sending the first
group of laborers into his vineyard, to gather the fruit.

As the story continues, the landowner goes to marketplace, where he finds others standing idle. They are
not lazy; they have just not found work.

All four of the later groups stand in contrast to the first group in that there is no agreement made with the
landowner, based on their work; they simply obey his word, and go into his vineyard - and trust him to give
them whatever is right. To emphasize that their work is not the issue, the last group is taken near the end of
the day - when the work is almost done. For them, the denarius they receive is virtually a free gift.

What group of people received the redemption in Christ Jesus as a free gift? The true church - which
would become a predominantly Gentile body. The true church is represented by all four of these groups.

Notice the time markers that are given - the third, the sixth, the ninth hour. These would be notable times
marking the labor of Jesus on the cross. His work - so that the redemption could be given as a free gift - to
any and all of those who will believe. The only work for them is the work of faith. And the Father then
gives them what was right - redemption, according to the riches of His grace (Eph 1:7).
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At evening - the end of the age - it will be the church that will receive their completed redemption first - as
their bodies are redeemed from death, in glory, and they are caught up to be with their Lord (1 Th 4:13-18).

And who gives them their redemption? The Lord Jesus Christ - the steward, in the story - the one to whom
the Father has entrusted the giving of eternal life (Jn 5:26-27). It is the Father’s will that this is so - that we
who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory (Eph 1:11-14).

But what of Israel? They would not accept the redemption that is in Christ Jesus - like the all-day workers,
it’s on the table, but they have not taken it in hand. And God has set Israel aside - to go their way - until
such time as they do.

The listeners of Jesus would not have been able to understand every point of the parable, as the church was
still a mystery; but Matthew’s readers would have been able to see it fully - as can we.

If you think back to chapter 19, you discover that the accounts of the little children and the rich young man
are also reflected in this parable. The little children just come to Jesus - as the disciples did, and the true
church has done, simply trusting in Jesus. The young man is kept from Jesus by his self-righteous works,
and his possessions - as the privileged nation Israel has been, as they continue to labor for their salvation.

The parable that Jesus told is also remarkable in that Jewish teachers told a similar story, but made an
opposite point - that Israel, who had worked hard, would receive high wages; but the Gentiles, who had
labored little, would receive little.

It’s interesting to consider that even the jealousy that Jesus spoke of in the story came to pass between
Israel and the church.

Turn to Romans chapter 11. Paul was informing the churches in Rome that even though Israel had rejected
Jesus, God was not finished with them; there would be a remnant according to the election of grace.

Paul speaks of Israel not obtaining what it seeks - eternal life.

[Romans 11:7-15]

v. 7-8 Israel did not see that Jesus was their Messiah.

v. 9-10 The idea is that the very place where they would have true fellowship with God - in Christ - has
become a stumbling block to them, because of their unbelief. They have chosen to be blind; so be it! Let
them be blind.

v. 11-15 God’s intention was not for Israel to stumble and fall; that was their choice - like the all-day
workers. Meanwhile, God extended His grace to the Gentiles, through sending them the gospel. And that
provoked the Jews to jealousy - as they observed the love and the joy and the freedom that Christ brings.

Paul experienced that jealousy first-hand, as he preached the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. At
times, the Jews’ jealousy came at great personal cost, to him. But that jealousy also caused some of the
Jews to turn to Jesus themselves, and be saved. Paul recognized it as a good thing, in that respect.

[Return to Matthew 20]

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Religious Jews still seek acceptance by God based on their own merit, by keeping the Law. They refuse to
acknowledge they are lawbreakers, who need the redemption that is in Christ Jesus alone. So God is not
their friend; they have no relationship with Him at all.

Yet God has done them no wrong; He designed the Law to show them they are sinners on an equal basis
with everyone else - sinners in need of a Savior. It’s just going to take them a little longer before they will
see it His way.

And now the meaning of Jesus’ cryptic statement is clear. The last will be first - the church was the second
called-out people of God, yet they will be the first to receive eternal life in glory, when they are caught up
to be with their Lord.

Israel was the first called-out people of God, yet they will be last - receiving their redemption following the
Great Tribulation, when they believe into Jesus as He returns to the earth, in His second coming.

Their redemption will be completed when their bodies are glorified, sometime during the 1000-year reign
of Christ. In addition, the church will be given preeminence over Israel, during Christ’s reign;
administering over Israel, from the New Jerusalem, with Jesus.

As we ponder the story, we can’t help but see the love of God - who has shown us the exceeding riches of
His grace in His kindness toward us - in Christ Jesus. But we can also see the longsuffering of God - as He
reasons with Israel (Is 1:18-20), as waits for them to respond to His mercy for them - in Christ Jesus (Rom

The kingdom of heaven is indeed other-worldly - because in it Grace reigns (Rom 5:21) - with mercy and
kindness and love.

Let’s look at the last thing that Jesus said here - which serves to now explain the parable. For many are
called - the call of the gospel goes out to all. But few are chosen - chosen to receive eternal life - only those
who are respond to God through faith alone, in Christ alone - to receive redemption from Him. And some
take a little longer to do that, than others.

Reading: Matthew 20:17-34; Mark 10:32-45; Luke 18:31-43