The Stories Jesus Told: The Compassionate Employer, Matthew 20:1–16
March 11, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Compassionate Employer, Matthew 20:1–16
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The parable of the compassionate employer, or, as it's often called, the workers in the vineyard, is a story Jesus told to express several aspects of God's nature and character: His love, mercy, and compassion powerfully shown through salvation, along with His unfailing care and rewards for those who love and serve Him.
This parable, like others Jesus told, starts with the words “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” This phrase tells the listener that Jesus is going to give information about God and what He’s like, and about how those who live within His kingdom and submit to His reign in their lives should see things. So let’s take a look at what Jesus says.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
The master of the house is translated in other Bible versions as a householder or landholder. Many householders in first-century Palestine would farm nearby land. In this story, the master of the house had a vineyard which was large enough that he needed extra workers to help during the times when it was important to get the work done quickly, such as when the harvest needed to be picked.
Needing extra men to work short term, the owner went to the marketplace where the day laborers congregated in the hopes that someone would come and offer them a job, even if it was just for the day. The life of day laborers at that time was a difficult one. They had no job security. They had no income if they didn’t find work. Each evening they would face their families either with the joy of coming home with enough to put food on the table or with nothing. To find employment, they would stand in the town square, where everyone would see them and know that they were unemployed. This was humiliating, but getting hired and being paid was vital to their families’ survival. The day laborers were on the low end of the economic scale, so much so that Scripture required that day laborers be paid at the end of each day, as they needed the funds for their survival.
Deuteronomy 24:14–15 says:
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy … You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.
The owner of the vineyard went out early in the morning to hire laborers to get a full day’s labor from them. He chose some workers and negotiated the price that they would be paid for their day’s work. Since people didn’t have watches, the workday for the day laborer began at sunrise and ended when the first star could be seen in the evening sky. This made for roughly a 12-hour workday.
After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
A denarius for a day’s work was standard pay for a laborer at that time. It wasn’t high pay, but it was enough to sustain one’s family. The laborers agreed to this amount and were likely hoping that at the end of the day they would be asked to return the next morning. Off they went to the vineyard, happy that they would have money to bring home to their families that night.
The story continues with the landowner returning to the marketplace in order to hire more laborers.
And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.
The second time the landowner went to the marketplace was midmorning, around 9 a.m. Upon arriving, he found men still waiting to be hired for the day. He selected and hired some of them and sent them off to the vineyard. He didn’t negotiate a price with them. Rather, he told them that he would pay whatever was right; meaning that he would be just when he compensated them. The workers took him at his word, which gives the impression that the landowner was trusted and respected within the community.
Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.
At noon and again at three o’clock in the afternoon he returned to the marketplace, and each time he hired more men. There is no mention made of the landowner discussing how much the laborers would be paid.
A while later he returns to the marketplace for a fifth time, when there’s only one hour of daylight left.
And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
One can only imagine how desperate these men were for work, and how discouraging it must have been for them to stand in a public place all day long hoping to be hired, to no avail. These men were determined to find work or they wouldn’t have still been in the marketplace waiting and hoping. In a short while, they would return home empty-handed to face their families.
When asked by the landowner why they were still standing there, their reply was that no one had hired them. So off to the vineyard he sent them. There is no indication what compensation these eleventh-hour workers would receive for only one hour of work. Perhaps they felt that if they went willingly at this hour, no matter how little the pay, the landowner might hire them for the following day’s work. Shortly thereafter the workday was finished and it was time to pay the workers.
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’
Some new and surprising information surfaces at this point. The landowner has a foreman, an estate manager, someone who runs things for him. This would immediately bring up the question in the original listeners’ minds as to why the landowner was the one hiring the workers and not the manager. Landowners who had estate managers didn’t generally concern themselves with the day-to-day running of the farm, neither did they traipse off to the market five times a day hiring workers. For that matter, why didn’t the owner hire a sufficient number of workers in the morning instead of going to the marketplace five times throughout the course of the day?
Of course, Jesus is telling a parable; He isn’t recounting an actual event. So the reason the owner of the vineyard in the story is doing the hiring personally, and hiring at five different times of the day, is that it helps to make the point that Jesus intends to get across, as we will see.
The original listeners were probably also intrigued by the odd instructions the owner gives the foreman regarding paying the workers. The foreman is instructed to pay those hired last in the day first, and to pay those hired first at the last. As we’ll see, paying the men in this order caused some problems.
And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
As we know, parables include few details, and in this parable there’s only mention of payment made to those hired first and last. The implication is that everyone who worked that day, no matter how long they worked, received a full day’s pay of one denarius. When those who worked the whole day saw that those who worked for just one hour received full pay, they anticipated that they would receive more. From their point of view, that would make sense. However, they received a denarius just like everyone else did.
Had the landowner paid those who had worked all day first, they would have gone on their way and wouldn’t have had any idea of what the others were paid. Everyone would have gone home happy. However, those who were hired first saw that those who worked only one-twelfth of the time received a full day’s pay, and this made them feel cheated. There was a coin in circulation at that time called a pandion which was worth one-twelfth of a denarius. Those who had worked the full day presumably felt that a pandion was the pay that those who worked so short a time should receive, or that if the landowner was going to be fair, then he should pay them much more. And they let the landowner know their feelings.
And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’
They object to being paid the same and being seen as equal to those who worked for only one hour. They complain that the owner isn’t taking into account either the amount of time they spent working or the fact that they worked through the hottest time of the day. They accuse the landlord of being unjust and treating them unfairly.
After hearing the accusation, the owner responds to one of them, probably directing his comments to the main spokesperson.
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?’
The word “friend” used here is translated from the Greek word hetairos, which was also used in two other verses in Matthew: once when the man arrived at the wedding feast without a wedding garment and was therefore thrown out of the feast, and again when Jesus calls Judas “friend,” as Judas is in the process of betraying Him. The vineyard owner isn’t calling the man “friend” in a positive way.
The question the owner asked can only elicit a positive response, as a denarius is the exact amount that the workers agreed would be their wage for a full day’s work. Since the owner was giving them this amount, he had kept his promise.
As is often the case with parables, the point Jesus is making comes at the end when the owner says:
‘Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’
In other translations such as the King James (KJV), the New King James (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and others, the phrase “do you begrudge my generosity” is translated as “is your eye evil because I am good?” This is a literal translation from the Greek, which expresses a Hebrew idiom. As one author explains:
The saying of the magnanimous landowner alludes to the Hebrew expressions “evil eye” and “good eye,” which suggested the sharp contrast between a generous person full of kindness and a stingy, selfish individual. The generous person with a “good eye” is driven by a concern to help others and to see their needs met. The selfish person is consumed by one interest: what belongs to him or her.
The all-day workers didn’t get the point that the owner was being generous to those in need. They didn’t rejoice over the good fortune of those hired later in the day. Instead, they were selfishly looking at themselves and what they perceived to be unfair treatment by their employer.
The owner asked them if he wasn’t allowed to do what he wanted with what belonged to him. He chose to give what was his to those in need. And then he asked if they resented his generosity. Were they envious of the blessings he had given to others?
By most standards the landowner’s actions would be considered unjust. But the landowner was not operating by the commonly expected standards. He was being just in that he was keeping his promise to pay the amount agreed upon. Those who agreed to work for that amount were not shortchanged. If they had been paid first and were thus unaware of what the others were paid, they would have gone home to their families with their heads held high, glad for a full day’s pay in their pocket.
But what about the other workers? They too had families who needed to be fed. They also needed to face their families with their heads held high, and they would now be able to do so. They didn’t deserve a full day’s pay because they didn’t work a full day. Nevertheless, due to the generosity of the owner, they were given what they didn’t deserve. The owner was just, but he was also compassionate.
This parable is telling us what God is like. God is just and He keeps His promises. He is also full of mercy. Being merciful doesn’t have anything to do with fairness. Mercy isn’t about giving someone exactly what they earn or deserve. It is an act of love. It is giving to someone who is undeserving, which is exactly what God’s love, grace, and salvation is all about.
God isn’t limited by what we humans consider fair. If that were the case, there would be no hope of salvation, no forgiveness of sin. If we were only given what we deserve, we’d all be doomed. Instead, like the workers who didn’t deserve full pay, we are the recipients of God’s generosity, compassion, mercy, and grace through salvation.
One author surmises that the reason the owner of the vineyard kept going back to the marketplace wasn’t because he needed more workers, but rather because he knew that the men looking for work needed help. His motive wasn’t tending the vines or picking the grapes; it was compassion for the men and their families.
The beauty of the story is that because of the compassion and generosity of the landowner—the employer—everyone got what they needed. It wasn’t a matter of overpaying some and underpaying others. It was a matter of love, of meeting the need.
To me, this parable paints a beautiful picture of God’s call to salvation. Some receive the call, or opportunity, early in life, some later, and others on their deathbeds. God, like the landowner, comes to the marketplace again and again, to see who is there, who is ready and eager. Whether a person comes to salvation early or late, all receive the same salvation.
This parable tells us something about salvation, and of God’s loving and compassionate nature. It also addresses some other important issues. As listeners, it asks us about our attitudes when God manifests His love and blessings to others. The workers who toiled through the heat of the day received the blessing of a day’s wage, a promise which was fulfilled. Yet when they saw others who didn’t work as hard or as long as they did receive the same blessing, they resented it.
It’s interesting that this parable is placed right after the question Peter asked Jesus about what the disciples would receive, seeing that they had left all to follow Him. Following closely after the parable is where the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her sons can sit on His right and left hand in His kingdom, which angered the other disciples. Jesus then goes on to say that the greatest among them must be a servant.
Besides giving us insight into God’s nature, the parable also reminds those who are saved, and especially those who serve the Lord, that the promise of reward isn’t meant to cause speculation about whose reward is going to be greater. This parable shows that God’s reward system goes way beyond the human perception of justice. His ways, His thoughts, and His means of judging and rewarding operate on a much higher plane than ours do. He’s not limited to tallying the number of hours worked or considering the hardships of the labor. As one author wrote:
Just as no one should begrudge a good man who goes beyond justice and gives to the poor, so no one should begrudge God’s goodness and mercy as if God’s rewards were limited to strict calculation.
While other parables speak about degrees of reward, this one isn’t addressing that issue. No matter when people start their Christian life or service, they are rewarded. In this parable we see that God is both just and abundantly generous. Those who were “latecomers” received much more than they expected. A few verses earlier Jesus said:
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.
So those who work through the heat of the day will receive this just reward from God’s hand. He will be fair and generous to all who come to Him.
In applying the parable to the Lord’s workers of today, one author said:
Modern disciples of Jesus should view heavenly rewards in the same way. The only reason we will receive any reward is that God has called us to be His workers. We can count on God dealing with us justly, graciously, and generously whether we serve God all our lives or only a short time, having become His disciples later in life.
Along with speaking of rewards and God’s generosity, there are principles in this parable which apply to our everyday lives. Being envious of others’ blessings or success, or being jealous of how well God is taking care of and supplying another’s needs, is mirroring the attitude of those who were begrudging the vineyard owner’s generosity. It runs contrary to the ways of God’s kingdom. Rather than being envious, we should rejoice at how generous and gracious God is. We should rejoice with those whom God is blessing.
Something else to keep in mind is that, like the owner of the vineyard, God can bless whoever He chooses for reasons which are His own. We may not understand why someone so undeserving in our eyes appears so blessed, and why we or someone else who we feel is much more deserving, or even in need, faces great hardships and difficulties. Some things can seem so unfair and unjust. In such cases, it helps to remind ourselves that the Lord is loving, merciful, and just. While we may not understand all that He does, our response should be one of trust in Him. In this life, our comprehension of all that God is and does is limited. It’s not possible for us to understand all of His ways, but in the life to come, we will have much more clarity. What we don’t understand now, we will understand then. And when we do understand, we will certainly be overwhelmed by His goodness and love, His wisdom and justice. Today we are to trust; tomorrow we will understand and rejoice.
Jesus asks us to put aside our limited concepts of what is just when it comes to God and the blessings and rewards He gives. We should remember that we’re each eleventh-hour workers. There is always someone who has done more in God’s service than you or me. Look at the apostles, the martyrs, or any number of our Christian brothers and sisters who have served the Lord in centuries past, or who serve side by side with us today.
We should revel in the realization that each of us is loved and accepted by God, not because of what we do, but because of who He is. He saved us not because of our works, but because of His loving grace. It wasn’t due to our efforts; it was due to His mercy. None of us could ever earn His love, blessings, or rewards. Each of us has been given much more than we deserve by our generous and compassionate Father. And whenever possible, we should do what we can to imitate His love and compassion in our interactions with others.
The Compassionate Employer, Matthew 20:1–16
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’
5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’
9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.
10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house,
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 a denarius?
14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.
15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’
16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Matthew 13:31, 33, 44, 45, 47; Luke 6:47–49, 7:31–32, 13:18–21.
 Matthew 20:1.
 Also, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (Leviticus 19:13).
 Matthew 20:2.
 Matthew 20:3–5.
 Matthew 20:5.
 Matthew 20:6–7.
 Matthew 20:8.
 Matthew 20:9–10.
 T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 220.
 Matthew 20:11–12.
 Matthew 20:13.
 Matthew 22:12, 26:50.
 Matthew 20:14–15.
 Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 136.
 Matthew 19:27.
 Matthew 20:20–24.
 Matthew 20:25–28.
 Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 377.
 Matthew 19:29.
 Thomas L. Constable, Notes On Matthew, 2013 edition.
 Romans 12:15.