The word "for" with which this discourse begins signals that it is related to verses that precede it. When looking for the context of the passage, it is also helpful to remember that chapter and verse divisions are man-made. Frequently, a context will span a chapter heading.
The context of Matthew 20:1-16 includes two immediately prior verbal exchanges between Jesus and others. The first is recorded in Matthew 19:16-22. Summarized, a young, rich man inquired how he might attain eternal life. Though he had kept sundry commandments, he sorrowfully departed when Jesus advised him to sell his possessions.
This incident prompted Jesus to address his apostles regarding the danger of riches (Matthew 19:23-26). The apostles admitted that this doctrine perplexed them. All the foregoing incited Peter to pose a question in Matthew 19:27. ". . . behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?"
Whereas the rich man refused to surrender all, the apostles did forfeit their livelihoods (Matthew 4:18-22; 9:9). Peter, perhaps somewhat with pride, drew a contrast between the rich and the poor, the latter group being those with whom he identified the other apostles and himself. Several years later, the apostle Paul warned the Corinthian church about comparing themselves with each other. "For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves among themselves, are not wise" (2 Corinthians 10:12). Jesus also noted a Pharisee who boastfully contrasted himself with a publican (Luke 18:9-14). The penitent publican was praised while the haughty Pharisee was accused.
However, Peter's question following his observation demonstrated an improper attitude. It is, though, not unlike a question we might through our ignorance also ask. Perhaps Peter thought that the other apostles and he were entitled to some type of reward in view of their sacrifices.
About this time, James and John asked for commanding positions in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). Earlier the apostles sought preeminence in the Lord's kingdom (Mark 9:33-37). Jesus used a child as a living example of the humility that should characterize his disciples (Luke 9:46-48).
The attitude portrayed by Peter and the other apostles is dangerous because it can easily bloom in discontent. Anyone making a sacrifice wants to know that for which the sacrifice is made is more valuable than the costs incurred. Would the apostles' reward be prestigious positions in a physical, earthly kingdom as James and John supposed? Would their reward be eternal life after which the young, rich man sought? Just how were the sacrificial apostles more fortunate than other men?
Keenly aware of their state of affairs, Peter essentially petitioned Jesus to obligate himself to some type of compensation. "In short, the spirit of the hireling spoke in that question, and it is against this spirit that the parable is directed . . ." (R.C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1990, p. 62.)
"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" (Matthew 20:1).
This is another kingdom parable, and it was spoken specifically to the apostles (for the reasons already cited). All the characters of the parable are identified in the first verse. Jesus as the most visible person of the Godhead, God incarnate, is represented as the householder. The laborers in the vineyard are Christians. Additionally, verse one pictures the kingdom or church as the vineyard owned by the householder (Christ).
A householder was wholly responsible for the prosperity of the estate. He with complete authority and personal involvement ruled every aspect of the family business. It is noteworthy that the householder personally hired the laborers, and in that capacity he made himself the overseer from before the first laborers were hired, through and beyond the conclusion of the workday. The householder's day may have begun before dawn to secure workers and dispatch them to his vineyard before the beginning of the Jewish workday (about 6:00 a.m.).
"And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard" (Matthew 20:2).
A verbal contract was agreed upon between the householder and the first group of laborers. The stipulated wage for a day's labor was a "penny" (KJV) or denarius. It was a Roman silver coin equivalent to a day's wages for a soldier, or in this case, a laborer. These laborers were the only ones who negotiated their wages, and thereby knew for what precisely they were exchanging their labor.
"And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 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? 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" (Matthew 20:3-7).
The third hour (about 9:00 a.m.), the sixth hour (about 12:00 p.m.), the ninth hour (about 3:00 p.m.) and the eleventh hour (about 5:00 p.m.) the householder returned to the marketplace to hire additional workers. To each of these the householder proposed a unilateral, verbal contract to which each agreed. "And he said unto them; whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way" (Matthew 20:4).
The different hours at which laborers were hired correspond to the different times in life when souls are converted. The marketplace represents the world. The idle, would-be laborers, in the marketplace (not yet in the vineyard) represent lost souls. Whereas the laborers in the marketplace represent lost souls, laborers in the householder's vineyard represent Christians. In the spiritual realm, the only useful, laudable labor is in the Lord's vineyard (the kingdom or the church). A laborer, though industrious, if he labors in the wrong vineyard, will not be rewarded by the Householder, who is Christ (Matthew 7:21-23). In the parable, the householder hired all he found and no laborer refused to labor in the vineyard.
"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. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny" (Matthew 20:8-10).
After the twelfth hour (about 6:00 p.m.), the laborers gathered to be paid. Unlike an evil householder who kept the wages for which the laborers harvested crops (James 5:1-4), this householder paid-in-full those who labored in his vineyard, as also the Law of Moses required (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15). The "hire" or wages represent salvation.
Verses eight through ten record the payment of the wages. Every worker received the same pay though they worked varying numbers of hours. The householder honored the agreement between himself and the first laborers and likewise he honored the verbal agreement with the subsequent workers. The householder was generous to the latter laborers, paying every person the same ("a penny"). This became the basis of complaint.
"And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 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" (Matthew 20:11-12).
This generosity was despised by the early laborers. They had negotiated a contract with which they were apparently content initially. Now, though, they loathed their pact and hated the householder. The unequal treatment was not unjust but merciful and generous. Doubtless U.S. labor laws and unions would fault the householder today.
Comparing people and things precedes coveting. Simply, the complainers had not been wronged; they were merely jealous. The oddest side of the complaint is that the laborers were co-laborers, representative of fellow Christians, who alike were recipients of the same reward, representing salvation. It is inconceivable that any Christian could begrudge blessings shared by fellow Christians.
These blessings exceed the "common salvation" (Jude 3) and include earthly honors sometimes bestowed on Christians by other Christians. In this way some who have lately become Christians compared to "old soldiers" may be more lauded. "The Christian who is a people-watcher is never satisfied with what God gives him but always wants what somebody else has." (Warren W. Wiersbe, Windows on the Parables, Wheaton, Scripture Press, p. 138.)
"But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" (Matthew 20:13-15).
The householder in the parable appealed to the power and authority that was inherent in his position. Commentators have observed justice, sovereignty and grace exhibited in this parable, reminiscent of the same qualities in the Godhead.
As the Lord of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:15), He claims the sovereign right to do what He wills in His own affairs. . . . Sovereignty will not be exercised at the expense of justice or of grace . . . (Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, p 221.)
The householder addressed one of the especially vocal dissidents. He first presented himself to his critics cordially and respectfully, despite the cross disposition with which they chided him. The householder reasoned that: (1) he uprightly fulfilled the contract with them; (2) they ought also to be content with that contract, which they negotiated; (3) the householder had a legal right to manage his assets as he willed; (4) he refused to be wrongfully portrayed as evil; (5) jealousy and covetousness comprised the true foundation for the verbal assaults on him.
"So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen" (Matthew 20:16).
Removing from the narrative of the parabolic illustration, Jesus concluded the discourse with a pithy application to the apostles. The summary conclusion to the parable in 20:16 mirrored our Lord's concluding remark in his answer to Peter's question: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first" (Matthew 19:30).
"The lesson taught is, that those who seem chiefest in labor, yet if they forget that reward is of grace, and not of works, may altogether lose the things which they have wrought. . ." (Trench, p. 63.)
Seniority in the Lord's kingdom is ineffective as the basis to claim God's grace. Even past usefulness as a servant of God can be undone by sin (Ezekiel 3:17-21). Sins for which the children of God will not repent cause God to remove their names from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5; 22:19; Exodus 32:33).
Through this parable Jesus warned his apostles of their defective attitude, (1) toward their fellow men, and (2) toward God and his system of grace for mankind. God, through his grace, gives his disciples what they do not deserve like the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hour laborers in the vineyard. "Though some may personally labor well, their disposition towards others may need improvement." (Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Star Bible & Tract Corp., p. 30.)
'First' and 'last' relationships also characterized groups of people in the dawn of the Gospel Age. The Jews were the first group to whom the Gospel was initially preached. They not only predated by a decade the reception of the Good News by the Gentiles, where Jews and Gentiles both comprised local populations, the Jews still heard the Gospel first (Romans 1:16; Acts 13:46-48). However, the Jews as a group exhibited a defective attitude toward other men and toward the gracious redemption of God through Christ.
Last in time to come into the kingdom, the Gentiles through their service would be made first, and the Jews, who were once first, because of their hatred of others would be made last. (Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. II, ACU Press, p. 60.)
Laborers in the Lord's vineyard today must not challenge the authority of the Householder (Christ). At first opportunity we ought to gladly accept our Lord's invitation to labor in his vineyard; everything outside Christ's vineyard is idleness. Jesus will only reward those who labor in his vineyard. He will not acknowledge labor in adjacent vineyards. The grace of God exceeds both man's capability to merit it and even man's expectations. Defective attitudes, either toward our fellow man or toward God's grace, will impair one's usefulness in the kingdom and may endanger his eternal reward.