"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 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 said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.' So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.' And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.' But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?' So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen" (Matt. 20:1-16).
This parable of Jesus is one of the more difficult ones. One must carefully consider all of the details before trying to determine what the proper interpretation and application is for today.
The parable begins with the word "for", which is a clear indication that the previous passage is connected to this context. It must be understood that there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original writing.
"The kingdom of heaven" in this parable is a reference to the church. The landowner (i.e., God) went out early in the morning because the working day began at sunrise. He desired to hire laborers for his vineyard. He would not force anyone to work for him (cf. Rev. 22:17). He desires to hire genuine workers--not dictators (cf. III John 9)--and not loafing, lukewarm, indifferent workers (cf. Rev. 3:15,16). Friends, let it be observed that the place of one's labor is important. We must be in the right vineyard.
The landowner and the first set of workers agreed that a denarius a day would be a fair wage (Matt. 20:2).
"And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace" (Matt. 20:3). No one had hired these individuals yet, so they are waiting in hopes of finding work. "You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you." Although they wouldn't be working a full day, the landowner promises to give them a proper wage. However, the amount is not specifically agreed upon. The same procedure was followed at the sixth and ninth hours.
Finally, at the eleventh hour, with the day almost over, this question was posed to those who hadn't worked any - "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" (Matt. 20:6). Their answer was simple - "Because no one hired us." They had desired to work all day but hadn't been given any opportunity to do such until now.
Wages were paid on a daily basis and evening was the time of settlement (cf. Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:15). Note that the order of Matthew 19:30 is followed. This was intentionally done in order to make known the fact that everyone received a denarius, not just those who worked all day.
To the amazement of those who worked all day, the workers who labored only an hour received a denarius. They "supposed" that they might receive more since they had worked the longest, but they were mistaken. Consequently, they grumbled against the landowner. It didn't seem fair to them that they should work twelve times as long as some and yet receive exactly the same amount of pay! Additionally, they had worked through the hottest portion of the day!
"Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?" (Matt. 20:13). The workers are reminded of their agreement. The landowner had not cheated them or treated them unfairly in any way.
"Take what is yours and go your way" - In other words, please take the denarius that you have earned and leave; don't stop to argue. "I wish to give to this last man the same as you" - Although this may seem like an unusual business practice, it certainly is the right of the owner to pay whatever wages he wants, as long as he does not pay his workers less than the amount agreed upon. If the owner wants to be generous with those who weren't fortunate enough to be hired earlier in the day, no one has the right to murmur. It was certainly lawful for him to do what he wished with his own things.
"Or is your eye evil because I am good?" (Matt. 20:15). The evil eye is a synonym for jealousy (cf. Mark 7:22; Deut. 15:9). Had the owner paid less than a denarius to those who worked less than a full day, then these laborers would not have complained. In either case, they would have received a denarius. The only thing that changed is that the others received more, relatively speaking. Their complaining is not based upon any wrong that was done to them but to envy. They are jealous of the generosity others received, even though they have not been personally wronged in any way.
Jesus echoes His comment from 19:30 and then adds a phrase which He repeats in 22:14 - "For many are called, but few chosen." Many are called through the gospel (cf. II Thess. 2:13,14) to come and enter into God's vineyard as laborers, but few are chosen in the sense that there are not many who are willing to genuinely labor for the Lord and enter the vineyard on His terms. Most reject the gospel message as foolishness (cf. I Cor. 1:18ff). This doesn't change the fact that God is compassionate and seeks sinners.
There are some scholars who believe that God will reward every faithful saint equally in the life hereafter, and they often appeal to this parable to support their position. They believe that the "denarius" in the parable represents "eternal life," and since every worker received a denarius, the implication is that there can be no "degrees" of reward.
However, a closer examination of the above interpretation will show it to be incorrect. Those who think that the denarius is eternal life regard the "evening" as the final judgment or the hour of death. But, one must not forget that those who worked all day did in fact earn their denarius. Are we willing to conclude that there are some who have worked all their earthly life for the Lord and have thereby earned eternal life? Such a conclusion conflicts with the rest of the New Testament. Salvation is a gift from God (Rom. 6:23). Yes, it must be claimed on certain terms, but it is something that can never be deserved or earned (cf. Eph. 2:8,9). Eternal life should never be understood to be one's "wages" (Matt. 20:8).
There are other reasons for not believing that this parable is addressing final judgment and eternal rewards. In Matthew 20:11, the text clearly indicates that the ones who worked all day "complained against the landowner." Those who had worked all day were envious of the others who received the same pay! But, the Scriptures make it clear that there will be no envy in heaven (cf. Rev. 21:27). This seems to be a clear proof that making the denarius equal to eternal life is not correct. The thought that a saint in heaven may murmur against God is appalling!
Additionally, the master of the vineyard commanded the workers who labored in the field all day - "Take what is yours and go your way" (Matt. 20:14). The idea is that these workers should take what is theirs and leave because the master was done with them (cf. Matt. 4:10; 8:13; 19:21). Now, if the denarius represents eternal salvation and God is the master of the vineyard, why were these faithful workers sent away from the master after they received their denarius? This cannot be harmonized with I Thessalonians 4:17 - "...And thus we shall always be with the Lord." The faithful in heaven will never be sent away from God's presence!
So, what is the meaning of the parable since it does not appear to be discussing final judgment? It seems reasonable to suggest that Jesus was instructing His Jewish listeners about the Gentiles' place in the kingdom of God. We learn, from other New Testament writings, that this was a somewhat controversial issue among first-century Christians. It seems probable that this parable was delivered to show that the Gentiles, who came in at "the eleventh hour," would enjoy in the kingdom (soon to be established when Jesus' words were uttered) the same privileges as the Jews who had been the favored and chosen people of the Lord for many centuries. Although the Gentiles were last in point of invitation (cf. Rom. 1:16; Acts 13:46), they were to become first through their acceptance of, and dedication to, the gospel. The Jews, however, through their rebellion and general disbelief, would be cut off from God (cf. Rom. 11). Their initial rejection of Jesus did not exclude them from being saved later, but they had to first develop faith in Christ. This was something that most Jews were not willing to do.
It is not the design of this parable to represent the final rewards of the saints at the day of judgment, but to show that the nation of the Hebrews, who had been called to be the people of God over a thousand years before, and had borne the burden and heat of the day (i.e., the toil of many ceremonies and rituals), should have no preference in the esteem of God above the Gentiles, who were called at the last hour (i.e., the end of the Jewish dispensation). This parable emphasizes God's wonderful grace (especially toward the Gentiles in "the last days"; Acts 2:17ff) and reminds us that service, not seniority, is what counts with Jehovah. It is also a warning against pride and a reminder of God's sovereignty. God can do as He wishes, so let us labor faithfully and not be complainers (cf. Phil. 2:14)! We must never forget that no one would be saved without God's grace, regardless of how high one may stand in the church or how hard one may work.
But, what about the denarius? What does it represent, if not eternal life? The denarius represents the blessings one receives here on Earth by being a faithful member of the Lord's church. These temporal blessings come to every laboring Christian whether they have many opportunities for service or just a few. All can enjoy the same benefits that are connected with life in the church. Today, these blessings come to the new convert just as they do to one seasoned in the faith. In Jesus' day, these blessings would soon go to both Jews and Gentiles who obeyed the gospel, regardless of how unfair some Jews may have deemed such to be.
Before we close, let it be observed that in every case each group of workers accepted their first invitation to labor in the vineyard (even though their initial invitations came at different times). Some have abused this parable in an attempt to teach "death-bed repentance" (i.e., intentionally putting off obeying the Lord until one is nearly dead). They misunderstand the denarius to be eternal life, and thus they think they can love the world and then "repent" at the eleventh hour and still be saved. Although it is true that the length of time of our service is not as important as the quality of service we render, one should never put off doing what he knows he needs to. We must do what we know is right as soon as we learn it (cf. Psa. 119:60; Eccl. 12:1). Those who were hired at the eleventh hour hadn't rejected earlier invitations to labor; this was their first invitation! Those who purposefully put off obeying God may find their hearts too hardened to truly repent on their deathbeds (not to mention the fact that few people really know when they are going to die). How many souls who plan to repent at the eleventh hour die at 10:30?
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.