Click here for the reading: Matthew 20:1-16.
This parable is an expansion of the assertions Jesus has just made in Mt. 19:28-30 about the apostles who have given up all things and followed him. The forsaking of what was familiar and comfortable will result in the attainment of hundredfold gifts and the inheritance of eternal (19:29). This will turn upside down what was everyone’s expectation, so that the rewards given to the apostles and the wages rendered to the laborers are both instances of the first being last and the last being first (19:30, 20:16).
Turning things upside down happens according to the Master’s pleasure. He has lordly freedom to do what He desires with what is His (19:15). The existence of the vineyard, the fact that there is work to do, and the calling into that work are all His doing. Anyone’s being in the vineyard, whether from sunrise or from much later in the day, is at His good pleasure. He keeps His freedom in all things. He does not submit to His workers’ expectations.
Submission is the laborers’ business. He is clear about this, “whatever is right I will give you” (20:4). He will be the Judge of right and wrong, not the laborers. They have work to do, and as the day passes, He will find others and bring them into the labor as well. The laborer is one among others, called among others, awaiting a reward among others in a labor not his own.
So the objection the laborers have – their Massah and their Meribah – is that the Master of the vineyard is unjust in rendering to a man according to His choice. Their basic issue is that He is free and does not reckon the situation according to their expectation and sense of fairness. “You have made them equal to us” (20:12) is not about a modern legal equality of opportunity but about an unjust equality of outcome despite the smaller efforts of the later hires. What’s wrong with that accusation?
They agree on a denarius (cf. 20:2 and 20:13) as the wage. In His generosity (20:15) the Master has chosen to render to everyone who labored the same denarius. He is giving more than He needed to give. His gift is far beyond expectation. This enrages the laborers who want to dispose as they see fit with what is not theirs. They want to say to the King how the kingdom should be. They want Him not to be free with His grace.
The overturning of expectation and the shock it occasions will happen again when the Son of Man is delivered over to His enemies, crucified, and raised on the third day (20:19). The unready disciples will have been told all these things and yet will flee in fear when they occur. His kingdom comes always as a surprise even when He has explained or shown in a story how He is and what His ways are with His grace and mercy. On the third day and on the Last Day the first shall prove last, and the last shall prove first – to the surprise of many!