The owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.”
Jesus begins His parable of the laborers in the vineyard like this: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1–2).
In Jesus’ day Palestine was an agricultural society. There were no employment agencies. If you were a day laborer who wanted a job, you would go into the town square where all the day laborers would assemble. You would get there about five o’clock in the morning and wait until a foreman came and chose you to work in his field. In Jesus’ parable, the foreman of this particular vineyard comes to the town square and says to the hopeful laborers, “I choose you, I choose you, and I choose you. You are the ones who will work in my master’s vineyard.” And he makes an agreement with them: “I will pay you a denarius.” A denarius was a generous wage for a day laborer. So the foreman hires these people to work twelve hours in the vineyards, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Look what happens next: “And he went out about the third hour [9 a.m.] and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went” (vv. 3–4). Apparently this foreman needed more workers. Perhaps a storm was threatening the harvest. Whatever the reason, he went back at nine o’clock and hires more people. But notice this time he didn’t agree on the price. He said, “I will pay you whatever is right.” And the workers agreed.
Then something even more unusual happened: “Again he went out about the sixth hour [noon] and about the ninth hour [3 p.m.] and did the same thing” (v. 5). He hired two more groups of workers, with no agreed-upon price. “And about the eleventh hour [5 p.m., just one hour before quitting time] he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” (vv. 6–7). We don’t know why these workers had not been chosen. Maybe they were elderly or handicapped. Whatever the reason, they had been standing there all day long. And the foreman said, “I can use you as well; go out and work in the vineyard one hour.” He doesn’t agree upon a price.
Here is where the story gets interesting. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first” (v. 8). Now, God cares about the poor. In the Mosaic Law, He commanded that every day laborer be paid the same day that he worked. This vineyard owner wants to do what the law says, so he tells his foreman, “Get them together and pay them, but I want you to start with the people who were hired last, at five o’clock, and put them at the head of the line. Follow with those who were hired at three o’clock, then those who were hired at noon, those who were hired at nine, and at the very end of the line put those who were hired at six in the morning. Make the first ones hired the last, and make those who were the last to be hired the first in line.” So the foreman arranges them accordingly.
Now look at verse 9: “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.” They had only worked one hour in the field, yet they got an entire day’s wage. They must have been astounded by that. Suddenly, word spread down the line. “Psst, did you hear what those guys who just worked an hour got? A whole denarius!” Well, those who had been working since 6 a.m. could do the math! “If somebody who worked one hour got one denarius, and we have been working twelve hours . . . We are going to make a fortune! Twelve denarii!” I’m sure they fantasized about what they would do with their newfound wealth. Maybe a new set of tires for the chariot or a sailboat for those lazy afternoons on the Sea of Galilee. Maybe they thought about buying a new wardrobe of tunics for the wife. Sure enough, the foreman came down the line, and I imagine they cupped their hands in order to receive all the denarii.
Then, to their disappointment, the foreman drops a single denarius into their hands. One denarius for 12 hours work. What? The master’s logic did not make sense to them.
Today’s devotion is excerpted from “A Lesson in Workman’s Compensation” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2008.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.