Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

The Owner of the Vineyard (Sep-Dec 2004)

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by James S. Woodroof
September – December 2004

Jesus often addressed the issue of religious pride. As often as not, the religious leaders of Israel were his target. Most familiar of these interchanges are the parables of the “Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:9-14), the “Prodigal Son and the Older Brother” (Luke 15:1-32), the “Two Debtors” (Luke 7:36-50), and, perhaps, the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:3-37).

Another of his targets, however, was his own group of disciples. Jesus’ teachings regarding pride among the disciples were occasioned by at least three things:


  • The twelve arguing among themselves as to who was greatest (Mark 9:33-34).
  • Their questioning Jesus about their individual ranking (Matthew18:1).
  • Their attitudes and actions toward others (Mark 9:38-41, Luke 9:54).

These all were occasions when Jesus stopped what he was doing and addressed the seemingly all-pervasive presence of pride among his disciples.

Matthew records yet another incident (19:16-20:16)—a most lengthy and penetrating discussion of the subject. A rich man came to Jesus and asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Upon hearing Jesus’ answer, the man went away “sad, because he had great wealth.” Jesus responded by saying, “I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; in fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (19:23-24). “Who then can be saved?” asked the disciples, to which Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Then, Simon the Bold, blurted out, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (19:27). This was a reasonable question, for, if it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom, it must be a breeze for those who have left everything. Right? Well, yes and no. There are special rewards for those who faithfully serve him. Jesus doesn’t disappoint them in this. He spells out in detail the reward for those original disciples who had faithfully followed him: They would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). And he further decrees that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (19:29).

Had Jesus stopped there, everything would have fit neatly into this planet’s way of reasoning about rewards rendered for service. But Jesus seldom fits neatly into this planet’s way of thinking about anything of importance. His next statement upends the tables of our reasoning: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19:30).

In other words, there is no set pattern of reward in the kingdom—at least not one that fits the mold of our earthly thinking. “Many (not all) who are first will be last, and many (not all) who are last will be first.” There will be exceptions to the general rule. And it is here—to illustrate his point—that Jesus introduces the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard.” After saying that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first,” he goes on to say, “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . . . ” (Matthew 20:1) and tells the story of the workers.

Because there is a chapter change at this point, we are likely to miss the context of the parable. While the parable is found in chapter 20:1-16, the context is found in 19:16-30, in the exchange between Jesus and Peter regarding what reward there would be for those who had “left everything and followed.” The importance of this parable to disciples is: 1) it is directed to disciples, and 2) it is reinforced by Jesus’ double use of these statements regarding disciples: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19:30) and “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (20:16).

Here is the parable Jesus told about eleventh-hour disciples.

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius (about a day’s wages) for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

‘Because no one has hired us,’ they said.

He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’

So the last will be first and the first will be last.

This parable is the most “in-your-face” of all Jesus’ parables on grace. Notice how he constructs this story:


  • He makes a point of the variance in time the workers spent working in the vineyard.
  • He tells those who worked less than the full day, “I’ll pay you what is right.”
  • He gives explicit instructions to his foreman to pay them all the same amount.
  • But he intentionally instructs his foreman to pay the last ones first and the first ones last. (Had he paid the first ones first and sent them home, and then paid the eleventh-hour ones the same amount, it still would have been “grace,” but his point, aimed at his disciples, would have missed its intended mark.)
  • He concludes the story with the owner of the vineyard telling the offended all-day workers, “I haven’t treated you unfairly; didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” And, “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.” And, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” And, “Are you jealous because I am generous?”

Hear this: This is what the kingdom of heaven is like, whether we like it or not. The “all-day” workers said, essentially, “That’s not fair!” Grace always seems unfair to those of us who think we have earned our right-standing before God; that, by our own effort, our own knowledge, our own correctness, we deserve our reward, and that others who are less knowledgeable or less spiritually productive do not deserve the same reward.

But, according to Jesus, those who have worked faithfully in the vineyard, “bearing the burden of the work and the heat of the day,” will have to step aside while those “Johnny-come-latelys” who are not “worthy” are allowed to go first, in full view of the rest, and receive the same pay as the rest. This doesn’t sit well with those of us who feel our right-standing before God depends on absolute perfection, or that the slightest doctrinal misunderstanding will send one away from the owner of the vineyard empty-handed. One might be tempted to object: “Isn’t Jesus talking here only about length of time spent in service?”

Well, that’s the story, but that’s not the parable. Admittedly, the story is about time spent working in the vineyard; but the parable (the story within the story) is purely and simply about grace as opposed to merit of any kind being the standard by which vineyard workers are rewarded. Praise God that it is by grace and not by merit!

What this means, of course, is that we are covered both ways yet caught both ways. If perchance we are the “all-day workers” who have it all together and “merit” our reward, we must still stand aside and watch others—“the eleventh-hour” people whom we consider unworthy—enter into the same reward as we. On the other hand, if perchance we are the “eleventh-hour” workers who have made very little dent in the vineyard’s work, and there are others who know more, do more, perceive more correctly, act more lovingly, labor more selflessly—these more worthy ones must stand aside and watch us “eleventh-hour” people enter in and receive the same reward as they. For it is by grace we are saved, and it is only by grace that any of us will be rewarded.

We could spend time arguing the point, except for one incredible demonstration. Go to Golgotha; stand there at the foot of the cross with his disciples—those who had labored faithfully with him for some three years—and watch with your hand over your mouth as Jesus, in his dying moment, has the “all-day” workers stand aside while he ushers in an “eleventh-hour” disciple with those immortal words of grace: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Wonder of wonders! Marvel of marvels! In Jesus’ dying moments, he shows himself to be the “owner of the vineyard” and demonstrates in his own body what he had taught in the parable.

Dare we object to what Jesus taught and demonstrated so clearly? We dare not! Does not the owner of the vineyard have the right to do what he wants with those who are his own? Or are we jealous because he is generous?

Jesus knows who are his vineyard workers, and their reward will come not from merit but from his generous grace. Let all arguments to the contrary cease. He has taught us what the kingdom is like; who are we to object? And he has shown us what the kingdom is like. Who are we to say otherwise!

Whether we like it or not, “This,” says Jesus, “is what the kingdom is like.”

James S. Woodroof has preached fifty years in churches worldwide and is currently serving interim preaching roles.He is author of several books, including The Aroma of Christ and Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

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