The Expository Files


It's Not About Seniority!

Matthew 20:1-16

The parable of the workers in Matthew twenty is set within the borders of two statements the Lord made that appear to be identical.
In the textual sequence, notice in 19:30 - "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." The parable follows this statement. Then after the parable: "So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen," (20:16). Knowing what these statements are about can give us an advantage in understanding the parable.
The first statement (19:30) is part of the Lord's response to Peter's question, "...we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?" Jesus assured him of the privilege of apostolic function (sitting "on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel," v.28), and Jesus also spoke to the abundant blessings for "everyone" who follows Him. Christians receive far more than they give up (v.29). Then comes the statement: "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." Jesus wants Peter and the other disciples to know, reward in the kingdom (both immediate and ultimate) is not dispensed according to seniority or time in service. The apostles had been with Jesus from the beginning of His work (Acts 1:21-22). And while they had a special work or role not shared by all kingdom citizens, still, reward in the kingdom (immediate and ultimate) is not based on how long you have served. It is based on the grace of God, and the quality (depth, perseverance) of your response to His grace. There is an equality in the abundance of blessings citizens in the kingdom receive, that is reckoned by grace not time cards (so much work, so much pay). So the last to enter the kingdom have full remission of sins and hope, just as those who are veterans. It is all about grace, not about when you enter or some human standard of rank.
The parable in Matthew 20 illustrates that. Taking off from Peter's question, what we gain from following Christ doesn't depend upon the calendar or time clock. It is about diligence of heart, acting as a chosen one from the time you start (early or late). "Christ has turned the accepted order of things upside down: His kingdom includes those like little children (18:2), but excludes those like the ruler (v.25). Some who think they are great by men's standards, do not rate highly at all by heaven's standards. And those ranked last by men shall be ranked first in heaven. To underscore this, Jesus will give a parable (20:1-16) that amplifies the principle: 'many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first'," (20:16; 16:25). (Ken Chumbley, The Gospel of Matthew, commentary, p.#351).
Now the parable: A landowner went out early in the morning  (6 am)  to hire laborers for his vineyard. Most likely, this is about a farmer who needed workers immediately - as many as he could get  - to bring in the harvest. The grape harvest, for example, might ripen and need to be taken in quickly before threatening weather. In such circumstances, it was common for farmers to go out in the morning to seek workers from something like a day labor pool (workers available, waiting to be hired even for temporary work).
The landowner in this parable found some workers, put them in the fields for the common daily wage. Then he went back out about "the third hour," (9 am) to find more laborers. He saw men not working. He "said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And they went." While these men didn't start work at the same time as the early workers, they were promised "whatever is right."
"Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise," (v.5). Even late into the date, "the eleventh hour he went out and found others" not working. He said to them, "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" They said, "no one hired us." "He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive," (v7b).
At the end of the day, time came for the workers to be paid. "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. 20:8-16)
Observe that nobody was cheated! Not a single worker was underpaid. While it may be argued (based on human, subjective, economic comparisons) that some were overpaid, nobody was cheated. The complaint of the early workers offered no evidence of wrongdoing. It was a complaint born in hearts of jealousy, not objective reality. "None of them received less than they expected and many received more," (Chumbley, #354). We should rejoice in the good others receive.
The landowner had the right to "overpay" the late workers. He said "whatever is right you will receive." He determined what was right, not based on ordinary human accounting, but grace. His overpayment of the late workers was his choice and nobody could argue he didn't have that right.
What counts in the kingdom of God is not seniority or years of service, but diligence of heart as a chosen one. Through the parable, it is like Jesus said to Peter and the others: "You are privileged to be with Me, to be here early, to 'sit on twelve thrones.' But others will come into the kingdom. You must not claim a special honor above them or an exalted place over them (see Matt. 20:25-28). All men, no matter when they come in, are equally precious to God." Reward in the kingdom is not dispensed by virtue of time served but by grace extended to the chosen (willing; many are called but not willing). Seniority does not necessarily mean honor. Experience in years doesn't promise greater pay. Remember, it is all based on grace - not ordinary human economic calculations of so much pay for so much work. William Barclay said this well, with these words: "Sometimes a man dies full of years and full of honor, with his day's work ended and his task completed. Sometimes a young person dies almost before the door of life and achievement have opened at all. From God they will both receive the same welcome, for both Jesus Christ is waiting, and for neither, in the divine sense, has life ended too soon or too late." (p.#225, THE DAILY STUDY BIBLE SERIES, William Barclay).
"Jesus' story makes no economic sense, and that was his intent. He was giving us a parable about grace, which cannot be calculated like a day's wages. The employer in Jesus' story did not cheat the full-day workers. No, the full-day workers got what they were promised. Their discontent arouse from the scandalous mathematics of grace. They would not accept that their employer had the right to do what he wanted with his money when it meant paying scoundrels twelve times what they deserved. Significantly, many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day's work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, and the employer's strange behavior baffles us as it did the original hearers. We risk missing the story's point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God's requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell," (Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace, 61-62).
It is not merely the time that we put in. It is the heart that we put into the time we have.

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 13.1; January 2006