24 September 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

“[The first labourers said to the vineyard owner,] ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.’” (vv. 12-14)

Psalm: Psalm 145


This parable appears only in Matthew's Gospel. Recognising its context is crucial for understanding what it is for the disciples of Jesus to be part of a community of grace - whether it is the (more likely) emphasis of Matthew because of where he chooses to place this story or the emphasis of Jesus because this teaching really did appear between the events depicted in the text.

On his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus has challenged his disciples about their approach to wealth. They have witnessed a rich young man being told to give all his possessions to the poor (Matthew 19:21) and Jesus has said that it is hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). Peter notes that the 12 apostles had already left everything to follow Jesus, and, on asking what their reward will be, has been told that in heaven they will receive power and wealth and eternal life (Matthew 19:27-29). Just a few verses after this parable we see the mother of James and John not being satisfied with any old thrones for her sons, but wanting the best thrones (Matthew 20:21)!

Yet as part of his teaching about God's grace, Jesus points out that the disciples cannot expect, on the basis that they have worked the most and been with him since the beginning of his mission, to receive more than others. Notice that Jesus does more than promise thrones to the 12: he also guarantees that everyone who has left everything behind to follow him will inherit eternal life - not just his longest-serving disciples.

Preachers have used this parable through the centuries to speak about fair wages, shift working and employment rights (in both Roman and their own times), about benevolent and dictatorial employers, and about the relative status of Christians (upstart new members of God's kingdom) and Jews (God's people for centuries). They have pointed out that life-long membership of the Church gives no privileges in God's eyes beyond that of new Christians. But the true power for any parable comes when we apply it to ourselves, and ask 'What does this say to me, and about my attitude to God's grace?'

To Ponder

  • What does the concept of grace say to you when you think you deserve more than others?
  • The last workers worked only an hour. What if they had worked for only one minute? Or picked one grape?
  • If you are part of a church congregation, what does this parable say to you about the status of newcomers to your church?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Neil Cockling

Neil spent 20 years as a circuit minister before becoming the District Development Enabler for the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District. He now works full-time for the NHS as a Consultant Lead Chaplain in mental health, leading a multi-faith team of 14 chaplains working in 10 hospitals in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear.