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The Parable of the Laborers

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What does Jesus want us to understand from the Parable of the Laborers?

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An Exposition of Matthew 20:1-16
Have you ever wondered about what Jesus did between the time he astonished the rabbis in the Temple when He was twelve years old and the time He came to John the Baptist for baptism when he was about thirty years of age. All Luke tells us was that He grew in grace and favor with both God and man. Some have creatively tried to fill in the gaps with fanciful stories of Jesus showing off His miraculous powers by turning clay pigeons into real ones and other such folklore. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, was said to be a carpenter, and one would assume that Jesus would have apprenticed in the family trade. But the Greek word used here, tekton, is ambiguous. It could be used for a bricklayer. A stonemason, or someone employed in the building trade. What Joseph was not was a master craftsman. If he were, he would have been called “architekton” or architect in our language. So was Joseph simply a day laborer employed in the building trade, and did Jesus do likewise? This is the thought of Ray Vanderlan which would give some interesting insight to this parable.
The life of a day laborer was hard. The workday was from sunup to sundown or twelve hours, which in the summer were much longer than our twelve hours. We have seen the plight of the day laborer in places like Wal-Mart parking lots where undocumented aliens are often hired to work under these arduous conditions. So Jesus would personally understand their plight, seeing that He was there, The going wage was one silver coin a day, called a denarius. It us hard to give an exact valuation for this, but it would probably be well below our minimum wage. A man could hardly support his family on this amount. So if one worked the entire day, he would barely escape starvation. What would happen if he did not get hired until noon? Also what would happen on the Sabbath? Would one go hungry on the Sabbath and keep it? Or would one have to break the Sabbath and feed his family? Would he have to hire out his minor children to help make ends meet? This is a much rougher life than being a self-employed carpenter.
In this case, the laborers were chosen to work in the vineyard and not in the building trade. If anything, it was even harder to work in the high heat and bright sun. Who would be hired first? Obviously, it would have been the strongest and most healthy. They could do the most work. But the ardors of this kind of work soon began to sap the strength of the laborers. Men rarely lived over the age of forty. As they weakened, their wages would go down because they would have to wait until there was a need. And they would be paid proportionally to the hours they worked. The problem was that the needs of the family did not decrease with the decrease in income. This would further weaken the man and his family. The children would be forced to work also to help provide for the family.
The thing about a parable is that its story must be familiar to its listeners. They would have understood everything Jesus was saying. But there is often a catch in the parable which is contrary to expectation. And this parable is no different. The one who had hired these men paid them at the end of the day. This was required by Jewish Law and the social contract of the day. But he paid the ones he had hired for only one hour first. They had done the least work of all, and the work they had done was probably not to what the stronger and younger men had done in the same hour. The first twist is that the landowner paid them a full denarius for the work rather than 1/12th which would have been the fair amount.
One could see the other laborers starting to salivate. This landowner was really generous! The three o’clock workers started to calculate their wages in their head. They might have thought they would be able to catch up on the bills or be able to get something special for the family. But they got the same denarius. I would guess that they were somewhat disappointed, but they still made out pretty well. The same was true for those at twelve and nine o’clock. By now those who had worked all day were getting upset because it looked like all they were going to get was the same denarius. This was exactly what happened, and they were bitter. It did not seem fair that they should be paid the same for much more and better work. But the landowner replied that they had agreed to work for a denarius, so they had been treated fairly. He added that he had the right to give whatever wages he pleased, so long as they exceeded the contract price.
This parable is often used to call for economic justice. The Socialist says “from each according to their ability; to each according to their need.” Everyone who had come to work that day had the same need, even if they did not have the same ability. So generosity is called for on the part of the rich to even things out. One could even tell the young laborers that they would be old someday. So paying the older and weaker members a living wage, even though it was less work was a kind of Social Security.
Now we come to another twist. Is this what the parable is really about? Jesus did not just tell stories from life for the story’s sake. A parable is a form of illustration. It is meant to explain a greater truth. As much as God cares that we should be fair and even more than fair with our dealings with others, there is something else here. This parable is enclosed by two similar verses. In Matthew 19:30, Jesus says that many that are first shall be last and the last first.” 20:16 states: So the last shall be the first, and the first last.” The landowner paid the last workers first and the first workers last. So it seems obvious that this parable is meant to explain this statement. This is a little tricky. While the parable explains the last shall be first and the first last, it is still puzzling why Jesus makes so much of this.
The passage immediately before the parable starts with the rich young ruler. He was wealthy. As far as we can tell, he got his wealth honestly. He did not cheat anyone. He probably had servants and treated them fairly. But when he was challenged to sell everything he had and follow Jesus, he failed to rise for the occasion. He was fair but not generous. He was of the first rank in society and performed his duties to the last rank in society. So perhaps this gives us the first clue.
Jesus commented about the man’s reluctance to follow Him. “How hardly will those who have riches enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” It was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God! This was a shock to the disciples because the common wisdom was that the righteous were blessed with wealth and the wicked were cursed. Surely this man was righteous! Thinking today is not much different. But there are a lot of evil people who are rich. And there are a lot of good people who are poor. The Bible does address this. But we often hear what we want to hear. But the rich man was the textbook example of a good man. Yet this was not enough.
The disciples wondered how anyone could be saved if this man was not good enough and asked Jesus about it. Jesus answers that it would be impossible for anyone to enter unless God intervened. Everything was possible with God. Peter then reminded Jesus that they had given up everything to follow Jesus. Peter and others were fisherman. They were not as rich as this rich man. What was in it for them? They are told they would receive their rich reward in due season. Luke tells us they would have some possessions in this life and added “with persecutions.” They would be a part of a new family, the church. The work would be long and toilsome. But because they had followed Jesus, they would have riches in heaven. Those who make themselves last in this world by becoming a servant to Jesus Christ would end up first, and those who had it all in this life without Jesus would be last.
We now look at the end of passage in verse 16. “For many are called, but few are chosen.” This confirms the fact that this parable explains the story of the rich young ruler. He had been called to follow Jesus but was not chosen because he refused Jesus’ offer. So whether one is rich or poor in this life, the call to discipleship is equal. Sell out what you have and follow Him, whether you are great or small. The reward is the same, which is the inheritance of the Kingdom. Some are given this gift and someone else another. Some are given greater tasks or talents according to their ability. Some produce thirty, some sixty, and others a hundredfold. But we are members of the same kingdom, one which cannot be purchased by money, one that cannot be earned by works. As far as our labor is concerned, it is only of value as it is wrought in the Lord. The Lord is the one who does the work in us and will continue it until the day of Jesus Christ. It is He who truly bore the entire brunt of our salvation on His cross in which he suffered in the heat of the day. Jesus goes on from here to tell them about his coming rejection and crucifixion. In dying for us, Jesus was more than fair. Fair would condemn us all. So rather than complaining about fair, let us marvel in God’s amazing grace. Let us be thankful that He includes us in His work. We shall receive in due season if we faint not.
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