MATTHEW 20:1-16

The Parable
Teaching on salvation

Parables have always suffered from an over interpretation by commentators rather than from being under interpreted. The person who approaches most lengthy parables seems to envisage that the same quantity of exposition is required per verse as it is, say, in Jesus’ lengthy teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7).

But this is a mistake that’s too often made, for parables were spoken to the multitudes not so that they could be pressured into yielding a multitude of different teachings where their interpretation necessarily deals with each character and object in them but that the hearers would understand the important principle (and, perhaps, usually ‘single’ principle) that was being spoken of.

The parable of the prodigal son is one such parable that’s suffered this way over the years (Luke 15:11-32), the emphasis in today’s Church largely being in the treatment the return of the prodigal is given and the demonstration of the Father heart of God which his acceptance portrays, not realising that the main reason for the parable in the first place was to show how the scribes and Pharisees were a personification of the elder (Luke 15:1-2) and how their griping reflected a lack of perception that men and women who were being brought back into a relationship with God through forgiveness was something over which they should have rather been rejoicing.

The emphasis, then, should be always on the eldest son and not the youngest.

The danger is similar when we come to this parable which concerns the labourers in the vineyard. There was but one reason why Jesus spoke it to the disciples and that was to expound his immediately preceding statement (Mtw 19:30) that

‘...many that are first will be last and the last first’

He didn’t tell it to show what economic principles should be employed by owners of agricultural land and neither what sort of care there should be laid upon employers when it came to the wages and conditions under which their employees are to work.

Most commentators, however, don’t stray into such perverse reasonings - and wise they are indeed. But the commentators I’ve read on this passage do make the mistake of trying to positively identify, for instance, the last labourers to be hired (Mtw 20:6-7) where Mathag asserts with some logic that these last ones selected

‘...are the ones rejected by other employers as unworthy...They are analogous to the tax collectors and the harlots invited into the Kingdom by Jesus...’

But nowhere do we find the assertion that there was any difference between the first and last employed - except that the latter don’t appear to have been initially seen by the owner of the vineyard when he first came to seek out labourers. There’s no reason to presume that they went unemployed because of their lethargy or dishonesty - rather, they go unemployed throughout the day simply because the owner didn’t spot them when he came earlier on in the day.

As we will see from the simple meaning of the parable below, all Jesus is attempting to show by recourse to the parable is that salvation is not a reward system so that those who’ve worked longer and harder at it might receive more - but that it’s a free gift given by the One who shows mercy to all men and which doesn’t intrinsically vary from one to the next.

This was the danger of the answer which Jesus had just given Peter (Mtw 19:27-29) and which He warned against with the enigmatic saying which concludes Mark’s record of the event (Mark 10:31, Mtw 19:30). Therefore, Jesus goes on to explain Himself through the use of a parable and the repetition of the single sentence (Mtw 20:16).

This is one of the dangers of accepting the chapter division as laid out in the modern Bibles as I noted on the previous web page - that we tend to think of Jesus’ words ending with the close of chapter 19 and that He begins a totally new discourse at the start of chapter 20. Rather, as I’ve tried to show in my titling of this passage on the Home Page, this is but part three of the incident of the story of the rich young ruler and should be interpreted as such.


Seeing as there are a few statements in the text of this passage concerning time (third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour and eleventh hour), it seems good to pause briefly before we consider the parable and look at the way the ancients understood and measured time in the framework of a day and leave it there rather than to go on to look at both the week, month and year - especially to look at how the ordinary working man in first century Israel measured time who had neither the latest Seconda LED Chronograph or who was able to ask a stranger the time on the road.

The Jewish day had two main divisions - the night or dark period and the day, which were experienced in that order, with a new day beginning when the sun fell rather than in the middle of the dark period or at twelve o’clock as we maintain now. This goes back to the Creation account of God’s order of the universe in Gen 1:5 where we read that

‘...there was evening and there was morning, one day’

AEHL notes that this practice was rare amongst the ancient peoples, the Egyptians beginning their day with the dawn - the text of the encyclopaedia makes it out that a full calendar day wasn’t normally accepted as being one complete cycle of darkness and light amongst the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans but that it

‘...began in the morning and ended in the evening’

Bickerman, in his excellent brief outline of ancient time keeping, states simply that

‘The period of darkness didn’t count’

but he also notes that the civil reckoning of the Roman day cycle began at midnight for a reason which was lost to the Romans before they ever had cause to question why they did such a thing!

However, the Babylonians were similar to the Jews in that they divided the night watches into three specific sections (as they did the day) while the Egyptians used a division of four along with both the Greeks and Romans (more on night time divisions below).

Precise time divisions in ancient Israel seem to have been associated more with what occurred at the specific times than with an exact hour such as the ‘third hour’ of the parable we’re dealing with (Mtw 20:3) - nowhere in the OT do we find such a specific time mentioned even though the word ‘hour’ does appear in a few places more as an indirect translation which associates itself with our own time framework than as something which the Jews kept to (I Sam 9:24, Jer 46:17).

Therefore, we read in Gen 24:11 concerning the time of the evening

‘...when women go out to draw water’

and in Gen 18:1 of Abraham sitting at the door of the tent

‘in the heat of the day’

which appears to have been applicable to midday and the time shortly afterwards, a similar phrase to the one encountered in Mtw 20:12. It would appear that there were three broad divisions of time, then, in ancient Israel which corresponded to the morning, midday and evening (Gen 1:5 for the first and third of these and Gen 43:16 for the second), a similar division as existed in Babylon with specific points within the day being labelled by the action which was normally associated with it.

The origin of the concept of an ‘hour’ as being a twelfth division of a night or light period is reputed to have begun with the Babylonians according to Zondervans even though Bickerman is probably more correct when he observes that such a division was

‘...first attested in Egypt. As early as c.2100BC the Egyptian priests were using the system of twenty-four hours: ten daylight hours, two twilight hours and twelve night hours’

By 1300BC, however, this made way for a simpler division into twelve periods of both light and darkness. Whether the Babylonians acquired this from the Egyptians is difficult to be sure of but Herodotus notes that (2.109)

‘The sun-dial...and the gnomon with the division of the day into twelve parts, were received by the Greeks from the Babylonians’

so that it can be seen both that the sundial spoken of in the Scriptures in II Kings 20:11 and Is 38:8 was probably brought to Israel from Babylon by king Ahaz (who preceded his son Hezekiah who’s here mentioned) and that the continuation of the reckoning of the day seems to have been passed from one civilisation to another.

Having said this, it would be wrong to think that the twelfth part of a day was equivalent to our time period which we label ‘an hour’ and Bickerman observes that it represented, rather

‘ twelfth part of the actual length of the time from sunrise to sundown and, again, from sundown to sunrise. Thus the length of an hour varied according to the latitude and the season’

He notes that such an hour could range anywhere between 45 to 75 minutes. However, although the ancients simply divided the light period into twelve equal parts regardless of the exact length according to the seasons, it hadn’t gone unnoticed that a fixed hour was necessary to calculate exact time. Therefore Strabo (5.2.36 - written not later than 30AD) notes that

‘At Meroe and Ptolemais in the Troglodytic the longest day consists of thirteen equinoctial hours [that is, one average hour or an hour at the equator on the day of the equinox]’

It should also be noted that people like Strabo also had proof and belief in a round earth a long time before it was generally held to be so, when Columbus sailed the world in disproof of a flat earth - there’s no reason to assume that the Jews believed in a flat earth when such teaching may have been immediately available to them. Having said this, such time calculations were too complicated to use for the ordinary person and Bickerman notes that

‘The use of the variable hour...was retained in everyday life and persisted in some parts of the Mediterranean world well into the nineteenth century’

There’s a difference of opinion amongst the scholars as to what constituted the third hour simply because some work to a formula which sees the label as time elapsed while others, such as Bickerman, work to the conclusion that the hour was the one which had been reached.

So, for example, in the parable which is under consideration on this web page, some would see the third hour as meaning 9am but this is only from the viewpoint that three hours have expired since an assumed dawn of 6am. The actual third hour begins at 8am and runs through until 9am begins (the first hour is 6-7am, the second 7-8am and the third 8-9am, in much the same way as the world went overboard on declaring that the beginning of the year 2000 was the start of a new millennium when all it represented was the start of the last year of the old one! The year 2001 is the first year of the third millennium AD). If this latter computation was what was in existence in Israel, my notes which state that the owner of the vineyard went out at the eleventh hour and that there was only one hour left is incorrect - there would actually be two hours left and would be a much more reasonable statement to be made.

However, to keep to the traditional view, I have accepted the formula that the hour specified meant that this was the amount of hours which had elapsed even though I’m of the opinion that we seem to have got it wrong. Unfortunately, I can find no authority to either uphold my position or refute it!

When we turn to the night period as opposed to the daylight, the time was divided more often into watches rather than hours as we’ve previously noted above and, for many, the night didn’t count as part of the ‘day’. In the OT, Zondervan notes that

‘...the night was divided into three watches for the night guard of soldiers and shepherds’

and this set up is probably best seen in the statement of Judges 7:19 that Gideon and the band of men that were with him came to the outskirts of the Midianite camp at the beginning of the middle watch, a phrase which can mean only that there were an odd number of watches through the night. In both Ex 14:24 and I Sam 11:11, we read of the ‘morning watch’ which would correspond with the third and last time period which would have ended with sunrise or dusk, and the first watch seems to have been called ‘the beginning of the watches’ and is spoken of as such in Lam 2:19.

These watches, therefore, were approximately four hours long but, as we saw above, as the ‘hour’ is a relatively modern fixed time period, it’s more accurate to say that each watch was one third of the night time period.

In the NT, however, the Romans divided the night into four watches of equal duration and this seems to have been generally accepted in Israel, Mtw 14:25 and Mark 6:48 speaking of the fourth watch of the night in which Jesus came walking on the water towards the boat. Luke 12:38 also mentions both the second and third watches while Mark 13:35 is generally accepted to represent the four watches but the phraseology would make one think that what’s being described is the Jewish three watch system.

It would appear that the ‘watch’ division of time was what was in existence for the division of the night time periods but that the ‘hour’ division of time was used for time periods during the day.

The Parable

Having said that the parable needs not very much exposition, I have probably already written sufficient for the reader to understand what it was that Jesus was intending to say and should really leave it at that. But there are certain points which remain interesting and which seem to warrant some sort of comment, albeit a very brief one.

The symbolism appears to be straightforward - the householder or owner should be taken either as God the Father or Jesus (there is no real difference in meaning whichever is understood), the labourers are those who are called to become part of the Kingdom of Heaven (as opposed to being identified as disciples - they become disciples when they agree to work in the vineyard), the wages are eternal life or ‘salvation’ which has already been shown to be the subject of the one sentence warning of Mtw 19:30 and the vineyard is the world or Kingdom of Heaven (where Mtw 13:38 shows that Jesus taught that the entire world is God’s Kingdom).

The overall thrust of the goings on is that God calls labourers to work according to His own will and purpose and that He will reward them as He sees fit - a direct comment on Peter’s question about what sort of reward they should expect for leaving everything and following after Jesus (Mtw 19:27).

It’s only important to the parable that the time of the harvest must now have come and that the grapes needed to be picked speedily before they turned from being ripe to being rotten. This appears to account for the owner’s compulsion to hire as many labourers as he could even when the hours which remained in the day became so small as to make the labourers contribution to the overall harvest minimal.

The normal procedure in first century Israel for the hiring of labourers appears to have been for the men available for work to congregate in the local market place and to await the arrival of any employers who would come there in order to obtain as many workers as was required. The commentators are lacking any concrete contemporary evidence for such an assertion but this much we should probably take from Jesus’ parable as representing the set up in His own day.

With some labourers, the price of their employment is specifically defined (Mtw 20:2) but with the vast majority, the amount to be paid is simply left to the owner of the vineyard to apportion as he sees fit (Mtw 20:4-5) while the very last labourers employed with one hour (or two - see above) left to work don’t even get told anything about what their reward will be for their minute contribution to the reaping of the harvest (Mtw 20:7). That they may have expected something in the natural scheme of things is certain but the parable is plain that they weren’t told that anything would be paid at all. Perhaps it’s best simply to conclude with Matfran that

‘There is no need to explain the hiring of additional workers at various stages in the day as normal practice - this is a parable, not a sociological study!’

But, given the possibility that such an occurrence might have transpired, we need to at least note that it would have been very unusual that an owner would ever go to acquire labour for such a short space of time as one hour (Mtw 20:6) and it may be that Jesus’ use of the detail is not dependant upon anything that was known in their own experience but that it was added here simply to make the effect that was necessary on His hearers.

It’s possible, however, that the owner believed that, if he was to wait an extra day, the harvest would be ruined and that it made sense to gather as much as was possible before the night came when the grapes would turn. This is mere supposition on my part, it’s true, but if we want to think of the parable as representing a real life event then there must have been some reason why the harvesting of the vines was so important by the close of that day.

Indeed, even this may be reading too much into the parable for we don’t read that the owner went into the market place to hire more labourers at the eleventh hour, only that he did so and discovered some who hadn’t been employed the entire day and yet who were hanging around idling their time away.

Perhaps, if this was a true story, the owner simply had compassion on them when he saw them - whatever, that he employed them is the main point and we probably need not expound upon this any further.

Then came the time for payment to be made as would have been the expectation of each labourer at the close of the day when the time for work had passed. This is in keeping with the Mosaic Law which prescribed (Lev 19:13) that

‘...the wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning’

and (Deut 24:15) that

‘You shall give [a hired servant who is poor and needy] his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord and it be sin in you’

and, although we can’t go so far as to say that this is definitely a picture of Jewish social life, there’s no reason for us to think that it was against what was being practised in the first century land of Israel.

Jesus emphasises the inversion of the first with the last and vice versa by deliberately telling His hearers that those who were employed last came to collect their wages first and that those who had come first into the vineyard were the last to receive their pay (Mtw 20:8).

This shouldn’t be taken as the situation at the time of Jesus but is done simply to show the principle which Jesus is trying to convey (Mtw 19:30) and it lends itself more readily to see how the first to be employed should naturally be able to witness what’s being paid to the last for they would have had to have hung around to get what was their rightful due.

It could be levelled at the owner that he’s deliberately trying to demonstrate what he’s done but, again, this is going too far in an interpretation. The reason for the reversal of the payments is simply to emphasise the point to the disciples who are listening to Jesus relate the parable.

The first employed begin to gripe - quite naturally, we’d say - and, if such a practice was used in today’s society we would have the unions and equal rights people falling upon the owner with threats and lawsuits to make him be the more reasonable. But, as Matfran notes, the parable

‘ not meant to reflect normal economic practice, nor to be a pattern for labour relations’

What the first receive is exactly what they agreed to work for (Mtw 20:2,10) and the problem is not that the householder is treating them unfairly but that he’s treating the last graciously and it’s this that peeves them. After all, when they see the owner giving to the ones who’d worked less the same amount that they had themselves agreed to work for, they presume that their wage has to be increased because of the difficulty they had encountered while working throughout the day (Mtw 20:12).

They complain not that their worth been lowered compared to those who had worked less hours but that the last have been raised up to be equal to them (Mtw 20:12) - there’s no doubting the value that the owner has placed upon their employment but they feel that to work less should mean to receive less.

Nevertheless, the owner is adamant that he can do as he pleases with what’s in his possession and that he’s not being unjust towards the first employed.

The conclusion of the matter (before we go on to look at the implications of the parable in the next section) is a repeat of Jesus’ statement in Mtw 19:30 where His statement that the first will be last and the last first means not that some are preferred over and above others (as it appears to mean in Luke 13:30 where it’s spoken in a different context) but that there is an equality of treatment amongst the disciples that natural considerations would deem to be both unjust and unfair.

But the point is that each person receives the same and that there’s no distinction between those who have laboured much and in hardship with those who have laboured little and in the relative ease of the cooling evening before sundown. Having said that, Matfran is right to point out that

‘No one receives less than they deserve but some receive far more’

but, even here, we tend to push our interpretation into ideas of ‘worth’ and what’s deserving. The whole point of the parable is not about fairness for worth but upon a free gift of God given to those who are subject to the will of God to employ them. There’s a parallel in the Rabbinic writings and paraphrased by Matmor (Eccl Rab 5.11.5) in which a man who worked only two hours is murmured against because he receives his full wage from the king, but the response they receive is that he’s done the same amount of work in just those two hours as they did throughout the entire day (just the sort of thing that people who go in to work a couple of hours before anyone else arrive normally claim!).

The story, however, emphasises the concept of worth which is ever present in man’s mind but it’s far from the intention of this parable to say anything of the sort - the labourers aren’t paid the same because the last ones worked harder or proportionately better but that they worked equally well except for less time.

The disciples’ wage, then, depends solely upon the grace of the owner in choosing to employ who he would, not upon the service which was rendered. However, each of the labourers should be seen as rendering honest work in the time that they were employed so that the emphasis becomes not on the quality of the service but on the conditions in which that service was given.

Finally, for the phrase

‘ you begrudge my generosity?’

in Mtw 20:15 which is more literally rendered in the margin of the RSV as

‘ your eye evil because I am good?’

see my previous notes entitled ‘What are my eyes fixed on?’ on a previous web page.

Teaching on salvation

I have tried to keep any talk about what it means to be saved from the short discussion of the parable in the previous section so that I could address the issue in a separate article here. I have already said that there’s a danger of extricating teaching from a parable when it was never meant to be there in the original simply because parables were told very often to teach one specific point and analogies and parallels were not meant to be drawn out of them that were never intended to be.

However, we should be on safe ground if we stick closely to the reason the parable was originally given - that is, to show that salvation was a free gift of God that wasn’t graded according to the amount that a new believer gave up for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and, from here, move on to some more general considerations.

Firstly, then, as just mentioned, Jesus was emphasising that there weren’t different grades of salvation but only the one for all men and women (Mtw 20:10,12). Mattask is right in saying that

‘The same paradise awaits both the man who has experienced Divine grace in the last hour of his life and him who was first called to be Christ’s disciple’

There’s a natural consideration when we come to the thought of both the ‘first’ and the ‘last’ in the parable and we might represent it not just by considering the context of making sacrifices for the Kingdom - which is what the parable was originally told to warn against (Mtw 19:27-30) - but by thinking of the chronological implications that such words conjure up in our own minds.

In the diagram, John is the ‘first’ christian, the first to be employed by the owner of the vineyard (Mtw 20:2), and yet he’s the last to die, to enter into his full inheritance and, therefore, to receive his wages (Mtw 20:8,10). David, on the other hand, is the last to come to know Jesus, relatively speaking, but the first to die and receive his reward (Mtw 20:8-9).

It would seem logical to us, therefore, that John should be given a greater reward than David simply because he’s served Jesus for a longer period of time, has probably had more hardships and had to make more difficult decisions against what he wanted to do for the sake of the Gospel.

But, at the end of the day, each get the same reward - eternal life.

This isn’t what Jesus had in mind, of course, by telling the parable but it does represent a mindset we suffer from by thinking that a genuine death bed conversion (as opposed to someone who takes it upon themselves to repent to secure a place in the afterlife) is of less worth than one which took place in a person’s formative years.

Both are of equal value in the Kingdom and both are rewarded with eternal life.

Secondly, the parable teaches us that salvation isn’t a reward based on either a person’s merit or their work (Mtw 20:10-12 Pp 19:26) but a free gift based upon the owner’s grace and generosity (Mtw 20:13-15). Matfran summarises the parable by writing that

‘...God is like that; His generosity transcends human ideas of fairness’

even though Mtw 20:15 would never stand up today in an Industrial Tribunal!

If such a reward is free, then there can be no thought of what one’s done to earn it and the reward can never be thought of as wages which are the believer’s right - an indication that, perhaps, a disciple of Christ should never pray ‘give me what I deserve’ for, apart from God’s mercy poured out on them, what do any of us deserve except judgment for the way we’ve lived?!

Eternal life, therefore, is free, even though the Bible also makes mention of a specific reward which is based upon a believer’s individual contribution to the local fellowship in which they find themselves (I Cor 3:10-15 - a passage which calls one-man-ministries to account for restricting their congregations in their service of God) and not upon the length or hardness of service. This reward is dependant upon quality of workmanship and does not affect the salvation of the individual.

Ultimately, though, there is but one necessity - and that is to be secure in the knowledge that they have the promise of eternal life (Mtw 19:29).

Thirdly, and finally - and perhaps more strange than the other two points - is that all who want to be saved will be saved (Mtw 20:3-7) because we read that whoever wanted to work was given the opportunity by the owner of the vineyard to do just that.

This parable doesn’t teach that only those chosen by God are saved but that all who were wanting to be saved are chosen by God (II Peter 3:9) simply because the workers are anticipating work being offered to them and readily take whatever comes their way. While it’s true that the offer of employment must first be extended to those who were wanting it, it’s only because they’re in the place where they’re likely to be offered such a position if an opportunity should arise.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the parable at this point - I have already sounded a warning against making parables yield too much truth to the commentator - but we already know from the notes on repentance on the main site that a move of God is necessary first before a person will ever be in a position to respond positively to the message of the Kingdom and this is what occurs here.

It’s the willingness of the believer to come face to face with how God views their life and to condemn it along with Him that propels him into being able to receive forgiveness and mercy at His hand and to turn from a life of disobedience to one of faithful service.

Whatever, the main point of the parable (and we mustn’t detract from this) is that Peter, along with all the other disciples, must come to terms with the fact that it isn’t the hardness of service which earns the believer the right to receive eternal life but the mercy of God the Father who wills that no man should perish.