Please read Matthew 20:1-16 in your preferred version of the Bible. I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.
The first to cry “foul” are people who feel they have suffered loss. You rarely hear people complain because they benefitted unfairly.
For example, in one of last Sunday’s football games, a player for the LA Rams committed a foul against a player for the NO Saints. But the referees did not call a foul. Saints players and fans are outraged at the “no call” play and believe it cost their team the victory and a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
Imagine for a moment if the offending player called a time out, gathered the officials around him, and asked them to call a foul. What if he pointed to the giant screen in the stadium and confessed? What if he said, “See, there I am cheating. I wish you’d go ahead and call a foul on me. It’s not fair I should get away with such an obvious foul”?
How do you think his teammates would have reacted? The other team’s players and fans? Some would no doubt object to such a generous, selfless act because winning would me more important to them.
God’s grace is not going to fit your idea of “fair.”
1. Setting the stage: context.
Much of chapter nineteen is about who goes to heaven. The rich young man was concerned about what he had to do to get ETERNAL LIFE (v. 16). Jesus’ response was tailored to this individual. He told him to go and sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man was prepared to do anything BUT that: HE WENT AWAY SAD (v. 22). Jesus reflected on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 23-24).
The disciples were stunned (v. 25); they assumed the rich were blessed by God & that’s why they were rich. Peter wasn’t really listening. He was thinking that if the rich young man could get into heaven by donating his wealth, he could too (v. 27). After all, that’s just what he had done!
There are two keys to what Jesus taught. One is in 19:26 where Jesus said, “WITH MAN THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE, BUT WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.” The other is in 19:30 and 20:16 as “book ends.” These verses identify the one main point of the parable: “THE LAST WILL BE FIRST, AND THE FIRST WILL BE LAST.” This is Jesus’ teaching: no one earns eternal life; God gives it. This point will be applied when James and John’s mother’s requests Jesus make her boys His left and right hand men (20:20-28).
2. Reading the program notes: The one main point.
The emphasis in all of scripture is always on what God has done for us. He chose us. He sent His Son Jesus to die for us. He forgives our sins.
The point of this parable is that salvation is God’s gift. It is never about our deservedness. We can never qualify ourselves.
3. Watching the play: plot points.
It is essential that we identify God with the LANDOWNER. He goes out and calls people to have ETERNAL LIFE. Notice the workers do not seek Him out, nor do they apply for a job or show him a resume; all of this event is at the LANDOWNER’s initiative and depends on His resources.
In v. 2 we see the LANDOWNER and the WORKERS agreed to a specific wage: one DENARIUS. This was the usual rate of pay for a day’s work. This is a very typical scene in Jesus’ time; land owners kept costs down by hiring day laborers. Jesus’ parables often start with an everyday circumstance, then got to something surprising and that is certainly how this parable unfolds.
Every three hours the LANDOWNER went to the marketplace to hire more workers (vs. 3-5). The later workers agree to work for WHATEVER IS RIGHT, not for a specific amount. This will be an important detail later when the workers are paid.
Verses 6-7 give us the first clue about the generosity of the LANDOWNER. He went out a fifth time that day to hire more laborers. It is near the end of the day. A more practical employer would not have bothered, as he would not get any more than a couple hours’ work out of t latecomers. Moreover, day laborers were usually down and out people. When the LANDOWNER asks why they’ve been standing around all day, their reply is only half of the truth; “NO ONE HAS HIRED US.” Inquiring minds want to know why no one made them an offer! They did not have a regular job for a reason. The ones still hanging around the marketplace at that time of day were likely to be “the worst of the worst.” The youngest and healthiest workers of the bunch would’ve been hired earlier in the day: the workers still hanging about the ELEVENTH HOUR were the “leftovers.” Knowing all this about him makes the LANDOWNER seem even more generous.
The tale becomes more curious in verse eight, when the LANDOWNER pays off the workers beginning with those who were hired last. This would make no sense if this had been an actual event. Instead, it is a plot device that serves what Jesus taught in 19:30 and 20:16. It makes sense only in that light.
The tension builds in verses nine and ten as the workers are paid. Naturally, the men hired first thing in the morning are expecting extra payment as they see the LANDOWNER’s generosity toward those who were hired later in the day; the latecomers were paid a full day’s wage even though they didn’t work a full day. That is undeniably generous.
Vs. 10-12 = The all-day laborers are naturally upset when they get exactly the same pay as the latecomers. “YOU HAVE MADE THEM EQUAL TO US,” they complained. “Foul! Not fair!” they protest.
In verses 13-15 the LANDOWNER’s answer does not justify his actions to the bellyachers. He simply affirms his right to do as he pleases. He calls them FRIEND & reminds them they were hired to work all day for a denarius. What’s fair is that all the workers agreed to work for a wage that was RIGHT. Legally, none of them have a right to bellyache.
The LANDOWNER rightly exposed the real motive of the complainers. They were not trying to right a wrong or insist on what was fair, they were simply ENVIOUS. The LANDOWNER was GENEROUS, not unfair.
God’s grace is not going to fit your idea of “fair.”
Some people interpret this parable as a comparison of people who accept Jesus early in life and those who are saved late in life. That’s a mistake because the center of the parable is the actions of the LANDOWNER, not the workers. The main point is about the generosity of the employer.
God is the hero of this parable or it is just a strange little story that’s hard to figure out. It’s really simple and rather obvious when we put our attention where it belongs; on the LANDOWNER. Then we see that he was more interested in being generous than in meeting someone’s self-centered notions of what is fair.
This parable contradicts Peter’s very natural but wrong assumption that we can earn our way into heaven. We like to think that we are somehow very deserving of the eternal life God offers. We’d like to believe that all these good deeds, the hours of service, have somehow made us worthy.
That’s a worldly and self-serving point of view and something we must unlearn. We are saved by grace, nothing else. Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve (eternal life) and not giving us what we do deserve (eternal death). So whatever notions we have about fairness are likely to be self-serving, not real.
The application of the teaching gets at the motive that powers our work in church or in the community. Any motive based on earning us something is not a God-centered motive. We need to do what we do because we love God and His people. Motives that begin with a love of self should always be suspect. God has promised heavenly rewards for our good works, but it is still up to Him to decide what those works are and who truly deserves them.
In commenting on this passage, William Barclay wrote, “In the Christian church seniority does not necessarily mean honor.” We’ve all heard church people - who ought to know better - recite their achievements and investments in the church as reasons for expecting to be heard and heeded.
The Bible does not support that kind of pride. Either we do things out of love or, like Peter, we do them expecting to rewarded with power and influence. It’s wrong to think experience or education qualifies us to lord over one another, earning us some kind of status in the church or in heaven.
In those moments we are very far from Jesus, who said His mission was service, not self-service. In the very next chapter (Matthew 20:28) Jesus said, “THE SON OF MAN DID NOT COME TO BE SERVED, BUT TO SERVE, AND TO GIVE HIS LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR MANY.” When we go on about our “rights,” and what we “deserve,” we’re grieving the Holy Spirit and are guilty of hypocrisy. It is better by far to copy the attitude of Jesus; His humility and self-sacrifice. It is better by far to rely on His AMAZING GRACE than our puny works.
“Our Unfair God,” Ministry magazine (pp. 14-16), Gary Moyer
The Story of God Bible Commentary: Matthew, Rodney Reeves