Go thy way-the parable of the workers in the vineyard
by Jonathan S Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
One of the last parables Jesus ever told was the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The story’s placed between the encounter with the rich young ruler and Christ’s final journey to Jerusalem before He was crucified. The immediate context stems from the disciples’ reaction to what Jesus said to the rich young ruler. Peter, speaking perhaps for the entire group, asks the question, “We left everything to follow You, so what will we get in exchange for it (paraphrased)?” Jesus then gave this parable to explain that things aren’t always as they seem.
The text is from Matthew 20, verses 1-16:
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
For this message, may I focus on this particular verse:
Mat 20:14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee (emphasis added).
I. The problems in the parable
According to various commentaries (David Gusick; Jamieson, Faucet, and Brown; Adam Clarke and others), there wasn’t a lot of time between harvest time and loss of the produce. That’s the background here, namely, that harvest was ready but there apparently weren’t enough men “on staff” to get the job done and the harvest gathered.
Some of us may not quite “catch” another problem the first time or two we read this parable. How much was each worker going to get paid? There was a plentiful harvest, but a shortage of workers for this harvest. Remember, there was no minimum wage, or guarantees of anything—in spite of high unemployment in those days. I can imagine the look of surprise when Jesus related the “agreement” for a “penny a day”, as a “penny” was the term for a more or less standard day’s wage for a day’s work. And, too, there were no employment agencies or other aids for job hunters so unless one had “connections”, the odds of finding good jobs were pretty small.
Still another problem was that no matter how many men were “hired”, more were needed! We can read in the text that men were given jobs for part of the day, at various intervals. Some men weren’t hired at all until one hour before the end of the work day. That they were still needed speaks to how enormous the harvest must have been.
Besides the problems in the parable (and there may have been others), let’s look now at the
II. The payments for the workers
Jesus had related that the first group of men hired “agreed” to a “penny (or, pay for an average 12-hour day of work)” for the day. As mentioned earlier, unemployment was a problem; so why these men would haggle (okay, bargain) for work is something we may not understand.
At any rate, the first group of men went out into the vineyard and others came in during the day at various times, such as 9 am, noon, and 3 pm. There were even some who were still unemployed as late as 5 pm (the 11th hour) but the landowner put them to work anyway.
True to his word, the landowner had the men line up to receive their wages. Now, one thing we need to keep in mind—and I myself missed this the first time or two I read this parable—the only men guaranteed a wage were the first group, the ones who had worked all day. Nothing was said to the other groups of workers, only that “I’ll give you whatever is right (see verse 4, for example)”. The foreman (steward, in the KJV) gives each one a full day’s wage!
Imagine the astonishment on each man’s face when he gets a gift, so to speak, from the landowner! I don’t think any of these men expected to receive very much, and now, they’re given more than they ever thought they’d get! Surely this speaks of a gracious and grateful landowner, who knew these men were out of work, and rewarded them for their service.
One other comment about this landowner: he stands in contrast to other men who were rich in lands and so on during Bible days. Compare this landowner with Nabal, the husband of Abigail. The story of Nabal, Abigail, and David (see 1 Samuel 25) is fascinating, and among other things it shows that a gracious landowner might have better success than a greedy one.
The landowner in this parable didn’t have any problem about asking for additional manpower, and he paid everyone for their work. One would think that there wouldn’t be a problem, right?
But there was.
III. The pettiness of the workers
It must be human nature to think that if I get more than you, it’s fair but if you get the same or more than I do, it isn’t. Any of us who have dealt with anything from slices of birthday cake at parties to dividing French fries at a meal will understand one thing really fast: children, especially, will pounce on anything that isn’t their way and claim, “That’s not fair!”
And it doesn’t seem to go away for some folks. It sure didn’t go away for at least one of the first group of workers in this story. They had been unemployed? Right. They had been hired for the day? Correct. They had worked, more or less diligently, in the vineyard? Check. They had agreed for a penny for the day? Absolutely. They received the penny? Sure did, and that should have been the end of it.
But not so fast. As incredible as it seems, even though these workers had fulfilled their parts of the agreement, and had received the agreed-on wage, they weren’t happy!
“’It isn’t fair’” that you made them (of the later groups) equal to us who worked all day”! These men had received their agreed wage, but were expecting even more!
It’s in times like this that a good man’s qualities will shine through the problem. The ones listening may not agree with the outcome, but they cannot disagree with the landowner’s assessment of this situation. He simply answered one of them (and I’m glad he didn’t talk to me, had I been there!) by saying, “Friend, I’m not doing anything wrong to you (am I?) You did agree with me for a penny (for the day’s work), didn’t you? So, take your pay and go your way (my own paraphrase)”.
So, how does this apply to us today?
IV. Principles for us as believers
The main purpose of this story, according to the context, seems to be to remind Peter and the other disciples that God’s ways are not always our ways. Just moments before this parable, Jesus had encountered the rich young ruler (see Matthew 19) and had seen a man running up to Jesus speedily, but walk away sadly—because he didn’t own his possessions. They had him. And Peter had said, “We left everything to follow You, so what’s in it for us (paraphrasing)?” Did this answer Peter’s question or concern? We don’t see in either Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s gospels that Peter gave a word in reply.
But there is a conclusion for us. Jesus recorded the landowner as telling the worker, who had complained about getting exactly what he had bargained for (!), to “go thy way”. End of discussion, we made an agreement, you bargained for a penny, you got one, you aren’t getting more than what you agreed to. In some cases, we as believers probably need to stop comparing ourselves with others, or those who have been serving the Lord for a longer period of time.
I myself struggled with this, asking the Lord why I couldn’t be more like Preacher X or Evangelist Z or Pastor J or others. He replied to me, “They’ve been around longer than you have, and I’m still working on them, and I’m still working on you. Go thy way and just do what you can where you are. When the time comes for something else, you will know it.”
There’s another angle. It’s useless to argue with God. We have a picture of it when the worker tried to argue about his pay. The landowner promptly put a stop to it and said to the worker, “Go thy way”—no need to talk about it anymore. Just so with God: we may tell Him why we can do something better there than here, with someone else, and so on. Could it be that we don’t want to hear Him say, “'Go thy way' and do what I’ve instructed you to do?"
May we as believers listen to our Lord, simply follow His commands, and when He says, “Go thy way”, we just do it.
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible