The parable or likeness that Jesus next related appears to be part of his answer to Peter’s question, “What will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27) Everything Jesus had said up to this point served to answer the question, and the parable is linked to his words with the preposition gár, meaning “for.”
The “kingdom of the heavens” is like the master of a house who set out early in the morning to hire workers to harvest grapes. He agreed to pay them one denarius (the usual daily wage) for their labors, and sent them to his vineyard. Later, about the third hour of the day or about 9:00 a.m., he saw unemployed men standing in the marketplace. He hired them and, when sending them into his vineyard, assured them that they would receive a fair wage. The owner of the vineyard returned to the marketplace about the sixth and the ninth hour (about noon and 3:00 p.m.) and hired more workers, telling them the same thing about payment for their labors. About the eleventh hour or 5:00 p.m., he still found unemployed men standing in the marketplace and asked them why they had not worked the whole day. They replied that no one had hired them. He then sent them to work in his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-7)
At sunset, the vineyard owner summoned his supervisor and instructed him to pay the workers, starting with the ones who had been hired last and ending with those who had been hired first. Those who had worked for only an hour received a denarius. Therefore, the men who were hired first thought they would be paid more. Upon also receiving a denarius, they began to object, complaining that they had worked all day and endured the sun’s heat and yet those who had worked only an hour received the same wage. (Matthew 20:8-12)
The vineyard owner reminded them that they had agreed to work for one denarius. Directing his words to one of them, he said, “Fellow, I am not wronging you. Did you not agree with me [to work] for a denarius? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last [the same pay] as to you. Am I not permitted to do what I wish with my own [money]? Or is your eye wicked because I am good?” (Matthew 20:13-15)
The reference to the “eye” being wicked is to be understood as meaning that the one addressed looked upon the “good” or generosity of the vineyard owner with envy, begrudging that others had been the recipient of the same payment for far less work.
Jesus concluded with the words, “Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Many later manuscripts add, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 20:16)
The parable reveals that receiving the marvelous benefits and blessings associated with being in the realm where God rules by means of his Son is not dependent upon when individuals start doing his will. What counts is continuing to labor faithfully to the end while deeply appreciating being able to live a life that honors God.
Among people alienated from the Most High, one may be subjected to ridicule, distress, and hardship comparable to having to endure the intense heat of the sun. If the distresses lead to looking with envy upon those whose life seems to be much more pleasant and far easier, one may begin to experience a weakening in faith and even a loss of faith. So it can be that persons whose situation is comparable to the workers who were hired first end up losing out because of ceasing to see the heavenly Father as generous and just. Regardless of when our life of faith may have begun, we can be certain that he will repay us individually according to the highest standard of generosity and justice.
The “first” can end up losing out when the focus comes to be on self and externals, whereas the “last,” individuals who come to repentance late in life may find themselves generously rewarded far beyond what they could have imagined. In relation to Peter’s question, the parable indicates that life as a devoted disciple of God’s Son is not focused on seeming sacrifices made with the thought of being rewarded to a greater extent than others whose life as disciples may appear to be easier or may be of far shorter duration. For Christ’s disciples, all rewards are really “gifts” or expressions of divine favor and not earned “wages.”
The reversal involving the first and the last is also mentioned in other settings. (Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30)
An ancient rabbinical parable, found in both the Palestinian Talmud (Tractate Berakhoth, 5c) and the Midrash Rabba, contains many of the same elements. A vineyard owner paid a full day’s wages to a worker who had labored only two hours. When those who had toiled the entire day for the same wage complained, the owner replied, “This man in two hours did more good work than you in a whole day,” indicating the reason for equal pay to be the amount of good work done. This contrasts with Jesus’ parable, which gives as the reason for equal pay, “I want to,” emphasizing free, unearned favor. (Matthew 20:14)