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This passage raises a number of difficult interpretative questions?

  • Is the issue varying rewards in either the millennial kingdom or heaven or is the main point that every believer is treated alike in terms of inheriting eternal life by the grace of God [e.g. John MacArthur’s position below in the Notes]?
  • What type of foil is the rich young ruler in this context?
  • Who is represented here as the “first” vs. the “last” when it comes to role reversal reflected in the fundamental principle repeated in 19:30 and 20:16?

[MacArthur reduces this principle to a mere statement of equality = everybody is in the same state of receiving eternal life – but the principle seems to be one of reversal rather than of leveling.]  Certainly the apostles are both being assured that following Christ is worth it and being warned not to concern themselves with accumulating the greatest rewards or the most prominent positions in the kingdom.  There is the emphasis on humility throughout this context rather than selfish ambition.

  • To what extent is it legitimate to seek heavenly rewards?
  • If the parable speaks of the common eternal life God’s grace grants to each believer, why is it couched in a works-oriented story? We have to be careful not to seek some type of symbolic significance for each detail of the parable.  The goal is to capture the main lesson from Christ’s teaching.

Stanley Saunders: The parable explicates the statements of reversal that frame it (19:30; 20:16). The “For” with which 20:1 begins also links the parable to what has preceded, where Jesus has lifted up eunuchs and children as models of those who belong in the kingdom of heaven (19:12; 19:14), and challenged the disciples’ notion that the rich and pious are guaranteed salvation before all others (19:16–26). The disciples have left everything to follow Jesus (19:27–29). Yet Jesus is also aware that his disciples’ spiritual pride can yield a form of self-righteousness that imperils their participation in God’s empire no less than does the rich man’s riches. The parable, then, forms part of Jesus’ response to Peter’s claims about the disciples’ faithfulness to him (19:27). . .

God’s justice reaches out to include the least, the last, the little ones, the children, the poor, the weak, and the suffering. God’s justice consists of forgiving debts, restoring relationships, and making the creation whole. Justice ordered around “merit” or differentiation of status, on the other hand, preserves a world of division and alienation. If God does act as the landowner has, then the parable points to the radical, disruptive, even offensive character of God’s free and unmerited grace toward humankind. The problem with such grace is that it “makes them equal to us,” whoever “they” might be in our various systems of differentiation. Throughout its history, the church has often functioned in ways that confirm and preserve differences, whether economic, social, spiritual, or racial. This is precisely what the parable subverts.

William Hendriksen: The “point” or main lesson of the parable is therefore this: Do not be among the first who become last.  This may be subdivided as follows:

  1. Avoid falling prey to the work-for-wages spirit with respect to matters spiritual (besides 20:2, 13 see also the context, 19:16, 22, and 19:27).
  2. Do not fail to recognize God’s sovereignty, his right to distribute favors as he pleases (in addition to 20:14b, 15a see again the context, 20:23).
  3. Be far removed from envy (see not only 15b but also the general context, 18:1; 20:20-28). Was not each disciple’s yearning to be the greatest a next-door neighbor to gruesome soul-destructive envy?

Jonathan T. Pennington — Tabletalk: The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

Big Idea: In the parable, Jesus reminds them that all that they have is from God, that all their blessings are from God’s generosity, not their own doing.

In the history of the church, there have been many attempted explanations of this parable. Some suggest the five different hirings represent five stages of world history during which God has called people to Himself, or different stages in life that one may become a Christian. The point, then, is that God is gracious to all and welcomes all into His kingdom, no matter when they were called. Some say the parable is a picture of God’s future kingdom where all saved people receive heaven, no matter how much they have worked for God. The broadest and maybe most popular interpretation is that this parable is simply a picture of God’s incredible and marvelous grace and generosity—the gospel in a nutshell.

Each of these interpretations has some truth in it. But there is something more to be seen. The key is to pay attention to the context that Matthew gives us for this parable. The story that precedes our parable is about a rich synagogue leader who ends up not following Jesus because his love for his possessions was too great (19:16–22). In response to this, the disciples are shocked. Jesus then promises them staggering rewards for giving up everything they had to follow Him (vv. 23–30). This promise that the disciples will sit on twelve thrones consumes the disciples’ thoughts so much that shortly thereafter, James and John are angling to be the ones to sit on the thrones closest to Jesus (20:20–28).

This context shows us that the parable is hitting right at our hearts, at the twin issues of self-congratulation and envy. When the young ruler goes away empty-handed but then the lowly disciples are promised to be rulers, it was impossible for the disciples not to be a little self-congratulatory, to take a little pride in their wise accomplishment, their better choice to follow Jesus. In the parable, Jesus reminds them that all that they have is from God, that all their blessings are from God’s generosity, not their own doing. The disciples are no better than the rich man. At the same time, Jesus presses right into our hearts, which are prone to envy. Jesus challenges His disciples not to look to what others have and become bitter and jealous. Rivalry is soul-destructive because all of life is a gift from God.

So, this parable gives us a vision for God’s generous grace toward us and toward others. Life is found when we fix our eyes not horizontally on what others have but vertically on the generosity of the whole-earth landowner, King Jesus, who calls us friends and who gives wisely and generously.




Jesus qualifies the time when the disciples will be rewarded. 19:28c — It takes place when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne. In other words, the disciples would experience the fullness of their rewards for following Christ when Christ comes to reign as King. This is when and where the outworking of rewards will take place.

A.  (:27) Mercenary Question Exposes the Insecurity of the Apostles

Then Peter answered and said to Him,

‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?’

Grant Osborne: This verse provides a transition, concluding vv. 23–26 and introducing vv. 28–30. In typical fashion Peter speaks for the group (cf. 14:28; 15:15; 16:16, 22; 17:4; 18:21), and as usual he shows his misunderstanding.

Stu Weber: Believers should not feel guilty about anticipating eternal reward. If it were a shameful thing, God would not have promised it so prominently throughout Scripture. The truth is that we need motivation, something to press on toward (Phil. 3:12-14). The eternal perspective, seeking God’s prize, is the only mature perspective (Phil. 3:14).

Ray Fowler:  Peter asked Jesus, “What do we get?” Jesus said, “Don’t worry about what you will get.” Why not? Because God is perfectly just. He is wonderfully merciful. He is incredibly gracious. Perfect justice. Wonderful mercy. Amazing grace. That’s who God is. Once again, think good thoughts of God.

R.V.G. Tasker: The fact that Peter could ask such a question was evidence that he had not fully grasped that God promises rewards to those who obey Him without thought of reward, for in the kingdom of God all reward is the result of God’s grace and not of human merit.

B.  (:28-29) Manifold Rewards Climax in the Common Goal of Eternal Life

  1. (:28)  Significant Positions of Privilege and Power in the Millennial Kingdom

And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me,

in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne,

you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’

John Walvoord: This is clearly a picture of the millennial earth, not heaven.  Late in Christ’s ministry, He supports the concept that the kingdom, while postponed as far as human expectation is concerned, is nevertheless certain of fulfillment following His second coming.

  1. (:29)  Sacrifices in Spiritual Service Will Have Been Worth It

a.  Abundant Blessings in This Life

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or

mother or children or farms for My name’s sake,

shall receive many times as much,

Matthew Henry: A hundred times as much in this life; sometimes in kind, in the things themselves which they have parted with. God will raise up for his suffering servants more friends, who will be so to them for Christ’s sake, than they have left that were so for their own sakes. The apostles, wherever they came, met with those who were kind to them, and entertained them, and opened their hearts and doors to them. However, they will receive a hundred times as much, in kindness. Their graces shall increase, their comforts abound, they shall have signs of God’s love, and then they may truly say they have received a hundred times more comfort in God and Christ than they could have in wife, or children.

b.  Eternal Life in Heaven = Ultimate Inheritance for All Believers

and shall inherit eternal life.

Van Parunak: The parallels in Mark and Luke make clear that the reward here promised is not in the coming kingdom, but now:

Mar 10:29 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, 30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

Luk 18:29 And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, 30 Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.

How can this be “in this present time”? The answer must lie in the love and care of believers for one another. Recall our Lord’s words at the end of ch. 12, where he gives an example of giving up “mother and brethren,” and receiving far more in return.

Grant Osborne: Jesus expands the focus from the Twelve to “every” follower. Since Peter said they had “left everything,” Jesus picks up on that and names two main types of things that various followers have had to surrender—loved ones (brothers, sisters, father, mother, children) and possessions (“fields”), with “homes” referring to both. The promise is that in eternity they “will receive” (from God) a hundred times as much, referring to the incredible family and home in heaven (cf. John 14:2–3).

David Turner: The prospect of a gloriously enthroned Jesus anticipates 25:30–31.  The terminology focusing on the twelve tribes of Israel is remarkable (cf. Luke 22:30; Rev. 21:12; J. Baumgarten 1976), as is the description of the eschaton as a time of regeneration.  Eschatological renewal of the transitory present world (Matt. 5:18; 24:35) is part of the messianic salvation accomplished by Jesus (1:21; 20:28; 26:26–29; cf. Rom. 8:18–23). Cosmic eschatological renewal is linked to Jesus’s previous stress on the priority of the created order in Matt. 19:4, 8. The moral disorder of the present world is contrary not only to God’s past creation but also to God’s future renewal of that creation. The end will renew the beginning; eschatology restores protology. The judgment of Israel probably implies both sharing in final judgment and ruling in the world to come.  The striking teaching that the disciples will share with Jesus the rule of the coming kingdom may be based on Dan. 7:9, 13–14, 18, 22, 27 (cf. Luke 22:30; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 2:26–27; 3:21; 20:6; Wis. 3:8). . .  The eschatological reward of Jesus’s followers will far outweigh their present sacrifice and should motivate them to suffer with Jesus in the present (16:24–28; Rom. 8:18–25).

C.  (:30) Fundamental Principle: Some Surprising Reversal of Expectations

But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.

Grant Osborne: This is often called “the reversal of roles” and is a frequent theme in Luke. It will be repeated at the end of the next pericope in reverse order (20:16), with the inclusion forming a chiasm. The parable of the workers in the vineyard (20:1–15) is intended as an illustration of this very principle, so it is a dominant theme here. Those like the wealthy young man who seek primacy in this life will suffer the greatest loss eternally, and those like the disciples (claimed in 19:27) who surrender everything will have the greatest reward. As in 18:1–5; 19:13–15, followers must be willing to take the lowly place and humble attitude of a child to be “greatest” (18:1, 4) in the kingdom.

Leon Morris: All this points to a reversal of the generally accepted order of things (cf. 20:16). Those who are highly esteemed and held to be first in this world’s order of things will end up last, in the worst possible position. The point is that they have put their whole effort into earthly success without reference to the more worthwhile life of service to which Christ is calling them. Inevitably when the time comes that earthly success is seen for the tawdry and temporal thing it is, they will rank with the last.  That is what they have qualified for, and that is where they will be. The corollary of that is that those who are last here and now will often be found to be among the first in the life to come. They have not accepted the false values of the world but have set their sights on the service of God and of their fellows no matter what the cost to themselves, and they reap the consequences accordingly. The words are a strong warning against being deluded by earthly ideas and standards and shutting one’s ears to the call of God.

Stu Weber: Many people who seem to be deserving of reward will receive less than is expected (though no less than they deserve). And many whom we might judge as undeserving will prove, in God’s economy, to be first, receiving great reward.

David Turner: The disciples can be encouraged that their sacrifice will be rewarded, but they also are warned against presuming on the grace of God. The promise is that although they are presently “last,” they will be “first” in the eschaton. The warning is that although their prospect is to be “first,” they could yet be “last” if they forget the way of the cross and God’s sovereignty in dispensing reward. The unfortunate chapter division at 20:1 obscures the fact that the parable of the landowner in 20:1–16 continues the answer to Peter’s question, as did the parable of the unforgiving servant in 18:21–35.

The description of the future kingdom in terms of the twelve tribes of Israel appears to justify belief in the eschatological conversion of the nation of Israel to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This would be in keeping with Matthew’s overall emphasis on the fulfillment of Scripture preeminently through the words and deeds of Jesus the Messiah. The followers of Jesus, the ultimate teacher of the Torah, constitute Israel within Israel, the eschatological remnant (cf. Rom. 9:6). In the end they, not the faithless shepherds who presently lead God’s flock (Matt. 9:36; 10:6; 15:24), who will judge or govern the nation as a whole (21:43; Gundry 1994: 393–94; Overman 1996: 285).  A different approach views this language as indicating that the gentile church, which is understood to supersede Israel, will rule over the nations as a whole (Blomberg 1992a: 301; France 1982: 65–67; Hendriksen 1973:730). This understanding anachronistically renders Matthew’s Jewish language as symbolic and dissolves Jesus’s distinction between the disciples’ rule over Israel (19:28) and the reward of all who sacrifice to follow Jesus (19:29). If the church supersedes Israel, this distinction would be meaningless.

John Walvoord: By this, Jesus meant that God’s estimation of worthiness for reward may be entirely different than man’s estimation.  Those prominent in this life may not necessarily be first in reward in the life to come.  The widow who gave her two mites but had nothing else to give may be ahead of those who have given much.  Those who labor merely for reward may miss it.  His discussion of this point is illustrated in the next chapter.

R.V.G. Tasker: The last verse of the section indicates that late-comers into the kingdom of God will be treated on an equality with those who have come in first, a truth which Jesus proceeds to illustrate in the parable which follows.

[Therefore, Jews have no advantage over the Gentiles who are grafted in to the people of God later in time; people who are saved in infancy have no advantage over people saved in old age; etc.]


A.  (:1-7) Hiring of the Laborers

  1. (:1-2)  Initial Hiring in the Early Morning for Set Wage

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.

Grant Osborne: It was normal in the first century to work twelve-hour days during harvest (though it must be admitted that the same was true of sowing the seed—the text does not say), and so ἅμα πρωΐ refers to “sunrise,” the beginning of the workday. So this reflects harvest season, when the owner would need to hire extra workers to take the grapes off the vine and to do various other tasks (e.g., guard the crops, drive the donkeys).  Day laborers (the lowest social group outside of slaves) would gather in the marketplace of towns and wait to be hired. It was a precarious existence, but they had little choice. Many were “freedmen,” former slaves. . .  So in the story there are five groups, hired at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m.

Stu Weber: We should be careful in our attempts to discern who these full-day workers (or any of the other four groups) represent. We may be tempted to think this first group represents those who have been Christians for most of their lives, whereas the later groups are those who come to Christ later in life. Or we might think the full-day workers are those who are especially faithful in their lifetime as a Christian, while the later groups are not so faithful. Such interpretations distract us from Jesus’ main point—that God’s way of compensating for righteous working may differ from what we expect. God’s sense of “fairness” is not the typical self-serving human perspective. He does not compare us to one another but to our fulfillment of our own stewardship (see 1 Cor. 3:3-5). . .

Jesus revealed here the way we as humans think about what is fair and just. When we see rewards handed out in heaven, we are sure to be in for some surprises. Some of the people and ministries that we have deemed insignificant will be celebrated, while many of the more prominent people and their ministries will receive little recognition. It is not Jesus’ purpose here to explain the criteria he uses for such decisions, but only to warn us against false assumptions and expectations. Grapes were one of the most valuable commodities in ancient Israel because they could be transformed into fine wines. So important were the vineyards that the prophets often describe the salvation of God’s people as including the restoration of the vineyards of the Promised Land (for example, Amos 9:14). Vinedressers and vineyard owners know, however, that the profitability of their vineyard depends on harvesting the grapes at just the right time. Wait too long, and the wine produced from the grapes will not be as good and will not command as high a price as it could. Consequently, when the time of harvest comes, vineyard owners often employ many day laborers in addition to their regular staff so that all of the grapes can be picked before it is too late. That is the setting of today’s passage, wherein the master of the house must find “laborers for his vineyard” (Matt. 20:1).

  1. (:3-4)  Additional Hiring at the Third Hour for Discretionary Wage

And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.

  1. (:5)  Additional Hiring at the Sixth and Ninth Hours

Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.

  1. (:6-7)  Final Hiring at the Eleventh Hour

And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’

B.  (:8-12) Payment of the Laborers

  1. (:8-9)  Last Group Paid First

And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’

And when those hired about the eleventh hour came,

each one received a denarius.

Keith Throop: Notice that the order in which the workers are paid is reversed from the order in which they were hired. They are paid beginning with the last to the first (vs. 8). This reflects Jesus’ earlier statement that “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30). Thus Jesus is clearly identifying the theme He wants to emphasize.

  1. (:10-12)  First Group Expresses Displeasure

a.  (:10)  Inflated Expectation

And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius.

Grant Osborne: When “even they” receive the denarius promised in v. 2, it is not that this would be unfair, since that was the contract. Rather, it was the master’s generosity to the final group that has everyone confused. As Nolland says, “Despite a dramatic contrast in work done, there is no difference in wage received. Not only in the ancient world would such behavior cause resentment but today as well.”

b.  (:11-12)  Grumbling Response

And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’

C.  (:13-15) Principles of God’s Justice, Discretion and Grace

  1. (:13)  Strict Justice of God — Referencing the Legal Contract

But he answered and said to one of them,

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?’

Stu Weber: This parable highlights both the justice and the grace of God. Neither is to be taken for granted. When God chooses to reward or punish according to what is justly due a person, no one has a right to complain. On the one hand, his rewards are “recompense” or “pay back” (Matt. 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:24-25). On the other hand, the God of Scripture is a God who delights to lavish blessing on his children (e.g., Eph. 1:3-14). But we must be careful not to presume upon his generosity. His gifts are not something we deserve; they are given freely at his discretion. If anyone receives the “raw end of the deal” (by our reasoning), it would be God, who gives much more than he “owes.”

  1. (:14)  Sovereign Discretion of God

Take what is yours and go your way,

but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.

Ray Fowler: In the parable the earlier workers boasted in their works. They said, “We bore the burden of the work and the heat of the day!” But that’s the problem. Those who trust in their works receive God’s justice, but they forfeit God’s mercy and grace. If you want justice, you will get justice. I don’t recommend it, because we are all on the wrong side of God’s law. If you want justice, you will get justice, but if you want mercy and grace, then you need to put your faith in Jesus.

We can also apply this to heaven and eternal rewards. On the one hand we all receive differing rewards depending on what we have done for Christ. But on the other hand, we all get the same reward, in that we all inherit eternal life with God forever. Because once you have eternal life, what do all the other rewards really matter?

  1. (:15)  Surprising Grace and Generosity of God

Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?

Or is your eye envious because I am generous?

Grant Osborne: The “good” (ἀγαθός) generosity of the landowner is the antithesis of the jealous, angry heart of the complainers (“evil” [πονηρός]).

Daniel Doriani: So then, as Jesus says, he is fair to everyone, whether one works all day or one hour. To be precise, there are three lessons, one for each character in the story:

  • The early workers must know that God treats no one unfairly. If they stumble, they stumble over God’s grace and generosity, not his injustice.
  • God is generous to those who deserve nothing. It is his sovereign pleasure to give good gifts to his children.
  • All believers receive the same gift, eternal life with the Lord.

D.  (:16) Fundamental Principle: Some Surprising Reversal of Expectations

Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.

Richard Gardner: The purpose of these sayings is not to establish a new order of precedence, but rather to tell us to stop calculating. As noted earlier, the riches of the kingdom are God’s to distribute—and God is full of surprises!