“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard…So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus told a number of parables that were meant to explain what God’s kingdom is like. Now the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is used in Matthew’s gospel for two different things: the Church, which consists of all those who have responded to the gospel and received salvation by obeying Acts 2:38, and that place where God dwells and where His people will themselves one day dwell. How do we tell which one the Lord is referring to in a particular instance? By the context of the place where the phrase is used. In Matthew 13, for example, it refers to the Church. Here in Matthew 20, it refers to that place where God dwells and where His people will dwell when the world ends.
“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.” Now, what is a householder? The Greek word used in this passage is oikodespotes (oy-kod-es-pot’-ace), and it means master of the house. So, Jesus is comparing the kingdom of heaven with the master of the house.
The master of this particular house had a vineyard and he went into town to hire some laborers to harvest the grapes. Jesus tells us that the householder went out more than once that day to hire laborers: first, very early in the morning – probably around 6:00 a.m., which was considered the first hour of the day; second, at 9:00 a.m., the third hour; third, he went out at noon, which was the sixth hour; and then the ninth hour, which is 3:00 p.m.; finally, he went out at the 11th hour, which is 5:00 p.m., to hire laborers.
The first set of laborers were offered a specific wage: they agreed to a penny, which was considered a standard day’s wage. The penny, which was the Roman coin called the denarius or the Greek coin called the drachma, would be about 32 of our dollars. Notice, however, that the other laborers were not offered a set wage but, rather, “whatsoever is right,” meaning whatever the master of the house believed to be fair. At first glance, without reading the rest of the story, we might be thinking “Okay, the laborers hired early in the morning would get a day’s wage, the rest would get a proportionately lesser amount.” In fact, this is what Jesus’ followers were probably thinking. But, beginning at verse eight, Jesus tells us about the payment of wages. The master of the house does a number of unusual things: he first pays those who were hired at the 11th hour, and he pays them a full day’s wage. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but we can presume he next paid those who were hired at the ninth hour, then those at the sixth hour, then those at the third hour, paying them all the same full day’s wage. Then he finally gets to those who were hired first and gives them the wage they agreed upon: the full day’s wage. Of course, when they received their pay, they murmured against their employer. They figured that, since the laborers hired at the 11th hour received the full day’s wage, they should have received more because they worked all day. When they complained, their employer reminded them that they agreed to work the entire day for a full day’s wage. He then explained to them that his money was his to do with as he pleased. If he wanted to pay some folks a full day’s wage to do an hour’s worth of work, that was his right and they really had no right to complain.
Then, at the end, Jesus tells the moral of the story – something that He has said on a number of occasions: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called but few chosen.” Now, what does this mean? Let’s look at some other scriptures to find out.
* Matthew 19:27-30 – This is right after Jesus was talking with the rich young ruler. Brother Peter asks Jesus what reward they will get for having left everything to follow Him. Jesus told Brother Peter that, even though they are going to be well-rewarded in the regeneration, there are those who are first who shall be last and there are those who are last who will be first.
* Matthew 22:1-14 – Here’s another parable about the kingdom of heaven. Lots of people are called to the king’s marriage feast, but only those wearing the wedding garments are chosen to be at the feast. Many are called, but few are chosen.
* Mark 9:33-35 – Jesus teaches the Apostles how one becomes the greatest in the kingdom, telling them “the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.”
* Mark 10:29-31 – This is Brother Mark’s account of Brother Peter’s asking, just after Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler, about the reward for having left all to follow Him. Again, “many that are first shall be last, and the last first.”
* Luke 13:25-30 – There are going to be a lot of disappointed folks when they stand before God in the judgment. A lot of folks who think they’re deserving of heaven are going to be told “I don’t know you: go away.” And, once again, Jesus reminds folks that “there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.”
But what does this mean? Jesus is telling His followers that those who are rich and famous and popular and all that while in this life, will be last in the heavenly kingdom. They will be of the least importance. Those who take on the servant’s heart, those who humble themselves in this life, those who don’t act like they’re all great and wonderful and God’s gift to whatever, will be the greatest and most important in the heavenly kingdom.
What we need to understand is that God is a sovereign God. He has the absolute authority. He can do whatever He pleases and we have nothing we can say about it. Like the householder in our text, God has every right to do whatever He wants with what is His. And guess what, saints: all of creation belongs to God. The Lord is not obligated to save anyone. He’s not obligated to heal or deliver or answer prayer. That He chooses to do so is out of the kindness of His heart – that’s what we call grace. There are a number of preachers and teachers out there who talk about our kingdom authority and our position with God and coming boldly before the throne of grace, but they miss one very important point: that any authority or position we have in the kingdom is because God gives it to us of His own free will. We can’t buy it or earn it or become entitled to it in any way. Any good thing we have in this life, and any good thing we will receive when we go home, are given to us because the Lord loves us. Again, we can’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. We’re not entitled to it. And that’s what Jesus is saying in our text: that He can do whatever He pleases with whatever belongs to Him. We call Him our Lord and King and Master and other such titles. In so doing, we’re saying He has absolute authority over our lives. And, since He created us in His image, in His likeness, to be like Him, shouldn’t we do things His way? Would He not know what is best for us? That we’re not doing things His way, that we think we know what’s best for us, is why this world is so messed up! It’s all messed up because we keep doing it all wrong! But that’s another teaching.
We need to acknowledge the Lord’s absolute right to do whatever He pleases with us. We need to surrender to His absolute authority over our lives. Step three of the 12-step programs tells us that we “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” While the last part of that step, as we understood Him, limits God to our imperfect and fallible understanding of Him, rather than just letting Him reveal Himself as he chooses, we need to ask ourselves whether we’ve made that decision. Have we decided to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God? Have we given Him that place of absolute authority?
Brother Jacob, whom all the English-language Bibles erroneously call James, tells us in His epistle, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up.” And Brother Peter tells us in his first epistle: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you.” We become last here, we’ll be first there. Are we ready to do that? Since we don’t know how long we have on this earth, I don’t recommend delaying even a moment without being sure we’ve humbled ourselves before our God and completely surrendered ourselves to Him to do with as He sees fit. Those themes of absolute surrender to Him and His absolute authority over His creation, are found throughout the word of God – from Genesis to Revelation. We need to recognize this and act on it; now and always.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
- What does the “kingdom of heaven” refer to in our text?
- To what is that kingdom compared?
- What did the householder say to those who complained about their pay?
- What is the moral Jesus told in our text?
- What does this mean for us today?
Author, educator, theologian and scholar Rev. Chancellor Carlyle Roberts II was ordained a minister of the National Gay Pentecostal Alliance and has served as a pastor, Bible teacher and Sunday school teacher. He earned a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies (religion and special education) and a graduate certificate in global studies and is the author of God in Three What? An Examination of the Use of Persons in the Trinity Doctrine, We Believe: A Commentary on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 A.D. and Homesick.