There are three clarifications that need to be made about today’s Gospel lesson—regarding how certain things are translated and understood.
First of all, when the master went out at about the third hour, he said to them: “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4).
Right is the right word, but you need to know that right calls to mind not only right and wrong but righteous and unrighteous.
The word translated as right is used throughout Matthew to refer to the righteous.
This is a parable—what the kingdom of heaven is like—so God, the master of the house, is calling sinners to repentance and reestablishing Creation—calling workers into the vineyard—just as Adam, the first worker in the vineyard, was called forth and put—to tend and keep it.
God’s plan has been and is to give to all—the righteous gift of everlasting life.
That’s the wage.
That’s the second clarification that needs to be made.
Verse eight should read: “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them the wage, beginning with the last up to the first’” (Matthew 20:8).
There is one righteous wage.
And notice, they don’t get what they earn; rather, they receive what is just and right and good.
They receive what God gives.
The third clarification has to do with translating an idiom. In verse fifteen, “or do you begrudge my generosity?” is literally “or is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15).
This parable isn’t about right and wrong but righteousness and unrighteousness.
This parable isn’t about generosity and niceness but what is good and righteous.
With these clarifications in mind, consider the parable:
Workers are called into the vineyard to work.
Early in the morning, and again at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour, workers are called into the vineyard to work.
“Whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4), says the master of the house.
And when evening comes, the owner instructs his foreman to pay them the wage, beginning with the last up to the first.
Two things stand out here.
The amount is the same for all. Those who worked only one hour are given a wage equal to those who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
And—the last are paid first.
Maybe I’m making more of this than I should.
Maybe your experience is different.
But I always wondered as a child why my dad had to get to work half an hour earlier than everyone else on his shift. And why he was always fifteen minutes later than everyone else when we would pick him up from work.
I asked, and he explained it this way:
His shift started at eight. That meant he had to show up before eight to be able to start on time. And his shift ended at four. Which meant he worked until four and then cleaned up.
Seemingly everyone else camped out at the door and punched out at four o’clock exactly.
He never got paid for the extra time.
That’s just what it took for him to do his job.
In human terms, in worldly terms, if he was given what was right, he would’ve received more than the guys who, basically, showed up late and left early. He would’ve received better pay and more recognition.
But they were paid the same, and the guys who didn’t bear the full burden of the day or the scorching heat got home to their families first.
The parable that Jesus tells should shock us.
It’s not how we operate. It’s not nice.
You shouldn’t be paid the same for less work.
And we don’t favor the lazy, last minute workers.
We know what’s meet, right, and salutary.
But I’ve gone too far if I use our human understanding of right and wrong to define God’s will and work to save us.
And that’s why Jesus uses parables.
This isn’t how the world is.
This is how the kingdom of heaven is.
And God’s not nice.
To ask, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” fails on two fronts.
Generosity is not necessarily goodness.
A generous man may not be a good one, and a good man is not generous when he should not be.
Translated this way, we fail to confess against the evil eye that hates God when He’s good to someone else.
We think the unfaithful should suffer more than the faithful, but they don’t always.
We think the wicked should perish before the good, but they don’t always.
Sometimes it’s the Christian’s privilege to bear the cross, the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
Why and to what end?
Do you not know someone who needs a good, Christian example and a kind word?
Is there no one God has put in your life who would benefit from the patient, God-fearing help of a friend?
Everyone who went into the vineyard later in the day had the example of those who went before them etched into their minds.
For every single one of us—God called someone else into the vineyard first, that we would learn from them.
I’m not talking about peer pressure; I’m talking about “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
I’m talking about “being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
God doesn’t need these things—but you do.
And so does your neighbor.
Jesus says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).
God calls workers into His vineyard.
Apart from His call, no one can enter.
For those who labor the whole day and rightly—God sees you and knows your struggle.
He’s with you the whole day through—pleased with you.
And great is your reward—if not now then after.
Rejoice! He chooses to give to you exactly as He promised.
And for those whose labor is but an hour—rejoice!
God called you into the vineyard to work.
You heard His call and believed Him when He said He’d give you what is right.
And for us all—He gave His only Son.
That is what He chose to do with what belonged to Him.
That is the kingdom of heaven.
God is good.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt