The Parable of the Vineyard Laborers

Following is chapter 11 of The Kingdom According to Jesus. You may order the entire study from a number of the nation’s leading booksellers.

Matt. 20:1-16 (HCSB)

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
2 After agreeing with the workers on one denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 When he went out about nine in the morning, he saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
4 To those men he said, ‘You also go to my vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is right.’ So off they went.
5 About noon and at three, he went out again and did the same thing.
6 Then about five he went and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?’
7 ‘Because no one hired us,’ they said to him. ‘You also go to my vineyard,’ he told them.
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, starting with the last and ending with the first.’
9 When those who were hired about five came, they each received one denarius.
10 So when the first ones came, they assumed they would get more, but they also received a denarius each.
11 When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner:
12 ‘These last men put in one hour, and you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat!’
13 He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius?
14 Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you.
15 ’Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my business? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’
16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

The context

Jesus is with His 12 disciples, who have just witnessed His dealings with the rich young ruler and have heard His teaching that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Startled, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responds, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Peter points out that he and his fellow disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. “So what will there be for us?” he asks. Jesus assures Peter that everyone who has sacrificed for His name will be well compensated in the age to come. Jesus then closes out Matthew 19 by saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (v. 30), a phrase repeated in the parable that follows and gives us a key to understanding its meaning.

Central theme

The central theme of this parable is that all believers receive the complete reward of the kingdom. Commentaries suggest at least four possible interpretations:

  1. This is a parable about the Gentiles, who will enjoy the privileges of the new covenant, while the Jews, because of their rejection of the Messiah, will be set aside.
  2. This is a parable about God’s call to individual lives. The call early in the morning is for children; the call around nine is for youth; the call at noon is for adults; the call at three is for the aged; and the evening call is when sickness or other infirmities press hard on one’s life.
  3. This is a parable about the preaching of the gospel. The morning call is the preaching of John the Baptist; the second call is the preaching of Jesus; the third, the preaching of the fullness of the gospel after the ascension of Christ; the fourth, the mission of the apostles to the Jews; and the last call, the gospel presentation to the Gentiles.
  4. This is a parable about humble Christian service. The followers of Christ should labor in His vineyard, the church, fully confident they will receive their reward in heaven (see Matt. 5:12, 6:1; Luke 6:23). They need not be concerned that some have come into the kingdom before them, or after them, or that their length of service or degree of giftedness is different from theirs.

The fourth interpretation of this parable seems to be the most faithful to the context. Consider what commentator Albert Barnes wrote in the early 1800s in Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament:

To all justice shall be done. To all to whom the rewards of heaven were promised, they shall be given. Nothing shall be withheld that was promised. If among this number who are called into the kingdom I (God) choose to raise some to stations of distinguished usefulness, and to confer on them peculiar talents and higher rewards, I injure no other one. They shall enter heaven as was promised. If amidst the multitude of Christians, I choose to signalize such men as Paul, and Martyn, and Brainerd, and Spencer, and Summerfield – to appoint some of them to short labour, but to wide usefulness, and raise them to signal rewards – I injure not the great multitude of others who live long lives less useful, and less rewarded. All shall reach heaven, and all shall receive what I promise to the faithful.

Regarding Jesus’ summary words, “So the last will be first, and the first last,” F.F. Bruce comments, “What is the point of the saying in this context? It seems to be directed to the disciples and perhaps the point is that those who have given up most to follow Jesus must not suppose that the chief place in the kingdom of God is thereby granted to them” (The Hard Sayings of Jesus, p. 199).

Herbert Lockyer adds, in All the Parables of the Bible, “As laborers may we ever remember that motive gives character to service, and that acceptable service is determined, not by duration, but by its spirit.”

Central character

The central character in this parable is the landowner, a picture of Jesus who is Creator of all things (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16), sovereign Lord over His creation, and the One to whom all judgment has been given (John 5:22). He actively and graciously seeks laborers for His vineyard, rewarding them justly for their work.


In the immediate context, the laborers are Christ’s disciples, who are among the first to labor in Christ’s vineyard. The workers who come along later symbolize others – Jews and Gentiles – who will receive Christ and serve Him throughout the church age. Matthew Henry comments, “God hires laborers, not because he needs them or their services … but as some charitable generous householders keep poor men to work, in kindness to them, to save them from idleness and poverty, and pay them for working for themselves” (Matthew Henry Unabridged).

The denarius is the customary wage of a solider or a day laborer. The word is rendered “penny” in the King James Version.

The vineyard may be seen as the kingdom of heaven, into which people of all walks of life are called. Some would say the vineyard is the church, which requires constant pruning and care.

The marketplace may be seen as the world. The soul of man stands ready to be hired, for God made us to work. The devil seeks to hire people to waste their inheritance and feed swine, while the Lord calls them to dress His vineyard. We are put to the choice, for we must choose whom we will serve (Josh. 24:15).

It’s important to note that some manuscripts add, “… for many are called, but few are chosen” to verse 16. Albert Barnes comments in Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament:

The meaning of this, in this connexion [sic], I take to be simply this: “Many are called into my kingdom; they come and labour as I command them; they are comparatively unknown and obscure; yet they are real Christians, and shall receive the proper reward. A few I have chosen for higher stations in the church. I have endowed them with apostolic gifts, or superior talents, or wider usefulness. They may not be so long in the vineyard; their race may be sooner run; but I have chosen to honour them in this manner; and I have a right to do it. I injure no one; and have a right to do what I will with mine own.”

Spiritual application

As grateful laborers in Christ’s vineyard, all believers should be faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us, confident that we will receive our promised reward. At the same time, we should not be envious of those who may overtake us in length or fruitfulness of service.