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.”
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.
The central theme of this parable is that all believers receive the complete reward of the kingdom. Commentaries suggest at least four possible interpretations:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.”
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.
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.
23 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.
24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him.
25 Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.
26 At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’
27 Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.
28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed.
31 When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.
32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 ’Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed.
35 So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”
Jesus is with His disciples and has been teaching them about humility. In Matt. 18:1, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And in verses 2-9, He responds by calling over a child and telling His disciples that without childlike faith, no one may enter the kingdom. Further, He says that the one who humbles himself like a child is greatest in the kingdom; humility, not pride or performance, is most highly valued in the kingdom. Jesus is the ultimate example of humility, having set aside His heavenly glory to come to earth as the Suffering Servant. He reminds His disciples that the lost are of great value as He shares the parable of the lost sheep (verses 10-14), and He gives them instruction in the proper way to settle disagreements (verses 15-20). Now He turns His attention to Peter’s question about how many times a disciple should forgive his brother. Jesus responds with the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The central theme of this parable is that Christians take on the character of their Heavenly Father, who is merciful beyond human measure. Forgiveness is not a question of arithmetic; it’s a matter of character. Peter asks, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” He thinks he is being more gracious than the law requires. The Jews taught that a person was to forgive another three times, but not four. But Jesus’ response – “70 times seven” – drives home the point that citizens of the kingdom naturally forgive others because much has been forgiven them.
The central character in this parable is the king, who forgives a massive debt. The term is “myriads of talents,” the highest number known in Greek arithmetical notation, according to commentator Adam Clarke. Depending on whether the talents are silver or gold, and whether they are Roman or Jewish coins, estimates of their current value range from $7.5 million to $150 million. In any case, it’s a huge sum of money that one man could never repay.
The king is a picture of our Heavenly Father, who was so moved with compassion toward sinful mankind that He forgave our unfathomable sin debt by paying the price Himself through His only Son (Rom. 5:8).
The unmerciful servant likely is a tax collector. In ancient times, kings often farmed out, or sold for a price, the taxes of particular provinces. This ensured the king a known sum, but gave the tax collector in each province the opportunity to oppress his own people for personal gain. In this case, the servant no doubt was so dishonest that he denied the king his rightful cut. What a picture of the unbeliever! Matthew Henry comments: “He promises payment; Have patience awhile, and I will pay thee all. Note, It is the folly of many who are under convictions of sin, to imagine that they can make God satisfaction for the wrong they have done him … He that had nothing to pay with (v. 25) fancied he could pay all. See how close pride sticks, even to awakened sinners; they are convinced, but not humbled.”
The unpayable debt in this parable illustrates the enormity of our sins, which we are too impoverished to pay. According to Jewish law, debtors could be sold into servitude, along with their wives and children, until a family member redeemed them by paying the debt. But it is doubtful that any family had sufficient funds to pay off the massive debt this servant owed the king (see 2 Kings 4:1).
The forgiveness of the king represents God’s justification, declaring us in right standing with Him as He transfers our sin debt to His Son’s account. Matthew Henry writes, “Every sin we commit is a debt to God…. There is an account kept of these debts … some are more in debt, by reason of sin, than others…. The God of infinite mercy is very ready, out of pure compassion, to forgive the sins of those that humble themselves before him.”
The unmerciful servant, just loosed from his crushing debt, now confronts a fellow servant over what is likely a paltry $12-14 debt and sends him to prison until the debt is paid. This so distresses the other slaves that they go to the king and report what has happened. The king, in turn, summons the unmerciful servant and turns him over to the “jailers/torturers/tormentors.” Albert Barnes comments: “Torments were inflicted on criminals, not on debtors. They were inflicted by stretching the limbs, or pinching the flesh, or taking out the eyes, or taking off the skin while alive, etc. It is not probable that anything of this kind is intended, but only that the servant was punished by imprisonment till the debt should be paid.”
So, does this mean God takes away a believer’s justification if he or she does not forgive others? No. “This is not intended to teach us that God reverses his pardons to any, but that he denies them to those that are unqualified for them…. Those that do not forgive their brother’s trespasses did never truly repent of their own, and therefore that which is taken away is only what they seemed to have. This is intended to teach us, that they shall have judgment without mercy, that have showed no mercy (James 2:13) (Matthew Henry’s Unabridged Commentary).” See also Matt. 6:14-15.
Having been pardoned of a sin debt we could never repay, citizens of the kingdom take on the character of their King and graciously forgive others of their wrongs against us. An unforgiving person demonstrates that he or she is not a true child of the King.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large net thrown into the sea. It collected every kind [of fish],
48 and when it was full, they dragged it ashore, sat down, and gathered the good [fish] into containers, but threw out the worthless ones.
49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous,
50 and throw them into the blazing furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus has dismissed the crowds and gone back into Peter’s house. There, he explains to His disciples the parable of the wheat and tares, offers two parables that illustrate the priceless value of the kingdom of heaven, and launches into the parable of the dragnet, also known as the parable of the good and bad fish. Keep in mind how Jesus ties these parables together to deepen His disciples’ understanding of the kingdom of heaven:
- The parable of the sower illustrates that the kingdom can be resisted. The Messiah the Jewish leaders are looking for – political and military – will indeed come one day in power and great glory, but first He must come humbly as the Lamb of God. Many will resist, reject or oppose Him.
- The parable of the wheat and tares teaches that throughout this present, evil age, believers and unbelievers will live side-by-side, to be separated and judged one day.
- The parables of the mustard seed and leaven show that the kingdom already has come – but quietly, almost imperceptibly.
- The parables of the hidden treasure and priceless pearl demonstrate that the kingdom is of immeasurable value.
- And now, the parable of the dragnet teaches the blunt truth that those outside the kingdom will be separated eternally from God in hell.
The central theme of this parable is that in the age to come, God will separate the citizens of the kingdom of heaven from those in Satan’s kingdom. All who reject the King and His kingdom will depart from God and spend eternity in hell. It is a stark teaching, blunt yet simple. And it underscores the fact, taught in the parable of the wheat and tares, that believers and unbelievers will live side by side throughout the present, evil age, until a day of reckoning comes.
Jesus says the kingdom is like a dragnet. This is a large net that fishermen used in Jesus’ day, weighted on one side with lead and buoyed on the opposite edge by wooden floats or corks. The net often is spread between two fishing boats, enabling cooperating fishermen to capture fish across a wide area from the seabed to the surface of the water. Once the net is cast, either the fishermen in both boats work together to haul in the net, or fishermen on the shore, with ropes connected to the net, draw it into the shallow waters. After the catch, the fishermen separate the good fish from the bad.
The dragnet pictures the scope of God’s kingdom during this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and implies the cooperative effort believers engage in to serve Christ in “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). The use of a dragnet, since it catches good and bad fish, requires a time of evaluation and separation. This pictures the resurrection and judgment that will come upon all people at the end of this present age. Jesus speaks of this resurrection and final judgment in John 5:28-29. The New Testament writers indicate an undesignated interval of time between the resurrection of the just (“first resurrection” or “rapture” – 1 Cor. 15:51-57; 1 Thess. 4:13-17) and the resurrection of the unjust (“second resurrection” that leads to the “second death” or “the lake of fire” – Rev. 20:11-15). This does not contradict Jesus’ parable. Keep in mind that parables are designed to teach a single truth – in this case, the truth of a future resurrection and judgment for all people.
George Eldon Ladd comments:
When God brings His Kingdom, the society of wicked men will be displaced by the society of those who have submitted themselves to God’s rule who will then enjoy the fullness of the divine blessings freed from all evil. Jesus taught that the redemptive purposes of God had brought His Kingdom to work among men in advance of the Day of Judgment. It is now like a drag-net which gathers within its influence men of various sorts, both good and bad. The separation between the good and the evil is not yet; the Day of Judgment belongs to the end of the age (Matt. 13:49). Meanwhile, there will be within the circle of those who are caught up by the activity of God’s Kingdom in the world not only those who are truly sons of the Kingdom; evil men will also be found in this movement” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 62-63).
The sea is the world, or the mass of fallen humanity (see Isa. 57:20). The fishermen may be seen in two ways: 1) as believers, who work cooperatively to spread the gospel; and 2) as angels, whom Christ sends out to separate believers from unbelievers (Matt. 13:41, 49; 24:31). The fish are lost people who respond in some way to the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus said some of every kind is taken in, just a John records in Rev. 5:9 that people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” are in heaven. And, of course, the separation of the good and bad fish symbolizes the separation of the just from the unjust in final judgment. Just as some fish caught in the net are cast away, some professors of the faith will be exposed as unbelievers and cast out of the kingdom (see Matt. 7:21-23).
Peter urges believers to “make every effort to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). At the same time, all professors of Christianity should examine their hearts to see whether they have truly trusted in Christ for their salvation. Are their hearts like good soil (Matt. 13:8)? Is the evidence of their profession like wheat or tares (Matt. 13:24-30)? Finally, all believers, like good fishermen, should cooperate with others to spread the net of the gospel message around the world (Matt. 28:19-20).
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.
45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.
46 When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.”
Jesus has dismissed the crowds by the Sea of Galilee and gone back into Peter’s house. There, he explains to His disciples the parable of the wheat and tares, then offers two parables that illustrate the immense value of the kingdom of heaven. Note the flow of the biblical text:
- In Matthew 12, Jesus declares Himself the Messiah, predicts His future resurrection and states emphatically that the kingdom of heaven has come – but not in the way the Jewish leaders were expecting. Rather than as a political and military machine, the kingdom has come quietly and with great spiritual power. The King has invaded Satan’s kingdom and bound him (the “strong man” of Matt. 12:29) so that He may plunder the evil one’s kingdom.
- The Jewish religious leaders clearly reject Jesus as Messiah since He does not fit their preconceived mold.
- In Matthew 13, Jesus tells eight parables about the kingdom of heaven to help those who trust in Him as Messiah better understand this “mystery” of the kingdom. In the parable of the sower, He shows that the kingdom can be resisted. In the parable of the wheat and tares, He explains that during this phase of the kingdom, believers and unbelievers will exist side-by-side, to be separated after His return one day. In the parables of the mustard seed and leaven, He points out that the kingdom begins quietly, almost imperceptibly.
- Now, Jesus teaches two parables that illustrate the immeasurable value of the kingdom.
The Hidden Treasure
The central theme of this parable is that the kingdom of heaven is of immense value. Even though the kingdom has come in humble form – largely escaping the notice of secular historians – it is like a treasure whose value transcends every other possession.
Notice how Jesus builds His case for the kingdom: The kingdom has come, but not in the way the Jewish leaders expected. It is here, but can be resisted (parable of the sower). Its citizens will coexist with unbelievers until Messiah returns (parable of the wheat and tares). It begins humbly, almost imperceptibly, yet it is the kingdom of God (parables of the mustard seed and leaven). It should not be underestimated; the kingdom is of immense value (parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price).
The treasure is the focus of this parable. In Jesus’ day, it was not uncommon to bury valuables in the ground to keep them from unscrupulous neighbors, thieves or marauders. This often was done by men before departing for battle or embarking on long journeys. If they returned safely, they could reclaim their buried treasure. But if they died in battle or failed to return home for any reason, the location of the valuables would remain a secret. Because of this, some people in the Holy Land lived as treasure hunters. The Bible features numerous references to the pursuit of hidden treasure (see, for example, Job 3:20-21; Prov. 2:3-5). Even so, the hidden treasure belonged to the person who owned the property, so the one who discovered the treasure would have to purchase the land to become its rightful owner, or be considered a thief.
It is possible, however, that the treasure to which Jesus refers is an underground mine of gold or silver, whose entrance is discovered by accident. Unlike a pot of money, which easily (although illegally) could be carried away, the mine would require excavation and, no doubt, draw considerable attention. So the discoverer “reburies,” or hides again, the entrance to the mine, sells all he has and buys the field. His actions are questionable, if not unethical; Jesus does not condone this unscrupulous man’s tactics any more than He approves of the actions of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-8. The point is that the man who discovers the treasure finds it to be more valuable than all he owns, and he strikes out with great urgency to make the treasure his.
We should be careful not to read too much into this parable. Some, for example, say the treasure is the church, the field is the world and the man is Christ. By this interpretation, Christ in His foreknowledge saw such value in the church that He sold all He had – He gave up His heavenly glory and came to earth – for our salvation, and in the process bought the world. But this is not consistent with Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom or with the purpose of His parables. Others argue that the gold or silver mine is the kingdom and Christ is the entrance; indeed, Jesus declared Himself to be “the door” (John 10:9) and “the way” (John 14:6), and He urges us to enter the kingdom through “the narrow gate” (Matt. 7:13). The field is the world and the man is anyone God has drawn to Himself. While this explanation seems more in line with Christ’s teaching about the kingdom, it still may force more meaning than Jesus intended.
Jesus’ parables are realistic stories that communicate a single truth; the details are just “window dressing.” The simple meaning of this parable is that the kingdom of heaven is of more value than anything we possess, and it is worth all we have.
Entrance into the kingdom is worth everything we have; nothing is more precious.
The Pearl of Great Price
The central theme of this parable is the same as the theme of the hidden treasure: The kingdom of heaven is a treasure whose value transcends every other possession.
The priceless pearl is this parable’s main character. Even though Jesus says the kingdom may be likened unto a merchant in search of fine pearls, it is the great value of the kingdom that He has chosen to emphasize. Pearls are precious stones, found in the shells of oysters. Their beauty, size and rarity make them valuable. In John’s vision of heaven, one extraordinarily large pearl makes up each of the 12 gates of New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:21), and only the citizens of the kingdom are welcome inside. Such pearls are unfathomable on earth but serve to illustrate the immeasurable value of the kingdom of heaven.
The merchant is experienced and recognizes the rarest of pearls when he comes upon it. Matthew Henry comments: “All the children of men are busy, seeking goodly pearls: one would be rich, another would be honourable, another would be learned; but the most are imposed upon, and take up with counterfeits for pearls…. Jesus Christ is a Pearl of great price, a Jewel of inestimable value, which will make those who have it rich, truly rich, rich toward God; in having him, we have enough to make us happy here and for ever.”
George Eldon Ladd adds context to both the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure whose value transcends every other possession; it is like a pearl whose acquisition merits the loss of all other goods. Now again, the idea that the man buys the field or that the merchant buys the pearl has nothing to do with the basic truth of the parable. This parable does not tell us that we can buy salvation. Salvation is by faith, the free gift of God; and Matt. 20:1-16 teaches that the Kingdom is a gift and not a reward which can be earned. Yet even though the Kingdom is a gracious gift, it is also costly. It may cost one his earthly possessions (Mark 10:21), or his friends or the affections of his family or even his very life (Luke 14:26). But cost what it may, the Kingdom of God is like a treasure or a costly pearl whose possession merits any cost” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 62).
People should see the immense value in the kingdom of heaven and willingly give up anything that keeps them from becoming its citizens.