Service And Reward
Ordinary Time 25
8. Service And Reward
"For The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out
early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After
agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them
into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw
others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them,
'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is
right.' So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and
three o'clock, he did the same. 6And about five o'clock he went
out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why
are you standing here idle all day?' 7They said to him, 'Because
no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the
vineyard.' 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to
his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9When
those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the
usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they
would receive more; but each of them also received the usual
daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against
the landowner, 12saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and
you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the
day and the scorching heat.' 13But he replied to one of them,
'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for
the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you, and go; I
choose to give to this last the same as I give
to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs
to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16So the last
will be first, and the first will be last."
Social status may be determined by many factors. Some of
these may be given by birth, genetics, or for reasons other than
the achievement of the person. These include such things as
color of skin and eyes, kind of hair, height, body build, gender,
national origin, family's social position, inherited wealth, and
Other factors may be determined by achievements through a
person's efforts. These include such factors as level of
education, employment, development of skills, hard work, wise
investment, or initiatives taken.
People who have sought to improve their social and economic
status by what they have achieved may resent the higher status of
others who were given their status by the accident of birth or
nationality or family connections. It would appear to them that
life has not been fair.
The parable of the laborers who worked longer than others in
the vineyard seems to suggest an unfairness in the rewards in the
kingdom of heaven. The actions of Jesus do suggest that he was
not ready to judge persons by normal standards of determining
social status. The parable proposes a different basis for
receiving salvation than the way in which persons are generally
rewarded by society.
Context of the Gospels
Matthew has set the parable that is unique to his gospel in
the context of events which both Mark and Luke have. The
encounter with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark
10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30) leads the disciples to raise questions
about whether they will be rewarded for the sacrifices they have
made. Matthew uses that as the specific occasion for Jesus'
telling of the parable.
The parable is also in the context of two other events when
people tried to exclude other persons from Jesus' attention. The
first precedes the location of the parable by Matthew (Matthew
19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). It is the attempt of
the disciples to protect Jesus' time by excluding the children.
Jesus reprimands the disciples for doing so and proceeds to bless
the children and then uses them as an example of those who will
receive the kingdom of heaven. The children do not receive the
blessing from Jesus for what they have done but just for who they
are and because of his graciousness.
The second is the healing of two blind men in Jericho whom
the crowd tried to exclude by admonishing them to be quiet.
(Matthew 20:19-34; only one blind person in Mark and Luke: Mark
10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43.) The blind man, once healed,
immediately becomes a follower of Jesus out of gratitude for the
blessing of sight that he received.
The context also includes the request of the mother of James
and John to seek a privileged position in the kingdom. (It is
also found in Mark 10:35-45, but not in Luke.) Jesus used the
question to assert that greatness in the kingdom is by
servanthood. He also asks them if they are willing to face the
same difficulties which Jesus anticipated for himself and his
Context of Matthew
The parable is bracketed by two variations of the statement,
"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first"
(Matthew 19:30), and the inversion of it, "So the last will be
first, and the first will be last" (Matthew 20:16). According
to Matthew Jesus continues to use the various events to
communicate his vision of what the kingdom of heaven is like and
how it differs from current common conceptions of it.
Immediately preceding the parable when Jesus accepts the children
and blesses them, he uses them as a model as to how the kingdom
is granted by grace where other persons would exclude them. Then
in the encounter with the rich young man, he indicates that it is
almost impossible for anyone to be worthy of the kingdom on the
basis of his or her actions.
Context of the Lectionary
The First Lesson. (Exodus 16:2-15) The people in the desert
complain against Moses and Aaron for bringing them out into the
wilderness where they fear they will starve. God then assures
Moses that he will provide bread daily for them to eat. They
will have enough for daily food except on the sixth day they will
have twice as much as needed so they can observe the Sabbath of
rest. Then the people will know the glory of the Lord who can
provide for their needs. They will have no further reason for
complaining against the leaders whom the Lord has appointed.
The Second Lesson. (Philippians 1:21-30) Paul affirms his
own life to be in accordance with his understanding of the
kingdom of heaven. He desires to depart and realize the full
presence of Christ and his kingdom. But he also understands that
his mission is to have those whom he brought into the church have
the full knowledge of the meaning of the gospel which had
transformed his life. This knowledge will not be for the
destruction of their opponents but for salvation for the
Philippians. They can be assured of their salvation because they
are now having the same struggles which Paul had.
Gospel. (Matthew 20:1-16) The parable revolves about the
equal rewards given to workers in the vineyard for unequal
amounts of labor.
Psalm. (Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45) The psalmist calls the
people to give thanks. They are to remember the miracles which
the Lord has done in the past. The latter verses recount the
experience of the Israelites being brought out of Egypt with
riches and then reminds them of the way in which the Lord
provided for the Israelites in the desert as is told in the
passage in the first lesson for today. The gratitude for the
memory of God's provisions should lead them to be obedient to
God's statutes and laws. In such manner they will praise the
glory of the Lord.
Context of Related Scriptures
Leviticus 19:13 Ä The law against oppressing or robbing
neighbors. Do not keep a hired servant's wages overnight.
Deuteronomy 24:15 Ä The need to pay laborers before sunset.
Psalm 24:1 Ä The divine ownership of the earth.
Jeremiah 12:10 Ä Shepherds ruin the vineyard.
Malachi 3:5 Ä Judgment against those who defraud by
Mark 7:22 Ä Jesus' teaching about the sins of the heart,
including covetousness and envy.
Luke 3:14 Ä John the Baptist tells soldiers to be content
with their wages.
Philippians 4:11 Ä Paul's contention that "In whatever state
I am, to be content."
Colossians 4:1Ä Paul's admonition to masters to treat their
James 5:4 Ä A condemnation of those who don't pay persons
who mow the field.
Content of the Pericope
Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who, apparently at
the peak of the harvest season, hired temporary workers five
times during the day at about three hour intervals. He
negotiates with the first workers to pay them the normal wage for
a day. With the other workers he only agrees to pay them what is
At the end of the day the landowner instructs his manager to
pay each of the workers the normal daily wage. The workers who
were hired first and worked for 12 hours expected to be paid
more, especially more than those who only worked one hour. When
they got the same amount as the others, they complained about its
The landowner reminds them that they got what they had
agreed to as a fair wage. He then poses rhetorical questions as
to his right to choose to do as he pleased with what he owned and
whether they resented that he was a generous person.
The point of the parable is given at the end: "So the last
will be first and the first last." The parable is given in
response to the query from the disciples as to whether they would
be rewarded for their faithfulness in following Jesus and
enduring the hardships and sacrifices of such life.
Thesis: Salvation is not earned by efforts but is given by
grace according to a person's need.
Theme: Kingdom rewards are given generously to those who
Key Words in the Parable
1. "Landowner." (v. 1) God is the sovereign who owns the
earth. People are called to be laborers for God.
2. "Laborer." (v. 1) Those who enter the kingdom have a
task to do. To care for a vineyard requires a lot of tedious
hand labor, both in pruning the vines at the beginning of the
growing season and at harvest time.
3. "Vineyard." (v. 1) A vineyard is often used as an image
for God's kingdom.
4. "Early." (v.1) The day started at sunrise, which was
normally 6 a.m. It was designated as the first hour in their
system of reckoning.
5. "Usual Daily Wage." (v. 2) A denarius was usually
considered a daily wage. An oral agreement was binding under the
law at that time.
6. "Standing Idle." (v. 3) Literally it says they were
"hanging about." Day laborers would assemble in the marketplace
of a town or village. Employers who needed temporary help would
go there and select the number they needed. The marketplace
served as the employment office in that culture. If men were not
hired, they would linger there with nothing to do.
7. "Pay you whatever is right." (v. 4) The men were in no
position to bargain. Earning anything was probably better for
them than spending the day idle. They had to rely on the
fairness of the employer.
8. "About Five O'Clock." (v. 6) The landowner went very
late in the day, with only about an hour of time left. No
explanation is given as to why these men were still in the
marketplace and had not been hired earlier. Presumably the
landowner was anxious to get the grapes harvested before the
rains came and spoiled them.
9. "No One has Hired Us." (v. 7) Some reproach is implied
in the question about why they were still there. The men became
defensive. During the harvest season plenty of work should be
available for anyone who was willing to work.
10. "Each of Them Received the Usual Daily Wage." (v. 9)
The owner knew that the men had to provide for families. They
needed the usual wage or their families would go hungry.
11. "Friend." (v. 13) Is the term an implied reproach? It
was the same address Jesus used with Judas when betrayed in the
Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50). Jesus also addresses his
disciples in a similar fashion (See John 15:15).
12. "I Choose." (v. 14) It was the prerogative of the
owner to use his possessions as he wished. As long as he paid a
fair wage to the workers who labored all day they had no reason
to complain even though the inequity between their effort and the
reward seemed unfair compared to the other workers.
13. "Are You Envious?" (v. 15) Literally the expression is
"Is your eye evil?"
1. What is Justice? The word justice is slippery. It can
have different meanings to different people or in different
circumstances. One standard, and probably the most frequent one,
is that of equality. Everyone should be treated equally. A
frequent slogan in labor-management negotiation which embodies
this concept of justice is "Equal pay for equal work."
Another standard has a similar basis but is dependent on
merit. You should get what you deserve. This principle is found
in "piece work" as opposed to an hourly or daily wage. It is
assumed that if people are more productive, they deserve more
pay. It is generally assumed that a person with more education
and higher skills deserves more reward. Thus a doctor who
invests years in getting an education and honing skills deserves
more per hour than someone who goes to work right out of high
A third standard is based on need. The Marxist principle,
"From each according to ability; to each according to need,"
comes out of Karl Marx's Judeo-Christian background (See Acts
2:45). The owner in the parable seems to have combined a
principle of equality (all received equal pay) with a sense of
need (generosity to those who only worked at the end of the day.)
The workers who labored all day thought the pay was unjust on the
basis of merit, what they deserved.
It is generally agreed that Jesus is not proposing a general
economic principle in this parable, but emphasizing the
generosity of God in rewarding those who enter the kingdom,
regardless of when in life they respond to God's call.
2. Service and Reward. A distinction sometimes is made
between work and play. It is the difference between extrinsic
and intrinsic rewards. It is work when persons have to be paid
efforts beyond what they get in terms of satisfaction from the
activity itself. Persons have to have a monetary reward for
engaging in certain activities or they would not do it.
Play is when people just enjoy doing what they are doing,
regardless of whether they get any reward otherwise. The effort
expended is not the measure of whether it is work. Enjoyment in
doing something is its own reward in play.
The parable suggests that service in the kingdom is more of
the nature of play. It has its reward in doing the right thing,
not because of the amount of extrinsic reward. Nevertheless, God
is good and generous and the rewards received may be well beyond
our deserving in a strictly egalitarian sense.
3. Working in the Lord's Vineyard. The English language has
no equivalent play on words to that of the German for the
expression "The kingdom is both Gabe and Aufgabe." Gabe is the
German word for gift and Aufgabe is the word for a task. The
kingdom is both a gift and a task.
Some confusion exists between the giving of salvation by
grace, and the doing of kingdom work as a task. Persons do not
receive the kingdom because they deserve it. It is offered to
all by the grace of God. As Lord he is a good and generous
However, once the gift is received, it is a call to a life
of obedience to God's will. As such it is a task that is more a
response of gratitude for the privilege of being in the kingdom
than as the reward that is offered at the end of life.
4. The Lord is Sovereign. What we receive from the earth is
not simply something we have a right to have. We have the earth
in trust as co-creators with God in bringing God's will to
complete fulfillment. With God as sovereign Lord, we are to work
in the vineyard and not to destroy it. The earth is created with
amazing recuperative powers. Nevertheless it has limits and the
resources are finite.
The earth is intended to provide us with our daily needs.
Our needs should be met with consideration for the needs of
others and of those to come in later generations. We should use
resources to meet our needs with care, and not with envy of those
who acquire in excess of their daily needs.
5. The Inversion of Values. Matthew frames the parable with
the warning that the first will be last and the last will be
first. So often the kingdom values are the opposite of worldly
The events recorded just prior to the parable led Jesus to
contrast the kingdom with conventional wisdom. The first
incident was the blessing of the children. They model the
kingdom in their innocence and directness. They are not engaged
in the intrigue and deception so often characterized by adults.
They are themselves and do not attempt to mislead others as to
who they are in order to manipulate and gain advantage over
The second incident was the encounter with the "poor" rich
man. He wanted a quick and easy way to salvation. He had no
real sense of his need to change. He manifested a certain
smugness in his good behavior. He saw nothing in his life that
would call for a radical transformation. He was possessed by his
possessions. So he missed the opportunity to participate with
the followers of Jesus in the joy of sharing in the work of the
As the disciples looked at the young man and compared his
lot in life with theirs, they may have had a question about whose
life was better. Jesus does not think that many possessions make
a person rich. Rather it is the commitment to the kingdom and
its values that gives true and enduring meaning to life.
1. The Good Landowner. (vv. 1-15) The actions of the
landowner reveal Jesus' understanding of the nature of God.
A. The Generous God. God provides for daily needs for those
who labor in the kingdom. His grace is not conditioned on what we
deserve. It is dependent on our real needs.
B. The Seeking God. The owner returned again and again to
the market place to see if any were still idle. He offered all a
place to work in the vineyard, even those whom others had
C. The Sovereign God. The owner had the right to choose how
the goods were to be distributed. The standards for reward were
not always according to conventional wisdom. God's awareness of
need is larger than the human tendency to be centered in one's
own needs or desires, and not to be equally concerned with the
needs of others.
2. The Right Side Up Kingdom. (v. 16)
A. The False Values Turned Around. God corrects false
values when people get obsessed with who is number one.
B. Supplying Daily Needs. Jesus understood that the daily
needs of people have to be met. People are not just spiritual
beings. They have physical needs as well. Physical needs once
met should serve the spirit and not become ends in themselves.
C. Fulfilling Human Potential. Care needs to be taken that
fulfilling human potential is not confounded with thinking that
people are the sole source of salvation. Some people seem to be
so concerned about a philosophy of humanism that they end up
appearing to be anti-human. Jesus always loved people and was
incensed when they were prevented from realizing their full and
3. Invidious Comparisons. (v. 12)
A. Corrosive Envy. Comparison of a person's gifts with
others can disrupt relationships. Persons' self-esteem can be
damaged if they look at the gifts others have instead of
accepting and using the gifts they have.
B. Jealous of Position. Often church fights arise because
people want positions of power. They resent others who have
positions they want to have so as to control the institutions and
C. Measured by Christ. The antidote to corrosive envy is to
look at oneself in comparison with Christ and not
with other people. The goal is to emulate the servanthood and
cross bearing of Christ, not to compare oneself to other people.
4. What Time is It? (vv. 1-15)
A. Early Arrivals. The people who are privileged to enter
the church early have a lifetime to enjoy labor in the kingdom.
B. Late Arrivals. People who have had long membership in
the church may envy those who enter late and their freshness and
enthusiasm. The late arrivals may seem to surpass or even
displace the long-term members of the church. It is a danger
that may affect the harmony of the church.
C. Never Too Late. God continues to seek those who are
outside the kingdom. Despite a long life outside the kingdom, it
is never too late to be accepted. Entrance into the church as
representative of the kingdom is not just for the young.
5. Kingdom Work. (vv. 1-15)
A. The Scope of Service. It is not just those who are
engaged in full-time service, such as the pastor or the director
of Christian education, who serve the kingdom.
B. Voluntary Service. Persons may find their service in the
kingdom does not have to be paid because their daily needs may be
met otherwise. They find their reward entirely intrinsic and do
not need extrinsic rewards.
C. Lay Service. Emphasis can be given to the values of lay
activity in the Church. Ordained ministers are not set apart
because they are more valued but because they have different
6. When is Justice Done? Examine the different standards of
justice and their implications for Christian behavior.
A. Equality of Worth
B. Our Just Desserts
C. Love Fulfills Justice
Points of Contact
1. Birthright or Convinced. The Society of Friends
(Quakers) make a distinction between birthright Friends and
convinced Friends. Those who are birthright Friends were born
and raised in a family that was a long-time member of a Friends
Meeting. Convinced Friends are those who at some stage in their
life became a member by their own choice, even though having no
background in the Society. While other religious groups may not
have the same terms, jealousy may arise when new members
(convinced) receive more attention and seem to be rewarded with
positions of prominence and influence.
2. Who Do You Follow? Someone has suggested that with a
change of pastor a congregation may actually have two or more
sub-congregations in the same church. One congregation may feel
their loyalty remains with the previous pastor. Another group
may identify with the new pastor. Still others may feel they
belong to some earlier beloved pastor. The issue is not to which
pastor the congregation owes loyalty. It is rather a question of
all giving loyalty to Christ and following him. Otherwise envy
and jealousy may leave a congregation divided and struggling over
who is rewarded with power in decision making. Those holding
loyalty to early pastors may eventually leave the church.
3. A Gap Between Professionals and the Laity. Many churches
have moved increasingly to professional leadership. Earlier the
church may have only paid the pastor. Now they may have a
multiple professional staff, including associate or assistant
pastors, directors of Christian education, youth ministers and
choir director(s). The church may even pay members of the choir
and Sunday school teachers. Compensating persons for their
professional service has New Testament support. Problems may
arise, however, when members resent being asked to undertake
tasks in the church for which others are paid. They may also
come to feel
that the church really is the professionals and that the laity
has no role to play in it.
4. Joy in Service. Happy is the person whose work is play.
Members of the church should find joy in their ministering to
others. Any extra reward is just a bonus. People should find
satisfaction in having opportunity both in serving others in the
church and through the church reaching out to serve others.
Unhappy is the person who has not learned the joy of service.
Points to Ponder
1. The Pharisees or the Disciples. It is not quite clear
who the persons are in the parable who were hired to work at
different times during the day. Was it the Pharisees who had
sought all their lives to be faithful to God and now envied Jesus
and his disciples? Was it the disciples who were with Jesus from
the beginning of his public ministry and who were envious of a
young man such as the one who asked Jesus what he had to do to be
saved? Who are the people today who are like the workers who
labored 12 hours and grumbled at the latecomers who received a
full day's wage?
2. Retributive Justice. A standard of justice which was not
discussed earlier is what is called retributive justice. It is
embodied in such phrases as "giving the criminal what he
deserves" and "paying a debt to society." It is a reverse side
of merit as the standard for justice. The question arises as to
whether vengeance is only the prerogative of God. Is a generous
and good God only able to mete out justice fairly according to
need, just as the parable suggests that reward is according to
need and not according to merit on the basis of how much or how
long someone has served? What does this parable have to say
about the Christian attitude toward criminals, especially those
who show repentance and respond to Christ's call?
1. Who is "Church"? A congregation was located in a college
town. Most of the residents of the town were of a particular
ethnic group. Many of the faculty members at the college joined
the church. On one occasion all the delegates to a district
conference were members who had come to the church after becoming
affiliated with the college. One older member of the
congregation complained, "Why don't they appoint some members of
'the church'?" meaning some of the long-term ethnic members of
2. Equal and Distributive Justice. During the Depression a
family with four children sometimes had one orange for lunch. To
assure equitable distribution of the orange the oldest child
would cut the orange and then proceeding from the youngest to the
oldest the four children chose a quarter section. This assured
that the orange would be divided in equal parts since it was
presumed that if they were not equal in size, the one who did the
cutting would get the smallest portion. She would not want that
On Sunday the family would have a roast or some other meat.
If the pieces were of unequal size, the largest piece always went
to the father since he was the wage owner and needed energy for
the hard work he did. Need and not equality was the measure of
what was fair in that instance.
3. Deathbed Baptism. The emperor Constantine delayed
becoming a Christian as long as he could for fear that what he
did might prevent him from receiving eternal life. Only when he
was on his deathbed did he finally consent to be baptized, so
late that he could not do anything to jeopardize his salvation.
4. Give Him a Penny. Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician.
He was teaching a group of young people how to do mathematics.
One of the students asked him what good this knowledge was going
to do for him. Pythagoras told one of his servants to
give the student a penny so he would get something out of the
5. Status Envy. A group traveled through the South during
the time when the nation was becoming aware of racism and civil
rights. They talked with some workers in a factory about the
need for equality among the races. One of the workers protested,
"But if the Negroes are equal with us, no one will be below us!"
6. Seeking Rewards. It is reported that a woman in the
Middle Ages went about with a torch and a bucket of water. She
wanted to burn heaven and put out the fires of hell so that
people would love God for himself alone.