Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Mateus 20:1-16

Tradução em português aqui.

In Matthew 20:1–16 Jesus tells the parable of a landowner who hires labourers to work in his vineyard. This parable is designed to show us something about Jesus and his kingdom.

In the story, the landowner goes to the marketplace at dawn to select workers from those who are offering themselves as labourers. The custom was that day labourers usually supplied their own tools. So, landowners typically would have looked for fit, hardy people with strong, sharp tools.

The landowner selects some workers and offers to pay them a denarius, the usual daily pay for a labourer. A few hours later, he goes back to the marketplace and sees others, still standing and still waiting to be chosen. He tells them to go and work in his vineyard for a just rate of pay, but he does not specify the amount. The landowner does this again at noon, and then again at three o’clock in the afternoon. There was plenty of work to do in his vineyard. Planting, pruning, and tending vineyards is hard work and extra workers mean greater productivity.

At around five o’clock the landowner sees that there are people still standing, still waiting, in the marketplace. He asks them why they have been standing there for the whole day doing nothing. They reply, “Because no one has hired us.” The landowner then does something unexpected. With only an hour or so of daylight left, he tells them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

These people were the rejects, the workers that no one else wanted to employ. Perhaps they appeared weak and scrawny or, in some other way, appeared ill-suited and unfit for work. But they go off and toil in the landowner’s vineyard.

An hour later, when the workday was over, all the workers gathered to receive their pay. The ones who were employed last receive their pay first. Surprisingly, they receive a denarius—a full day’s pay.

The workers who have laboured all day are unhappy that the latecomers receive the same pay as the first-comers. They complain to the landowner saying, “you have made them equal to us” (Matt. 20:12 NIV, underline added.)

There are several messages that can be drawn from this parable. One of them is a message of equality. “Equality” is a word found several times in the New Testament. Equality is a kingdom concept.[1]

Jesus ends this parable with, “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus’ meaning here is that concepts such as first or last have no relevance in his kingdom. The things that have primacy and prestige in our culture have no importance or value in the kingdom. And as followers of Jesus, we are already part of his kingdom: his kingdom is among us (Luke 17:21).

Jesus has made us equal, so we need to be careful that we do not judge people, including his workers, by physical appearances or by worldly standards. Jesus selects and calls his workers from among those who appear foolish, and from among the weak and the humble (1 Cor. 1:26–29 cf. 2 Cor. 5:16–17).

There are workers who are still waiting to be used. While it is good to keep standing, to keep making ourselves available, to keep sharpening our tools, and to keep looking for opportunities to labour in the kingdom, there is work for you to do now. Don’t stand around and do nothing.

It is the last hour and Jesus is still looking for more workers. To those who have thus far been denied ministries he says, “Go and work in my vineyard.”

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[1] The Greek word for “equal” used in Matthew 20:12 is the adjective isos. Paul uses the cognate noun “equality” isotēs a few times in his letters. More on this word, here.

More about the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 on Ian Paul’s website here and at Bible.org here.

Image Credit

Woman picking grapes © SurkovDimitri (iStock #27560810)

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6 thoughts on ““Go and work in my vineyard” (Matthew 20:1–16)

  1. Great post, Marg. Thanks for this. It’s true that there are many workers constantly preparing their tools but never being allowed into the harvest field.

    Jesus said that the harvest is very big, but there are so few labourers that we need to pray to the Lord of the harvest that He will send more labourers out. What a total waste of prayer if the pray-ers then refuse to allow those He sends, to help!

  2. Yes, some potential workers fail to see ministries that are staring them in the face, and some churches fail to recognise people called and gifted for ministry in their own congregations. I think too many Christians have a limited understanding of ministry and a limited understanding of ministers.

    Jesus saw that the harvest was ready in Samaria, and he chose a Samaritan woman to get things started (John 4:35-36).

  3. Good work. “Great” ministers often do not see or recognize the “little ones” who minister (on a more humble level).

    The last question the landlord asks (in 20:15) is “Do you begrudge my generosity?” (Or, NIV, “are you envious because I am generous?”). A literal translation of this question is: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The evil eye of the first (and foremost) worker, who is complaining about the last (and least) worker, also belittles the goodness/generosity of the landlord.

    Such an evil eye is found earlier in 18:9, in a context of Jesus’ warnings for disciples who want to be great (18:1-10). The “great” disciples look down on and disparage, even scandalize (cause to stumble), “little ones” who believe in him. In all of this teaching, Jesus is concerned that his first disciples’ ambition for power and prestige will cause those “below” them to stumble and fall away. While in 18:2 a (powerless, pushed aside) child represents such little ones, they include all who become disciples but are looked down on and pushed aside (like many women in churches today). Such actions by evil eyes insult even the (land)Lord.

  4. Thanks for this, Lucas. It’s unfortunate that the “evil eye” idiom is absent from modern translations. Although, it does make it easier to understand when the meaning, rather than the idiom is given.

    I was recently reading Matthew 18:3-4 where Jesus says,
    “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven . . .”

    And it struck me that this is exactly what Jesus did when he began his earthly ministry; he became incarnate as a helpless baby and he lived as a human child with no prestige or power. When he began his teaching and healing ministry, he ministered as “one who serves” and even took on the “form of a slave.” I truly think that most of the church, myself included, still has no real grasp of what it means to be great in God’s kingdom.

    I’ve written more about Jesus’s words on leadership and community here.

  5. I’ve never heard this parable explained like this! It’s so much richer. I always thought it was about people being saved at the last minute receiving the same eternal life reward. Amazing how much we can miss even reading the Bible passages over and over again.

  6. Thank you Marg. I, too, have always understood this to refer to the offer of salvation and gift of eternal life being the same for the latecomers as those who come early to the table.

    As I read this my thoughts turned to the workers standing in line with their tools in hand, perhaps some with scythes and others with pruning shears. Would the landlord ask the ones holding scythes to prune the grapevines? Of course not!

    Then why are so many women who have been given the gifts (tools) of teaching and preaching not allowed to use them? Instead they are told they can use their gifts (tools) in other ministries like women’s and children. But those ministries require different gifts (tools). Why is it assumed that women ,simply because they are female, possess the gift of patience to work with children. And these women desperate to serve Christ find themselves in ministries that require pruning shears and they only have scythes with which to work and they become frustrated and quit.

    And thank you for pointing out once again how Jesus taught equality in the Kingdom of God. May you have a blessed day!

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