The Story of Scripture
The span of history covered by Scripture is both long and wide. At times it can feel overwhelming trying to take it all in and remember who is whom and what happened when. A neat aspect of studying the Bible, however, is that this vast narrative becomes smaller with the individuals and their stories we encounter along the way. And it comes even closer to home in those moments when we see ourselves and our own life circumstances in the lives of those we meet in the pages of Scripture.
One such person I’ve long seen a bit of myself in, and would venture to guess others have as well, is one I affectionately refer to as the “all-day worker.” This individual is found in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard laborers in Matthew 20:1–16.
Purpose in Parables
A parable is a story that’s meant to illustrate a lesson—a technique Jesus often used. In the parable of Matthew 20:1–16, we find Jesus presenting his story around familiar imagery from His Jewish heritage—a vineyard. The vineyard often appears in Scripture as a way of referencing the kingdom or people of God. Right away Jesus introduces the central character: a generous landowner who represents God in the story.
To our surprise, this landowner calls for vineyard laborers not only in the early morning—as would be expected—but throughout the entirety of a workday. His first hiring takes place somewhere around 6 a.m. He contracts to pay a denarius, or a full day’s wage, to those willing to enter and work from that earliest hour on. He continues to intermittently go out, even until 5 p.m., when only an hour or so is left in the workday, inviting others to the same. To the late hires, however, he contracts to pay what he estimates to be fair. Let’s take a closer look at the details of this story and see what we might apply to our lives today.
The Workers’ Wages
Jesus places both the longest and shortest working groups in contrast. He details how at the time of payment, the landowner calls for the one-hour workers to receive their wages just before the twelve-hour workers receive theirs. Next comes the surprise, the part where we might find a bit of ourselves in the story.
As they see the 5 p.m. workers being given a denarius, the sum they were promised, the all-day workers logically assume they will receive more. To their shock—and ours too—each group is given the same. Outraged, in verses 11–12 the all-day workers grumble to the landowner that he has made the latecomers equal to those who have “borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (NIV).
Quick to remind them of their wage agreement, the landowner expresses his sovereign freedom to do what he pleases with what is his. He inquires whether their sight is mistakenly fixed on themselves rather than rightly on his gracious generosity.
The Lord Looks at the Heart
Here Jesus deals with attitudes. First, of those in the original context carrying certain prejudices towards who could be invited to the party of God’s kingdom and when. But His point also speaks today to those of us who have dwelt and labored within this vineyard for some time.
We all face the challenge to maintain an attitude and lifestyle of gratitude toward God. We can so easily find ourselves looking on with envy, or even anger, at what we see others being given, perhaps even unjustly in our estimation. Simultaneously, we begrudge what little we feel we have in our own hands. Along with the all-day workers in this parable, we might even find ourselves grumbling to God in protest of our perceived unfairness on His part. When this is true of your life, consider the following as an encouragement toward trust and gratitude:
Know that He Knows
As you read the parables of Jesus, be mindful to think not only on the stories He presents but also on how the stories alert you to details about the storyteller Himself. In his telling of this story, Jesus gives the words to the all-day workers’ claim that they have “borne the burden and the heat of the day” (v.12). We find here, and so often with the details, Jesus includes, that He understands human nature—He gets how we feel.
We can take heart that God not only knows when we feel slighted, but that the hard labor and time we have put into our service has not escaped His notice. He knows the conditions in which we live and work and for how long and to what extent we have labored. We can take comfort in knowing that He is both aware of us and has gone before and worked alongside us in every endeavor. Even at times when we feel otherwise, we can rest in the assurance that He knows and cares.
Gratitude Over Grumbling
Toward the close of this parable, we learn that for the duration of their workday in frustration over the landowner’s dealings, the all-day workers lose sight of some important factors. They never had to question where their provision would come from or if it would be enough for their needs. For the entire day, they worked within the security of the vineyard and in good faith of the landowner’s promised provision. This was not so for the others, some of whom remained outside the vineyard for hours on end without assurance of the same.
No matter how challenging the elements or heavy the burdens we carry, it is still far better to have said yes early on. This allows us to dwell in the security of the landowner’s vineyard, rather than to have waited aimlessly outside. As Jesus reminds the all-day workers, let us consider God’s generosity. When we pause to remember that in Christ we have more than we either realize or deserve, we are more apt to express gratefulness rather than grumbling.
Everything of His is Yours
To put an actual face to the “all-day worker,” one needs to look no further than the older son featured in another of Jesus’ parables, found in Luke 15:11–32. We’re familiar with this parable because of the younger, prodigal son, but we often forget there is a second half of the story to consider. Though I am the youngest child in my family, I identify to the core with the older brother in this parable. Not only has the younger abandoned the family, discarded responsibility, squandered his inheritance (with their father still alive, no less!), but is thrown a party upon his return!
No one even comes out to the field to get the older son, but he finds out for himself by stumbling upon the music and festivities. Refusing to join the celebration, the older son is so angry he can’t even bring himself to call the other his brother by name when venting to their father. Rather, he identifies him as “this son of yours” (v. 30).
A Better Promise
The father has been more than generous to his younger son, to be sure. Yet in the midst of his older son’s outrage of perceived injustice, we find that his generosity goes further still. To his older son who has been so faithful, he gives the better promise: “My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). The older son may not realize it at the moment, but there are certain scars, certain wonderings, that he will never have to live with simply because he remained with his father.
The same is certainly true for us. In these parables of Jesus, remember, beloved one, that God sees and knows your faithfulness. Bring your frustrations to Him. But as you do, be reminded of His abundant generosity, and hang on to the blessing of knowing that He has not withheld His goodness. Truly, as we remain with Him, all that is His is ours.
Your friend, Courtney
Courtney Veasey is the founder of Brunch Ministries, through which she serves as an itinerant Bible teacher, frequently speaking at conferences primarily targeted to women and teenage girls. While a native Floridian, Courtney has also lived and served in vocational ministry positions in Louisiana, South Carolina, and California. Courtney is a graduate of Florida Southern College where she was an All-American volleyball player, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Gateway Seminary. Courtney loves spending time outdoors, eating at Captain D’s Seafood, and cheering for her beloved Florida State Seminoles and the New Orleans Saints.
*A version of this piece originally appeared on the Lifeway Women’s Ministry blog.