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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis: Wages and Gifts

Pentecost 18A     Matthew 20:1-16

Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 220. 


This parable is about a contrast between two sets of people. Some people feel that life and salvation are a pure and undeserved gift. Other people feel that life and salvation are earned by their good behavior and their right theology. In an unforgettable way, Jesus taught that everything in life is a gift. We, his followers, are to live with that awareness.

This parable is found in a section of Matthew, chapters 19-20, which is Matthew’s “travel journey” from Galilee to Jerusalem. In 19:1, Jesus leaves Galilee. In Matthew 21:1, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark has a similar “travel narrative” in Mark 10. Luke’s “travel narrative” is longer and has many more stories. The parable for today is located in Mark/Matthew’s “travel narrative.” Jesus is on an eighty-mile journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

We find the following stories in Mark and Matthew’s “travel narrative.”  As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, we see and listen to him as the master teacher.  In the sequence of stories, we encounter “Jesus the teacher” more than “Jesus the miracle worker.” There is only one miracle (the healing of blind Barimaeus) but there are several teachings.

*teaching about divorce and celibacy;

*teaching about blessing the children;

*teaching about the rich young man;

*teacher about the eye of the needle;

*teaching about rewards and punishments;

*parable about landowner and laborers;

*teaching (for the third time) about his coming suffering, death and resurrection;

*confronting James and John about their need to be the most important disciples;

*healing blind Bartimaeus as the disciples and Jesus was coming into Jericho;

Matthew, in this section (and most sections), closely follows the order of stories in the Gospel of Mark. We recall that Matthew copied 92% of Mark, closely following the order of the stories in the Gospel of Mark and also the content of those stories.

This particular parable for today is unique to the Gospel of Matthew and is part of Special M (those portions of the New Testament which are found only in Matthew.)

Matthew, following the order of Mark, inserts this particular parable immediately after Mark’s  story of the rich young ruler, the eye of the needle and the disciples saying that they left all their possessions in order to be disciples. At the conclusion of this sequence of connected stories, both Mark and Matthew both say, “Many that are first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That is, the rich young ruler shall be last; the lowly disciples shall be first.Matthew then inserts the parable for today. The parable for today works well with the previous stories from the Gospel of Mark. Today’s parable is an “economic” parable like Mark’s previous stories were “economic” stories. This particular parable illustrates a reversal, like the stories in Mark illustrated a reversal. Those who come last are first; just like the disciples in the previous story were last but are now first.

Mark and Matthew conclude this sequence of stories with the teaching, “Many that are first will be last and the last will be first.” In other words, the rich young ruler will be last. The disciples who left everything they had (houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and lands) will be first.

In the story of the rich young ruler, the wealthy young man told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments and therefore deserved to be granted eternal life. Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “One thing you still lack.” “What is that?” “Sell what you have and give it too the poor and you will have treasures in heaven. The young man went away sad for he had great possessions.” The point is: this rich young man felt he deserved eternal life because he had kept all the commandments. Similarly, the workers on the grape farm, who kept working all day, felt that they deserved a bonus from the boss. 

Immediately after that sequence of stories, Matthew inserts the parable of laborers and landowner with its final teaching, “The last will be first, and the first will be last."

In an unforgettable way, Jesus taught that life and salvation are gifts from God, pure gifts, unearned and undeserved. We, his followers, are to live with that awareness. Some people feel that life and salvation are a pure and undeserved gift; other people feel that life and salvation are earned by their good behavior, their life long labor in the kingdom, and their right theology.

We also remember that today’s story is a parable. We also remember from previous lessons that Jesus told forty parables.

Previously, we have said that parables are:

  1. Simple stories about God and the kingdom.
  2. A favorite way that Jesus teaches.
  3. Concrete pictures more than abstract ideas.
  4. From everyday life e.g. the farm, the family, the lake, the labor hall.
  5. Masterfully woven.
  6. Charming, appealing and entertaining.
  7. Often humorous and have a sense of exaggeration and wit to them.
  8. Like riddles and their meanings need to be figured out.
  9. Like earthly stories with heavenly meanings.
  10. Stories/riddles with one major point and are not detailed allegories.
  11. Often gathered in clusters (e.g. Matthew 13 and Luke 15)
  12. Not like boring like the erudite theological expositions by the rabbis of Jesus’ day.
  13. Consistent with their beginning phrase, “The kingdom of God is like…”
  14. Unique and teach something slightly different than the 39 other parables.

-For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Matthew always begins Jesus’ parables with his favorite phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like.”

“Early in the morning” refers to 6:00 AM.

“Landowners, laborers and vineyards” would be a very common part of everyday life for the average person.

We recall that Jesus chose everyday situations to illustrate his truths about God. All of Jesus’ parables chose such objects.

-After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. The laborers were happy to be hired for a fair daily wage. We see that the place of work is a vineyard. The grape industry was the most common source of work for people of that time and place.

-Then he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.  The workers expected that they would receive a fair daily wage for their efforts. It seems that workers were hanging out all day underneath a shade tree or perhaps in the equivalent of a “union hall” waiting for an owner to come and hire them.

-When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. Men were still hanging around, waiting for someone to offer them a job for the day.  Soon it was noon and then it was three o’clock.

-And 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?'  They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.'  Those hired at 5:00 would be able to work for only one hour, but that was enough for them. These workers wanted to work if even for only an hour.

-When 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.' The owner did not pay the workers; the manager did. We find this similar distinction between the owner and manager in other of Jesus’ parables.

-When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. “Wow. A full day’s wage for only an hour of work.” Those workers would have thought to themselves, “This owner is really generous.”

-Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. Such thinking is human nature. They thought that the owner was really generous because of what he paid for the workers who worked for only one hour. They most likely thought that this bighearted owner would be equally generous with the man who worked for all twelve hours.

-And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, "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.' The last workers resented the owner’s generosity to the other workers.

-But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Yes, of course they did.

-Take what belongs to you and go; Take your fair wages and go home.

-I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Yes, of course, you can do whatever you want to do with what belongs to you.

-Or are you envious because I am generous?' Here is the crux of the issue. Because the owner was excessively generous with certain workers, other workers were envious that the owner was not equivalently generous to them…even though the owner had given them a good and fair paying job in the first place.

-So the last will be first, and the first will be last."This teaching is similar to the nearly twin teaching immediately prior this parable, “The first shall be last; and the last first.” With Jesus, there is this grand reversal. He turns the world upside down. “The exalted will be humbled and the humble will be exalted.” “The rich will be turned away and the poor will have good new preached to them.” “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted those of low degree.”  The Lord God persistently chooses the humble people of low degree rather than those who exalt themselves.

The teaching about “first and last” is similar (but not identical to) his teaching about “exalted and humble.” We recall the Lucan story (Luke 14:7-14) about wedding feast when Jesus saw how “people chose places of honor.” Jesus then told a parable about the wisdom of sitting at the lower end of the table and then being invited up to the head table. Jesus advises, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, "Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

PAINTING AND IMAGATION: THE LANDOWNER AND LABORS 999999961&workid=9490&searchid=4861&tabview=image

From a sermon, WAGES AND GIFTS.

“Jesus was and is a master story teller. He always tells these wonderful stories. Jesus is famous for many reasons. Jesus is famous because he is the Son of God. He is famous because he died on the cross and was raised from the dead. But did you know that Jesus is famous because he got an A+ in creative writing? When you examine the parables of Jesus, they are enormously creative. Many scholars rightfully claim that Jesus is the father of the short story. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are two of the finest short stories in all of literature. If you read short stories from before the time of Jesus and short stories after the time of Jesus, there is nobody who writes or tells stories with the imagination and quality with which Jesus tells stories. Jesus is one of the greatest story creators and story-tellers who ever lived.

In the story for today, once again Jesus uses everyday, common life experiences. What was the dominant farm crop in Israel at this time? Grapes. And so Jesus would tell a story about harvesting grapes. The story goes like this: There was this man who was an owner a vineyard and he needed workers to harvest his grapes. He went to the village square at six o’clock in the morning and hired workers who went out and worked all day for twelve hours until six at night. A twelve hour day, from six in the morning until six at night. Next, some workers were hired at nine o’clock in the morning and they worked for nine hours. Those who came at noon worked for six hours; those at three o’clock for three hours; and those who came late in the afternoon at five o’clock worked one hour. They worked merely for one hour and you know what? The owner of the vineyard game them a full one hundred dollars for a full day’s wage. Those early birds and industrious people, who had worked all day, from six o’clock in the morning, for the full twelve hours under the heat of the sun, those workers were mad that the latecomers received the same wage.

That makes sense to me. Don’t you get mad when you have been busting your butt all day long and someone else comes in and does a little bit of work and they get the same wage as you who worked so hard all day long? Doesn’t that make you mad when you are at work? When you are putting in the time, doing all the work, and someone else near you is sloughing off, and they get the same salary. Doesn’t that make you mad?

The workers in the vineyards didn’t stop to figure out the meaning of the parable because they were so upset about the story itself.

What is the purpose of this story of Jesus? The parables of Jesus are always earthly stories with heavenly meanings. So what is the heavenly meaning of this earthly story for today?

The key to the story is the contrast between those who came at the last hour and those who came at the first hour. Those who came at the last hour were given a full day’s wage

Those who were given a full days wage at the last hour felt that their wage was undeserved, unearned and a wonderful gift from the owner. The wage was a gift, a surprise, a wonderful delight. And there are Christians who feel that God’s generosity to them is unearned, undeserved, and they are surprised at the generosity of God. Such Christians have this attitude that life has been a wonderful gift from God such as these workers who came to work for only one hour and had received a full blessing from God.

Meanwhile, there are other religious people who were there at six o’clock in the morning and they worked all day long. They were born into the Christian faith; they were baptized into the Christian faith; they went to Sunday School; they went to Youth Group; they did confirmation; they worked in the Altar Guild; they sang in the church choir; they served on the church council; they came to church every Sunday. And they knew in their hearts that God owed it to them. They had the inner attitude: if anyone deserved to be blessed by God, they did for they had been faithful to God and his church all of their lives. God: I deserve your blessing. I have earned your blessing because of my faithful behavior to you and the church throughout the years.

So this parable is one of the many contrast parables and teachings of Jesus.

Jesus said those who are last with an attitude of thanksgiving shall be first, and those who think they are first shall be last.

Tell me, what did you do yesterday to deserve to be given the gift of life today? What did you do yesterday that was so good that you deserved to live today? To wake up, brush your teeth, have breakfast, see your family, come to church, being with nice people: what did you do yesterday on Saturday that you deserved to be alive in Sunday?

Such as in the children’s sermon for today. All the little kids, when asked why had a particular child been given flashing, sparkling, beautiful brown eyes that could see, they guessed that this child had love Jesus, been religious, had been good. The kids guessed and guessed until one child blurted out: “He didn’t do anything to receive his brown eyes” and you clapped with laughter and appreciation, because you knew inside that those sparkling, flashing brown eyes were a pure gift. The child had done nothing to deserve the sparkling brown eyes.

So it is with life and everything in life: life, the abundant life, and eternal life are free gifts of God to us, and we do nothing to deserve or earn them. Like life itself, eternal life is a pure gift from God that we do not earn nor deserve.

I have a friend who faced surgery several years ago, and it happened suddenly. He didn’t have time to emotionally prepare for the surgery. He went to the doctor who sent him directly to the hospital and in hours, he had open heart surgery. This man was grateful for his surgery, his successful life, the extra years that had been given to him. But he also said that he was sad that he was not able to express his love to his children before that critical moment of surgery. He had wanted to tell his children but he didn’t. There wasn’t time. Months passed; years passed; a decade passed. One day, he was at his doctor’s office only to discover that he needed surgery again. Only, this time, he had two days to prepare. He had each child, now adults, come into his hospital room and talk privately with him. He wanted each child, now an adult, to know that he felt this past decade of life were extra years that had been given to him by God. Not only the past ten years, but his whole life had been a gift of God, that they, his children, had been a total gift of God. That God had given him his children, his wife, his family, his work, his faith in Christ. That God had given him an abundant life and that God would give him eternal life as well. He wanted his kids to know how he felt. He wanted to tell his children these things ten years ago, and now he had a second chance to do it. And so he told them, each of them, one by one. It was very emotional, and his wife left the room because she couldn’t handle it.

This man expressed what God wants. Deep down inside, all people have this attitude that life is a gift. Life itself, the abundant life, eternal life, it is all a gift. It is not that God owes us anything.

Jesus tells many stories that contrast. For example, the prostitutes and the Pharisees. Jesus liked and appreciated the prostitutes. Jesus loved those people, especially those people who had grown up on the streets and been abused by other people. These women were surprised that Jesus had such affection and love for them. Down deep in their emotions, they knew they did not deserve it. The Pharisees, on the other hand, knew that they deserved God’s blessings and love. They knew that they were “bar mitvahed.” They knew the Old Testament backward and forward; they tithed; they observed all the special worship services; they were in their synagogues every Friday night. They deserved the blessings and honor from God.

Another contrast. The one leper and the other nine lepers. All ten lepers were healed. Only one came back and said to Jesus, “Thank you for healing me. I did not deserve your healing. You were so gracious in healing me, a great sinner. I am surprised that I am well.”  The other nine lepers said, “Glad that we are healed. We need to go home and see what is happening around the house. We expected healing, and it happened to us. Back to home. Back to work.” Healing was no big deal to the nine lepers. Today we find similar attitudes when people say, “I have good health insurance. Good doctors. Good medical care. I am part of a healing world.” They experience healing but show no appreciation to God for the miracle of healing given to them.

Another contrast. The sinner and the publican. The sinner, who gets down onto his knees and prays up to God, saying, “I don’t deserve your forgiveness. What I have done is wrong. Please God, give me your forgiveness and your Presence.” On the other hand, there is the publican who says, “I have been attending synagogue all my life. God, I appreciate your forgiveness. I know you are in the forgiveness business. It is no big deal to you. I have heard about your forgiveness all my life and I am expecting your forgiveness.”

Another contrast. In the parable of younger brother and older brother. The younger son who had run away to the far country. “O Father, I sinned greatly, ran away, consumed your inheritance, and now am coming home. I deserve nothing. … What? You are killing the fatted calf for me? Celebrating that I have come back to you?” The older brother thought and felt: “Father, I have stayed home with you my whole life. I am a loyal son who has done what you wanted me to do. I expect your blessing.”

Another contrast. The sheep and the goats. The sheep. “Why did I get into heaven? What did I do to deserve this gift? Your gift of eternal life is such a surprise?” God says, “Well, you were kind to those in prison, the hungry, the homeless, the stranger.” The sheep: “I don’t know about that. I don’t know why I am in heaven. I am so surprised that I am here.”  The goats said: “We were good all of our lives. We gave money to world hunger and supported orphans in Haiti. We deserved to go to heaven. What is this about departing from me, you evil doers. I was not an evil doer.”

In many of Jesus’ stories there is this contrast between these people and those people. These people who understand that all of life and forgiveness, the abundant life and the eternal life, that all of this is a gift from God, undeserved, unearned and a surprise. And those people have the attitude that I expected it, that I deserved it, that I earned it. Pay me my full day’s wage.

I don’t know about you, but I know about me. Someday I will die and come up to those pearly gates, knock on the door, and if they open the door, I will be very pleased. I will walk inside and say, “O, even Pastor O’Neal is here. My, my, my. Look whose here. What a surprise. So many surprises. I will walk around and everybody I meet will say, “Surprise. I didn’t deserve it..” I will be so glad that Peter will not say to me, “This way to the exit, downstairs to you know where, with a flame of fire on the exit sign.”

The same is true with you. When you come to that moment and you know on the door to eternal life, and the door opens up for you, you will breathe a sigh of relief, peek in and say, “It is really nice in there. Thank you Jesus for allowing me in.”

In conclusion, I would like to tell a story about Simon Peter and Dismas, the thief on the cross. Simon Peter, the big disciple, and Dismas, the thief on the cross, both died and went up to heaven. They both knocked on the door and they both got into heaven. But, up in heaven, they both lived on the same street. Simon Peter lived on the same street with Dismas, the thief on the cross. Peter was honked off and was not pleased with this situation. Well, one day, God came walking by and Peter decided to ask God about it. He said, “You know God, Dismas and I are living on the same street here in heaven and both having similar houses. I want you to know that I left everything for you. I left my fishing nets for you, my occupation. My boat, my nets. I left my good wife. I left my children. I gave all of this up and I followed you my whole adult life and I got crucified upside down at the end of my life in Rome. Dismas here, he wasn’t a Christian for even fifteen minutes. And here we are: on the same street in heaven. I don’t get it.” God said, “Come on, Peter get off it. Your fishing nets were filled with holes. You fishing boat was falling apart and not really safe. You know very well your kids were rebellious teenagers that you were trying to get away from. Besides, your wife was quite a nag and you wanted to get out of the house and away from her nagging. And you were crucified by the Roman government because they wanted to kill you. So don’t give me this ‘holier than thou’ stuff Peter, because I know you better than that. I knew your heart then and now.” Yes, both Peter and Dismas were received by grace as a gift, undeserved, unearned, and they received their gift as a surprise.

Jesus. I love the stories of Jesus because they are never about church. The parables of Jesus are never about choirs and candles and canticles. The parables of Jesus are never about preachers or prayers or prophets. His parables are about real life.

Jesus told this great story about this wine grower who had to get some workers. He got the first set of workers at six o’clock in the morning and they worked all day in his vineyards. There were others who came at five o’clock in the afternoon and they worked for only one hour and the owner gave a fully days wage of one hundred bucks. Those who received the money were surprise, amazed and pleased with the gift to them. Those who worked all day grumbled at the owner’s generosity. I love the story.

Do you understand this riddle of the kingdom of God?  I think you do.

Years have gone by and I have been a pastor and a human being for a long time. When I came to this church nearly thirty years ago, I had black hair and was probably twenty pounds lighter. My body was healthier then than today. The years have gone by, and I know this for sure: that everything in my life is a gift from God. Absolutely everything. My wife, my family, my job, you. Life, the abundant life, eternal life. Of this I am sure: that everything is a gift. What a surprise. So many surprises that life has given. Amen.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON: Select one child and remark that this child has sparkling, shining, scintillating brown eyes. What has this child done to deserve his eyes that work so well? Tell me, what has this child done to deserve such wonderful eyes? The kids that day offered several guesses e.g. loved Jesus, loved God, was born, hard to answer, believed in Jesus. It took a long time until a child blurted out “He didn’t have to do anything.” The congregational clapped. Physical life and eternal life are pure gifts of

God to us.


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