Parable of the Landowner
Amazing Compassion, Matthew 20:1-16
In the following parable it is easy to focus on the workers and what they received, along with their attitude towards fellow workers. However, whilst we will be commenting on this, the main focus of this parable is about the rule and reign of God. We know this because the parable begins with, “The kingdom of God is like a landowner.” In looking at the actions of the landowner we see the love, grace, compassion and care of God being demonstrated in a very clear and powerful way – a way that will uplift and encourage us no matter what we are going through and help us realise God’s desire to reach out to the suffering and the lost.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. "About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. "He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?' "'Because no one has hired us,' they answered. "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.' "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.' "The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?' "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
The background to the parable and the setting.
Before Jesus told this parable, a rich young ruler had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to gain eternal life (Mt 19:16ff). He wanted to know this because there was something missing in his life. In a sense he ticked all the religious boxes but did not find himself with the quality and power of life that he was seeing in Jesus and His disciples. Eternal life is a quality of life (in relationship with God) and not just a quantity (everlasting). Outwardly the young ruler appeared to be doing okay, but his real problem was his trust in his money and position. Jesus challenges this and after the man had left then turns to the disciples and tells them that it is not possible for those who trust in their own work and effort to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. After doing this Jesus goes on to show them what the Kingdom of God is really like, and in doing so, instils hope in the disciples who wanted to know who then could be saved (Mt 19:25) with the answer being all who trust in the grace, mercy, love and compassion of God.
Imagine how soul-destroying it would be to go to the marketplace every day in the hope of earning enough money to feed your family. There were no guarantees that there would be work and no backdrop of social services or other organisations to help you if you earned nothing. No work meant no food for your loved ones. Life is not always easy and many of those who were waiting for work in the marketplace probably had families who were dependent on them earning some money for food.
The parable begins with the landowner appearing on the scene very early in the morning. This may not seem strange to us, but to Jesus’ audience it would have seemed very unusual. After all, a wealthy landowner would have managers and servants to do jobs for him and would not inconvenience himself in this way; that’s why he had servants. In saying, ‘The Kingdom of God is like a landowner’ Jesus is showing His disciples God’s kindness and willingness to come to us in the marketplace of life. God is always willing to reach out to us and does so personally and with incredible compassion and love.
The landowner arrives at the marketplace and offers work for those who are waiting for employment. The wage is going to be a denarius which was the standard wage for a day’s work and meant that the worker’s family would not go hungry that night.
Aside from the entrance of the landowner (just after sunrise), everything seems rather straightforward in the story so far, yet the story continues to introduce more details which will eventually help us build a picture concerning the Kingdom of God. As the story develops, we are presented with the unusual picture of the landowner going to the marketplace again out at the third hour of the day – which would have been around 9 am. On finding more men waiting for work, he hires them – but would we have done the same?
In a modern day setting we might not be so keen to take on someone who had turned up part way through the day. After all, if you can’t be bothered to get there early in the day then you are not really that keen on work and so it’s your own fault that you lose out. Sadly, we are so quick to judge people without knowing their circumstances. Once you have judged people it is easy to write them off and avoid them altogether. Yet things are not always as they seem. Some of the labourers may have had to travel much further to get to the marketplace and misjudged the time. Whatever the case may be, the landowner takes them on and says that he will pay them what is right. In this incident there is no mention of what the wage would be, therefore the labourers are having to rely on the grace and generosity of the one who is helping them.
The landowner has now gone out twice and in scripture whenever something is mentioned more than once it is like God using a highlighter pen to draw our attention to something. In this case our attention is being drawn to the incredible generosity and compassion of the landowner. God knows all about us – our ups and downs, our success and failure. He sees our struggles and weaknesses and reaches out in grace, compassion and mercy to us all.
Jesus continues His story and in it we see the landowner going out again in the heat of the midday sun (sixth hour) and yet again at three in the afternoon and on both occasions the landowner takes on more workers. Then, as if this were not enough, we find the landowner actively looking for more people at the eleventh hour (note that scripture says he found still others). The eleventh hour is so close to sunset that it hardly seems worth bothering about finding more labourers; but then God is concerned about everybody.
The labourers receive their pay.
I have friends who have struggled with their businesses because those they worked for sometimes took months to pay them, when in truth, they should have been paid immediately. This withholding of pay could not happen in a Jewish community because God’s law protected the lowest workers – the labourers – and stated they were to be paid on the day they worked (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). Everyone realised that many poor worked hand-to-mouth and needed their pay immediately in order to survive. Gods compassion is seen in many of the instructions that He gives to His people. For example, in Deuteronomy 24:17-18 we read… “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.”
At the end of the day the landowner sends his foreman to pay the wages and asks him to begin by paying those who arrived last. To the surprise of everyone these ‘hardly done anything’ men then received the same money that had been promised to those who began working in the early hours of the morning. And those who had worked all day did not like it when they received their denarius. After all, shouldn’t they have received more than those who had arrived so late? The truth is that they should have been rejoicing that latecomers were also able to feed their families, but they didn’t. They were more concerned about themselves. In a complete contrast to this, God’s kingdom rule is about care and concern for all people. None of us deserve anything good from God yet can receive great blessing because, in Jesus Christ, we find God setting us free. As we serve Him our obedience then reveals what is already present for those who have trusted in His love, grace, mercy and compassion. God does not need us to do anything for Him as if this would make Him any bigger or stronger. All things already belong to Him and therefore all blessing that comes through obedience is a gift. We don’t earn it but are able to receive it because of His grace and mercy. The question is, are we willing to engage with Kingdom living in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit?
In Jesus we see what kingdom living is like. For example, Jesus always gave out to others, no matter what He was going through. Whether speaking to the crowd on the Mount of Olives, or turning to the thief on the cross, Jesus continually revealed a compassion and generosity that is beyond anything we have ever seen or heard of before, and in doing so reveals what God is like. God has the right to be generous to all people and the thief on the cross who called out to Jesus in faith was just as welcome as Abraham and Moses who lived a lifetime of faith and, at the leading of God, moved mountains.
So in seeing the incredible generosity of the landowner in the parable we see something of what the kingdom of God is like – the rule and reign of God. God is generous, caring, willing to reach out to others and compassionate: He is concerned about the welfare of all people and actively looks for people to bless.
The compassion of God.
In scripture the Hebrew word for compassion (racham) is pictured as the womb that surrounds life and the inner chamber of water, where a growing baby is protected by the mother’s body and totally dependent on it for nutrition and wellbeing. God seeks to protect and nurture us; to surround us with His love. ‘Racham’ is also a word commonly used for ‘belly’ and speaking of a deep-felt desire to get alongside and support others.
Compassion also speaks of the passion of the Shepherd and was known as the chief of passions. In looking at how Jesus speaks of Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and is the shepherd who finds the lost sheep (Luke 15:5-6). The blessing that comes from this is clearly seen throughout scripture and not least so in Psalm twenty-three, the first part of which goes like this: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quite waters. He restores my soul.”
As our Shepherd God is the One who has all power and authority and seeks to nurture and protect us. Through Him alone we shall not be in want. God knows that our greatest need is to come home and in Him we find our identity and security. Life is not about who we are but about whose we are. Through His work alone we are brought out of the house of slavery and into the house of blessing so that we can feed on truth and grow in love. God is the One who leads us beside quiet waters with water symbolising the work of the Holy Spirit and the presence and cleansing work of God. Sheep do not like to drink from running water so the shepherd scoops out a hollow in the riverbank so they can drink. Even in the most difficult places, God can provide for us, even in the most barren of places. For example, God provided food and water for Israel in the desert and said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4). Through God’s love, grace, mercy and compassion, He restores our soul. In other words, He helps me to find my true self in Him. The fruit of His labour is that, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” (Isa 35:1-2). Apply this picture to your life and be encouraged.
Incredible pictures of compassion.
Other examples of compassion that are clearly seen in scripture include the master who had compassion on a servant who was unable to pay his debt (Mt 18:33), and the compassion of a Father who welcomes home a prodigal son (note Luke 15:20). Compassion is also seen in the Samaritan who went to the aid of a wounded traveller at great cost to himself, both physically, financially, and timewise (Luke 10:33).
In Jesus we find the compassion and love of God as the One who was never detached from the suffering and hardship of others, having willingly entered humanity to stand in our marketplace (Phil 2:5ff) with the offer of riches for our rags (2 Cor 8:9).
In the gospels we see that Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw a crowd like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36, Mk 6:34). He was also moved with compassion when aware of the hunger in those who had followed him out to the desert place (Mt 14;14, 15:32, Mk 8:2). In Jesus, God Incarnate, we see compassion for the leper, (Mark 1:41), the two blind men (Mat 20:34) the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13) and a man who had a demon –possessed son (Mark 9:22).
Jesus was moved with compassion for the people around Him and sought to nurture, encourage and teach wherever He went and revealed the kingdom in deliverance, healing and restoration, even in the unlikeliest of places. Jesus did not see man as a criminal to be written off or condemned, but as a lost soul to be brought home. He did not see man as chaff to be burnt or blown away in the breeze, but as someone to be loved and a harvest to be reaped. Throughout His ministry Jesus never regarded anyone as insignificant or a nuisance, and always knew how to help everyone and that includes us, whatever we may be going through.
When we go through hard times, and we will, in this fallen world, remember that God has turned His face to you, does not give up on you, and wants you to know more of His incredible love and compassion. Be encouraged. We may not always know why we are going through difficulty, but we can always know His presence with us. Be encouraged.