A Landowner and amazing compassion, Matthew 20:1-16
When looking at this parable we can easily focus on the workers and what they receive along with the attitude of some workers towards others, and there will be a need to make a few comments about the workers. Yet the workers are not the main focus of the parable. The main focus is actually what the rule and reign of God is like. We know this because Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of God is like a Landowner”
The background to the parable and the setting
Jesus tells this parable after talking to the rich young ruler who asked what needed to be done to gain eternal life (Mt 19:16ff). The ruler had seen a quality of life in Jesus and His disciples which he did not have and he wanted to know how to get it.
Having spoken with the young man Jesus tells the disciples that it is not possible for those who trust in their own work and effort to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. He then goes on to show 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). Now let’s look at the parable.
Imagine what it must have been like to go to the market-place each day in order to find work. Life is not always easy and many of those who were waiting in the market place 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 might have seemed unusual. After all, the landowner would have managers and servants to do that sort of job for him. Ultimately this picture of a landowner arriving early in the morning speaks of God’s willingness to come to us.
Early in the morning the landowner arrives and offers the men who are waiting in the market-place a denarius for a day’s work. A denarius would have been the standard wage for a day’s work, and it meant that families were not going to go hungry that night.
Apart from the entrance of the landowner (just after sunrise), everything seems rather straightforward in what was being said. Yet the story continues to introduce more details which will eventually help us build a picture concerning the Kingdom of God. The story develops and we see landowner going out at the third hour of the day – which would have been around 9 am and on seeing men waiting in the market place, he offers them work.
In a modern day setting we might not be so keen to take on someone who had turned up part way through the day, yet it is easy to make snap judgements. For all we know some of these labourers may have travelled a long distance to get to the marketplace. Whatever the case, the landowner takes them on and says that he will pay them what was right.
The landowner then goes out again in the heat of the midday sun (sixth hour) and again at three in the afternoon and 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 the sunset that it hardly seems worth bothering about – but then God is bothered about everything.
The labourers receive their pay
I have many friends who have struggled with their businesses because those they worked for sometimes left it for weeks before paying them. This could not happen in a Jewish community because the law stated that labourers were to be paid on the day they worked because the amount was so small and yet depended on each day by so many who lived from hand to mouth, so to speak.
“Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.”
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 latest. To the surprise of everyone these ‘hardly done anything’ men received the same money as those who had worked all day – and those who had worked all day didn’t like it. In reality they should have been pleased that the latecomers were going to have enough money to feed their families as well. Yet those who had been there all day were only concerned about themselves. In complete contrast, God’s kingdom rule is about care and concern for all people.
In Jesus we someone who 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 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 ‘moved mountains’.
In seeing the incredible generosity of this landowner in this 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.
The compassion of God
In scripture the Hebrew word for compassion (racham) is pictured as the womb that surrounds life, and is a common word for belly (a deep felt desire to reach out and help others that comes from within). It also speaks of the inner chamber of water – where the baby is protected by the mother’s body.
Compassion also speaks of the passion of the Shepherd, being spoken of as the chief of passions. Look at how Jesus speaks of the shepherd who finds the lost sheep (Luke 15:5-6) and we get clear picture of God’s passion to reach out and rescue, as indeed is the case in Psalm 23.
In the parable of the landowner we see great compassion, sensitivity and a willingness to reach out to those who struggle and go through hardship. God is generous and we are not to treat people in regards to their successes or failures but with the compassion, grace and mercy we have received and do so in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Examples 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 time-wise (Luke 10:33).
A heart full of compassion
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 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 and sought to nurture, encourage and teach wherever He went. He 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, seeing them as someone to be loved and a harvest to be reaped. Jesus never regarded anyone as insignificant or a nuisance, and always knew how to help everyone and that includes you or I, whatever we may be going through.
In all things Jesus was never detached from the suffering and hardship of others, having willingly entered humanity (Phil 2:5ff) with the offer of riches for our rags (2 Cor 8:9).
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."
Written and produced by Pastor Jem.
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