This post was first published December 5, 2018. –ed.
Christ’s parables were never delivered in a vacuum. They were always provoked by the circumstances, discussions, and debates that surrounded Him. That kind of contextual background information is especially critical concerning the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–15). While the story itself delivers a profound lesson about the grace of God, we don’t feel the full weight of Christ’s words until we consider their immediate context.
Why did Jesus devise this parable? Our Lord gave this analogy primarily for the benefit of His twelve disciples immediately after His conversation with the rich young ruler. This young man of great wealth and influence had come to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). He may have been fishing for praise, because he clearly thought he had fulfilled every spiritual duty and that his life was well in order. He certainly looked like a promising evangelistic prospect.
But rather than simply giving him the good news of the gospel, Jesus challenged him on his obedience to the law. When the fellow insisted, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matthew 19:20), Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the profits to the poor, and follow Him. That was a sacrifice the young man wasn’t willing to make.
Jesus thus exposed the fact that the young ruler loved his possessions more than he loved either God or his neighbor. In other words, although he claimed to have kept the entire law of God, he was in violation of both the first and second great commandments (Matthew 22:37–40). But the man still did not acknowledge that. Unwilling to face his sin and repent, he “went away grieving” (Matthew 19:22).
The disciples were clearly stunned when Jesus seemed to put obstacles in the rich young ruler’s way rather than encouraging him. They were baffled: “Then who can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25).
Jesus’ answer stresses the fact that salvation is God’s work, not something any sinner can accomplish for himself: “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
So the disciples were thinking about the impossibility of meriting God’s favor. They were no doubt examining their own hearts. Unlike the rich ruler, they had in fact left all to follow Christ (Matthew 19:27). And they were looking for some assurance from Christ Himself that their sacrifice wasn’t all for naught. That is what prompted this parable.
As the rich young ruler walked away, it was Peter who spoke up on behalf of all the disciples and said, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27). The Twelve were like the 6:00 a.m. group in the parable. They were the first ones Jesus called at the start of His ministry. They had been working through the heat of the day, for a lot longer than twelve hours. It had already been nearly three years. They had given up homes, jobs, and relationships to serve Christ. With the sole exception of Judas, they certainly loved Jesus. All of them would go on to give their lives for the gospel’s sake. They wanted to know what they would receive for their sacrifice.
The disciples no doubt thought they were going to get special benefits. They believed they were going to inherit the kingdom very soon, and that excited them. They were well aware that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. They fully expected an earthly, political kingdom with all the glory and riches one might gain through world dominion. They were the first disciples, so it made perfect sense to them that one of them would sit at Jesus’ right hand, in the highest place of honor.
This was a naive and immature view of Jesus’ mission, and they retained it even after the resurrection. While the risen Christ was meeting with them as a group, preparing them for Pentecost, they asked, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Now that Christ had shown Himself triumphant even over death, they were hoping finally to get their crowns and thrones and places of honor.
At the end of Matthew 19, when Peter asked, “What then will there be for us?” Jesus answered by addressing their thirst for special honor. He reassured them that they would indeed have places of honor in the kingdom. But He went on to say that everyone in the kingdom would be honored:
Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:28–29, emphasis added)
It is intriguing how little effect the lesson of this parable had on the twelve disciples. They were so obsessed with the idea of special honor that even after they heard this parable, they continued scheming and jockeying for first place. In fact, the very next episode in Matthew’s account records this:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” (Matthew 20:20–21)
Matthew (one of the Twelve himself) goes on to say, “And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers” (Matthew 20:24). They were annoyed because they all craved the inside seats!
This became a constant source of bickering among the Twelve. Even in the Upper Room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, it was Jesus who washed the others’ feet, because all of them desired to be considered “great,” and foot washing was a duty of the lowest servant (John 13:4–17). Later that same evening, right after Jesus broke the bread and consecrated the wine, “There arose . . . a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (Luke 22:24).
So although the parable of the laborers was given to confront the selfish, envious, confused perceptions of the disciples, it took a while to sink in. But Christ’s lesson eventually penetrated the disciples’ hearts and permeated their lives—lives that would go on to be marked by selfless servitude for Christ’s church.
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