Some things have remained unchanged since Jesus walked the earth. For instance, the planting and harvesting of grapes, and laborers gathered at local marketplaces very early in the morning, hoping a landowner will hire them to harvest his crops. In ancient Palestine grapes ripened near the end of September and had to be immediately harvested before the autumn rains ruined them. It was a frantic race against time—weather and hiring workers—so Jesus used this annual ritual as a parable (Matt. 20:1-16) in response to Peter’s question: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matt. 19:27).*
It was early morning when a landowner raced to the marketplace where day laborers gathered. Several were waiting to be chosen to harvest his plentiful, ripe crop of grapes. One Roman denarius, worth about $43.50 today, was the nor- mal day’s wage agreed upon. Before they were hired, the laborers were generally among the lowest class of workers, for whom life was always precarious. They were not street corner idlers or thugs, but were serious men who were itinerant travelers, always in imminent danger of starvation or homelessness, or at the mercy of chance employment. Some were so desperate they gathered early in the morning with their tools, willing to wait all day to labor for only a denarius.
The ones hired at 6:00 in the morning put in a full day’s work. Those hired at 5:00 in the afternoon put in only one hour, because the day’s labor ended at 6:00. The owner, however, paid everyone—early birds and latecomers—the same: one denarius. Then he sent his foreman to publicly pay each laborer the same wage despite the different hours they worked. Not surprisingly, those hired at sunrise and who had worked all day complained loudly, saying “You have made them equal to us” (Matt. 20:12) who were hired first, worked longest, through backbreaking, scorching heat by paying us the same as those who worked one hour in the cool evening when almost all the reaping and heavy lifting were completed.
But the landowner “answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you; friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? ...Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?’ ” (verses 13-15).
Note, Jesus didn’t use the word philos for a friend who is closer than a brother, but hetairos, the term He used to address Judas when he betrayed Him in Gethsemane. For in His kingdom, unlike in the world, fame, fortune, seniority, or being first chosen doesn’t guarantee special honor, power, or a place at the head table; neither does being called late result in less pay than “whatever is right”(verse 4)—one denarius, which represents eternal life. Thus, Jesus’ answer turned His disciples’ concept of fairness in the kingdom of heaven upside down, saying, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt. 19:30; repeated in Matt. 20:16).
So trust Him, the Lord of the plentiful harvest, who decides what is the right, or just, reward for laborers in His vineyard.
* All Bible texts are from the New International Version.
Hyveth Williams is a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.