God’s Economy: Matthew 20:1-16


Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man reported the exceedingly high cost of following Christ. Jesus called on him to give up everything in the pursuit of the Kingdom, and the rich young man was very distressed because his struggle to give up this world was exceedingly great.

Then the disciples offered the reality that they had given up everything to follow Christ:

Matthew 19:27-30 (CSB) Then Peter responded to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you. So what will there be for us?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, in the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields because of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Jesus proceeds to use a parable to explain what he meant by saying “the first will be last, and the last first”.

Bible Study Tip: the word “for” functions as an explanatory conjunction, meaning that this parable explains the previous text. You’ll see this literary marker throughout the New Testament and it is usually an important indicator that you need to read the previous text to know what concept is about to be explained.

The Parable of the Landowner

There has been a struggle in the disciples to understand how “first place” works in the Kingdom of Heaven, and there has been several conflicts among them as they vie for prominence.

So Jesus explains how “first place” works in the Kingdom with this parable about the Landowner.

We’re going to look at the meaning of this parable this way:

⦁ A King Not of This World
⦁ The King’s Vineyard
⦁ The King’s Workers
⦁ The King’s Economy
⦁ An Application

A King Not of This World

The King and his kingdom described in the parable of the Landowner and his vineyard are foreign to the nature of this world:

⦁ What kind of businessman hires unemployed workers after having just hired a full staff?
⦁ What kind of businessman pays those workers more than the productivity of their labor merits?

Jesus is trying to get them to understand the nature of the Kingdom through the nature of the King:

Isaiah 63:7 (CSB) I will make known the Lord’s faithful love and the Lord’s praiseworthy acts, because of all the Lord has done for us — even the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, which he did for them based on his compassion and the abundance of his faithful love.

Jeremiah 9:24 (CSB) But the one who boasts should boast in this: that he understands and knows me — that I am the Lord, showing faithful love, justice, and righteousness on the earth, for I delight in these things. This is the Lord’s declaration.

To understand the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven we must understand the nature of God; his actions towards us are based on his compassion and the abundance of his faithful love because he delights in justice, righteousness, and faithful love.

The coming ages have been appointed by God to display the immeasurable glory of his grace to us through Jesus Christ:

Ephesians 2:6-7 (CSB) He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

The design of God’s plan is to display the glory of his grace through Jesus Christ in the age to come.

One of our greatest obstacles to greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven is the illusion that we have something from ourselves to bring into the Kingdom:

Matthew 5:3 (CSB) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

The Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to those who are rich in “Self”, it belongs to those who are destitute of all pride and vanity.

The King’s Vineyard

The vineyard has been interpreted in many different ways:

⦁ Chrysostom interpreted the vineyard as the commandments of God
⦁ One anonymous early church writer interpreted the vineyard as heavenly justice and virtue (spiritual fruit)
⦁ Others interpret the vineyard as the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:7a)

Yet I suggest the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard”, provides its own interpretation and directly equates the vineyard with the Kingdom of Heaven being described.

Here we must ask what it means to work in the Kingdom of Heaven.

First: Do the work of faith (John 6:29 – work of God)

The most overlooked work of God is to follow his Son by faith. When the word convicts our heart and we humble ourselves in obedience to the voice of our Lord, that is the first work of the Kingdom.

Second: Pursue personal sanctification and holiness in love (1st Thes. 4:3-8 – will of God)

We are the temple of God and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. God’s will for us is our sanctification and holiness. The holiness of God’s temple is one of the central works of the Kingdom.

Third: Administering your gift of grace into the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7, 12-14 – the measure of Christ’s gift)

We are the body of Christ through which his diverse graces are administered to the children of God. Ministering to our brothers and sisters in Christ is one of the central works of the Kingdom.

Fourth: Being the salt and light of this world (Mt. 5:13-16 – salt and light)

We are the ambassadors of the Lord charged with carrying his good news to the lost world. God does not want anyone to perish and has tasked us with being the hands and feet of Christ in this world. Making disciples is the great commission of the Kingdom.

The King’s Workers

The king hires workers at the dawn of day (6 A.M. – hama prōi means “at dawn”) until the last hour (5 P.M.):

Matthew 4:16-17 (CSB) The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned. 17 From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

John 9:4 (CSB) We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.

The apostles and early disciples were the first-fruits of the dawn of day, but the King will continue to send out his workers until the end when no one can work.

The Church has worked hard in the vineyard from the dawn of Christ until now, enduring the scorching heat and dry winds as she has faced trials of many kinds in the assurance that Christ is with us always to the end.

Another aspect of this parable that we must pay attention to is that the landowner hired a full-staff in the morning, as was customary in his day to go to the marketplace and hire your day’s labor, but he continued to hire those who were rejected by other business owners.

When the King hires workers later in the day, he finds unemployed leftovers:

1st Corinthians 1:26-31 (CSB) Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. 27 Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. 28 God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, 29 so that no one may boast in his presence. 30 It is from him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom from God for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written: Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

God doesn’t choose his workers based on the merits of this world, he chooses the poor in spirit based on the abundance of his compassion and grace so that those who have been rejected by the high and powerful elements of this world can rejoice and boast in the Lord.

So who are these “nothings” that the Lord chooses?

Isaiah 66:2 (CSB) This is the Lord’s declaration. I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and trembles at my word.

The King’s Economy

The denarius was an ancient Roman silver coin that was equivalent to ten bronze coins and represented a typical day’s wage for enlisted soldiers and day laborers; it measured a days-worth of labor productivity.

The landowner’s practice of paying his workers at the end of the day reflected the Mosaic Law that was instituted to protect the laborer from employers who might hold back their wages (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15).

When the workers come for their pay they come with the world’s economy in mind:

Matthew 20:9-10 (CSB) When those who were hired about five came, they each received one denarius. 10 So when the first ones came, they assumed they would get more, but they also received a denarius each.

The emphasis here is on their expectations versus how the King rewards his workers, not on the denarius.

We must note that this parable is not teaching that everyone will receive the same reward or that we are not rewarded according to our work:

1st Corinthians 3:12-15 (CSB) If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each one’s work will become obvious. For the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will experience loss, but he himself will be saved—but only as through fire.

Colossians 3:23-24 (CSB) Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, 24 knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.

Mark 9:41 (CSB) And whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ—truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.

The emphasis of this parable is on the economy of God’s grace, not on “what our reward is”; humans expect to be rewarded in proportion to their productivity, while God rewards in proportion to his generosity according to the measure of grace that he has given to us.

God will reward our work, but we must not think no reward awaits us just because our work was not massively productive; to those who work according to God’s will, his reward will be according to his generosity, not their productivity.

Look again at Matthew 20:10, which says that “when the first ones came, they assumed they would get more”:

⦁ They measured their contributions by their productivity instead of by the grace of God
⦁ They measured their worth by their productivity instead of by the grace of God
⦁ They measured their expectations based on their productivity instead of by the grace of God

The grace of God cannot be overlooked in God’s economy:

1st Corinthians 3:5-10 (CSB) What then is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s coworkers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 10 According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it.

God appoints our roles, supplies grace for the seed for planting, and grace for the water for watering, and in the end, God gives grace for the increase so that neither the one who plants, nor the one who waters is anything, but everything is from God!

The Meaning of The Parable

Therefore there are three lessons that we need to learn from this parable:

Lesson #1:

We have to change how we view productivity in the kingdom of Heaven.

God’s economy is grace, therefore, let us labor by grace with faith in the one who supplies all things through his grace.

Ephesians 1:5-6 (CSB) He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One.

Ephesians 1:7 (CSB) In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

Ephesians 1:11-12 (CSB) In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in Christ might bring praise to his glory.

Ephesians 1:13-14 (CSB) In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory.

Lesson #2:

Failure to place our confidence in the grace of Christ will result in great discouragement for those who live in the end:

2nd Timothy 4:1-4 (CSB) I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of his appearing and his kingdom: 2 Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 3 For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. 4 They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.

Lesson #3:

Knowing the glory of God’s grace, we should work in this life for what is to come:

1st Timothy 6:17-19 (CSB) Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, 19 storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.

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