Matthew 20:8 ‘So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.’
This parable begins with Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of heaven is likened to a man who is a householder (owner of an estate). He went out early in the morning to hire workers to work in his vineyard for the day. An agreed upon price was set at a penny, the normal wage paid daily for a laborer. Later, around 9 a.m., the landowner encouraged others, standing idle in the marketplace, to work in the vineyard, not for a set wage but for ‘whatsoever is right.’ The landowner employed more laborers at noon, at 3 p.m. and even some at 5 p.m. when there was only one hour left to work.
According to Jewish law, wages must be paid each evening before the sun sets. When it came time for the steward to pay the laborers, he began with those working the shortest amount of time and paid each man a penny (a full day’s wage). Those working the entire day murmured, for they supposed they would have received more. They agreed, however, to work for a penny, the stipulated wage agreed upon.
The context of this parable supports the teaching that it is impossible to earn the generosity of the Master. This is a lesson on grace. Regardless of whether or not our performance is better than someone else’s, we all need God’s grace because we have all come short of God’s standard. The landowner gave freely, making all equal. Jesus is saying that the benefits of the kingdom are the same for all who have become subject to its King, regardless of what they have done. Therefore, those who are last (or least) in the sense that they have not served the Lord as long or as well as others, will truly become ‘first’ when they share equally of the Lord’s goodness with those who ‘have borne the burden and heat of the day’ (Mt. 20:12).