The Compassionate Employer
By Peter Amsterdam
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The parable of the compassionate employer, or as it’s often called, the workers in the vineyard, is a story Jesus told in Matthew 20 to express several aspects of God’s nature and character: His love, mercy, and compassion powerfully shown through salvation, along with His unfailing care and rewards for those who love and serve Him.
This parable, like others Jesus told, starts with the words “For the kingdom of heaven is like …” This phrase tells the listener that Jesus is going to give information about God and what He’s like, and about how those who live within His kingdom and submit to His reign in their lives should see things. So let’s take a look at what Jesus says.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1).
The master of the house is translated in other Bible versions as a householder or landholder. Many householders in first-century Palestine would farm nearby land. In this story, the master of the house had a vineyard which was large enough that he needed extra workers to help during the times when it was important to get the work done quickly, such as when the harvest needed to be picked.
Needing extra men to work short term, the owner went to the marketplace where the day laborers congregated in the hopes that someone would come and offer them a job, even if it was just for the day. The life of day laborers at that time was a difficult one. They had no job security or income if they didn’t find work. Each evening they would face their families either with the joy of coming home with enough to put food on the table or with nothing. To find employment, they would stand in the town square, where everyone would see them and know that they were unemployed. This was humiliating, but getting hired and being paid was vital to their families’ survival. The day laborers were on the low end of the economic scale, so much so that Scripture required that day laborers be paid at the end of each day, as they needed the funds for their survival (Deuteronomy 24:14–15).
The owner of the vineyard went out early in the morning to hire laborers to get a full day’s labor from them. He chose some workers and negotiated the price that they would be paid for their day’s work. Since people didn’t have watches, the workday for the day laborer began at sunrise and ended when the first star could be seen in the evening sky. This made for roughly a 12-hour workday.
“After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matthew 20:2). A denarius for a day’s work was standard pay for a laborer at that time. It wasn’t high pay, but it was enough to sustain one’s family.
The story continues with the landowner returning to the marketplace in order to hire more laborers. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went” (Matthew 20:3–5).
The second time the landowner went to the marketplace was midmorning, around 9 a.m. Upon arriving, he found men still waiting to be hired for the day. He didn’t negotiate a price with them. Rather, he told them that he would be just when he compensated them. The workers took him at his word, which gives the impression that the landowner was trusted and respected within the community.
“Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same” (Matthew 20:5). At noon and again at three o’clock in the afternoon he returned to the marketplace, and each time he hired more men. There is no mention made of the landowner discussing how much the laborers would be paid.
A while later he returns to the marketplace for a fifth time, when there’s only one hour of daylight left. “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too’” (Matthew 20:6–7).
One can only imagine how desperate these men were for work, and how discouraging it must have been for them to stand in a public place all day long hoping to be hired, to no avail. These men were determined to find work or they wouldn’t have still been in the marketplace waiting and hoping. In a short while, they would have returned home empty-handed to face their families.
There is no indication what compensation these eleventh-hour workers would receive for only one hour of work. Perhaps they felt that if they went willingly at this hour, no matter how little the pay, the landowner might hire them for the following day’s work. Shortly thereafter the workday was finished and it was time to pay the workers.
“And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first’” (Matthew 20:8).
The original listeners were probably intrigued by the odd instructions the owner gives the foreman to pay those hired last in the day first, and to pay those hired first at the last. As we’ll see, paying the men in this order caused some problems.
“And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius” (Matthew 20:9–10).
When those who worked the whole day saw that those who worked for just one hour received full pay, they anticipated that they would receive more. However, they received a denarius just as everyone else did. Those who were hired first saw that those who worked only one-twelfth of the time received a full day’s pay, and this made them feel cheated. And they let the landowner know their feelings.
“And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’” (Matthew 20:11–12).
They object to being paid the same and being seen as equal to those who worked for only one hour and accuse the landlord of being unjust and treating them unfairly. After hearing the accusation, the owner responds: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” (Matthew 20:13).
The word “friend” used here is translated from the Greek word hetairos, which was also used in two other verses in Matthew: once when the man arrived at the wedding feast without a wedding garment and was therefore thrown out of the feast, and again when Jesus calls Judas “friend,” as Judas is in the process of betraying Him (Matthew 22:12, 26:50). The vineyard owner isn’t calling the man “friend” in a positive way.
The question the owner asked can only elicit a positive response, as a denarius is the exact amount that the workers agreed would be their wage for a full day’s work. Since the owner was giving them this amount, he had kept his promise.
As is often the case with parables, the point Jesus is making comes at the end when the owner says: “Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:14–15).
The all-day workers didn’t get the point that the owner was being generous to those in need. They didn’t rejoice over the good fortune of those hired later in the day. Instead, they were selfishly looking at themselves and what they perceived to be unfair treatment by their employer.
By most standards the landowner’s actions would be considered unjust. But the landowner was being just in that he was keeping his promise to pay the amount agreed upon. Those who agreed to work for that amount were not shortchanged. If they had been paid first and were thus unaware of what the others were paid, they would have gone home to their families with their heads held high, glad for a full day’s pay in their pocket.
But what about the other workers? They too had families who needed to be fed. They didn’t deserve a full day’s pay because they didn’t work a full day. Nevertheless, due to the generosity of the owner, they were given what they didn’t deserve. The owner was just, but he was also compassionate.
This parable is telling us what God is like. God is just and He keeps His promises. He is also full of mercy. Being merciful doesn’t have anything to do with fairness. Mercy isn’t about giving someone exactly what they earn or deserve. It is an act of love. It is giving to someone who is undeserving, which is exactly what God’s love, grace, and salvation is all about.
God isn’t limited by what we humans consider fair. If that were the case, there would be no hope of salvation, no forgiveness of sin. If we were only given what we deserve, we’d all be doomed. Instead, like the workers who didn’t deserve full pay, we are the recipients of God’s generosity, compassion, mercy, and grace through salvation.
To me, this parable paints a beautiful picture of God’s call to salvation. Some receive the call, or opportunity, early in life, some later, and others on their deathbeds. God, like the landowner, comes to the marketplace again and again, to see who is there, who is ready and eager. Whether a person comes to salvation early or late, all receive the same salvation.
No matter when people start their Christian life or service, they are rewarded. In this parable we see that God is both just and abundantly generous. Those who were “latecomers” received much more than they expected. So those who work through the heat of the day will receive their just reward from God’s hand. He will be fair and generous to all who come to Him.
We should revel in the realization that each of us is loved and accepted by God, not because of what we do, but because of who He is. He saved us not because of our works, but because of His loving grace. It wasn’t due to our efforts; it was due to His mercy. None of us could ever earn His love, blessings, or rewards. Each of us has been given much more than we deserve by our generous and compassionate Father. And whenever possible, we should do what we can to imitate His love and compassion in our interactions with others.
Originally published March 2014. Adapted and republished March 2023. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.