By Ken Yates
Recently I received a question about the parable found in Matt 20:1-16. The person wanted to know the meaning of the parable. It seems to argue against the doctrine of rewards.
In the parable the Lord speaks of a landowner that hires laborers to work in his vineyard. The landowner hires five groups of workers. The first group of workers worked the whole day. The last group only worked for one hour. The other three groups worked different amounts of hours, depending upon the time of day the landowner sent them into his vineyard. But they all received the same amount of pay. It seems, at first, that this argues against the idea that there will be different levels of rewards for believers. That is exactly how many expositors interpret it. Some even say that the reward here is “going to heaven,” which all believers receive.
I have always found this parable to be interesting. I know that it does not teach that there will be no rewards in the kingdom. I also know that it does not teach that all believers will be rewarded equally. I know these things because the NT teaches very clearly that there will be different rewards for different believers (see, for example, Luke 19:15-26; 1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 22:12). The Bible never contradicts itself. This is how I responded to the excellent question.
I think the first thing we see is that there is a connection between this parable and what goes on before. In the last verse of Matthew 19, immediately before the parable in question, the Lord says “the first will be last and the last, first.” Then, at the end of the parable, Jesus says “the last shall be first, and the first last.” We also see another connection between the end of chap. 19 and this parable, because the parable starts off with the word “for.” (Remember, when you see the word “for,” you have to ask what the word “for” is there for.)
Another thing we need to notice is this whole parable and context are talking about rewards. It is not talking about receiving eternal life. The parable is talking about doing work in God’s field. Eternal salvation is completely free. In leading up to the previous verses (19:28-30),Peter specifically asks what rewards will be given to those who follow Christ, and Jesus speaks about sitting upon thrones, which is a reward (19:27-28).
With that context in mind, there are a couple of ways to understand the parable.
First, the rewards believers will receive are completely dependent upon God’s grace and discretion. A person who believes late in life can serve the Lord and be rewarded, at least in some ways, as much as those who served the Lord longer.
Second, the other way this parable can be understood combines 19:27-30 with the parable. Peter and the other disciples started serving the Lord from the very beginning of Church history. Jesus promises them great rewards. But that was 2000 years ago. What about believers today? The parable would be teaching that believers of any age, whenever they live in the Church Age, can be rewarded as well for their faithfulness to the Lord. It does not matter when we enter into God’s field of labor; what matters is that we are faithful when we do. God is gracious and will reward all who do so.
Ken Yates is the pastor of Little River Baptist Church in Jenkinsville, SC. He teaches at Bible institutes all over the world on behalf of GES.