Q&A: Different Workers, Same Wages?

Different Workers, Same Wages?

Question

How does the parable of the differing workers receiving the same wages in Matthew 20:1-16 relate to the doctrine of the judgment of believers? Do all believers receive the same reward? In what way?

Answer

I'm not sure that the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) actually does pertain to the judgment of believers, at least not in the way it has sometimes been interpreted (equal blessings for all, etc.).

The parable does not explicitly say that its point is the amount of reward believers will receive. Also, it is introduced not to explain the amount of reward (which is mentioned in Matt. 19:29), but to explain the qualification that despite the amount some will receive, "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first" (Matt. 19:30). This idea is reapeated in Matthew 20:8 in the middle of the parable, and again in Matthew 20:16 as its final statement. Also, the parable is followed by the episode in which the mother of John and James asks preferment for her sons. In dealing with this crisis, Jesus tells his disciples that whoever wants to be "first" among them must become a slave (Matt. 20:27). The word "first" in all cases is the same Greek word protos. Literarily, there is strong reason to think that all these statements are related, indeed, that they are all saying basically the same thing. Moreover, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of heaven during his earthly ministry, so there is no necessity to apply the parable's teachings only to a future time, just as the episode of preferment dealt directly with the time of the disciples' ministry.

Another difficulty with understanding the parable in relation to eternal rewards for believers is that the Bible explicitly teaches that not everyone receives the same reward, but that believers earn greater or lesser eternal rewards by their actions in this life (e.g. Matt. 6:1-6,16-21; 10:41-42; 1 Cor. 3:8,14-15; 9:17). In the parable, however, the amount of payment given is not determined by the level of labor.

Explicitly, the parable is about the idea of being first and last, and also about the way Christians deal with these ideas in the kingdom of heaven. In the parable, the last laborers are paid first, so that those who labored first are able to see what the last are paid. What they see is that the landowner deals with the last ones more generously than with the first ones. This hurts the ego of those who have worked all day -- they feel that they deserve more than the others, that they should receive greater pay.

In the same way, when Mother Zebedee asks preferment for her sons, the other disciples become indignant (Matt. 20:24) -- creating the same tension that existed between the first and the last laborers. In response to their indignation, Jesus explains that they must be more humble, that they must seek greatness through service to others.

In the parable, the point is also about the attitudes of the indignant -- notice that the last laborers are out of the picture by verse 9. The rest of the parable -- its entire explanation -- deals only with the first laborers. The point is not that everyone receives equal pay, that's only the problem scenario, the metaphor that allows Jesus to talk about the real issue. The point is that some people in the kingdom are indignant because God is more generous to others, and that their indignation is unwarranted and wrong. Moreover, because the application pertains to life in this age (when we are not yet glorified and still capable of becoming wrongly indignant), the problem must be one that can arise in this age, not one that could only potentially arise in the future.

So what exactly is the problem that causes the indignation to arise? Well, there are many potential examples in the preceding chapters of Matthew 18 and 19, and later in chapter 20. Jesus teaches not to look down on the children or to be indignant with them (18:1-14; 19:13-15). He says to handle sins against oneself with order, discretion, forgiveness and great patience rather than with indignation (18:15-35). He also instructs husbands not to divorce their wives over small cases such as might cause indignation, contrary to the teaching of Hillel (19:1-12). Furthermore, Jesus tells the disciples that our experiences in this world bear on our eternal rewards, and that we ought not to become prideful regarding our expected rewards (19:16-30). As we have already seen, indignation actually arose over the specific problem of the request for preferment (20:1-28), and finally there appears to have been an indignant crowd who rebuked the two blind men who petitioned Jesus for healing (20:29-34). The parallels between 20:29-34 and 19:13-15 are rather striking. Both concern the socially impotent (little children and blind men), the "last" of society. In both cases those coming to Jesus are rebuked. In both cases Jesus receives the impotent lovingly and blesses them. With the children, he ascribes ownership of the kingdom of heaven to them; with the blind men, he demonstrates miraculously that they too receive the blessings of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 11:2-6).

I think the parable of the workers in the vineyard is best understood in its broader literary context as a corrective for the indignation and hurt pride many feel when others receive the generous blessings of the kingdom in this life. I do not believe that it pertains to the final judgment, except insofar as we may become indignant or prideful when we consider future rewards, and I do not think a supportable case can be made that it indicates that believers will all receive an equal blessing/payment/reward in heaven.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.