In looking at this very well known parable, the first thing I would like to call your attention to is the fact that it isn’t here in Matthew’s narrative standing all on its own; it is a continuation of the discussion we covered last time in 19:23-30, and there is no scene shift of any kind, in spite of the chapter division. Remember, the chapters and verses are arbitrary human devices for reference purposes only, and sometimes we must wonder why they put them where they did. We can be certain of this because of the way this passage begins: “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” Notice that Jesus is still speaking, so after He said “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” in 19:30, He said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” in 20:1. Got it? Good!
Thus, in chapter 19 we have the whole discussion with the rich young man about entering the kingdom, his possessions and all of that, followed by the explanation with the disciples, and moving beyond this world’s priorities to follow Jesus, in which the first (rich, powerful or well off in whatever way) end up as the last, and those who are less fortunate in whatever way being the first − and now Jesus is amplifying the “first and last” statement.
In the parable, we have the owner of a vineyard who is hiring day labor to work the vineyard. He hires workers several times during the day so that each group works a different amount of time in the vineyard, and when the end of the day comes, they all receive the same pay, to the annoyance of the first group who worked all day long. The owner of the vineyard pointed out that he paid them what they agreed to work for, and if that meant that he might seem to be overpaying the ones who worked a shorter time, that was his business; he chose to be generous to them.
Just as with His explanation of the conversation with the rich young man, Jesus is teaching that God’s grace is not something we can earn, and that it is not an entitlement, it stems entirely from God’s graciousness… could it be that’s why it is called “grace”?
The bottom line is really quite simple: When considering the things of God, we cannot understand them by the values and wisdom of Man, for instead we must take a heavenly view. As the chapter moves forward, we will see more of this new Kingdom view of things.