Jesus’ Life and Ministry
Workers in the Vineyard
“MANY that are first,” Jesus has just finished saying, “will be last and the last first.” Now he illustrates this by telling a story. “The kingdom of the heavens,” he begins, “is like a man, a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”
Jesus continues: “When [the householder] had agreed with the workers for a denarius a day, he sent them forth into his vineyard. Going out also about the third hour, he saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘You also, go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give you.’ So off they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did likewise. Finally, about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day unemployed?’ They said to him, ‘Because nobody has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’”
The householder, or owner of the vineyard, is Jehovah God, and the vineyard is the nation of Israel. The workers in the vineyard are persons brought into the Law covenant; they are specifically those Jews living in the days of the apostles. It is only with the full-day workers that a wage agreement is made. The wage is a denarius for the day’s work. Since “the third hour” is 9:00 a.m., those called at the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 11th hours work, respectively, only 9, 6, 3, and 1 hours.
The 12-hour, or full-day, workers represent the Jewish leaders who have been occupied continually in religious service. They are unlike Jesus’ disciples, who have, for most of their lives, been employed in fishing or other secular occupations. Not until the fall of 29 C.E. did the “householder” send Jesus Christ to gather these to be his disciples. They thus became “the last,” or the 11th-hour vineyard workers.
Finally, the symbolic workday ends with the death of Jesus, and the time comes to pay the workers. The unusual rule of paying the last first is followed, as is explained: “When it became evening, the master of the vineyard said to his man in charge, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, proceeding from the last to the first.’ When the eleventh-hour men came, they each received a denarius. So, when the first came, they concluded they would receive more; but they also received pay at the rate of a denarius. On receiving it they began to murmur against the householder and said, ‘These last put in one hour’s work; still you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat!’ But in reply to one of them he said, ‘Fellow, I do you no wrong. You agreed with me for a denarius, did you not? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last one the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with my own things? Or is your eye wicked because I am good?’” In conclusion Jesus repeated a point made earlier, saying: “In this way the last ones will be first, and the first ones last.”
The receiving of the denarius occurred, not at Jesus’ death, but at Pentecost 33 C.E., when Christ, the “man in charge,” poured out holy spirit on his disciples. These disciples of Jesus were like “the last,” or the 11th-hour, workers.
The denarius did not represent the gift of the holy spirit itself. The denarius was something for the disciples to use here on earth. It was something that meant their livelihood, their everlasting life. It was the privilege of being a spiritual Israelite, anointed to preach about God’s Kingdom.
Soon those hired first observed that Jesus’ disciples had been paid, and they saw them using the symbolic denarius. But they wanted more than the holy spirit and its associated Kingdom privileges. Their murmuring and objections took the form of persecuting Christ’s disciples, “the last” workers in the vineyard.
Is that first-century fulfillment the only fulfillment of Jesus’ illustration? No, the clergy of Christendom in this 20th century have, by reason of their positions and responsibilities, been “first” to be hired for work in God’s symbolic vineyard. They considered dedicated preachers associated with the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society to be “the last” ones to have any valid assignment in God’s service. But it is, in fact, these very ones whom the clergy despised who received the denarius—the honor of serving as anointed ambassadors of God’s heavenly Kingdom. Matthew 19:30–20:16.
◆ What is represented by the vineyard? Who are represented by the vineyard’s owner and by the 12-hour and 1-hour workers?
◆ When did the symbolic workday end, and when was payment made?
◆ What is represented by the payment of the denarius?