The parable of the laborers in the vineyard may at first seem obscure. There are multiple layers; but this fact makes the parable all the more useful for teaching in the Sunday School classroom and beyond. As you prepare to present this parable in the classroom, keep in mind that Jesus is on His way to the cross. He wants His hearers to understand that salvation and the Church—that is, the Body of all Christians in heaven and earth—is founded on the forgiveness of sins, which He will provide at Calvary. What’s more, Jesus engages the rich young man in Matthew 19 who asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (v. 16).
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:13–16)
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 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?” So the last will be first, and the first last.
The overarching message of the parable of laborers in the vineyard is the grace of God. God pours out His benevolent gifts to undeserving sinners, not in exchange for any effort on their part, but rather as an expression of His grace. The Church is based on the forgiveness of sins purchased and won by Christ on the cross. Salvation is not God’s reward for our efforts, as the rich young man assumed, but purely the gift of a loving, fatherly God. This understanding prepares the reader for the parable in which the master of the house disperses his wages according to his own design.
Both the laborers in the parable and many people in the real world make sinful assumptions regarding their own value and the requirements of God’s nature. The laborers in this parable assumed that the master of the house offered a denarius for a full day’s work and nothing less. Verse 12 reads, “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.” In reality, the master of the house agreed merely to pay a denarius for their labor, never making an agreement regarding number of hours. Considering the broader application of the parable, it’s likely that Jesus is addressing the Jewish leaders who believed they were entitled to special consideration from God for their long history as God’s chosen people, and who believed that to offer grace to Gentiles would be unjust.
Today, there are many believers and unbelievers who assume God’s grace is based on merit and length of service. Unbelievers expect God to give favor and salvation in exchange for years of what they consider good behavior. Christians expect God’s favor to reflect years of life as a Christian, membership in a congregation, or service to Him. God makes no such pledges. God brings salvation purely in Christ as a gift. He chooses when to call the individual sinner to Himself. His Holy Spirit creates our faith and inspires our service. All is to His credit.
Understanding the sublime beauty of God’s grace begins with releasing expectations and embracing our life with Christ as a universal experience of His love. The master of the house does not need laborers. He hires as an act of pure benevolence to them. They need the work and the pay. The fact that the master went out to hire at the eleventh hour reflects this most clearly. That left merely one hour for work. The master could have done without it, yet he hired them that their needs would be met.
Similarly, God almighty is complete to Himself. His divine existence does not require us. He is never lonely. God created, redeemed, and saves us exclusively for our benefit. The Christian who expects an extra share of grace and mercy commensurate with a longer tenure of faith will have heartache, disappointment, and bitterness, ruining God’s grace and hating his neighbor. Instead, God calls us to love Him and serve our neighbor in joy, rather than as an effort to earn a higher seat at the table. God gives years of joyful life as His child on this earth and unimaginable bliss with Him forever in heaven.
The key issue is God’s overwhelming grace to sinners. Draw a family on the board that includes Dad, Mom, and four children ages 1, 5, 12, and 17. It’s Christmas time, and the parents endeavor to purchase gifts for their children. Ask students to give an amount of money to spend on each child. Point out that the amount would be the same for each child. Stress that age makes no difference. Whatever the parents purchase for each child, the expenditure would likely be the same or quite close. Connect this to God and His grace. Parents would not give more to the seventeen-year-old than to the one-year-old.
Another idea. Ask students to imagine they have to work all day completing chores both in and outside the house. Ask them if they would prefer to spend the day with siblings cleaning their own home or rather alone cleaning a stranger’s place. Hopefully students will choose the former. Help them to connect joy and satisfaction in cleaning their Father’s house, their house with family. The idea is that serving in God’s kingdom is not a burden, but instead a privilege and joy. Therefore a lifetime of knowing the Lord and serving Him is its own reward, something to be sought after, especially considering the overwhelming joy of the coming heaven.