A "parable" is just a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson1. Jesus used these stories very often to help his followers understand what he is teaching. So before going into the parable itself, I looked turned back to the event which Jesus clarifies in this story (found in Matthew 19:16-26, 27-30).
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”Jesus was speaking to a large crowd of people (Matthew 19:2) when a rich young man came up to talk to him. This young man seemed to already believe that he was good enough to get eternal life (verse 20), but Jesus knew that his obstacle was: a love for money. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that "You cannot serve both God and money" (6:24).
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied.“There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 2
This young man then went away sad.
Jesus turned his attention to his disciples (meaning "followers"), and told them just how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (verses 23-24). Even though it seemed to be impossible, God could still make it possible (verse 26). However, the disciples didn't seem to like this idea:
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”Peter recognized that Jesus was saying that it is possible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (even though it is only through the immense power of God, himself). This seemed to frustrate Peter, because—unlike the rich man—the disciples did leave behind everything to follow Jesus (verse 27)! How could it also be possible for this rich man that hasn't? That just doesn't seem fair.
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.3
Jesus gave Peter two answers: yes, those who have sacrificed will receive both a great reward and eternal life (verse 29), but Jesus also tells him that "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first" (verse 30).
This is why Jesus tells them a story. That last statement could be confusing, so Jesus explains what he means by giving them a parable (now we're finally at Matthew 20:1-16!).
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.This story just doesn't seem fair! I mean, this is the "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard," right? Some of the workers were there all day, working in the heat, while others worked for shorter increments... even as short as just one hour! These last ones didn't seem to earn the payment they were given.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 4
The one-hour workers received the same amount of money as those who had worked all day, sacrificing everything (just like the disciples in verses 19:27-29). However, the full-day workers still received their generous and promised paycheck. They weren't cheated, but it's just that the landowner was generous according to his own will and generosity, not based on the work of the people (verse 15).
Okay, okay. So if this is true, is there any benefit or blessing in sacrificing everything? Why not just be one of the one-hour workers if it all just depends on the generosity of the landowner anyways?
The answer is this: we've got it wrong. The parable isn't about the workers. It's about their employer.
Our frustration with this story arises when we try to find the application from this parable by looking at the workers, when we aren't meant to learn about the workers at all! Yes, those who sacrifice everything for Jesus will receive "a hundred times as much" as what they've sacrificed, as well as "eternal life" (verses 19:29-30) ...but we must not be envious of God's generosity. It his his own "money"—the gift of eternal life—that he gives to whoever he wants (verse 20:15), regardless of their work.
Jesus ends this parable by emphasizing his main idea: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (19:30, 20:16). This story really isn't the "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard," but it's more the "Parable of the Generous Landowner." Instead of learning what it means for us—the "workers in the vineyard" (a.k.a followers of Jesus who have sacrificed everything for him)—we should ask: "What do I learn about God from this story?"
I learned all over again just how generous God is. I remember again that it's not about what I do, but about who He is.
What did you learn about God?