Jesus’ parables are stories Jesus told, stories each with a particular purpose – not disconnected moral fables about how to be better people but rather stories to immerse us in another world, a truer world that he calls the kingdom of God. With each story, Jesus gives us a glimpse into, and helps us perceive that kingdom. He tells stories of how we enter the kingdom, how the kingdom grows, and what will happen when that kingdom finally appears, but in Matthew 20 he’s telling us a story of what life in this kingdom looks like:
20.1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
So, what does the kingdom of God look like? Well, if you take our story at face value, it looks like bad accounting, an eccentric boss, unfair compensation, and complaining employees. That isn’t so much a glimpse into the kingdom of God as it is more like a Wednesday at the office! But as earthy and as relatable as this story is, there’s actually more that’s going on beneath the surface. Jesus is using this story to carve open our hearts and to reveal to us a poison that’s infected each of us, while also showing us how life in the kingdom is the cure, a balm for our souls.
Life in the kingdom rejects envy and entitlement by rejoicing in God’s grace and justice. Isn’t that a wonderful vision of life? Don’t we want that? When people talk about you at your funeral, don’t you want them to talk about you in this way, that you were a joyful person and not absorbed by envy or entitlement? We want that, but how do we get there? Well, Jesus tells us.
Life in the kingdom rejects envy and entitlement. That’s the poison Jesus identifies–envy and entitlement. These feelings are so natural to us, aren’t they? Envy is “resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else,”[i] not just an awareness of a good that another enjoys, but a resentful awareness that they have it and I don’t. Our society is built on cultivating envy. We scroll through Instagram and see the pictures of an epic vacation our friend is taking, and we start to feel jealous. A classmate gets a better grade on an exam despite the fact we know we studied much harder than they did, and we feel resentful. We open Facebook and see a super mom who homeschools her seven kids, prepares a craft for each of them while also making her own organic baby food and running a side business which nets more income than working in an office… and we all hate her for it. How does she have all that time? Or, did anyone else spend an inordinate amount of time on Zillow while stuck at home over the past year? We all know what envy is like.
Then there’s entitlement, which is the belief that I am exempt from responsibility and owed special treatment.[ii] This isn’t just a thing that Millennials are guilty of, (although we do expect to graduate from college and immediately step into our dream job). You work long hours at the office, and you come home with the expectation of a clean house, a spouse who can’t wait to ask about your day, a hot meal ready, the kids well-behaved, Netflix queued up with the next episode of the series you’re binging. Or, putting the shoe on the other foot, there’s the expectation that when your spouse comes home from work, they’ll be eager to hang up their coat and immediately tag in to relieve you of kid duty, ask you about your day, start getting dinner ready and create space so you can have a little “you time.” How is that working out for you?
We’ve all known the experience of feeling entitled after a long day of struggle and sacrifice, and so do the workers in our parable. Do you see that at the conclusion of this story? At the end of a long, grueling day, the body tired and the mind empty, with cramped muscles and blistering hands, a handful of workers who’ve labored for twelve hours are waiting in line for their paycheck, and they witness what they deem to be an injustice. Standing in front of them are people who’ve worked for nine hours, for six hours, for three hours, and at the front of the line are a few people who only showed up for one hour of work, and they are all given the exact same amount of money. They experience envy — they are resentful that their coworkers did less work and got the same reward. They also feel entitlement — they feel that they should have been paid more because they worked more.
Now, if we’re honest, we resonate with their complaint. Wouldn’t we raise the same point to the manager if we were in their shoes? Maybe you’re more holy than I am, but I would be speaking up! I’d speak up for myself — “It’s not fair! We did more than everyone else, our paycheck should reflect that!” I’d speak up for my boss, too — “Don’t you know that’s bad business? You’re not going to turn a profit if you keep throwing money away like that! I’m looking out for you, really!”
But when they raise their complaint, the boss doesn’t take their side and agree with them, but rather he rebukes them. In fact, verse 15 is quite watered down in most translations. Literally, their master of the house says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The translators here do their best to translate a common first century phrase, but the words we read actually blunt the force of what he is saying. Instead of reading, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” he is actually accusing: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The “evil eye” is another way of saying, “You’re full of envy.” The workers think the master is evil because he’s acting unfairly, but the master replies and says to them, “You are the evil ones. You don’t have my interests in mind. We had an agreement. You are being envious and entitled.” He rebukes them and sends them on their way.
Why does Jesus take the time to tell this story about these envious and entitled workers? Take a second and zoom out from our passage and notice what happens just before. Jesus is with his disciples on their way to Jerusalem, and two times on this journey Jesus tells them that it’s a one-way ticket for him — he’s going to that city to suffer, die, and rise again. And as they go, they encounter a rich young ruler who wants to follow Jesus. Jesus tells him that he’d be happy to have him once he sells everything he has — but the young ruler won’t do it. And, after the young man goes away sad, Jesus tells his disciples that because they’ve done what the young ruler was unwilling to do — give up everything and follow him — they are going to receive some staggering rewards. Jesus says they are going to sit on twelve thrones and have incalculable wealth. Now, this “twelve thrones” talk actually grips the disciples’ minds so much that it comes up again at the end of Matthew 20, after this parable — which to me says that when Jesus gave this parable, it went in one ear and out the other.
But now we see why Jesus telling this story starts to make sense. In effect, Jesus is saying, “There is a reward that comes with following me, a huge reward, life with me is infinitely better than life without me. But don’t get it twisted. You’re not receiving this reward because of anything you’ve done, but because I’m giving it to you freely.” The disciples weren’t savvy investors who saw an opportunity. They didn’t go looking for Jesus; Jesus sought them out and called them. Jesus is telling them to not buy into the belief that because they started following him early that they’re entitled to more later. In fact, Jesus says, when you see others come to believe in me, and their lives look a lot better and more comfortable than yours, don’t be envious. Rejoice with them that they are receiving the same reward as you are.
Jesus tells this story about envy and entitlement because he knows his disciples’ hearts. And Jesus knows our hearts as well. Jesus knows how quickly and easily our selfish hearts can transform our sacrifice for God into expecting things of God. This past summer, I heard Dr. Jim Coffield speak, and he said something that has stuck with me: “Sacrifice will always turn into entitlement unless grace intervenes.” It’s the natural tendency of the human heart to justify ourselves because of all of our service for God and our sacrifice in our relationships with others. It’s this tendency that tells us, “Because I’ve done this, I’m owed that.” It’s how we justify zoning out at home and ignoring our family or roommates because we’ve had a long day at the office. It’s how we tell ourselves it’s okay to go to that website because we give selflessly to others without so much as a thank you. It’s how church leaders have rationalized their anger, their abuse, and their lust because of all the great things they’re doing for God. It’s how church members expect God to bless them abundantly because they served and given sacrificially.
Do we see how subtle these temptations are? No one wakes up wanting to feel envy or entitlement, but in a million small ways we do. Envy and entitlement turn our eye evil and distort reality. If these things are so pernicious in our earthly relationships, how much more deadly is it for us to feel envious and entitled before God? If we know how dangerous and destructive it is when we feel like people owe us something, how much more when we think God owes us something? Envy and entitlement are dangerous because they drain the joy out of our lives and they instrumentalize all our relationships — they turn God and other people into objects to use rather treasuring them for who they are.
What we envy reveals that for which we ultimately live. What do your feelings of envy and entitlement tell you about who you really worship? When left unchecked, envy and entitlement act like a poison to our souls that slowly destroys us and those around us. That is no overstatement. We all have relationships that are broken because of our own envy and entitlement, and in Mark’s gospel we even see that the sin that motivated the murder of Christ was envy (Mk. 15:10). Because Jesus loves us, because he knows how poisonous envy is to our souls, Jesus tells this story to help us see it in ourselves and point us to a better way.
Once we see how deadly envy and entitlement are to our lives, how do we reject them? How do we say no? Not by trying harder, but by doing what Jim Coffield said: we let grace intervene. How do we reject envy and entitlement? By rejoicing in God’s grace and justice. Now, we can enjoy anything about God and it will be a cure for our souls, but Jesus identifies two things in this parable that we should particularly focus on and enjoy, and those are his grace and his justice. What does this look like?
First, we rejoice in his grace toward us and others. As we read this parable, it is all too easy for us to fixate on the apparent injustice of this passage: equal pay for unequal work. But remember that these stories are glimpses into a truer world, a world that is more real than ours, one that doesn’t operate in quite the way we expect. The story doesn’t take place on our turf but on the kingdom’s turf, on God’s turf. And when we step onto his turf, we should leave all earthly expectations of merit and reward behind. The way into God’s kingdom is by grace and grace alone. No one gets into that kingdom by their own effort or merit, but only because God sought them out and brought them in. Remember how this story began? The workers in the vineyard didn’t wake up on the property, they didn’t work their way into a job. Rather, they were found by the owner and brought in to work in his vineyard. This is true of the disciples, and this is true of each and every follower of Jesus as well. No one in any church is a Christian because God saw something in us that he needed. He didn’t look at you or me and say, “Wow! What a talent! I need you on my team!” No. God looks at us, poisoned as we are by envy and entitlement, and he sent his Son Jesus to bring us in.
In fact, not only did God send us his Son to bring us in, but Jesus came to be excluded so that we could be included. Because he knows how envy isolates and how entitlement suffocates, because he knows how sin separates and kills, Jesus came to our world to absorb that separation, to experience the alienation from God that our sin deserves, so that we would never be excluded from his presence. How is Jesus able to do this? Because he is the only person who perfectly rejected envy and entitlement. At every moment in his life when he could have envied others — and being homeless and penniless you better believe he had many occasions to envy — he rejected it, choosing instead to trust his Father and suffer unjustly. And rather than clinging to his status as God, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2, Jesus didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a man, of a servant, and dying on the cross. The one person in all the cosmos who is justified in being entitled to everything gave it all up so that we could be brought in. Jesus paid the price for our envy so that we could be cured of its poisonous effects. Jesus gave up all claims to entitlement so that we could be called sons and daughters of the King.
Now we see how the gospel cures us of envy! If God has given us everything in Jesus, we have nothing in which to be envious of others. Once we recognize the generosity and grace of the giver, we are able to rejoice in not only what we’ve been given, but also in how God has been generous and gracious to others. There’s a leadership principle that says, “Time in erodes awareness of,” meaning that the longer we are part of a system, the more we become blind to and take for granted the environment we’re in. This parable is a wake-up call for us, one to remind us of what exactly God has given to us and to awaken us to his remarkable generosity. There is a way to live free from envy and entitlement, and it is found in not feeling that God owes us but that he has already given everything for and to us. Envy and entitlement in God’s vineyard are transformed into joyful obedience.
Second, we are set free from envy and entitlement not just by rejoicing in God’s grace, but also by rejoicing in his justice. What does that mean? If you’re like me, when you think of the justice of God, your mind goes right to how he will perfectly reward good and punish evil at the end of all things, how his standard is perfect and that he won’t err in his judgment. That’s good and true, but here’s but there’s another aspect of God’s justice that we often assume and don’t dwell on, and that is when we say that God is just, that means he is always consistent in his character and nature, that what he says and what he does are always in alignment and never inconsistent. He always does what he says he will do.
Here’s where that truth connects with our story. In verses 2 and 13, we read that the owner and the workers agreed on a wage, and at the end of the day, he gave them exactly what he said he would give them. If that truth doesn’t seem amazing to us, that’s because we’re not yet seeing the generosity of the giver and the size of the gift.
We have talked about the generosity of the giver, but do we also see the size of the gift we’ve been given? In Christ, we receive nothing less than all the promises of God. What does that mean?
- That means the floor, the base salary of every Christian, is nothing less than resurrection and everlasting life (Jn. 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:4-5).
- That means we receive forgiveness of every sin — past, present, and future — full and free (Col. 2:13-15).
- That means we have a friend that sticks closer than a brother who will never leave us nor forsake us (Pr. 18:24; Heb. 13:5).
- That means we have an advocate who promises to speak to us a word of affirmation so strong that no one can condemn us (Ro. 8:1).
- That means we have access to a power through the Holy Spirit gives us all we need to live the life he’s called us to live–and that deep down, we want to live (Eph. 1:11-14).
- That means that God is committed to our growth and guarantees we will become complete in Jesus (Php. 1:6).
- That means that one day our bodies will be restored and the world renewed and that we’ll be in the presence of God forever (1 Cor. 15).
God has given us exactly what he said he would give us, and when we start to peel back the layers of what that actually means, we have infinitely more than we could ask or imagine. Everything we long for is already ours in the gospel. The more we look at what we’ve been given, the more reason we have to rejoice in God’s gift to us.
What does life in the kingdom look like? Life in the kingdom rejects envy and entitlement and rejoices in God’s grace and justice. This parable is an invitation to be cured of our envy and entitlement and to experience life and freedom in Jesus. Don’t wait until the eleventh hour to come to him. Life lived with Jesus is a life without regret. I recently visited with a missionary who shared her testimony of God’s faithfulness to her over the last 48 years of serving Christ in women’s prisons, schools, and orphanages. If you ask her about her experience on the field, without fail before she answers you she’ll stick her finger up in the air and say, “God has been so good to me. He’s given me everything I needed. Even though it’s been difficult, God’s grace is sufficient for me.” The beauty of Christ shines through her life and helps us to see that a life animated by envy and entitlement is not just silly but undesirable. We want to live lives marked by joy, and Jesus came to make it possible for us to live joyfully this day and every day.
[i] Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007), 149.
[ii] John Townsend, The Entitlement Cure (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 19.
These are sources that, while not explicitly quoted in this article, were nonetheless influential in the writing process. These voices helped me understand the passage better. I’ve done my best to give credit where credit is due, but if I “sound” like anyone, here are the sources I am echoing.
Blomberg, Craig L. Interpreting the Parables. Second edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.
_____. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001.
Carson, D. A. “Matthew.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 8:428. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.
Doriani, Daniel M. Matthew & 2. Edited by Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani. Vol. 2. Reformed Expository
Commentary. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.
_____. “Matthew.” In New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, 930. 4th
- Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Green, Michael. The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity
Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 14–28. Vol. 33B. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1995.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.
Keller, Timothy J. The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans;
Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.
Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI;
Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005.
O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth. Preaching the Word Commentaries. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Ridderbos, Herman. The Coming of the Kingdom. Edited by Raymond O. Zorn. Translated by H. de Jongste. Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing Company, 1962.
Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on Matthew. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860.
Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Turner, David L. Matthew. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004.