from WL Worcester (H Blackmer, ed.), 
The Sower.  Helps to the Study of the Bible in Home and Sunday School
(Boston: Massachusetts New-Church Union, n.d.)

Table of Contents


Lesson 28

Matthew 20:  Laborers in the Vineyard

The Story


The Lord in His teaching told a story of a vineyard. A vineyard is a field planted with grapevines. The vines cannot stand alone and in Palestine they are trained on low rails, or often when the vineyard is on a steep hillside they are trained on the stone walls which make the terraces. There is much work to do in a vineyard, in digging up the ground and picking out the stones, to make the soil soft for the vines; in building a fence or planting a hedge around it to keep off the boars or other wild animals that do it harm. There was often a low tower built in the vineyard for the watchmen, from which they could look around and see if any harm was coming. The vines must be pruned and trained up. At the right time the grapes must be gathered, and those that were for wine must be trodden in the wine-press. The wine-press was a trough cut in the rock, and as the grapes were crushed the juice ran off into another trough made for it. You find these old wine-presses overgrown with bushes on many hills in Palestine, showing that there were once vineyards there.

The story that the Lord told was about such a vineyard, and how the owner of the vineyard went into the marketplace early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a penny a day and sent them to their work. This was about six o'clock in the morning, when work should begin. Again he went out about nine o'clock, and again at noon, and again at three o'clock, and once more about five o'clock when the day was nearly done; and each time he found more men in the market-place and sent them into the vineyard. He agreed with the first workmen to pay them a penny a day. The penny was a little silver piece worth about fifteen cents, and it was a day's wages in those times.

At evening when the day's work was over the owner of the vineyard told his steward, the man who had charge of his affairs and his money, to call the laborers and give them their pay. So he called them and gave them each a penny. The workmen who were hired early thought they should have received more, and murmured against the good man of the house, the owner of the vineyard, because he had given the same to those who had worked but one hour and to them who had borne the burden and heat of the day. But the lord of the vineyard told them that he did them no wrong; that it was right for him to do what he willed with his own.

When we learned about the Lord's blessing little children we were with Him in the country beyond Jordan. He was in that same country when He spoke the parable of the vineyard. As we head on in the chapter we find that He was journeying toward Jerusalem. Near the end of the chapter we find that He was near the town of Jericho. They had crossed the meadows of the Jordan and the river and were among the gardens of Jericho. Palm trees grew finely there: The very name Jericho means "a fragrant place." As they passed along, perhaps between high garden walls with fruit trees overhanging and shading the path, two blind men cried out for help. The people rebuked them and told them to hold their peace, to be quiet. It reminds us how the. disciples rebuked those who brought the little children to the Lord. But He blessed the little children, and now He had pity on the blind men. He called them to Him and touched their eyes and they could see; and they followed Him as He went on His way from Jericho up toward Jerusalem. Let me read the two stories of the vineyard and of the blind men. (Matthew 20:1-16; 29-34)


Our chapter opens with a parable of a vineyard. There were many vineyards in that country, especially on the terraced hillsides, and all the, things about the vineyard were familiar to the disciples and others to whom the Lord was speaking. You can get a good idea of the vineyards from many things that are said about them in the Bible. Turn to Isaiah 5:1, 2. You read there of a vineyard planted in a very fruitful hill, and how it was fenced or walled in, and the stones gathered out. The tower was for the watchmen to see when thieves or wild beasts were near. The wine-press was a vat cut in the rock in which the grapes were trodden. Turn to Matthew 21:33, where you find another description of a vineyard. Here the vineyard was protected by a hedge. A hedge is also mentioned in Psalm 80:12, 13. You often read of wine-presses, as when Gideon used one for a hiding place for his wheat. (Judges 6: 11) Sometimes the singing of those that gathered the grapes in mentioned. (Isaiah 16:9, 10) Putting these different things together, you get a good idea of the vineyard, and the work which there was for laborers to do.

The parable tells of hiring laborers to work in the vineyard. Work began about six o'clock. The third hour was nine o'clock, and you see what time is meant by the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh hour. The penny was a silver piece called a denarius. You read of the penny again in Matthew 22:19-21, and you see there it was a Roman coin with the head of Caesar on it. You read again of pence in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:35) Both from the mention of the penny in that parable and in this parable of the vineyard you see that a little coin was worth more in those days than now. The good Samaritan was generous in giving two pence, and a penny was fair wages for a workman. We read in other places of stewards; of a faithful and wise steward in Luke 12:42, and of an unjust steward in Luke 16:1-8. The laborers had worked for different times in the vineyard, but at evening each one received a penny. At first thought this seems unjust, and it seemed to some of the laborers unjust, but the householder said that it was not so.

You can think of the meaning of the parable in two ways. First, think of the whole story as taking place in each one of us. The laborers called at different periods of the day are the faculties that are successively developed and called into active service as life advances. Some which are not developed till near the end of life may be the most precious to the Lord.

Second, think of the laborers as different people. The parable points out how different the conditions of different lives are, and the work that different ones must do. Some live many years on earth, some pass from earth as little children. Some have harder work to do in resisting evil and doing right, and for some it seems easy. And does it seem unjust that little children are received into heaven as surely as men who have lived and labored long, and have met many and severe temptations? The root of the difficulty is touched in the answer of the lord of the vineyard to those who murmured: "Friend, I do thee no wrong. . . Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?" The fact is, that no one earns or deserves heaven. It is the Lord's gift from the greatness of His love. Heaven is ours, if at all, as the sunshine is ours, as life is ours, by the Lord's free gift. He does not ask how much anyone deserves, for no one deserves anything of heaven. But He loves to give to everyone all he can receive. So He wills to do with His own.

Verse 17 reminds us where we are - journeying with the Lord from the country east of Jordan toward Jerusalem. In verse 29 we have come as far as Jericho. In our last lesson we learned that the Lord had left Galilee not to return again to that part of the country. Now He was journeying up to Jerusalem for the last time, and His betrayal and crucifixion were near. As they walked together He talked with the disciples to prepare them for these things. Read carefully verses 18, 19, and think how each particular was fulfilled - the betrayal, the condemnation by the chief priests and scribes, who delivered Him to the Gentiles, to Pilate and the Romans, to mock and to scourge and to crucify; and then the resurrection.

Now follows the question of Zebedee's sons. Which two disciples were they? How little even they had yet learned of the real meaning of the kingdom which the Lord had come to establish! They still hoped for earthly power; and even after the Lord's resurrection the disciples still hoped for such a kingdom. (Acts 1:6) See how gently the Lord answered them, and showed them again that the greatest in His kingdom are those who serve; and that He, who was their Lord and Master, was spending His life in service.

The chapter closes with a beautiful example of the Lord's service.

1. What things that belong to a vineyard are mentioned in the Bible? What kind of a coin was the penny? What time was the sixth hour?

2. Who is meant by the owner of the vineyard? Who or what are meant by the laborers?

3. Is one necessarily more ready for heaven who has lived many years, or whose life has had many natural trials? Are little children ready for heaven?

4. When had the Lord before foretold to the disciples His suffering and His death? (Verses 17-19. Matthew 16:21; 17:22,23)

5. Who is the greatest, one who rules the largest kingdom, who has the most money, who knows the most, or who does the most good in the most humble spirit?

Spiritual Study


The work in the vineyard plainly represents the work which the Lord appoints for us to do. It is not directly our natural occupation in this world, but the spiritual work contained within this occupation - the learning of the Lord's truth, the resisting of evil and doing good. The vine and wine are types of spiritual intelligence. When the church is likened to a vineyard, and Christian work to labor in a vineyard, the work which is especially meant is the learning the Lord's truth, cultivating it and bringing forth its fruits in a life of charity. There is much work to do in the vineyard; softening the ground of our hearts, receiving the Lord's truth and giving it deep root, restraining merely intellectual interest in knowledge, which is the vigorous pruning of the vine, directing its knowledge into those branches which will bear fruit and the best fruit. (A. 3220, 9139; E. 376)

Think again of the laborers in the vineyard as the faculties which are successively developed as regeneration advances, and as persons who go from earth some after a long life of preparation, and some with the open hearts and minds of children. The laborers first called are the early, youthful efforts to learn the Lord's truth and do it. They are worthy efforts, and the Lord loves them as He loved the rich young man who claimed that he had kept the Commandments, but they have in them much self-confidence, and idea of merit and of deserving reward. This is shown in the bargaining of the first laborers for their pay, and in their dissatisfaction at the close of the day when others received more than they. Later efforts are more trustful. The laborers called later were satisfied with the assurance of the householder: "Whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." The laborers called at the eleventh hour, who seem to have stood all the day unnoticed, represent the most innocent, trustful states, which indeed were given us in childhood, but are not for a long time called into consciousness and active use, perhaps not until old age. These trustful, childlike qualities which seem of small account from a worldly point of view are most precious to the Lord and most open to His blessing. It is what He means in saying that "the last shall be the first, and the first last." The "many" who are called also mean the more external states and efforts. The "few" who are chosen mean the deeper, gentler states which bring us nearer to the Lord. Both the "called" and the "chosen" are mentioned in the Revelation as with the Lord in heaven. (Revelation 17:14; R. 744; E. 194; A. 3820)

A further lesson follows as to the true spirit of the Lord's kingdom, in His answer to James and John. It is not the spirit of ruling but of serving. In a sense James and John may be thought of as at the Lord's right hand and left hand in His kingdom, for they represent the love of the Lord and the love of the neighbor, which are the two, strong powers in heavenly life. But the love of greatness and of power in which the disciples asked, could have no place in His kingdom. (A. 9511, 10582.)

Through all the chapter the Lord was teaching about the true nature of heaven. He was opening the eyes of His disciples to see the true way that they might go with Him in it. It seems like a little picture of all this when at the close of the chapter we read how He touched the eyes of blind men by the wayside, and they received their sight and followed Him. (E. 239)

to next Lesson