The Big Picture – Part I

by Ed Urzi

If you spend a little time looking at Jesus’ teachings in the Scriptures, you’ll quickly become familiar with His use of something called a “parable.” A parable is a teaching method that uses a short, simple story to illustrate an important spiritual truth or moral lesson. A parable works by taking a familiar example from everyday life and using it to demonstrate a spiritual truth that may not be so easily understood. Because of this, Jesus’ parables often featured ordinary circumstances and common events that were easy to understand and associate with spiritual truths that were more difficult to understand.

Just as with Jesus’ parables, some may look at this illustration and only see a series of oddly shaped blocks. Others take the time to consider it more carefully and see something else

The beauty of this approach is that it not only served to teach people some important truths about God but it also served to teach people some important truths about themselves. You see, Jesus’ parables provided an opportunity for any interested listener to uncover the deeper spiritual meaning behind each story. For those who were really interested in learning more about God, Jesus’ parables helped bring important spiritual truths into sharper focus. But for those who were spiritually unconcerned, a parable did very little to make those truths any easier to understand. A spiritually unconcerned person might see Jesus’ parables as a collection of interesting stories but fail to grasp the deeper meaning behind them.

A person’s reaction to Jesus’ parables said quite a bit about their own spiritual condition and the same is still true today. So for those who are willing, Jesus’ parables represent a great opportunity to learn more about who God is and what He is like.

One of Jesus’ parables has come to be known as The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard and it can be found beginning in Matthew 20:1. This parable illustrates the importance of keeping our eyes on the “big picture” and not losing track of what’s really important…

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1 NKJV and following).

In Jesus’ day, a laborer would usually go to the local marketplace early in the morning so he could be hired as a worker for the day. Now the economy of Jesus’ day was mainly agricultural and vineyards were an important part of that economy. When the time came for the grapes to be harvested from these vineyards, it was sometimes difficult for a vineyard owner to find enough workers to pick them all. Because everyone’s vineyard was harvested around the same time, it was definitely in a vineyard owner’s best interest to get down to the hiring area nice and early so enough people could be hired to do all the work.

It was also a good idea to start work during the early morning hours before the heat of the day made it difficult to get things done. Knowing this, the landowner in this parable wisely went to the hiring area early in the morning to select his workers. “Early in the morning” most likely means that the vineyard owner was out looking for workers around 6am, which was considered to be the first hour of the day.

“He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise” (Matthew 20:2-5).

A “denarius” (den-na-ree-us) was a unit of money that was equal to an average worker’s daily wage. So we’re told that the landowner made an agreement with the workers who were waiting to be hired and sent them off to start working in exchange for a regular day’s pay. However, the landowner went back again to the hiring area around the 3rd hour of the day (about 9am) and hired some more workers. This meant that 25% of the work day was already gone by the time this second group of workers arrived in the landowner’s vineyard.

Verse five tells us that the vineyard owner returned to the hiring area twice more; once around the sixth hour (12 noon) and again around the ninth hour (about 3pm). And notice what the vineyard owner said to the late arriving workers- Go out and work and I’ll pay you what’s right. This means that these later workers had to trust the landowner to treat them fairly when it came time to be paid.

“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive'” (Matthew 20:6-7).

Now there’s something about the response of these idle laborers that doesn’t sound quite right. You see, the eleventh hour was approximately 5pm- so where were these guys at 6am, 9am, 12 noon, and 3pm when the landowner had visited the hiring area previously? Well, there seems to be only two possibilities…

  • They either had not been there and were not telling the truth when the landowner asked them why they had been standing around there and doing nothing all day or…
  • They had been there earlier but didn’t want to go to work

Whatever the reason may be, the important thing at this point is not what happened earlier in the day; the only thing that matters now is that these people were willing to answer the landowner’s call and go to work in his vineyard even though it was very late in the day.

“So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first'” (Matthew 20:8).

So it’s now approximately 6pm in the evening and the time has come for work to end for the day. Now the Old Testament book of Leviticus tells us, “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Leviticus 19:13) and because of this, laborers were routinely paid at the end of the work day. However, this landowner had some special instructions for his manager: Call the workers and pay them- but start with the guys who were hired last and then finish up with the ones who were hired first.