Jesus’s parables are some of the most well-known parts of the gospels. Yet, many times Jesus’s audience left confused with what to take away from the parable (e.g. Luke 8:9 & Mark 4:10). So, is there a way to understand these enigmatic stories? Yes! And it is important to understand the parables of Jesus since Christ communicates many truths about the kingdom of God through them.
Here are four sequential steps to read and understand the parables, using Matthew 20:1-16 (the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard) as a case study.
1) Identify the explicit or implicit question that sets the stage for the parable.
This requires recognizing the context of the parable. Like all other parables, this one does not come out of thin air. Jesus always had an intentional purpose with His parables. As you look at the context of Matthew 20, you will notice that the end of Matthew 19 has a key passage that paves the way for the parable’s relevance to the situation.
Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27, NIV)
That’s what we need to identify! Peter’s question in Matthew 19 sets the stage for Jesus to respond with a direct answer, but in parabolic form. In context, Peter’s question (Matthew 19:27) is just after the “Rich young ruler” decided he did not want to part from his many possessions to follow Jesus (see 19:16-26). After seeing this, Peter—probably realizing how much he and the other disciples had given up—asks Jesus, basically: “What more will we get since we have given up everything for you?” His question presumes an answer consistent with how the world sees things—through a merit-based system.
Peter assumes because the disciples gave up more than others, they would receive more in the end. It is a classic example of missing the point. And Jesus’s parable in Matthew 20:1-16 answers Peter’s question, giving a storied explanation of the meaning to the famous phrase: “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (19:30; 20:16). This leads us to the second step of parable reading…
2) Find the surprise.
Jesus’s parables were intended to have a shock factor. If they don’t surprise you, then you either are all-too-familiar with the text; or you struggle to see the connection between the ancient context and the modern significance. Pause where you are on this blog and read Matthew 20:1-16 and try to find the “surprise” or “shock” for yourself. And remember to build on the context (see step 1 again). What did you find?
If we miss the shock of the parable, we miss the point.
This is not a parable about some who are “saved” and some who are not. There are other parables like that. In this parable, all the “workers of the vineyard” are members of God’s kingdom, despite “what time of day” they were called to work the vineyard. That’s not the shocking part. The complainers at the end did not complain that the master allowed more people to come to work the vineyard. Their complaint is that those who did not work as long of hours (quantity) and as difficult of hours (quality) were “made equal” in payment as them. That is the shocking thing!
Jesus was showing that our correlation between what we do and what we get is not how the economy of God’s kingdom operates. We need to rewire our minds that our “reward” is not tied to our performance. There is no competition between fellow workers in God’s kingdom. No wonder one commentator titles this parable: “The Parable of God’s Economy of Equality.” And this equality of reward and status in the kingdom of God is scandalous to many of us who think our discipleship journey should conclude with a merit-based system.
3) Listen to the conclusion.
The conclusion wraps up the parable with either some exhortation, call to action, or summary statement. The conclusion, like the main point of the parable, usually is surprising too. Some of Jesus’s parables have a very memorable (and sometimes sobering) conclusion. Take the ending of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) for example:
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)
The conclusion to Matthew 20:1-16 ends similar to where it really started back in 19:30:
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In Christ, mountains of superiority are laid low and valleys of inferiority are raised high and the ground levels. The exalted are humbled and the humbled, exalted. Christ alone is supreme.
And now, the final step.
4) Summarize the big idea.
This is not technically a step to understanding the parable, but more of a takeaway. After taking it in, it is good to try to find some words that will sum up the message so that you can take it with you. There are many ways Matthew 20:1-16 could be summarized, here are just two:
- Grace is scandalous because in the end, we all will receive an equal reward in God’s kingdom.
- New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, words it this way: “But all who are truly saved are equally precious in God’s sight and equally rewarded with eternal happiness in the company of Christ and all the redeemed.”
The truth is God always acts with grace (it is His very nature). And so, He will pour out His grace on all, even when we think it is unfair to be treated with such equal grace.
We cannot confuse God’s favor with “favoritism.” Anyone who is found in God’s grace (in His favor) are His favorites. God can genuinely call all His people His favorites.
So, it seems that the phrase: “The first will be last and the last will be first,” is not actually about reversing roles where the kingdom of God has first and second-class citizens. What it means is about a leveling out, to wherein God’s kingdom economy all are equal. Think about it this way: Where will you find the first? Among the last. Where will you find the last? Among the first. It is a leveling, not a heavenly way of having hierarchy amongst citizens. After all, receiving the same reward is not a lessening of grace when we remember that our inheritance is everlasting life in God’s family.
And so we hope this look at Matthew 20:1-16 provides a helpful lens of how to read the parables, but also an encouraging truth about the Lord’s powerful, counter-intuitive grace.