Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

149. A Penny a Day (Matt. 20:1-16)*

So far Peter's question: "What shall we have therefore?" was only part answered. Jesus now explained further, by the medium of a parable which was also well designed to warn Peter and the rest against asking such questions in the wrong frame of mind.

It is on occasions such as these that the sheer genius of Jesus (to put it at the very lowest level) comes out most clearly. Here, with only a second or two for "improvisation", he coined a parable which is a masterpiece of psychological insight and crushing argument. At the same time it is the embodiment of detailed teaching concerning the Purpose of God—yet, withal, a story of simple power which a child can enjoy, albeit with some mystification. Here, in a parable designed specially for teachers and leaders in the ecclesia (1 Cor.3 :9), is inspiration, divine wisdom, which was to cover the smallest details.

Master and workers

A man with an extensive vineyard was up with the sun and out in the market place early to hire day workers. There was a speedy formal agreement on the rate for the job—a denarius, a penny, per day, as also in the story of Tobit (Tob.5 :14). Both parties satisfied, the day's work began.

At the third hour (nine o' clock), the employer went out to the market place once again, and found men standing around with nothing to do. 'This is a ridiculous situation' he commented; 'I need workers, and you want employment. Then why are you here doing nothing? Away you go, and join the rest. There is plenty to do in my vineyard. And don't worry about the rate of pay—I'll see you are all right.' Somewhat surprisingly, they took him at his word. Reading the man's character, they trusted him. Also, they knew their own need. A few hours' work on any sort of terms was almost an act of charity. So, without any more definite agreement than that, they started work.

At the sixth hour the same thing happened again, and at the ninth hour as well. There is no explanation as to where these men had been earlier in the day. Seeking work in another village?

Even in the last hour of the day he found others without employment. 'Idle here all day long, and I needing all the help I can get! This is absurd,' he said. 'We tried to get work, and couldn't,' they explained. 'Well,' he replied, 'lose no more time; get busy in my vineyard, and I'll see that you have fair pay for what you do. It has been such a hot day, the others have made slow progress.' So they joined the rest when the sun was nearly on the horizon.

Another reading of the situation—and perhaps more likely— is that it was not the urgency of the work so much as the uncaused and seemingly quixotic benevolence of the employer which dictated the development of the story.

Payment and Grumbling

The law of Moses laid down that "the wages of him that is hired shall not abide all night with thee until the morning" (Lev.19 :13). So the employer instructed his steward to pay the workers, being careful to begin with those who had been taken on last.

Here is another oddity—that the workers who on the face of things seem to be the most deserving were made to wait around the longest for their money.

To the astonishment of all those whose short stint had not even made them sweat, they found that they received pay for a full day's work. And so too did those others who had worked for only three or six or nine hours.

The men who had put in a full day's work, when they knew this, figured that their pay would therefore be appreciably more. 'If yon fellow gets a penny for working only one hour, maybe we'll have twelve pence for our twelve hours!' But no! They received exactly the denarius that had been agreed on. This provoked no little indignation. Each one of them separately added his quota to the mounting discontent.

They went in a body to their employer and in vigorous language presented their complaint: 'This isn't fair. You've given those others a denarius for working only an hour, and in the cool of the evening too. Then we are worth a lot more. Look at all the work we've done—and we've had to put up with the blazing sun and hot wind all day long! Is this fair treatment? If they have a penny for an hour why don't we have a good bit more?'

The man turned his back on them, and called their shop steward into his office, and with him a spokesman of the eleventh-hour group. 'Now, comrade (how twentieth century all this was!), don't you see that you have no case at all? The firm agreement between me and your lot was a denarius for a full day's work—and that's what I've paid you. So what are you complaining about? And if I choose to pay the others at a different rate, is that any concern of yours? It's my vineyard, and my money, isn't it? Now, take your pay, and go—and don't come back! I don't want grumblers working for me tomorrow. The others can finish the job. If I choose to do somebody a good turn, does that give you the right to accuse me of unfairness?'

So the men who were taken on last of all became permanent staff, and those who grumbled were fired. The expression: "Go thy way," said to them, and not to the others, definitely implies this.

In these studies it has often been noted that although the parables of Jesus appear to be taken straight out of life, nearly every one of them has some feature which is not true to life. This parable of the penny is a noteworthy example. What employer of labour would dream of paying his staff on the principle which is at the very heart of this story? Not only would such a reckless precedent be ruinous to maintain, but also chaos would be created in the labour market. The man was surely storing up endless trouble for himself.

But this is not really a story of human dealings. It describes the grace of God. No better demonstration could be found of the serious mistake, so often made, of attempting to justify the ways of God to men. By human standards of judgement God is not just just, He isgracious to the point of paradox. This amazing grace of God does not chime in with human processes of reasoning (Rom.9 :21). The only thing to do is to accept it in all thankfulness. The man who cannot, or will not, had better "go his way'—he's fired!

The Penny

When it comes to detailed interpretation t the parable, the penny presents the biggest problem. Here, disregard of the context has been a great hindrance to a tidy understanding of the parable. "The paying of the penny is a mere part of the drapery of the parable. But if a specific counterpart to it be insisted on ... it is merely resurrection." Are either of these solutions satisfactory?

After the rich ruler's great refusal. Peter somewhat self-righteously asked: 'And what reward do we get, Lord? We have done just what you wanted him to do!' (Mt.19 :27). The reply of Jesus specified three kinds of reward:

  1. Rulership in his Messianic kingdom. This was special for the twelve.
  2. "An hundredfold" recompense for all that has been forsaken -this to be received "now in this time" (Mk. 10:30).
  3. Everlasting life (Mt.19.-29).
Very evidently the penny cannot representthe first of these. The usual approach—the third-also runs into serious difficulty:

Thus, by process of elimination, one is shut up to consider the penny as representing the ssatisfaction which comes in this life from serving God. From this point of view the interpretation proceeds fairly smoothly.

It might be argued that this interpretation would call for a constant doling out of pay throughout the day. Two considerations answer this objection:

Works and faith

The vineyard is the covenant God made with the people of Israel, (cp. Is.5 :l-7); the counterpart to work in it is the dutiful service which those in the covenant render to Him (Mt.21:28-31;Lk.20:9-16).

The first workers correspond to those dominated by the principle of justification by works. They serve by agreement: so much service, so much reward. (Ex. 19 :5,6). This had become the very essence of the Pharisaic attitude.

By contrast, the others made no firm agreement. They accepted the assurance: "Whatsoever is right I will give (not, pay) you." Here is justification by faith, coupled with an honest appraisal of their own efforts as not worthy of the remuneration (unspecified) which they firmly believed would be theirs. It is not accident, surely, that the third, sixth and ninth hours are associated with the preaching of the gospel at Pentecost and to the Gentiles (Acts 2:15; 10 :3,9). This suggests that the eleventh hour workers may be intended to indicate those who come to the Truth in Christ, again by faith, in the end of these Gentile times.

The order of payment, with the last being paid first, is hardly to be given strict chronological significance, but rather is to be taken as an indication of divine preference. And it is surely significant that those who began work (by faith) during the middle of the day are not heard to grumble at the generous treatment meted out to their eleventh-hour colleagues.

The dissatisfaction of the first group of workers was designed to foreshadow Jewish reaction to the preaching of the gospel to publicans and sinners (Lk.5 :30) and to despised Gentiles, a gospel which accepted them into the ranks of God's people on fantastically easy terms—or so it seemed to zealous Judaists, with their spiritual pride in a burden of laws and ordinances and rabbinic rules and regulations. How could people so different in spiritual discipline be reckoned as good as they?

This drastic error was due to a sublime confidence in their own worth and in their own standards of judgement. The householder, who represents God Himself, had his own ideas of true worth, and, whether the workers agreed or not, since the money paid was his, he had a right if he felt so inclined, to turn it from wages earned to a generous bonus.

Yet they all received a penny. In the service of God every man finds present satisfaction of some kind. "Godliness is profitable for this life as well as that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4 :8). Whatever a man's motives or outlook, if he seeks to follow God's law, there is inevitably a very real present recompense, no matter what the future may hold. Contentment of spirit, sense of achievement (for those who concentrate on justification by works), a wholesome way of life, a more balanced outlook, and even physical health and enjoyment—any or all of these may be, in greater or less degree, the fruits of a godly life, whether saving faith be much of an ingredient or not.

But when Jews, taking pride in the rigours of the Law (the burden and the heat), curtly rejected the gospel of Christ because it accepted outsiders without hard discipline and the self-dependence of Judaism, they were crudely preferring their own standards of judgment to those of the God who had revealed Himself to them. For them there was now only one final pronouncement: "Go thy way." God has no further use for such. So once again Jesus was prophesying that Israel would become spiritually derelict.

But just as the parable implied that the others, trusting the goodness of their employer, would be kept on for further work in the days ahead, so also those who honour and please God .~>y their present faith in His grace and providence will find that, besides present satisfaction, there is much service and blessing still in store for them in the future.

Thus the last were to become the first; and the first—self-righteous Israel—were to be reckoned last. Many are called by God (as in the parable) but out of all these few only become His elect, enjoying His service for ever.

Notes: Mt. 20:1-16

The eleventh hour. This is not to be interpreted with reference to those who deliberately choose to defer entering the service of Christ until near the end of their days. One suggestion is that the four groups can be equated with.

a. Israel obsessed with justification by works,
b. God-fearers in the early days of Acts,
c. Gentile believers generally,
d. Israel in the Last Days, at last turning to God in faith.
Heat. This word describes the khamsin, the hot desert wind, so named because in some countries it blows for fifty days—March to May. This detail also vetoes the common idea that there was urgent need of workers to gel the crop in from the vineyard.
Friend = comrade; s.w. 22 :12; 26:50.
Take that is thine, and go thy way. The Gk. phrase is very curt and expressive. It might even imply that in a dramatic angry gesture the man had thrown his money down on the table.
Is thine eye evil? appears to mean "ungenerous, niggardly" (Dt. 15 :9; Pr.23 :6).
So means really "Thus, by such a development as this story describes."

Called The word means one who receives and accepts an invitation. Some modern versions quite unwarrantably omit verse 16b. Can the Sinaitic and Vatican manuscripts really be set against all the rest? - unicals, cursives, lectionaries, Fathers, early versions, all of these!

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