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Contemporary English Version Matthew 20:4

He promised to pay them what was fair, if they would work in his vineyard.

NIV Matthew 20

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.

Is the landowner being fair to all the workers or is he practicing favoritism? Is the word "fair" a suitable translation?

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    The Greek is αδικω σε ουχι I do wrong you not. Or I do no unrighteousness to you. Biblehub. Strong 91
    – Nigel J
    Jul 1, 2020 at 17:21
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    If a man accepts a job of work for an agreed rate of pay : what's unfair about that ?
    – Nigel J
    Jul 1, 2020 at 17:29
  • No, it doesn't seem completely fair, as the workers seem unaware they could have worked just the last bit of the day and been paid the same. In this sense, they were misled by the landowner. If they had been aware of this, they probably wouldn't have worked the entire day, but just the last bit. Jul 1, 2020 at 18:30
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    @AnthonyBurg Wouldn't a grateful employee be happy to work the whole day rather than 'stand idle' ? To be productive, rather than unfruitful ? Does such an employee show charity towards the employer offering work and hire ?
    – Nigel J
    Jul 2, 2020 at 5:27
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    @AnthonyBurg The situation changed during the course of the day. Workers were hired but there were still outstanding tasks as the day progressed. Each worker got exactly what had been negotiated as a contract. Nobody forced them into the contract.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 2, 2020 at 18:10

4 Answers 4

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Let us be very clear about this, the parable well illustrates God, very fortunately for us, is NOT fair at all. God is supremely generous and that is the point being made in the parable of Matt 20:1-16.

The workers were given the wages they had agreed and then so much more. Before commenting on the parable, let us remind ourselves of what is called the great "Divine Exchange":

  • 2 Cor 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • Gal 1:4, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.
  • Isa 53:4, 5, Surely He took on our infirmities and carried our sorrows; yet we considered Him stricken by God, struck down and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.

That is, Jesus was treated as we deserve so that we might be treated as He deserves. Let there be no doubt that this exchange is supremely unfair. I am glad about that!

Now back to the parable of the vineyard. I believe the parable of the vineyard shows several things:

  • God's grace - were given and rewarded with much more than we deserve.
  • God's grace is not limited by our human effort
  • Citizens of the kingdom of heaven (Christians) are often called upon to work hard and endure difficult trials. This effect is very uneven. However, we will all, alike, be rewarded with a place in the eternal kingdom of God.
  • In order to receive the wages, the workers had to agree to go into the field and work; some for a long time and others for a short time.
  • God's generosity as expressed in (among other things) His grace often arouses the suspicion of those in the community of Christians (V12, 13)
  • The values of this world do not correspond to the values of the kingdom of heaven (v16) - things often appear backwards, upside down, etc, to our earthly, human logic.
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    For parallel, see the story of the Prodigal Son. In both those cases, though, it seems the first-workers/elder son doesn't get it, and so in some sense is spiritually out of sorts. Hence, the first shall be last and the last first - in the parable of the vineyard, the last workers are paid first. Jul 1, 2020 at 22:40
  • @AnthonyBurg - many thanks - good points.
    – Dottard
    Jul 1, 2020 at 22:52
  • +For highlighting that God's generosity might seem unfair to us humans but that it is a good thing.
    – Hjan
    Jul 5, 2020 at 5:56
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What the parable exposes is that the kingdom of heaven is nothing like earthly kingdoms and that the work of faith and labour of love is not done for hire or reward and that the Lord of the harvest does not count one above another as to exertion.

All the prospective labourers were gathered in the beginning of the day to make themselves available for a day's hire. Some stood idle, unhired, unwanted, until the last hour. Some laboured all day long, in the heat. All got the same pay.

God said to Abraham :

Fear not, I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward. [Genesis 15:1 KJV]

The reward of knowing God . . . . is to know God.

Some will labour a lifetime, endure all kinds of afflictions, will be persecuted and hated and ill-treated for decades.

Some will live a comparatively calm life in quiet circumstances.

All will have the same reward :

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

To know God, and his Son Jesus Christ, and to do so eternally . . . is worth it all, whatever it takes.

And there is no greater reward possible.

All will receive the absolute maximum possible.

There's nothing more can possibly be given to the labourers who started earlier.

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The issue is the translation of the word you quoted as ‘fair’. The original Greek word is ‘dikaios’ which more literally means ‘right’, as in righteous.
So, was the owner doing the right thing giving all workers the same amount, that is, was he being righteous? Biblically, Righteousness does not equate with our understanding of ‘fairness’.
So, for example, seeing we are discussing a parable, we see parables where one gets 10, another 2, and another 1 - as opposed to everybody getting the same.

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I think the landowner, knowing that there were going to be complaints at the end of the day, should have met with each employee privately and paid them privately. In today's society, on payday employers typically would not announce to everybody what everybody was getting paid that day.

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  • :) so you think, with the 'landowner' being 'God', you might have some advice for him?
    – Steve
    Jul 6, 2020 at 23:10
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    Well, I wouldn't exactly say that.
    – moron
    Jul 8, 2020 at 3:52

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