Is this the “only” moral of the story of Matt. 20:1-16 in the KJV: God will do what is “lawful”, and what He wants with His own, whether anyone considers it fair or not; and if you don’t agree, your eye is evil, because He is good (vs. 15)?

Matthew 20:1-2,14-16 NIV

1 For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?

16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

4 Answers 4


Let's analyze its connection with the verse:

Matthew 19:17

"And he said to him, 'Why do you call me good? There is no one good but one, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.'"

By stating, "Why do you call me good? There is no one good but one, that is, God," Jesus is indicating that true and absolute goodness belongs to God. When applying this to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, it suggests that the owner of the vineyard, represented by the householder, is God, who is inherently good.

The moral of the parable emphasizes the generosity and grace of God, which does not adhere to human standards of reward and merit. The workers hired at different times of the day represent people coming to faith at different stages in their lives. The central message is that God extends His grace to all, regardless of when they respond to His call.

The first workers who murmur against the householder demonstrate an attitude of envy and discontent. This reflects the human tendency to measure justice and reward based on human criteria, forgetting about divine grace. The response of the vineyard owner, asserting his right to do as he pleases with what is his, underscores God's sovereignty in the distribution of His grace.

The underlying message is that God's economy transcends human notions of deserving. God, being good and gracious, offers everyone the opportunity to receive His blessing, regardless of when or how they come to faith. The ultimate lesson is about accepting God's generosity with gratitude rather than envying or questioning His justice, acknowledging that He alone is truly good.


The parable of the workers in Matt 20:1-16 actually has several teaching purposes: here are some:

  • V13 - "Friend, I am not being unfair to you" - God is just
  • V14 - "Take your pay and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you." God is very gracious and pays more than we deserve
  • V15 - "Do I not have the right to do as I please with what is mine?" God is sovereign.
  • V15 - "Or are you envious because I am generous?" God's grace and generosity should not make us envious and avarice!
  • V16 - "So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” God's economy inverts the earthly expectation in many ways.
  • V3 - "About the third hour he went out ..."; V5, 6 - "He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others ..." God is persistent is seeking people to work in His kingdom.
  • etc. There are many more.
  • Could you clarify your assessment of v14? Did He pay the hired workers, who toiled all day, and in the heat of the day, more than they deserved? No, He paid them what was agreed upon and no more. Unless you think they didn't deserve what was agreed upon. I think the whole parable shows God's sovereignty over what is His, whether or not we like it, or think it unfair, because we do not have the capacity to know everything.
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 19 at 23:37
  • @Joanne - that is another legitimate conclusion but I already covered that in my 3rd point
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 20 at 2:48
  • I don’t see your assessment of v14 as a legitimate conclusion for those who worked all day because He wasn’t very generous to them, nor paying them more than they deserved unless you consider the price both agreed on was more than they deserved. Your assessment there would “only” apply to the ones later employed.
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 20 at 15:53

The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), is a story that Jesus told in response to a question posed by His disciples in Matthew 19:25, “Who then can be saved?”. The disciples were confused by Jesus' statement in Matthew 19:23-24, where He said, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

In answering the disciples, Jesus made two statements;

  1. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26 NIV)
  2. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:30 NIV)

In the parable, the workers are the Lord's workers, and their reward is the same: eternal life. Eternal life is not earned, but is given by the grace of the Lord. It is impossible for man to earn his eternal life by works, which is the question asked by the man in Matthew 19:16, Luke 18:18 or Mark 10:17. However, with God all things are possible, for by His grace He is willing to give. The Israelites were originally the chosen people, but the Gentiles now receive mercy as a result of their disobedience (Romans 11:30 NIV). Therefore, the first refers to the Jews/Israelites. The last refers to the Gentiles.

Paul explains this in Romans 11:25-31 NIV;

25 I do not want you (Gentiles) to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved....29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. 30 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.

  • Your answer was helpful, but needs clarification for me, namely that eternal life is not earned. When the rich man asked what good things he must do to have eternal life, Jesus told him "keep the commandments." That is the whole duty of man. (Eccl. 12:13) Actually He didn't even tell him to keep all ten, only the last six. But the rich man still thought he lacked something, so Jesus told him what to do if he wanted to be "perfect." All the workers in the parable were "earning" their rewards, and getting paid as God saw fit. (Rev. 22:12-14) The merciful shall receive mercy. (Matt.5:7)
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 20 at 20:19
  • @Joanne - Ephesians 2:8-9 states, "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast". Jesus, knowing the man was boasting himself with his wealth, challenged him to give away his riches, revealing that he loved money more than God. People can work without faith, or claim to have faith without work. Both are unsatisfactory. Jesus often used parables to convey spiritual ideas, so it's important to study the elements in them. Note the two statements v26 & v30, and the generosity of the landlord. Commented Jan 21 at 0:30
  • How do you reconcile that statement you quoted from Paul with the one from James 2:26: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also”? Does one apply to the Gentiles and the other is applicable to the Jews?
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 21 at 16:02
  • 1
    @Joanne - Paul and James are in harmony, but they have different focuses. James said in 2:18, "I will show you my faith by my deeds", indicating that he also prioritized faith. Good work is a result of obedience to God. Without doing good work, how could one claim to have faith in God? Paul put his focus on faith is an effort to change the mindset of Jewish Christians who were accustomed to abiding by Mosaic law. You may notice that when Paul was speaking to mature Christians, in his letters to Timothy and Philemon, he emphasized good works (1 Tim 2:10 and Phi 2:14). Commented Jan 21 at 22:03
  • -The only way I can see the statement from Paul to the Ephesians, that they were saved by grace and not by works, is because they were Gentiles and maybe showed grace to others. James 2:19 indicates that even the devils believe that there is one God; is that going to save them? It was not the teaching of Jesus to His disciples to not abide by the Mosaic law (Matt. 5:17-20), and can you site instances where Paul was trying to change the mind of Jewish-Christians? He circumcised Timothy who was the product of a mixed marriage, Jewish and Greek. (Acts 16:1-3) I don't find Phil. 2:14.
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 21 at 23:45

The OP asks, “Is this the ‘only’ moral of the story of Matt. 20:1-16 in the KJV: God will do what … He wants with His own, whether anyone considers it fair or not; and if you don’t agree, your eye is evil, because He is good (vs. 15)?”

While the OP's question does a good job of capturing the point of view of the disgruntled workers, it fails to tell the whole story. From a different perspective, the parable is about a group of bitter discontented workers who do not know how to be happy for others or rejoice in the goodness of their master.

If the landowner is understood to be God and the workers as those who serve Him, one is left with this disturbing question: These laborers, who have the privilege of being first to be called to work in God's vineyard, why do they show such little understanding of His heart and no sign that they share in His goodness and mercy?

Jesus uses an earthly principle to teach us a divine one, but given their opposing natures, the moral of the story lies in the differences between them. Jesus’ parable teaches us the pitfalls of perceiving eternal life as a merit-based system of work and reward, how it can lead to envy and pride. Yes, God calls us to labor in His vineyard, but we are also meant to bear and to be the first of its fruits (cf Rom 8:23, Jam 1:18).

  • I agree with your assessment, but I don't come to the same conclusion of your last sentence. Your reference to II Thes. 2:13 doesn't mention first fruits. I see the first fruits you mentioned in James 1:18 to be the Jewish brethren to Jesus because James' mission was that of winning his Jewish brethren to Jesus. Jesus explained to His 12 disciples what their reward would be, having given up all and being faithful following Him. (Matt. 19:27,28) The payment was eternal life to the workers, and the rewards of Matt. 19:28-30 are for the faithful ones going above and beyond their duty.
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 24 at 21:46
  • I have removed my reference to 2 Thes 2:13, which is based on the NIV’s rather loose interpretation. Examining the parable, I cannot find the basis for the distinction you make between the payment made to those who do only their duty and the reward given to those who go above and beyond (cf Rom 13:8). The story sits between two parallel statements about how those who are first will be last (Mt 19:30, 20:16). I think it is meant to help us understand what those words mean, which is that many who are first to be called may end up being the last to enter God’s kingdom.
    – Nhi
    Commented Jan 25 at 17:56
  • I see that the payment made to the workers in the parable was "earnings." The "rewards," spoken of in Matt.19:28-30 were for Jesus' disciples and those who were willing to go above and beyond their duty, which the rich man in Matt. 19:16-22 was reluctant to do. In this context it means that even though a rich man may be esteemed to be first in this life with honor, wealth, countenance, or stature, he may be last in God's kingdom because God looks at the heart. (I Sam. 16:7)
    – Joanne
    Commented Jan 25 at 19:30
  • Yes, God looks at the heart. While I agree that the law is meant to give life, both the story of the rich man and the parable show the limitations of what man can do on his own (Mt 19:25-26) - how he can spend a lifetime following the letter of the law yet still be unable to perfectly live according to its spirit (cf Jam 2:10, Gal 3:21, 2 Cor 3:5-6).
    – Nhi
    Commented Jan 26 at 15:18
  • 1
    Again, I agree. St. Paul covers this question extensively in his epistle to the Romans. "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:3-4).
    – Nhi
    Commented Jan 27 at 14:38

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