Ever worked for pennies? Years ago, a friend and I got paid to catch Japanese Beetles. My friend’s neighbour and pastor had this gigantic garden. And he agreed to pay us a penny for every Japanese Beetle we could pull off his plants and throw into a bucket of kerosene. We worked under the hot sun Pennsylvania sun catching bugs. I seem to remember us earning twelve bucks if my memory serves me right. It didn’t matter who caught the most beetles. We split the money fifty-fifty and walked right down to the corner store to squander our earnings on beef jerky and candy.
This is reminiscent of a parable from Matt. 20 in which Jesus tells of some workers making an agreement with an employer to do some work. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to “a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.” Early in the morning, the master hires a group of workers under an agreement to pay each of them a denarius for a day’s work. (The King James Version translates denarius as “penny,” but will come back to the amount of compensation in a minute.) Then, a few hours later—the third hour after sunrise, the master goes back over to the marketplace. And he hires some more with the agreement to pay them what is fair. And then he does the same thing again three hours later and three hours after that. And still squeezes in one more hiring spree at the eleventh hour, again agreeing to pay them what’s fair. So when the end of the day rolls around and it’s time to punch out, the owner of the vineyard tells his manager to round up all the workers and pay them in the reverse order from how he hired them. And those workers hired last got a pretty nice deal. A whole denarius! Wow, that seems more than fair! The first group of workers agreed to work the whole day for that much. The master didn’t even bother to prorate the wages. And by the time the manager works his way back to those who were hired first, they’re thinking they’re going to receive more because they were hired before those other guys who got a denarius for just working part of the day.
But those hired first worked the whole day! An entire day, hard at work! What will they get? More than a denarius? Well, you know what they got: a whole denarius. Just like everyone else. And how do those hired first respond? They grumble!
“This isn’t fair! We worked hard all day under the burning sun.”
“But the master is treating everyone equally!”
“This is outrageous!”
Why is this an outrage? The outraged and egregious worker is still getting his denarius he agreed to work for. And the master makes this point. And he makes the point that it’s his right to handle his own business however he wants. He wants to be generous. So why should this worker be jealous? He’s getting his denarius. Everyone who laboured for the master is getting a denarius. And this brings us to the part where we talk about how much a denarius was worth. And it’s probably not what you think. How much do you think a denarius was worth? A denarius was worth a day’s labour, right? Isn’t that what everyone says? Isn’t that what verse 2 says? Does it? Look again.
Mat 20:2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
It never says this was how much people were normally paid for a day’s labour. Jesus is just saying that’s how much they agreed to work for. So how much did people get paid back then? Well, we have some idea. It’s around A.D. 33 when Jesus tells this parable. And we have documentary evidence from AD 1 that records a man was hired to work for ¼ of a denarius. And we have more historical evidence from AD 78 or 79 that records a farm labourer was hired to work a day for right around ⅔ of a denarius. So if we’re talking inflation and want to estimate the standard wage for a farm labourer in Jesus’ day, we can just split the difference. And the average for a day’s work (estimating of course) is around ½ of a denarius (98–100). Why this exercise in math and a lesson in economics? To make this point: The master was being very generous —with everyone. Those hired last, next to last, next-next to last, second, and first—He was being generous with all of them.
This parable is an illustration of God’s grace. He’s being generous with all of us to give us everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven. He’s generous. More than generous. And He’s sovereign. It’s His prerogative to do whatever good He chooses to do. Look at life with this frame of mind—don’t consider any issue by how you think God should have done it. The frame of mind you need to have is considering how God has actually chosen to do it, whether we’re talking about eternal rewards or present events. The Lord is the Master. So serve the Lord, not with the expectation that you’re out earning everyone else when it comes to eternal reward, but with the expectation that the Lord will reward you better than you deserve. You serve a generous master who enjoys rewarding us beyond anything we deserve, whether you’re first or last. Lowly or esteemed. Thank God that you’re one of His labourers. Thank God for His grace that He will reward us beyond anything any of us deserve, whether you’ve been catching Japanese Beetles since before the sun came up, or if you’ve just recently started working for the master, He will reward His labourers beyond anything we deserve.