Matthew 20

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Matt 20:1-15 The parable of the laborers in the vineyard

Bruce R. McConkie

"Peter's statement, 'we have forsaken all, and followed thee,' (Matt 19:27) said after the rich young ruler made his great refusal, declining as he did to follow Christ, was followed by the question: 'What shall we have therefore?'...Such is the setting for the present parable. 'To impress upon them still more fully and deeply that the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of mercenary calculation or exact equivalent-that there could be no bargaining with the Heavenly Householder-that...Gentiles might be admitted before Jews, and Publicans before Pharisees, and young converts before aged Apostles-He told them the memorable Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. That parable, amid its other lessons, involved the truth that, while all who serve God should not be defrauded of their just and full and rich reward, there could be in heaven no murmuring, no envyings, no jealous comparison of respective merits, no base strugglings for precedency, no miserable disputings as to who had performed the maximum of service, or who had received the minimum of grace.' (Farrar, p. 504.)

"...The kingdom of heaven on earth is the Church of Jesus Christ, which prepares men for an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven hereafter, which is the celestial kingdom. The householder is God; the hired laborers are his servants; the vineyard is his kingdom; it is also the house of Israel and all the inhabitants of the earth to whom his servants are sent. It was the practice of the day to employ daily laborers in the marketplace. The agreed compensation, a penny or denarius, was the normal wage for a single day's service. The great importance of the work is shown by the fact that the householder himself employed the laborers, not trusting it to a steward.

"...In its initial application, the parable applied to Peter and the apostles; they bore the burdens of the kingdom during the heat of the day and came off marvelously well. But there were others-Gentiles, heathen, the seed of Cain-all of whom in due course would be called to service in the vineyard of the world. What if some of them, laboring but for an hour, should receive equal or even greater rewards than the first laborers?" (The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 3: 307-310.)

Matt 20:1-15 Applications of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard

While most parables have only one correct interpretation, they may have many different applications. The parable of the laborers is an example. The theme of all these applications is the justice of God in giving rewards to his servants. By mortal standards, it seems unfair that the last laborers received the same reward as the first laborers.  Certainly, if there is one thing we are most keenly aware of, it is when we are treated unfairly. However, this is truly a 3-year-old mentality, since a 3-year-old will always complain when his sibling receives one more piece of candy. Can we then complain about the unfairness of God? At the judgment will we be able to say to Him, I deserve more because I had to bare 'the burden and heat of the day'?


The disciples are being taught that their aspirations for position and reward in the life hereafter need to be put into perspective. There will be others-called later-who will receive the same if not a greater reward. Think of Paul who admitted, 'I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God...but I laboured more abundantly than they all...For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles' (1 Cor 15:9-10; 2 Cor. 11:5). What reward does he deserve? Would the original Twelve have reason to murmur that Paul was given the same reward as they were?

Application #1

The laborers in the vineyard represent laborers from different dispensations. The laborers of the eleventh hour (v. 9) represent the servants of the latter-days. Bruce R. McConkie said, "One application of this parable is that those called to Christ's service in the latter-days will inherit equally with Adam and Abraham though those ancient prophets have long since gone to their exaltation. (D. & C. 132:29-37;133:54-56.) In sending forth his ministers in this dispensation the Lord said: 'It is the eleventh hour, and the last time that I shall call laborers into my vineyard.' ("D&C 33:3D. & C. 33:3.)" (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., 219.)

Imagine mortality for an ancient prophet.  Before the days of Noah, mortals often lived 800 - 900 years (Gen. 5).  After some 850 years of grueling mortality, such a prophet would die and go to the spirit world, suffering for lack of a body for some 2500 years before Christ visited the saints there (D&C 138:50).  Assuming this prophet was not resurrected with Christ but was among those who were called to teach the gospel in the spirit world (D&C 138:30), this servant might spend another 2000+ years preaching the gospel. To count it all up, the servant spent  850 years of mortality and 4500 years in the spirit world before being resurrected.  That is a total of 5350 years of service to the Lord.  Compare that to the latter-day saint who lives 75 years, serves in the spirit world for another 150 years and then is resurrected.  The ancient prophet might want to complain saying, "Compared to me, this last man has wrought but one hour, and thou hast made him equal to me."

You can see his point.  He has served longer and yet receives the same reward.  But does he have a right to complain?  If he receives eternal life, has he been mistreated by the Lord?  Has God been unfair with him in any way?

Application #2

The parable could be applied to different members of the Church. Some are born into the Church and endure to the end. Others are converted in middle age, while others are not baptized until they are very old. All of these saints can receive the same reward. The lifelong saint will not be justified if he complains to the Lord, "I went to more sacrament meetings, paid more tithing, did more home teaching, and kept the commandments for a longer time. Therefore, I deserve a greater reward." Elder Dallin H. Oaks teaches us that it is not how long we serve, but who we become that matters (see quote below).

Application #3

The parable can be loosely applied to another principle-that of rewards given to those of different positions in the Church. Will the Stake President be justified in expecting a greater reward than the Bishop, Elders Quorum President, or Primary worker? Will he be able to say to the Lord, "Don't you think that my mansion should be bigger since I faithfully served over such an important stewardship"? As Bruce R. McConkie stated, "What does it matter whether a man is a ward teacher, priesthood quorum president, bishop, stake president, or general authority? It is not where a man serves, but how. There is as great personal satisfaction through faithful service in one position as another. And, as Jesus had before explained, the final reward of exaltation is the same for all who obtain it. It is eternal increase, the fulness of the kingdom of the Father, all power in heaven and  on earth; it is all that the Father hath." (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1: 566.)

Dallin H. Oaks

"As we seek to determine whether we have become true Latter-day Saints-inwardly as well as outwardly-it soon becomes apparent that the critical element is progress, not longevity. The question is not how much time we have logged, but how far we have progressed toward perfection. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said, 'Life is not lineal, but experiential, not chronological, but developmental' (Ensign, December 1986, p. 23). The issue is not what we have done but what we have become. And what we have become is the result of more than our actions. It is also the result of our attitudes, our motives, and our desires. Each of these is an ingredient of the pure heart.

"Some persons achieve great progress toward perfection with just a few of life's experiences. Others seem to pass through the same experiences again and again and yet remain relatively unchanged by them. The contrast is suggestive of the difference between the status of one person with four years' experience and another person with one year's experience repeated twenty times. The question is not longevity but growth. Growth is not measured by a clock or an odometer but by what has happened in the heart.

"These truths provide an insight into the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (see Matthew 20)...When the day was over, the householder instructed his steward to pay every man the same wage. Those that were hired at the eleventh hour received the same as those who had worked all day. When the all-day workers murmured, complaining that those who had worked but one hour were paid the same as those who had 'borne the burden and heat of the day' (Matthew 20:12), the house-holder reminded them that all had been paid the agreed amount and therefore none had any cause for complaint.

"This parable teaches us that the rewards we will receive in the judgment will not be computed according to the duration of our service. Exaltation, the ultimate reward of the Father, is available to all who qualify. Eternal life is 'the greatest of all the gifts of God' (D&C 14:7). None can receive more than this.

"By reason of their willingness and their loyalty to their master, by the end of the day the laborers hired in the eleventh hour had become as much-had qualified as completely-as those who had served the entire period. The master's rewards were not given for the time served or for any other external measure. His rewards were for the ultimate and comprehensive internal measure-what the workers had become within themselves as a result of their service." (Pure in Heart, 138.)

Matt 20:6-7 Why stand ye here all the day idle?...Because no man hath hired us

"They were willing, even anxious to work. They only lacked opportunity. The Lord of the vineyard is mindful of all the laborers and can see that each is sent appropriately to labor when and where and for how much. If he has a spot that he wants us to tend, he will see that we get there, either with the help of or, if need be, in spite of other laborers involved. 'Therefore, let every man stand in his own office, and labor in his own calling; and let not the head say unto the feet it hath no need of the feet; for without the feet how shall the body be able to stand? Also the body hath need of every member, that all may be edified together, that the system may be kept perfect.' (D&C 84:109-110, emphasis added.) 'Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence.' (D&C 107:99; emphasis added.)" (Larry E. Dahl, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 5: The Gospels, ed. by Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet, 370.)

Matt 20:8 when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny

"This principle was illustrated in the example of a man who as a youth rejected the Church and became totally inactive for some twenty years. He paid no tithing and did not go to church. Fairness would seem to indicate that if this man wanted to come back into full fellowship and become a 'full' tithe payer, he would be required to pay the twenty years of back tithing and even, legitimately, the interest that would have accrued on that tithing. But such is not the case. The Lord simply teaches that if we turn back, then we can be forgiven and begin again to receive his blessings. That, of course, is the lesson of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (see Matt. 20:1-16). Even those who went to labor in the vineyard in the final hour of the day were given the same wage as those who had labored all the day long. In the eyes of the world, that is not fairness, but when we understand that God condescends in extending his mercy to unworthy, unprofitable servants, then we see this other dimension of the condescension of God. He condescends in his mercies to us-sinful, unworthy, quick to stray-and lets his arm of love stretch out all the day long." (Gerald N. Lund, Selected Writings of Gerald N. Lund: Gospel Scholars Series, 166-167.)

Dallin H. Oaks

"We do not obtain our heavenly reward by punching a time clock. What is essential is that our labors in the workplace of the Lord have caused us to become something. For some of us, this requires a longer time than for others. What is important in the end is what we have become by our labors. Many who come in the eleventh hour have been refined and prepared by the Lord in ways other than formal employment in the vineyard. These workers are like the prepared dry mix to which it is only necessary to "add water"-the perfecting ordinance of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. With that addition-even in the eleventh hour-these workers are in the same state of development and qualified to receive the same reward as those who have labored long in the vineyard." (The Challenge to Become," Ensign, Nov. 2000, 32)

Matt 20:12 These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us

Neal A. Maxwell

"Since murmuring has been such a challenge throughout human history, it is significant that meekness is also a cure for murmuring. Murmuring often consists of reluctant and resentful compliance, but only after we have grumbled a bit, only after we have made some points we think the Lord needs to hear, as if He needed to hear them...Meekness, however, feels no obligation to engage in murmuring. The ironies, the disappointments, and the injustices are felt by the meek, but the meek individual feels no need to lecture the Lord. After all, that individual has taken the Lord's yoke upon him to learn of Him, not the other way around!

"Jesus taught parabolically how often people feel unjustly dealt with, even though God has kept His promises to them, merely because He acts redemptively toward others. (Matthew 20:11.) The Lord reproved those who worked in His service for resenting the fact that the same salvational wages would be paid to those who came late. He asked, 'Is thine eye evil, because I am good?' (Matthew 20:15.) We worship a generous God who desires us to be generous like Him." (Meek and Lowly, 61.)

Matt 20:15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

"I often ask my students the following question, 'When you stand before the bar of God at the Judgment Day, how many of you would like the assurance that God will be absolutely fair with you?' Usually every hand goes up. Then I pull the rug out from under them. 'You'd better think again. To be fair means to judge you by the law of justice and to give you what you deserve. But imperfect and fallen mortals like ourselves don't want to get what we deserve; we should be hoping for more than that. We don't want God to be fair or just when he judges us-we want him to be merciful.' The atonement of Christ provides a way for God to be at the same time both just and merciful. Since Christ and I are one in the gospel covenant, and since in a covenant partnership it doesn't matter which partner does what, Christ can answer the demands of justice for me, and I can then receive the benefits of mercy from him. This is an arrangement that satisfies both justice and mercy.

"Yet some people are so addicted to the law of justice that they have difficulty accommodating the law of mercy or grace. They chafe at certain aspects of the gospel and of mercy that seem to them unfair (in other words, merciful rather than just). For example, it really isn't fair that one person should suffer for the sins of others. It isn't fair that some people can commit horrible crimes and then be completely forgiven and cleansed without having to suffer for them. It isn't fair that those who labor for only an hour will get the same reward as those who labor all day. (See Matt. 20:1-16.) No, the gospel sometimes isn't fair, but that is actually part of the good news. It isn't fair-it's merciful, and thank God it is so, for no human being can stand acquitted before the demands of absolute justice. From the perspective of fallen, imperfect mortals like ourselves, being judged by justice alone is our worst nightmare." (Stephen E. Robinson, Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News, 58.)

Matt 20:18 the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes

Vaughn J. Featherstone

"During the latter part of His ministry, the Savior knew that His time was short. 'From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.' (Matthew 16:21.)

"We cannot fathom the mind of the Christ, but we sense again a loneliness and abandonment which He must have felt during His final hours. He prophesied that He would be betrayed and be crucified. (See Matthew 20:19.) Days before the crucifixion took place, He told of the manner of death He would suffer. As He pondered the things that would transpire in the last hours of His life, it appears that He was troubled most by His false accusers, including Judas, the chief priest, and the scribes. (See Matthew 20:18.)

"The Master could have been preoccupied with the coming, ominous events that would test even the Son of God. Somehow in the compression of the activities during the Master's final hours, He still reached out with compassion.

"As the company left Jericho, two blind men sitting by the wayside heard that Jesus had passed. They cried out, 'Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, . . . but they cried the more saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David. And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight.' (Matthew 20:30-34.)" (The Incomparable Christ: Our Master and Model, 75.)

Matt 20:22 Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask

Neal A. Maxwell

"To the mother of James and John, who wanted her sons to sit on Jesus' right and left hands, Jesus noted simply that the Father had already made that decision (see Matt. 20:21-23). Jesus understood perfectly the maternal instincts that were at play in this mother's questing for her sons. As always, His response was measured and appropriate. We sometimes ask, don't we, for things the implications of which we do not fully understand? Some of the most important prayers we have offered are those that were not answered as we hoped they might have been. There is mentoring in that process too. No wonder the scriptures teach that we are to ask in faith but we are also to strive to ask and to petition for that 'which is right' (3 Ne. 18:20; see also 3 Ne. 26:9; D&C 88:64-65)." ("Jesus, the Perfect Mentor," Ensign, Feb. 2001, 8)

Neal A. Maxwell

"Paul observed that we all need the help of the Spirit to help us even to know what we should pray for: 'Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.' (Romans 8:26. Italics added.) This truth may be justifiably linked with an episode involving a petition submitted to the Savior during His mortal ministry. The mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, approached the Savior and asked that they be on His right hand and left hand in the world to come. Jesus' tutoring but disapproving response was: 'Ye know not what ye ask.' (Matthew 20:22.) Clearly, when our prayers are uninspired, we petition for things we should not ask for, even though we do so innocently. This is, in effect, what we do when we pray and 'ask amiss.' (James 4:3.)

"When we ask amiss, God, being perfect, must reject our petitions: 'And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.' (3 Nephi 18:20. Italics added.)" (All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, 94.)

Matt 20:22-23 Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?

Here, Christ has reference to his atoning sacrifice and crucifixion. This is the cup and baptism he was referring to. He was only days away from Gesthemane and Golgotha and tells us how he felt, I 'would that I might not drink the bitter cup and shrink.' (DC 19:18) Christ is asking if James and John are ready and worthy to suffer as he suffered. Were they ready to redeem all mankind? If they were, then they would be worthy of such a great position in Father's kingdom. The answer, of course, is that they were not.

But they did not understand Christ's meaning. They quickly replied, 'We are able.' Their mother knew not what she asked, and the sons knew not what they said, for they were not able. But rather than explain his meaning, Christ acknowledged their readiness to die for the cause saying, 'Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.' They would partake of the last supper, they had been baptized, and they would suffer for the cause, but neither really knew the bitter cup that Christ still had to drink.

Matt 20:23 it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father

We don't know who deserves these great positions in Father's kingdom. Would it be Adam, Abraham, Moses, Peter, or Joseph Smith? We are not told, but the doctrine of foreordination teaches us that this was known from the beginning. The Father's preparations are beyond our comprehension, but his goal is not. Those foreordained to eternal life are the special assignment of the Savior who was careful about their progress, 'I pray for them...which thou hast given me: for they are thine...those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.' (Jn 17:9-12)

Neal A. Maxwell

"God knew beforehand each of our coefficients for coping and contributing and has so ordered our lives. ("Meeting the Challenges of Today," p. 155.)

"The doctrine of foreordination ... is not a doctrine of repose; it is a doctrine for the second-milers; it can draw out of us the last full measure of devotion. It is a doctrine of perspiration, not aspiration. Moreover, it discourages aspiring, lest we covet, like two early disciples, that which has already been given to another (Matt. 20:20-23). Foreordination is a doctrine for the deep believer and will only bring scorn from the skeptic." (Cory H. Maxwell, ed., The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, 128.)

Matt 20:25 the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them

B. H. Roberts

"This circumstance and these instructions connected with it mark off in sharp contrast the nature of the kingdom of the Christ and the kingdoms of this world. In one is the mastery by domination, of rule by what men call 'effective government,' which rests on force; in the other, in the kingdom of the Christ, is pre-eminence through service and the rule of what men call 'moral government,' which has for its high principles, rule through knowledge, persuasion, love. One is the authority of force; the other is the authority of persuasion. The one ministers to pride, in him who exercises it, the other begets true meekness." (Conference Report, April 1914, Third Day-Morning Session 101.)

Matt 20:27 whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant

"In addition to the parable, Jesus explained to the disciples that it is not position but disposition-the disposition to serve-that qualifies one to sit at his right or left in the kingdom of heaven: 'Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.' (Matt. 20:26-28.)

"The spirit of this important principle was captured by President J. Reuben Clark: 'In the service of the Lord, it is not where you serve but how. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one takes the place to which one is duly called, which place one neither seeks nor declines.'" (Larry E. Dahl, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 5: The Gospels, ed. by Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet, 371.)

Elder John Wells

"The Master himself performed the greatest possible service to humanity, for he spent three years of his life teaching men how to live and how to obtain eternal life, and he laid down his life that the resurrection and eternal life might be brought to pass.

"To love God means that we will not only keep his commandments, but that we will qualify ourselves for the duties and responsibilities required of all who accept the Gospel to proclaim the restored Gospel and the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I like the symbol found on an old Roman coin which bore the design of an ox standing between a plow and an altar, thus signifying its readiness for either service or sacrifice. No symbol could more beautifully represent the attitude of the true servant of the Master-ready, when the Master wills, to toil in his service; and just as ready, when a call comes, to sacrifice everything, if necessary for the Gospel's sake." (Conference Report, October 1934, Afternoon Meeting 30-31.)

Alexander B. Morrison

"Service to others is the hallmark of the life of the Lord's shepherd-leaders. It is the highest expression of Christian stewardship. Service to others drives out selfishness, the great enemy of spirituality. Subduing the ego permits soul growth and signifies the extent of our devotion to Christ and His cause. It is the mark of true greatness of character. Jesus knew that and exemplified it in His life. Said He, 'Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.' (Matthew 20:26-27.)" (Feed My Sheep: Leadership Ideas for Latter-day Shepherds, 46.)

Matt 20:28 the Son of man give his life a ransom for many

Why doesn't the scripture say that he came to give his life for all? Paul taught, 'that he died for all,' and 'gave himself a ransom for all' (1 Tim 1:6). We know that all will be resurrected, but not all will be redeemed (DC 76:38). A ransom is a payment to save someone from punishment. Christ would offer this ransom for all but it would only be accepted by many. Hence the ominous warning, 'behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I.' (DC 19:16-17).

Matt 20:34 immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him

Spencer W. Kimball

"There are two kinds of miracles, as there are two parts to life in every area. There is the body and the spirit. Thus there are two kinds of healings.

"As the Lord passed down the path, two blind men begged for light. 'So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.' (Matt. 20:34.) These were their mortal eyes which were opened.

"The scripture says, '... and they followed him.' This last phrase might mean that they would receive their spiritual sight. If they followed him really, lived his commandments, were totally obedient, their souls would receive sight unto eternal life.

"Of the two, spiritual sight is by far the more important. Only those whose physical eyes do not see can know of the deprivation this entails, and it is a serious one. But even this cannot be compared to the blindness of those who have eyes and will not see the glories of that spiritual life which has no end." (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 362)

Vaughn J. Featherstone

"We assume these men had been blind from birth. Imagine that the first person they saw after having received their sight was the Son of God. Consider the dual sensation of being able to see and then beholding the Christ. The Savior knew of their suffering, worthiness, and simple faith. He granted the blessing immediately. Someone said, 'You can see further through a teardrop than a telescope.' Surely joy and tears, happiness and exquisite relief rushed into their souls. The final sentence in Matthew 20 states, 'And they [the two blind men] followed him.'" (The Incomparable Christ: Our Master and Model, 75-76.)