Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard as an explanation to his comment about "the first being last and the last being first," and its reference to the kingdom of God.
In the context of Matthew 19:16-22, a rich man has just questioned Jesus about what more he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that he should sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him.
However, this man is very rich, and so he goes away grieving because he is not willing to do what Jesus says is necessary. Jesus then says to his disciples, "Truly, I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:23)
This fact is because a rich person often values their possession more than anything else, and they are unwilling to part with them even though they won't be able to keep them once they have died. This is the message of the Parable of the Rich Fool, which teaches about the dangers of greed and the importance of being rich toward God.
Jesus then talks about what will be received by those who have sacrificed for his sake. It is here that Jesus makes the comment "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." (Matthew 19:30)
Jesus then explains what he means by telling the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Jesus says, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard." (Matthew 20:1) These laborers agree to work for the usual daily wage of a worker, and so they go to work in the vineyard.
However, the landowner then goes out around 9 o'clock in the morning and sees more workers just standing around. He says to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right."
The landowner goes out again at about noon and then also at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, finding workers who are just standing around because no one has hired them yet. He has them go to his vineyard to work for him. The landowner even goes out at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and he still finds more workers who haven't been hired, so he has them also work for him.
At the end of the day, he tells his manager: "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first." (Matthew 20:8) Those hired at 5 o'clock are given an entire day's wage, even though they only worked for a few hours.
Likewise, those hired at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, noon, and 9 o'clock in the morning are all given the full daily wage for a worker, even though none of them worked the entire day. Finally, those hired at the beginning of the day are given their daily wage, which they had agreed to at the beginning of the day.
However, these workers who worked the whole day are upset because they thought they should get more since the other workers didn't work the whole day and still received the full daily wage.
The landowner replies to them, saying, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:13-15)
Jesus then concludes by saying, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)
Jesus is using this parable of the workers in the vineyard to explain the kingdom of God. The daily wage that Jesus talks about is eternal life, offered through his sacrifice. God is continuously asking people to join his kingdom.
As Jesus says, "Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'" (Matthew 9:37-38)
All who agree to join the kingdom of God will receive the same reward of eternal life: "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:15)
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16)
The main point of this parable of the workers in the vineyard is that, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16) This statement, along with the parable, indicates that those who are saved last (whether that be late in their life or late in the history of the world) will receive the same reward as those who were saved first.
However, because we don't know when we will die, it is better to be saved sooner, rather than later. "Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.'" (James 4:14-15)
Going back to Jesus' comment just before telling this parable of the workers, Jesus says, "Truly, I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:23)
Jesus tells this parable of the workers in the vineyard to illustrate what will be received by those who have sacrificed for Jesus. Therefore, only those who put God above everything else, and become his workers, will receive the wage of eternal life. As Jesus says, "and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:38)
"For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14) Or rather, in the context of this parable of the workers in the vineyard, it would be: many are called, but few respond.
A somewhat similar parable, in regards to the content of the story, is the Parable of the Tenants, although the message of the two are very different.