This parable tells the story of a landowner who needed workers for his vineyard. He went out early in the morning, presumably to a place where laborers gathered, and found some.
In those days, the monitary unit known as a 'denarius' was the normal daily pay for a laborer, and this is what the landowner agreed to pay. So, with this agreement, these laborers went out to the man's vineyard and began to work.
Later that morning, the landowner was out again, and he saw others in the marketplace looking for work. This was at about the 3rd hour, which would be about 9 A.M. He instructed them also to go work in his vineyard, but he did NOT agree on any particular rate of pay with them. He merely said, "Whatever is right I will give you." He did the same at the 6th and 9th hours - that is, about noon and at 3:00 in the afternoon. And then, at the 11th hour, about 5:00 in the afternoon, when there was only about one hour of work left, he found more who, when questioned, expressed a willingness to work. So he sent THEM to his vineyard with the agreement that he would give them "whatever is right."
Well, when the working day was over, the landowner gave his steward some instructions which seem rather strange to us. The last laborers hired - the ones who had worked for the least amount of time - were the first ones paid! And not only that, we see that the ones who had only worked for about an hour were paid the same amount as those who had worked all day.
Well, those who had worked all day assumed that they would get more, and when they didn't, they murmured against the landowner. They didn't think this was quite fair. They had worked far longer, and through the hottest part of the day. But the landowner responded to their objections by pointing out two things: First, he had fulfilled his contract with them. They had agreed to work all day for a denarius, and that's what he paid them. And second, it was his money. If he wanted to pay a man an entire day's wage for one hour of work, that's his own business.
On the other hand, the laborers hired later in the day had said nothing at all about pay. They were glad just to get the work. We might say that they worked by faith, trusting in the lord of the vineyard to treat them fairly, knowing him to be a man of integrity and justice. And we gather from their comments to the landowner that they would have been willing to work all day, but they had no opportunity. They needed the job, and the owner, knowing their needs and their willing hearts, decided to pay them on the basis of what they WOULD have done if they'd had the opportunity.
This parable - this illustration - has to do with rewards for service to God. Now our salvation is based solely on our faith in Jesus Christ. For the Christian, the issue of eternal life is already settled. But in addition to eternal life, we'll also be rewarded for our service to God. But God is very just and gracious in rewarding us. Not all Christians have the same abilities. Not all have the same opportunities. Some become Christians later in life, and don't have as many years left to serve the Saviour. In this parable, Jesus teaches that the matter of rewards is under the sovereign control of God, Who is represented by the Landowner in this parable. This parable teaches us that our heavenly rewards are not based on the quantity of services rendered, or the number of years, but on criteria that are solely under God's control, and which vary from individual to individual, and which take into account our opportunities, our motivation, and our trust in the Lord.