Despite the downturn in our economy in the last few years, there is still much to be thankful for as we consider the idea of work this Labor Day weekend. Even though unemployment nationally is around 7 or some say as high as 10%, this means that 90% of the country's workers do have jobs. There is relative labor peace in our country and we still have many career opportunities not available in other countries. But the system we have here in the United States however is very different from the system God uses to reward the people in the kingdom.
So on this Labor Day holiday, I'd like us to look at a parable that describes how God pays His workers.
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard - Matthew 20:1-16
Vs. 1 - "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard."
Jesus begins this story by declaring that the following parable about a landowner and his laborers is really an explanation of how the kingdom of God works. Need to keep an eye on this as we move through the parable.
Parables are stories that explain what is unseen with descriptions of what can be seen and touched. They are a glimpse into the spiritual world and its principles through the laws of physical relationships and principles at work in the material world. The word "parable" means "to lay along side" and so Jesus is laying down this story of a landowner and how he dealt with his hired hands in order to reveal the matching principle of how God deals with His servants in the spiritual kingdom. The first part begins with a familiar scene — a landowner contracting a day's work from a group of laborers early in the morning.
Vs. 2 - When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.
They agree for the normal wage at that time which was 1 Denarius worth about 17 cents. This was equivalent to a Roman soldier's daily wage. It was fair and enough to provide and support one's needs.
Vs. 3-7 - And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4and to those he said, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And so they went. 5Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?' 7They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.'
The work day was 12 hours (6 A.M.-6 P.M.) and so we see the master hire laborers every three hours or so right until the final hour before quitting time. There is no mention of wages here because this group is working only part of the day and expects to be paid at the discretion of the landowner.
Vs. 8-10 - "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' 9When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.
Once the day is over everyone is paid and the surprising thing is that each worker received a full day's pay — the ones who worked an entire day along with the ones who only worked one hour.
Vs. 11-12 - When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.'
Here we see the ones who worked all day become angry and dissatisfied because the landowner paid the ones who worked one hour the same as those who had worked hard for 12 hours. We can identify with these people because from our perspective it might seem unfair for the ones who worked 12 hours not to make more than what the ones who worked 1 hour made. You need to remember however, that this parable is not designed to show how things work in our society, but rather how things work in the spiritual kingdom of God.
Vs. 13-15 - But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'
In the parable we see the master answer the all day workers by telling them three things:
- He hasn't cheated them because he paid them the agreed amount.
- He, as the landowner, has the right to pay his men whatever he wishes, it's his money.
- If they feel badly, it's because they are envious of his generosity. In other words, they're just jealous. (Because they wouldn't do this if they were the landowners.)
Vs. 16 - So the last shall be first, and the first last.
Here Jesus is the one making a comment about the parable to those who were hearing it. I'll comment on this particular verse once we go back through the parable to see what the Lord is teaching about the kingdom with it.
The Meaning of the Parable
In order to make an application of this or any parable, it is helpful if you break down its basic elements and see what each represents.
A. The Vineyard — The vineyard is God's service in this world. It has taken many forms throughout history but basically boils down to doing His work.
B. The Landowner — The landowner is God Himself. He is the one who calls us into His service.
- Whether it is by direct calling as He did in the Old Testament
- Or through the call of Christ while Jesus was here
- Or through the gospel message given us by the Apostles
God is the one who calls, who sends out to work and who rewards in the end. (He also punishes, but this parable doesn't address this aspect of God's role in our lives.)
C. The Laborers are Those God Calls — In every general sense, the laborers represent all those who have been called by God to be saved and then put to work in the kingdom in one way or another. The early and late laborers can therefore represent the difference in service between several historical groups:
1. The Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews (early workers) who were called to serve God's purpose long ago with Abraham and for two thousand years were special servants in bringing Christ to the world.
2. The Gentiles (late workers) Non-Jews benefited from the gospel long after many generations of Jews had died never seeing the promise that they had hoped for.
3. The Apostles and Their Followers. The Apostles were the first to preach and suffered martyrdom. They left everything to preach and establish the church. All Christians after them have built on their work, have benefited from their original service and sacrifice.
4. Old and Young Christians. Some have served the Lord a lifetime struggling with sin, the world, adversity in order to finish a long and faithful life. Others come to Christ late in life (thief on the cross) and go directly to Paradise without much service or suffering.
This parable can equally apply to any of these different groups, without affecting the core meaning of it as you will see.
5. The Payment, Attitude and Response. The key feature of this parable and the one upon which the lessons from it rest is the wage the landowner pays each worker, the attitude of the first group, and the response from the master.
1. The wage represents grace. God rewards each person who comes to Him and serves Him with His grace. Each person receives the same grace regardless of their service.
2. The attitude of the first group represents some peoples' attitudes towards God's grace in every age. There has always been those who have had trouble understanding, accepting or extending God's grace. It bugs them that some who seem "unworthy" get it!
3. The Master's response is the Lord's response to those who question His grace.
These are the remaining parallels for the various elements in the parable.
Lessons from the Parable
Ok, now that we've tried to line up the parable with their spiritual counterparts, what lesson or lessons was Jesus trying to teach us with this? Well, there might be several:
- God calls us at different times
- God is fair
- There's work for everyone
However, I believe the central lesson in the parable is this:
All those who respond to God's call receive the same reward — His grace. I also believe that there were several important reasons why this particular lesson needed to be taught.
1. He Taught it for the Jews
Jesus knew that the Jews (thinking that they had exclusive rights to God's reward) would reject any attempt to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). We read in the book of Acts and many of his epistles how Paul struggled with his fellow Jews (Christian and non-Christian) on how God's intention was to bring the Gentiles into fellowship with the Jews in Christ (Ephesians 2:14). We see how he was nearly killed for ever suggesting such a thing. The Jews were the "all day" laborers and they resisted and resented the idea that Gentiles (last minute guys) would have the same reward as they. Even Jewish Christians felt superior than their Gentile brothers and tried to relegate them to 2nd class positions in the early church, and the Apostles fought this battle all the time.
2. He Taught it for the Legalists
The Jews felt they were owed more because of their ancient culture. However, in every age, there are those who feel they deserve a reward or better reward because of their pride — this spiritual pride usually takes the form of legalism. The legalist feels he has a right to be in the kingdom and receive his reward because he has in some way earned it. The Legalist does the work in order to purchase the right (purchasing the right feeds his pride). It's a vicious circle -- More work, more right. Eventually, they feel they have more right to be in the kingdom than those who have done less work. They also believe that they deserve a better reward for their larger quantity of work.
With this parable, Jesus teaches the legalist that the payment/reward does not depend on the amount of work (like it does in this world). Here, the harder you work, the more you make. No, in the kingdom, the payment is based on the generosity of the Master, not the work of the servant.
In the parable, as in the kingdom, the laborers are rewarded for answering the call — not for the number of hours they worked. Jesus taught this because in every age legalists need to understand that the salary/reward/salvation has been earned by Jesus, the Master, on the cross — not by anything they do. He earns the grace that He gives to every person who answers His call to come into the kingdom (the church) and labor for Him (for however long they have). This, then, answers the question, "Why does everyone receive the same wage for different levels of work?" — Remember now, this doesn't make sense from a worldly perspective, but from a spiritual one it does.
A. We all receive the same regardless of work, because as I've already said, Jesus is the one who has earned our salary for us and so our reward is based on our responding to His call — not our work.
B. We all receive the same because we all need exactly the same thing — grace — no more, no less. Because it is by grace we acquire all of the heavenly blessings reserved in heaven for us. By Grace:
- Resurrection, eternal life
If we have grace, we have all of these things forever. (Ephesians 1:3-14) This is why all get the same thing because it's the thing we all need!
C. We all receive the same because it is the right and perfect payment. Any different payment would be less than perfect, less than divine and God's payment is perfectly suited to us. In every generation there are those who mistakenly try to learn what God has given freely through Christ.
This parable continually sets before them the principles upon which our salvation is based — the free offer of grace to all those who answer the call of the gospel in faithful obedience.
And so, seen in this light, Jesus' rather enigmatic statement in vs. 16:
Thus the last shall be first and the first last.
simply repeats the main thrust of the lesson which has already been given in the parable. In other words, He is saying — In this way, the last are first and the first last — that they receive the same reward. In the world, your reward is based on merit, work, time, effort -- but in the kingdom, everyone receives the same reward.
- Those who were called first
- Those who came in the middle
- Those who arrive at the last minute
The first and last are the same because they answered the same call with the same response — faithful obedience. Thus, Abraham the father of the Jews and Mary the mother of Jesus and the newest Christian baptized today will each receive the same reward if Jesus were to appear tomorrow morning. (The first and last are the same.)
Whatever labor I do, for as long as I do it, is simply a way to continue saying, "I believe; I love; I hope." Whether a person works for one hour or one century in the name of the Lord, I am happy for them because like myself, they have known the Lord and love Him as I do, and will share the same gracious reward.
As I close out, I ask you a question: "When your labor on this earth is done, what will you have to show for it?"
- An inheritance for your family?
- Much property?
- A good reputation?
- Perhaps great accomplishments?
Will you have these things or will your labor be a lifetime of loving service to the God who calls you into His Kingdom?
If you respond to His call in faithful obedience (expressed in repentance and baptism), He will reward you with the blessings of grace in this life and the life to come. Whether it's early or late in your life (remember, His grace is available even at the 11th hour) the Lord calls you to Him today. Won't you respond to Him according to your need as we stand and sing?