The Laborers in the Vineyard

At the start of his chapter on parables in his book “Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible,” author Thomas O. Long declares: “Preaching a parable is a novice preacher’s dream but often an experienced preacher’s nightmare.” 

It isn’t much easier for the writer, especially with a parable such as The Laborers in the Vineyard where the explanations offered have been as many as the expositors offering them. However, following the pattern of analyzing parables that we have established (see previous issues), I believe that the main points of the parable can be determined with a fair degree of certainty and if we don’t go meandering down rabbit holes, we can glean some fairly important lessons. But I’d like to begin by asking a question that all of us have: What’s in it for me?

What’s in it for me?

It is human nature to be self-serving. In any given situation we are always looking to see how we will benefit from it.

In a famous Bible story related in Matthew 19, we find a rich young man approaching Jesus and asking him what he needed to do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him he needed to keep the Commandments. 

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions (v.20-22).

Why did the young man go away? Because he asked the question, “What’s in it for me?” and didn’t see anything of value in it for him. Jesus did tell him that he would receive treasure in heaven in exchange, but that didn’t make sense to the young man. What treasure could there be in heaven? And how could it possibly compare with the treasure he already had? He thought he was being asked to give up everything for nothing, not realizing that, in truth, he was being asked to give up nothing for everything!

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (v.23-27).

Notice Peter’s thinking: “What’s in it for me?” He had heard Jesus tell the young man that there would be treasure for him in heaven if he gave up everything on earth and his reaction was: “Ok. So I’ve done that. So what do I get?” It’s fairly certain that this was pretty much the thought running through the other apostle’s minds. 

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (v.28‑30).

What was in it for the apostles was something really huge! They had exchanged something that they couldn’t keep for something they would never lose. Salvation, of course, was the main prize, but there were many bonuses as well. We may not receive the specific things that they received but Romans 8:17 tells us that we will share in his glory as the co-heirs of Christ, and Revelation 5:10 tells us that we will reign with God on earth.

It isn’t wrong to seek rewards in heaven; after all, Scripture promises us that God “rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). And Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples when they asked the question; instead, he encouraged them by telling them what awaited them. But there does seem to be an element of carnality to the question, and Jesus wanted that to be addressed (not just for Peter’s sake, but also ours as well) so he told them the parable of the workers in the vineyard, recorded in Matthew 20:1-16. 

Jesus precedes this parable with a rather cryptic remark of how “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”. As the parable also ends with the same statement, it would appear that the purpose of the parable was to explain what that meant. The entire parable is reproduced alongside, so read it before you proceed.

The Parable Interpreted

There have been many interpretations of this parable. Some believe that the laborers who were hired first were the people of the Old Testament with those called at the last moment the apostles. Others believe those called first were the Jews and those who came in later were the Gentiles. Still others believe the parable to represent the whole gospel age up to Christ’s return, with the laborers being people saved at various periods. And there are those who believe that the parable refers to different periods of a person’s life in which he may respond to the Lord: some early in life, some later. There are more interpretations, of course, but I’ve come to realize that when it comes to faith, the simplest answer is usually what is closest to the message that Jesus wants to convey, and if we pitch ourselves into the story, we should be able to understand what he wants us to understand.

The Parable Summarized

Let us first look at the story just as it is told. The setting is ancient Palestine. Day laborers are a fact of life. Men looking for work would hang around in the town center where those seeking laborers would hire them for the day. A wage would be agreed upon, and the worker would get to his task, and at the end of the day, he would be paid his wages.

In this story, a landowner goes to hire people to work on his farm. He picks up a whole bunch of them after agreeing to pay them the daily wage - a denarius. A few hours later, for some reason, he goes out to get more. Perhaps bad weather threatened and the crop needed to be harvested in a hurry, but more likely he just felt sorry that there were so many people looking for work and he wanted to help them out as he could. He went out again at noon, then at 3 o’clock, and yet again at 5 o’clock, and hired more laborers. 

At the end of the day, the landowner instructs his foreman to pay the laborers beginning with those who came in last. They were surprised to find they were paid at entire day’s wage. It was not what they had expected, but the owner was obviously a man with a heart and realized that they couldn’t subsist with less. 

News of the owner’s generosity must have spread down the line and those who had put in twelve hours will have become excited, thinking that they would get twelve times what they had agreed for, but when they got paid, they discovered it was also a denarius. “It isn’t fair what you are paying us!” they grumbled. 

“But it is,” said the owner. “You got paid exactly what we agreed upon. What I’m paying the others is not fair! I’m paying them generously.”

 Lesson: do not have a commercial spirit

Just like the rules are different between the world (the state of worldliness) and heaven (the state of being with God), the economics are different too. In the world, we work for our wages, and barring the occasional bonus, we get exactly what we work for. If we transpose this attitude to heaven, exactly the same thing happens. However, isn’t it a lot more sensible to be like children, depending on the generosity of the Father, rather than our efforts to gain us rewards? We fulfill our duty as children and work cheerfully, trusting that God will treat us generously, giving us more than what is “fair”. And in this understanding is the first lesson: not to have a commercial spirit. It is what Jesus was warning Peter to avoid. Motivations can take us far, but the wrong motivations can take us to some place we do not want to be. 

Consider the words of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (see Issue 2.2) when he found out that his father had thrown his brother a party when he returned after squandering his entire inheritance. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30).

The elder son thought he had to work for his wages, Instead, he should have realized that all he had to do was serve his father as a son should, without a commercial spirit. The rewards are unbelievably great. 

We have several people working in our ministry all around the world. Many of them work full-time. All of them have one thing in common. They work not for money but for a great love of God. And every one of them can testify that the rewards they receive are far beyond anything they got when they worked in the “world”. 

Lesson: Do not have a competitive spirit

A great story of hope and redemption that is recounted in the Gospel of John is the restoration of Peter. After his resurrection, Jesus meets Peter and asks the erstwhile fisherman whether he loves him. He asks him the question three times, quite possibly because the apostle denied that he knew Jesus as many times, and with increasing frustration, Peter answers yes. While this is a wonderful story, it is what happens afterward that is a source of wonder. Following his admission, Jesus tells Peter to follow him and the two set off when Peter notices John following them. “What are you going to do about him?” Peter wants to know, and Jesus rebukes him asking him what business that was of his. It’s a common enough malaise of the human condition, but when we focus our attention on what other people are getting we lose the joy of what we have, or what we are about to receive. Not only that, it fills us with envy, which corrodes the soul. Consider Saul as another example. The first king of Israel was a valiant soldier who delighted in his victory over the Philistines - until he heard others praising David more highly. His feelings towards David, who hitherto had been like a son, turned to one of hatred and resentment. On more than one occasion he tried to have David killed. 

This is exactly what happened to the first set of laborers in the vineyard. Consider how they would have felt standing in that market place that morning hoping somebody would hire them. Consider the joy they must have experienced when they were hired, knowing that they covered for the day. Consider how they would have looked forward to receiving their wages at the end of the day. And then consider how their joy was totally wiped out when they looked at what somebody else received. 

The Christian should never have a competitive spirit because we are all part of one body that is Christ’s, and although some parts might seem better than the others, they are all vital to its proper functioning. Paul speaks of this beautifully in his letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). 

Lesson: Do not have a complaining spirit

The distance between Egypt and the Promised Land was not very great, and the Israelites could have traversed it in no time at all, yet it took them forty years to get across the desert. One of the reasons was because of their constant murmuring and grumbling aroused God’s anger. That shouldn’t really surprise us because the one thing to guarantee anyone’s anger is continuous murmuring. 

When we grumble, we expose the corruption of our hearts. Witness the Scribes and the Pharisees. When Matthew invited Jesus over for dinner, the Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:29-31).

Witness the Jews. Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves” (John 6:41-43).

When we grumble we also exhibit a remarkable lack of gratitude. The laborers in this parable should have been thankful for the employment that they had obtained, especially because they knew too well that many didn’t, but instead they portray a huge sense of ingratitude as they grumble against the landowner. What a privilege it was to have a job!

Let us follow the advice of Paul who writes: Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world (Philippians 2:14).

The lessons about the laborers in the vineyard are especially apt for those serving in the Lord’s vineyard. What is our motivation in serving him? Because of fear? Because we seek glory? Because we want positions of power? Because of rewards we will obtain, either temporal or eternal? There might be various reasons, seldom entirely pure, but how about considering serving God simply for the privilege that it is to serve him. Especially serving him as children. If Peter had understood this, he wouldn’t have asked what awaited him. He would have known the reward would be great. And as he discovered, it was. Let us not worry about what our reward will be. It will be wonderful.