The Laborers in the Vineyard

William Bacon Stevens, 1857

Matthew 20:1-16
"For the kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?' "'Because no one has hired us,' they answered. "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

The materials out of which this parable it constructed require but little explanation, except what is necessary to understand the Jewish method of computing time. They reckoned the day from sunrise to sunset, dividing it into twelve portions or hours. Consequently, "early in the morning," the time at which the "landowner" first went out to hire laborers answers to our six o'clock.

The "third hour," to our nine in the morning.

"The sixth hour," to our noon.

"The ninth hour," to our three in the afternoon.

And "the eleventh hour," to five o'clock, or an hour before sunset.

At these several hours "the lord of the vineyard" went out to the market-place (or bazaar, as it is termed in the East, the ordinary resort of porters and laborers waiting for employment), to get workmen for his vineyard, and hired five different sets of laborers.

"When even was come," the steward was directed to "call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning from the last unto the first." The eleventh-hour laborers therefore advanced, and "received every man a denarius" a sum equal to the usual daily wages of a laborer, and the pay of a soldier. Seeing this, those who had labored all day supposed that, when their turn to be paid came, they would receive more, "and they likewise received every man a denarius." They had labored three, six, nine, and eleven hours more than the first paid laborers; they had toiled, some of them, through "the burden and heat of the day," and they thought that they had a right to more wages; and though they took the stipulated denarius yet they "grumbled against the landowner," as if he had done them great injustice.

Turning, however, to one who, perhaps, was foremost in complaining, he said, "Friend, I do you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?" I did not compel you to labor; I hired you at the usual wages; you agreed to my offer; you have done your part, which was, to labor until sunset; I have done mine, which was, to pay you a denarius. Where is the injustice of this? Therefore, "Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

Many interpretations have been given to this parable. The different hours specified have by some been referred to the several ages of man. The call to labor in the Lord's vineyard being made in many cases, "early in the morning" of life, as with Samuel and Timothy; in others, at the third hour, or youth, as in the cases of Joseph and Josiah; in others at the sixth, or manhood hour, as was done to the Apostles of the Lord; in others at the ninth, or declining hour; and in some extraordinary cases, as the penitent thief at the hour before life's sunset.

Other commentators refer the periods at which the laborers were hired, to the several ages of the world; as that the first call was made in the world's "early morning," in Eden; the third-hour call was in the day of Noah; the sixth-hour call, in the times of the Mosaic dispensation; the ninth-hour call was in the day of Christ's advent; and the eleventh was the mission to the Gentiles.

Various other interpretations have been made of these calls; but it will be unnecessary as well as unprofitable to consume time in running out any of these analogies, as we shall thereby be led away from the scope and import of the parable, as they unfold themselves in the circumstances under which it was delivered, and the moral which our Lord deduced. The points which are distinctly brought out in the parable, and which it is important for us to know, are these:

First. That there is a vineyard in which to work. Under the similitude of a vineyard, the Bible frequently represents the Jewish and the Christian Church. It seems to be a favorite idea of the olden prophets, being used by David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; and our Lord often employs the same imagery to illustrate the relations which the Church holds to himself and to the world. The fitness of this language to express what is designed is peculiarly felicitous; for a vineyard was most prized and esteemed of all possessions; required most careful care at all seasons of the year, and yielded to the diligent gardener a larger return than any other culture.

The Christian Church is now what the Jewish Church was in the Levitical dispensation, "the vineyard of the Lord Almighty." It is fenced off from the world by the forms of a public profession of faith in Christ; planted with the "choicest vine," even Christ," the true vine;" and dressed by gardeners of God's calling and appointment, whose duty it is so to superintend the culture, as that it shall bring forth fruit to the glory of "the Lord of the vineyard."

In this vineyard, or visible Church of Christ there is much work to be done, more than sufficient to tax all the energies of mind and body; and the call is, "Go work today in my vineyard!" There is the work of weeding out and cultivating one's own heart, until it becomes fruitful with all the graces of the Spirit. There is the work of maintaining purity of life and faith in the particular church with which we are connected. There is the work of bringing those around us under the influences of Gospel truth and Gospel institutions the vast home work of the Church, embracing all agencies and instrumentalities necessary to the tillage of the domestic field. There is, lastly, the work of spreading the religion of Jesus "into the regions beyond;" the great foreign work of the Church, by which it is to act upon its Lord's commission, "Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature."

"The whole world lies in wickedness," and the earthly instrumentality whereby it is to be converted to God, is in the keeping of professing Christians. They are to be "co-workers with God;" and, if they fail to labor to the extent of their ability, the responsibility of lost souls and of disobeyed commands will rest upon them forever.

Second. All who are not laboring in Christ's vineyard are "idle." Not that they are physically idle; not that they are intellectually idle; nor yet that they are morally idle, for that is impossible, as every man in one sense is morally active. The soul is ever working; thoughts are busy there, passions wrestle there, affections move there and never is there a moment when there is vacuity and repose.

But by "idle" is meant unprofitably employed. All unprofitable employment of our TIME is virtual idleness, even in a worldly and business aspect how much more so in a heavenly and spiritual one!

Everything is morally unprofitable which has not a tendency to advance the glory of God and the salvation of our souls. Unconverted men, though they may be busy about their farms, their studies, their merchandise are not doing anything for the glory of God, or for the salvation of their own souls; hence, all unconverted men are spiritually "idle."

They may be diligent in working out a worldly morality but they are spiritually idle! They may be sedulous in building up a self-righteousness by works of charity, of ritualism, of penance, of will-worship, of Pharisaic devotion but they are only busy idlers in the sight of God. Their works are vain their labor shall not profit and their toil shall only end in their deeper ruin; because they are not working in the field of the Church, and consequently are not obeying the injunction of the Divine Landowner, "You also go and work in my vineyard!"

Thirdly. It is never too late to go into the vineyard of the Church. This remark is made not to encourage presumption but to rebuke despair.

The uncertainty of life,
the possibility of grieving away the Holy Spirit,
the danger that our mental powers may not be preserved to us in our last sickness, or
that we may be suddenly summoned to the bar of God
warn us with great force against any delay in making our peace with God. To postpone, therefore, a profession of Christ's religion because we may, perhaps, enter the vineyard at the eleventh hour is most daring rebellion and impiety towards God, and a solemn trifling with our soul, which should fill us with trembling and alarm!

When we say, therefore, that it is not too late to go into the vineyard, we do not mean that it will not be too late if we put it off to a future day; for we know nothing of the future, not even "what a day may bring forth." But we mean that if we have put it off to the present time, it is not too late now to go to Christ.

All the invitations of the Gospel are addressed to us in the present tense. The language of the Bible is, "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation." "Today, if you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts." "Exhort one another daily while it is called today." "Son, go work today in my vineyard."

There is no tomorrow in all the offers of grace, or in all the overtures of the Spirit. Tomorrow is a fiction of time it never comes. It is a present work that we have to do there is a present time allotted to us for doing it; there is a present Spirit given to begin and carry on the work. Avail ourselves of these present privileges, and the future shall be bright with heavenly glory; neglect them, and the future shall be dark with eternal woe.

You may have passed the "early morning" of your life, and "the third hour" may find you out of the vineyard. We call to you, then, in this third hour, this dew-time of youth: "Go also into the vineyard." You may have reached the meridian of life, and the "sixth hour" may find you still "idle." And we call to you, therefore, in the noon of manhood: "Go also into the vineyard." You may have progressed into the afternoon of life, and "the ninth hour" may find you still unengaged in Christ's service; and we call to you, therefore, in this waning period of the day: "Go also into the vineyard." Or it may be that "the shadows of the evening are stretched out," and the sun of your existence, already far down in the western sky, is hastening to his setting; and at this eleventh hour you are and have been "all the day idle." And we cry out to you, therefore, with but one hour of daylight in your possession, and the night of death fast coming on: "Go also into the vineyard; and whatever is right, that shall you receive."

Few, however, who pass the third and the sixth hour out of the vineyard, enter it at the ninth or the eleventh hours. We know of many who gave themselves to God's service in life's morning, in life's noon-tide; but the number of those who become His in the evening of their days, are very few; and the Bible records but one eleventh-hour convert, the thief on the cross. One that none might despair! Only one that none might presume!

Fourthly. God will reward all who labor for Him, when their work is done. It is not until the evening comes, that the Lord of the Vineyard will "call the laborers and give them their wages." We often labor in this world without seeming to receive any reward; nor should we expect to receive it here. But, though long delayed, it will come at last, for "He is faithful who promised." It is, to a great extent, withheld from us here, because our work is not all done when we are removed from the vineyard. We live and we work in our influence and in the agencies and instrumentalities which we set in motion long after we have passed away. Though dead we yet speak to future generations; and, as it is a principle of the Divine economy, to hold us responsible not only for our actual words and overt deeds but for everything that results from our example, our influence, our labors so is it impossible to mete out the rewards which pertain to us through Divine grace, until, in the final closing up of earthly scenes and accounts, it shall be seen what we accomplished for Christ; not merely what we did for him while living but what we did for him through means and institutions and influences which emanated from us, and which were in active operation long after we had slumbered in the dust!

Hence it is that the day of judgment is placed at "the end of the world," because then only shall all the lines of influence, good and bad, be fully run out. Then, only, will all the results of our lives, good and bad, be fully developed.

Take, for example, the work done by the apostle Paul. Could he have been rewarded (speaking after the manner of men) during his lifetime? Is not the power of Paul still felt? Is not the influence of Paul still at work? And, though he died eighteen centuries ago, does he not speak to the dwellers in the nineteenth century, and to the inhabitants of England and America, as forcibly as he did to those who lived in the dawn of the Christian era, and who heard his oral teachings in Damascus, Corinth, and Rome? So of Augustine, Wycliff, Luther, Cranmer, Martyn, Simeon, and a whole galaxy of sainted ones, who now shine "as stars in the firmament." They have gone to their rest, and left their work, as the world would say, unfinished; but not so; their work is still going on, and will continue until time shall be no longer.

It matters very little, therefore, whether we see much of the fruit of our labors while we tabernacle in the flesh but when the evening of the world comes, when the Lord of the Vineyard shall say, "Call the laborers" to the judgment, and "give them their wages," then shall we receive "according to that which we have done, be it good or bad." Then only, can the sum total of our work be cast up; then only, the whole amount of labor be known; then only, the reward be rightly bestowed.

Lastly, the reward that we shall receive will be nothing that we can claim of right but will be bestowed upon us by the free sovereign grace of God.

And here comes out the true intent and purpose of the parable. In the arbitrary division of the Bible into chapters, made by Hugo in 1240, the chapter containing this parable was unfortunately cut off from the 19th chapter, whereas it is, in fact, a continuation of it. In that 19th chapter we find that a "Young Ruler," with much external reverence for Christ, had come to him with the inquiry, "Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Our Lord told him what to do, and put his sincerity to the test by ordering him "to sell all that he had, and give to the poor" a test which revealed the latent covetousness of his heart, and one which he did not attempt to carry out, for "he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions."

This striking example of clinging to the seen and the earthly, rather than to the unseen and the heavenly gave occasion for Christ to say, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" which so amazed the disciples that they exclaimed in wonder, "Who then can be saved?" But Peter, foremost among the disciples in speaking as in acting, said to the Savior, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed you; what shall we have therefore?" We who, unlike the rich young man, have left all and followed you. In the spirit of a hireling who was looking to wages rather than to work he seemed to think that something was deserved by them who had made such sacrifices, and who at the first call had gone into the vineyard; and, in the working of a self-complacent mind, he wished to know what they would receive.

Our Lord replies to them and says, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life!" adding, "but many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first." And then follows the parable under consideration, designed to show that the rewards of grace are not for the first called alone, and do not follow the length of Christian service but that while all shall receive the promised wages, namely, eternal life God will do as he wills with his own infinite blessings, bestowing them when, where, and how he will, according to his own good pleasure.

The value of the work stands not in the amount of labor performed, in the number of hours employed, or in bearing the burden and heat of the day but in the spirit in which it is done. And that spirit should be humility, not boasting of long service, or arduous service; not grudging at others' preference or others' wages, but regarding any pay as undeserved, and all reward as out of God's infinite grace, and not for the worthiness of individual merit.

And as the work stands only in humility so the reward stands only in grace. Do what we may; heap up labor upon labor, and sacrifice upon sacrifice yet there is so much of sin mixed with all that we do, that were we to receive according to the real merit of the works performed, they would each be cast out of God's sight as sinful, and we ourselves be driven from his presence! If the reward then is of grace, "it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace; but if it be of works, then is it no more grace, otherwise work is no more work."

Would that we could feel this more! It would humble our proud hearts; it would bridle in our rampant spirits; it would abate our self-elevating minds, flattering ourselves that we deserve more, and grudging whatever is bestowed upon others; it would bring us more like docile, feeble, little children, to the feet of Jesus, causing us to cling to him by a simple faith, and to lean only upon the merits of "His blessed passion and precious death."

And then, too, how will it enhance the value of the reward to know that we deserved nothing! That the best, the most diligent, the most faithful, was, after all, but an unprofitable servant and that the reward is the expression of the overflowing love and bounty of our God, given to us, not for our service or for our deservings but on account of Christ's pleadings and in virtue of his perfect sacrifice!