“But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that was a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a shilling a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace idle; and to them he said, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.’
And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he saith unto them, ‘Why stand ye here all the day idle?’
They say unto him, ‘Because no man hath hired us.’
He saith unto them, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard.’
And when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, ‘Call the laborers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.’
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a shilling. And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received every man a shilling.
And when they received it, they murmured against the householder, saying, ‘These last have spent but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a shilling? Take up that which is thine, and go thy way; it is my will to give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Or is thine eye evil, because I am good?’
So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 19:30-20:16).
When it comes to work and compensation, people tend to get very, very sensitive. Most people have some subjective standard in their minds regarding what types of effort are worth how much in compensation. For most people it is intolerable to think that some people are paid much to do quite little, and others are paid quite little to do much. Ultimately, for many, fairness and consistency is the key– if I work hard and do more than you do at the same job, I should get paid more, and you less. If we get paid the same, conventional wisdom says, I am being punished for doing more and you are rewarded for doing less. In such a circumstance I am better off doing less and making the same. Perhaps such logic is part of the reason why communism has not worked out so well in practice.
It is quite easy to translate such thoughts and feelings to the spiritual realm. Many would like to think that there are levels of reward in eternity. Those who did more should be more greatly rewarded, right? And those who did less should receive less, right? Surely those who did more should receive greater prominence, and those who did less should receive lesser prominence!
And yet Jesus overthrows this line of logic, just as He does with so many other expectations that humans have based upon how the world works. He presents a parable regarding workers in a vineyard, and the parable itself has a statement as its “bookends”– the last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 19:30, 20:16). This connects the parable with what came before– the distress of the rich young ruler, the declaration that what is impossible with man is possible with God, and that those who follow Jesus and sacrifice for doing so will receive a hundredfold in the “regeneration” or “new creation” (Greek palingenesia) and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16-29). The rich may be humbled and the poor exalted, indeed, but Jesus wants one thing to be entirely clear: the Kingdom presents a very level playing field.
He communicates this through the parable. The sense of the story is easy enough to understand. In what was a very common circumstance in Jesus’ day, an owner of a vineyard hires men as day laborers to work the vineyard. He begins going around 6 in the morning and hires workers for a denarius— the average day’s wage for a laborer (Matthew 20:1-2). The money is not extravagant but is also not measly. Later in the day– at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm– the owner does the same, but does not specify the wage, but says he will give “what is right” (Matthew 20:3-5). He even goes out at the eleventh hour– 5pm, one hour before work tended to be finished for the day– and finds men idle, and hires them as well (Matthew 20:6-7). When the day was done and the wages were to be paid, the steward is instructed to begin with those who came at 5pm, and they received a denarius even though they worked but an hour (Matthew 20:9). Ostensibly those who began work from 9am through 3pm also received a denarius each.
And then we get the original workers– those who began working for the denarius. They have the same mentality we all have, and they start trusting in a vain hope. “Well,” they say, “he gave them a denarius. We have worked far longer than they have. We should be getting more!” But they also receive a denarius (Matthew 20:10). They do what any one of us would likely do– they began grumbling. This is patently unfair. “We” deserve more because they got what we got even though we worked more and/or harder. And so the workers grumble (Matthew 20:11-12).
Now comes the paradigm shift. We hear from the owner of the vineyard. He declares that he has done them no wrong, and in truth, he has not– he promised a denarius, they received a denarius (Matthew 20:13). The owner is in charge of the money and dictating how he will pay his workers, and if he wants to be generous toward those who worked less, who can tell him that he is wrong for doing so (Matthew 20:14-15)? The owner concludes, literally, by asking them if their eyes are evil because the owner is good– in effect, asking if they begrudge his generosity or are envious of it (Matthew 20:15)?
Many have extrapolated fancy ways of interpreting the parable. Some overlay Biblical history upon it, understanding the different laborers as successive periods of covenants between God and man, with the Gentiles coming in at the eleventh hour. Others look at it exclusively in terms of Jews and Gentiles. While such concepts are interesting, and it is true that the Gentiles are lately brought into the fold in which the Jews have been for generations (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18), such expositions are far from the heart and soul of this parable. We need not extrapolate periods of time or types of people to make sense of this parable– we just need to think about people!
The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the Kingdom. The marketplace represents the world, and those in it waiting for work are those seeking the truth. Those entering the vineyard are those who obey Him. Some begin serving the Lord from a young age, working many years in the Kingdom, and God has promised them the hundredfold inheritance and eternal life (cf. Matthew 19:29). Others enter at various stages of life– in their 20s or 30s, or more toward middle age– and such are those entering the vineyard from 9am through 3pm. Some might come to the faith as older people or with very little time left on earth to serve God; such would be those coming at 5pm.
Ultimately, they all receive the same as what is promised to the first group. They all get the same reward– the denarius. It is not out of disrespect to the “original” workers but a reflection of the magnanimity and generosity of God the Master. This logic is offensive to the world but ought to be a source of joy to those in the Kingdom. It is not designed to be a damper on spirituality and spiritual growth– it should not lead anyone to assume that they can just squeak into the resurrection without diligently seeking to serve God. Quite the contrary (Matthew 7:21-23, 10:22, 19:16-26). Instead, this message is hope for the world. It does not matter whether you enter His vineyard at 9am or 5pm– the important thing is that you enter His vineyard, and once you are in it, to work diligently to serve the Master! Salvation can be had at any age– because salvation, ultimately, is more about what God has done for us and establishing that association with Him, and not about what we “deserve” based upon what we have done (Ephesians 2:1-18)!
In the resurrection all saints should be sated with glory beyond understanding and eternal life (Matthew 19:29, Romans 8:17-18). Those who worked for a long time and those who worked for a short time will both receive it. Let us praise God for the opportunity for salvation and eternal life and let us all be active in His vineyard!
Ethan R. Longhenry