Parable of the Laborers in the V

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

by David A. DePra

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During His earthly ministry, Jesus had much to say to His disciples about what it would mean to follow Him, and what it would mean to be His servant. One of the best teachings on the matter is in the form of a parable. In Matthew 20, we find what is usually referred to as, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.” In a very real sense, this parable gathers together much Truth about true ministry.
First, let’s get the setting – let’s see WHY Jesus gave this parable. Jesus had just had a conversation in the hearing of the disciples between Jesus and a rich, young ruler. That young ruler would not follow Jesus at personal cost. As he walked away from Jesus, Jesus said, “It is with great difficulty that a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:23) Peter and the disciples were, “amazed,” Matthew writes. It would seem that they were somewhat shaken. Why? Because at this point of time they were following Jesus for what they believed they would get out of it – as those who would be at His side in His kingdom. The disciples mistakenly expected that Jesus was going to set up a material kingdom at any moment, and that they would be given possessions, authority, and, of course, riches. But when they heard what Jesus had to say, their confidence that this was going to happen was greatly shaken. Peter stepped to the front and expressed the concerns of the disciples by asking this question:
Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (Matt. 19:27)
There it is – all wrapped up in a single question. Peter and the others had indeed forsaken all and followed Christ. But at this point in their understanding, they were following Him in large part because they thought it was going to PAY them to follow Him. They expected a reward. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is a teaching given by Jesus to correct, not their expectations, but to correct their motives and attitude for following Him.
Are we following Jesus because we believe it will earn us a greater reward? That is probably an attitude most of us have in the beginning. But thank God that He does not abandon us in such deception. Instead, He will begin to expose our unbelief – usually by showing us that rather than PAY us to follow Jesus, it is going to COST us – at least COST us that which is of the flesh. But some professing Christian people will not accept that. Of course, at this point, Peter was not yet faced with this reality – although he definitely WOULD be. Jesus is speaking this parable to show His disciples the dangers – the sin and unbelief – of following Jesus for a reward; because we think it will PAY us to follow Him.
Now, you will note the necessity of the work of the Cross – there must come a death in Peter and the others – with regards to their ambitions and religious flesh. All of that needs to be crucified. They must be convicted and repent of following Christ for what THEY think they are going to get out of it. They did do so later – but Jesus is telling them this parable to warn them as to what can happen if a person tries to serve God for what they will get out of it.
You will note that we are not here talking about simply being mistaken, or ignorant. No. We are talking about having our motives exposed NOW – which the Lord will do through the Cross – but we are also talking about the possibility of refusing the Truth. If we have wrong motives for following Jesus Christ in this age, God will, by His spirit, bring enough light that we can turn and repent, so that we can get back to following Christ for HIMSELF and HIS glory. So as we examine this parable, we have to keep that in mind.
Jesus begins this parable with the same words He uses to begin many parables. He says, For the kingdom of heaven is like unto…” So this parable is not about the physical or material world. No. The vineyard and other material objects in the parable are used to convey to us spiritual Truth – Truth of the realm of God. This is something God does all through scripture.
Jesus says:
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man [that is] an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; 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 ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and 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 whatsoever is right, [that] shall ye receive.
Jesus gives the picture of a householder calling laborers to work in this vineyard. The vineyard is not to be limited to performing ministry. The vineyard is really the Christian life – and therefore includes all that is within the Christian life. This makes the parable apply to each believer.
Note a couple of important details. The laborers are pictured as being called at intervals – meaning that each group of laborers work a different amount of time. Or, as the parable infers, each group, “bear the heat of the day,” to a lesser or greater extent. Those who are called first work all day. Those who are called last work only an hour. But none of the laborers decide when to be called. The householder decides when to call them into the vineyard, and thus, decides the amount of work they are assigned.
Note also the details about the WAGES. The householder AGREED with the first group on a wage. So this first group went into the vineyard expecting that amount. But it does not say that regarding the other groups. In those cases, there is no wage that is agreed upon -- but they are told that the householder will pay them, “whatever is right.”
Can we see what Jesus is getting at here? The first group enters the vineyard for an agreed to wage. That does not picture GRACE. Rather, it pictures a, “works based,” relationship with Christ. And it is always a fact that any, “works based,” relationship with Christ is going to expect a reward for those works. That is the motive. The other laborers entered – trusting the household to pay them, “whatever is right” – which is a picture of GRACE and freedom.
These details about the wages are vital to see because those details flow through to the end of the day when the wages are paid. The motives upon which each laborer enters the vineyard remain their motives when they are paid.
Now, that is how Jesus told the parable – but it is not the only possibility for believers. Even though we might, in the beginning, be walking with Christ for a reward – or ministering to others for a reward -- it is a motive we can repent of. Having begun our walk with Christ upon the basis of works, God will seek the expose that error so that we can begin walking with Him by grace.
Likewise, in the parable, Jesus shows the first group called as the group that errs. But it does not need to be that way. Any believer can walk with God by grace. And any believer could err the same way – even those called last. In the parable, Jesus is showing the first group as the ones who err because Peter represents those in the first group – he represents those called of God to, “bear the heat of the day,” and to carry a great responsibility before God. And at this point in time, Jesus knew that Peter had a wrong attitude – He wants to expose it. Jesus knows that being called to great responsibility will exact a personal cost – and thus, the danger of thinking you are special and that God owes you is there to a greater extent.
This danger was already possible for these disciples. How many times they argued among themselves as to who was the greatest among them! Thus, this parable HAD to be told. So again – we have to remember that this parable is a correction and warning being given by Jesus in answer to Peter’s question. Jesus is, in effect, saying, “You want to know what you are going to receive from God because you have forsaken all and followed Me. But this question, of itself, betrays an attitude that is dangerous. I am telling you this parable to illustrate that fact.”
Jesus continued with the parable:
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give 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 penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received [it], they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought [but] one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take [that] thine [is], and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
Here we see a picture of not only what often happens in this life and in this age – but it is also a picture of what is possible at the judgment seat of Christ. All of the motives are exposed. The true character of our relationship with Christ is brought out.
Those who agreed to allow the householder decide, “whatever is right,” all ended up receiving EXACTLY the same wage – indeed, they received EXACTLY the same wage as those who agreed to a set wage. Thus, even though each group did a DIFFERENT amount of work, they were all paid exactly the SAME. This did not sit well with the group called first – who worked the most. They resented the owner even though He gave them EXACTLY what they had agreed to be paid.
These laborers who were the first called – and therefore were given the greatest responsibility, which exacted from them the greatest personal cost – ended up feeling cheated. Why? Because those who were not given much responsibility and did not suffer that much got the SAME wage. But even worse, they also resented the owner. Indeed, the owner, who represents God in this parable, says to them, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Clearly, the motive for entering into the vineyard at the beginning of the day – and the motive for agreeing to a set wage – had carried through to the end. That motive was always personal gain. And because of that, they ended up resenting, not only the wage they received, but the One who gave it.
Can we see the great danger here? When the day was over, it did not matter HOW MUCH work was done by each group. What did matter was whether each group did the amount of work to which they were called. That is why all received the same wage – they did that to which they were called. Remember – the laborers did not decide when to be called. They did not decide their responsibility. It was decided FOR them. Thus, if they fulfilled that, whether a large amount or small amount, they all got the same wage. And since they entered the vineyard for, “whatever is right,” they were of a mind and heart that speaks of receiving the grace of God.
It is significant that Jesus said that those who worked the least were the first in line to receive their wage. It is significant because it meant that those who were called first were given to see the wages that these were paid, and given to know that they received no more – but only what was agreed to. But ask – when this was finished -- the day was done, and the wages were paid -- what were the REAL WAGES that the first group received? Their resentment of the owner. Their self-righteousness – because they thought they deserved more. This was the real wage, the real result, and the real outcome, for these laborers – but it was not a, “wage,” that they were paid. It was the spiritual consequence of their attitude – they had BECOME those who resented the owner. It was now all brought out into the light.
The first key here is their relationship with the owner – they accused Him of being dishonest. The second key is their relationship with the other groups of laborers – they had elevated themselves about the rest because they had done more. And the third key is their relationship with their wage – they received exactly what they were told they would receive but now they did not value it at all. Can we see that the real lesson here is NOT what we do for God, but rather, what we BECOME in Christ – whether we do much or do little?
This is the teaching of the parable. So, in answer to Peter’s question, “What are we going to get out of all of this?, Jesus says, “You will receive what God knows is right and just. But it will NOT be based on how much you have done for the Lord. It will be based on whether you were faithful over the responsibility you were given – large or small. But beware, lest you walk with God for what you think you will get out of it – for that attitude is sin and unbelief and can corrupt you the point where you resent what God determines is right and just. Indeed, it can corrupt you in your relationship with God Himself.”
The Called and the Chosen and the Faithful
The final statement of Jesus in this parable of the laborers in the vineyard:
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matt. 20:16)
In context, the FIRST are obviously those who were called into the vineyard FIRST. Sure. They are called, “the FIRST,” in the parable itself. And the LAST were obviously all of the others -- represented by those who worked only one hour – they were called, “the LAST,” in the parable. And when the wages were paid, the FIRST were the LAST to be paid, and the LAST were the FIRST to be paid. In addition, it is clear that the, “MANY who are CALLED,” included everyone who was CALLED into the vineyard. But, the “few CHOSEN,” were those who were called FIRST – they were called to bear the greatest responsibility – to bear, “the heat of the day.” Indeed, they were CHOSEN to bear this greater weight for the sake of all of the others; for the sake of Jesus.
Before we continue, let’s get one thing out of the way: The CHOSEN are not some, “elect,” group who God calls to salvation. No. ALL of the laborers in this parable are called to salvation – that is why Jesus says, “many are called.” Thus, the CHOSEN are from out of the CALLED – chosen to, “bear the heat of the day.” To be blunt, Calvinism – unconditional election pertaining to salvation – is heresy. It is not taught in this parable. It is not taught, indeed, it is contradicted, by scripture.
Let’s move on. Jesus was saying to the apostles, “I am going to call MANY unto Myself. But within those who are CALLED, there will be a much smaller group – the FEW CHOSEN. The CHOSEN will be people who are called to be, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” They will be given greater responsibility, and thus, will have greater accountability. This will NOT be because they are better people, more obedient, or are more righteous, or have greater ability. No. And they will not be given a greater reward. God is saying, “I will chose them because I want an instrument through whom I can work – unto the spiritual life and growth of others.”
Paul was a great example of someone who was CHOSEN, “to bear the heat of the day,” so that OTHERS could receive. He said of himself:
Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church. (Col. 1:24)
Are we willing to allow God to use us for the spiritual benefit of others? Even if it does not result in a greater reward for ourselves – but simply because we love Christ, and others? That is quite a question, isn’t it? But it is love of God. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” So there it is – and this is very much the message of this parable.
All of Grace
In this day and age, Christianity has become a competition. Pastors compete with each other for members, visibility, and popularity – even within the same denomination and community. Even within the same church there are often power struggles, ego-driven ministry, and worldly attitudes. Christians by the millions serve God because they think it is going to pay them to do so – they think God will give them a greater reward. But is this danger not the very reason for which Jesus told this parable? “We have left everything to follow You. What are we going to get out of this?” Dear Lord, open our eyes to our blindness and unbelief!
The teaching of scripture is GRACE. It is, “Freely you have received, therefore freely give.” (Matt. 10:8) This ought to govern ALL ministry. And it will govern any ministry that is the outcome of seeing and believing Jesus Christ.
God calls us to His Son – and assigns responsibility as He chooses. For some, that might not be much. For others, it may carry the weight of the personal Cross. But whether it little or much, the question is whether we have walked in the light given, and been faithful to the Lord – over whatever He has given. It is ALL to be of His grace. It is ALL freely received and ought to be freely given. Thus, then whether we are merely called or chosen, whether we are first or last, God has the SAME eternal fellowship in His Son for ALL – by His grace.
Read the end of the parable. God had the SAME amount for all the laborers. But the laborers did not all have the SAME faith – they did not all have the SAME spirit of grace towards the master or the wage. So we see that God does not give more grace, or less grace, to any of us. He gives all the SAME. But WE choose to value what He has given DIFFERENTLY. And in the end, that is what determines the extent to which we are able to enjoy what God has given in Christ.
God’s Desire
We are each part of a greater, eternal body of Christ. Our relationship with Christ is going to determine what we are in His Body to others. In this age, we must be responsible for the light and life that God has revealed in us of His Son. That Truth will be as the Cross to us. We must bear, “the heat of the day” – whether it be for one hour, or for all of the day. But we must pick up our responsibility. We must, “bear about in our body the dying of the Lord Jesus,” if we expect our lives, indeed, if we expect any ministry that comes through us to be the ministry of LIFE and LIGHT in Christ Jesus.

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