The Parable of the Laborers
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is a response to Peter’s question, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus’ initial answer is that apostles would be sitting on thrones with Jesus reigning over the tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). But what about the rest of us? We who come so much later in time, what will there be for us?
Jesus pointed out that the reward for following him is a rich blessing of friends and family in this life and eternal life to come (Matthew 19:30). It is something that we all share equally and the parable of the laborers helps to explain this.
A landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard early in the morning. This is what the kingdom of heaven, or the church, is like. God calls us into His service (I Corinthians 1:9; II Thessalonians 2:14; I Peter 5:10). We are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28). Therefore, we conclude that the laborers hired are God’s people – Christians who work in kingdom. God has used the symbol of a vineyard as His people in the past (Isaiah 5:7; Jeremiah 12:10).
In that calling, an agreement is made concerning the pay given at the end of service – one denarius – the typical pay for a day’s effort for an unskilled worker. The owner goes out again three hours later and finds more laborers without jobs. He doesn’t offer them a specific wage; instead, he states he will pay them whatever is right. Twice more at three hour intervals, he does the same thing: hiring laborers and offering to pay them whatever is right.
Finally, just before the end of the day, the owner finds still more laborers who have had no work all day. He asked them why and was told that they were there because they could not find anyone to hire them. These were told to go and work, though nothing is offered for payment. These workers went purely trusting that their effort would be rewarded in some fashion.
At the end of the day, the last group of workers were called up to receive their pay and they received one denarius each. The Old Testament required that laborers be paid on the same day they worked (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15). When the first group saw this, they thought they would receive more since they work so much longer than the last group. But when it came their time, they also received one denarius each. They grumble that the landowner had made the late comers equal to the laborers who worked all day.
But the landowner reminded them that they had an agreement. The laborers had willingly worked for one denarius for a day’s work, and that is what they received. Their complaint was not that the owner had shorted them, but that the owner was generous toward those who came after them. They were envious of the blessings someone else received.
This parable can have several applications, each equally important. You can view this as a statement concerning members in the church. This is not a parable justifying putting off becoming a Christian. Each worker went to work immediately when called. These laborers wanted work, just as there are people in the world who want to be Christians, but some do not find the Lord until late in their life. Once the Lord was found, they went immediately to work. Even when we do our best, we are still only doing our duty. Remember Luke 17:10? We should not be envious of our fellow Christians.
While this parable shows us that Christians must work, it also indicates that our reward of eternal life is independent of our work. We don’t truly earn our reward (Ephesians 2:8-10). Obviously if a laborer did not work at all, he would have received no pay. But that is not under consideration in this parable. The point is that the reward at the end is a gift given by God, which He chooses to give to all who labor for Him freely and equally. It is the nature of our reward as Christians, the rich gift of eternal life (John 17:2), that there is no lessening of this gift because some were unable to labor as long. Thus some are bound to receive a great reward though they were unable to work as long as others.
This is also a parable concerning those in the early church and those who have come much later to the work. The early Christians of the first century worked hard and suffered much. We, who came later, are benefitting from their efforts. Though we have not suffered as much as Paul (II 11:22-28), we look forward to the same reward as Paul.
Finally, it is also a statement to the Jews concerning the Gentiles. Some Jews did not like the offer of salvation being offered to the Gentiles, but they had no right to complain (Romans 9:20-24). All Christians need to learn to walk humbly. The Gentiles were warned not to become prideful just because they replaced the Jews (Romans 11:11-22).