The Christian’s Labor

Last week, we saw the Christian’s reward. God promises to return many times what the Christian gives up for Christ’s name’s sake and give the Christian eternal life. Jesus follows His teaching about rewards with a parable—not about people giving anything up, but about laborers in a vineyard seeking to earn wages.

Matthew 20:1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.

Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’

They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 

When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’

But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

The parable

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.

Jesus illustrates the kingdom of heaven using a vineyard. The landowner, God, hired laborers for his vineyard, agreeing with them for a day’s wage. I do not know if Jesus means for these laborers to refer to any specific group (i.e. Israel or the Apostles). I am certain that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of labor for the Lord according to His calling. When we are called as Christians, we are called as laborers in the kingdom of heaven.

Many people become Christians and merely go to church or consider their personal relationship with Christ a means to gain for themselves or merely get to heaven. God is not building for Himself a kingdom of passivity but active labor in His parabolic vineyard. He is building a kingdom of priests (cf. Exodus 19:6; John 15:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 1:6; 5:10). The labor of the Lord primarily takes place through the work of the gathered congregation. If we are called into God’s kingdom, we are called to labor for Him. There is a wage promised to the laborers He has called.

And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.
Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’
They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

God doesn’t call everyone into His kingdom at the same time. He called national Israel before He called the particular apostles. He called the apostles before He called the patristics or reformers. He calls each person to a particular type and degree of labor in His kingdom according to His own will. Not everyone labors in Christ’s vineyard for the same amount of time or doing the same thing. Each Christian is called according to God’s will in God’s perfect timing. We are each called to work for God in some way from the moment of our calling in Christ. Notice. The landowner promises the second wave of laborers “what is right” and the final wave of laborers no wage at all.

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 
When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 

How is it that those who worked harder and longer get the same payment as those who worked only at the end of the day? The landowner pays his laborers according to his generosity, not out of obligation or according to the ways of the world. Those who expected much were not as satisfied with their payment as those who expected nothing. The parable isn’t about fair payment, for people are completely underserving. Fair payment is nothing. The parable is not about the receiving of eternal life; eternal life is not a wage to be earned at all (cf. 19:29; Romans 6:23). The parable is about God’s generosity. Not only will God repay each one many times what he or she gives up for Christ’s name’s sake (cf. 19:27-30), but He will also generously pay each one for his or her labor in the kingdom—labor that follows calling.

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

Jesus’s statement, here, seems a little out of place. Does Jesus mean to tell us that people who don’t serve God as long or as well will have a higher place in the kingdom than those who work longer and harder in God’s vineyard? Some commentators try to explain away the thought by claiming that the wage is eternal life and all those who serve God receive it as payment. Eternal life, once again, is not a wage. It is a gift, a reward by grace (cf. 19:29; Romans 6:23). A plain reading of the text also explicitly prescribes some people as first and some as last, not all are of equal status in the kingdom. So, we cannot interpret Jesus’s statement to mean that the last shall be paid equally to the first. We cannot interpret Jesus’s statement and insist that people somehow earn eternal life. It is not about how those who repent on their deathbeds earn eternal life to the same degree as those who follow Christ their whole lives.

Think about the parable. Who is first? Is it not those who did not expect any payment? Who is last? Is it not those who expected a full day’s wage? Like we saw in Chapter 19, verse 30, those servants are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven—those who are like children (cf. 18:1-6), deny themselves (cf. 16:24), lose their lives (cf. 10:39), and count all as loss for the sake of knowing Christ (cf. Philippians 3:8). For someone to be first doesn’t necessarily mean they receive a higher wage—the workers received equal wages in Jesus’s parable. The parable also does not necessarily mean that wages will always be equal. We all get more than we deserve. God is generous. Those who consider themselves last will be first in the kingdom of heaven.

Relation to Jesus’s teaching

After Jesus taught about rewards for counting all as loss, he says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” In some way, the parable illustrates the point Jesus wants to convey and explain the nature of the kingdom. There is one problem. The parable is about earning instead of giving up anything. How can a parable about earning possibly explain or illustrate a teaching about giving up everything to follow Jesus? What if Jesus’s teaching is not primarily about our giving up stuff or laboring?

Jesus taught that everyone would be rewarded according to what he or she gives up for Christ’s name’s sake by grace. Similarly, all those who labor in God’s vineyard will be paid according to God’s generosity. Jesus is teaching primarily about God’s generosity to His people. He is generous, therefore, we will see a return on our investments and be paid generously for our labors in the resurrection. We do not care about earning more than others. We do not care that God is as generous to those who haven’t worked as long as we have. Why? The wages paid by God are not based on our labor, but on His generosity. We labor in His vineyard according to His calling. He generously pays His people—by grace and not merit. The last shall be first, and the first last.

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Leave a Reply