Parable of the
Sometimes known as the "Parable of the Penny", this story of Jesus in Matt.20.1-16 has been explained in a variety of different ways, but not often is it connected with the incident of the rich young ruler recounted in the previous chapter. The chapter division is at an unfortunate point; the passage from verse 16 of chap. 19, to verse 16 of chap. 20, is all one account and should have constituted a chapter by itself. It tells of the rich young ruler ‑ some suppose there is evidence that he was Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary ‑ who came to Jesus asking what good thing he should do that he might have eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all that he had, to give to the poor, to take up his cross and to follow him. At that the young man, we are told, went away sorrowful, "for he had great possessions". And Jesus took advantage of the incident to warn his disciples with what difficulty a rich man must enter the Kingdom of God, a warning that puzzled them greatly, so greatly that they asked "Who then can be saved?" To their minds it seemed inconceivable that if the rich, with all their advantages, could not attain the Kingdom, any other man should do so. Peter, with his habitual quickness of mind and impulsiveness of speech, came out with a blunt enquiry as to what they, who had given up all for his sake should have. By then it was becoming apparent that some sound instruction was necessary; so Jesus told this story of the man who hired labourers to work in his vineyard and what happened to them at the end of the day.
We shall miss the point of the parable, therefore, unless we bear in mind that it is intended to teach the disciples the truth regarding this matter of ultimate rewards in the heavenly Kingdom. Here is a rich man who was debarring himself from entrance because he would not give up his riches; there were other men who hoped to attain to glory and power in that Kingdom because they had given up their scanty possessions. But there was something else beside. They had "followed" Jesus: the rich man had failed to follow. The sacrifice of worldly possessions was not of itself enough; there must also be the willing acceptance of the life of labour "with him" if the desired end was to be reached. And above all, the idea and the thought of personal advancement in front of one's fellows must be eradicated from the mind; there can be no ruling over one another, no taking precedence or assuming superior glory, in the Kingdom. All will be brethren, and there will only be one Master, Christ. The story of the request made by the mother of James and John, that they should be given special favour in the Kingdom, comes immediately after the parable and probably not without design. The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great, exercise authority upon them, said Jesus, "but it shall not be so among you". So the parable of the vineyard came readily to the Saviour's lips in furtherance of his purpose to show his disciples the better way.
"For the Kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard." It is vintage time; the husbandman has tended his vines assiduously throughout the growing season with the help of his own regular servants - he had a steward according to vs. 8 and therefore must have had servants in house and field - and has brought his crop to fruition. But the vintage must be gathered quickly and he needs additional temporary help, and so, as morning dawns ‑ 6 a.m. in the East ‑ he goes to the marketplace where the casual labourers congregate and engages sufficient men to complete the work. It is important to the right understanding of the story that this point be appreciated. The householder engaged all the labourers he needed, at the normal time for starting work. Other employers would be there too, engaging men for their requirements, until the demand was satisfied, and then, just as in later and, to us, more familiar days, the unfortunate ones who had not been engaged would resign themselves to another day of idleness and loss of wages.
But the particular employer who occupied the centre of the stage in this little drama which Jesus, with his consummate skill, was working out for the benefit of the enthralled disciples, was not as other employers. He left his own duties and went out into the market place again about nine o'clock and, probably as he anticipated, found men standing about idle, not having been hired. He had no need of them, but ‑ he sent them into his vineyard to labour, and they evidently went gladly. At noon, when the work of the day was half-way through, he went again, and found more men idle, and sent them in similarly. Came three o'clock in the afternoon and the sun swiftly dropping down the western sky, yet a little knot of men, renewed hope in their faces, wending their way to the householder's vineyard for three hour's work before the night came in which no man could work. Truly a strange but a welcome employer to have this altogether unusual concern for the unemployed and hopeless.
The disciples must by now have been wondering toward what this story was leading them. They were of the working classes themselves, and they had no illusions about the characters of employers. In certain circles today there is what is glibly termed the "reservoir of labour". This means that there is a permanent proportion of unemployed workers that are part of the system. Enough is known, from sources quite outside the Scriptures, of the economic conditions of our Lord's time, to establish the fact that it was just the same then. An employer who went out of his way to employ, and pay, labourers he did not really need was just as much a rarity then as it is now. No wonder the disciples were interested. But Jesus had not finished the story yet.
Five o'clock came; it was the eleventh hour. In sixty more minutes the sun would sink suddenly below the western horizon and darkness would quickly and completely fall. The day's work was virtually over; and yet here is the householder, once again in the market place, asking the few remaining stragglers why they stand there all the day idle. "Because no man hath hired us" they answer, perhaps resentfully, perhaps wonderingly. A strange question to ask; he knew very well why they thus stood. But the rejoinder was stranger still. "Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." They needed no further encouragement, and an hour later were standing before the steward, probably thankful for the small moiety of payment they expected for one hour's nominal labour. They received, each one of them, a full day's wage!
By now, more than one or two of the other labourers were convinced that this householder was not altogether accountable for his actions. A whole denarius for one hour's work; such a thing was unheard of! It looked as if some of them who had been fortunate enough to start earlier in the day would take small fortunes home to their families. They stepped up in their turn, covetous eyes seeking to discern what their fellows were getting, and ‑ "received every man a denarius".
Of course, there was disappointment, and expostulation, and talk of injustice. The householder was called to the scene, and listened to their complaint. Quietly he told them that none of them had suffered loss; all had received the amount for which they had bargained, the amount they had expected, the amount which, if commonly accepted observation be true, was the normal day's wages for a labourer at the time. True, they had worked longer and harder than had the late comers, but it was their good fortune that they had obtained work in the ordinary way, the others' misfortunes that they were without work. Their material needs were the same; their families at home needed food and clothing in equal measure, and the householder had recognised that fact by giving to each, not according to his accomplishment, but according to his need, and without injustice or hardship to any one of them.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like that, said Jesus to his listeners. They sat round him, chins supported in cupped hands, flowing robes gathered closely, seeing in the mind's eye that coming day in which they would sit, each on a throne, twelve men on twelve thrones in all, judging the tribes of Israel, and the rich man who could not find it in him to sacrifice wealth and position now, bereft of it then, taking his place amongst the crowd. A group of men, some having worked long and hard, others for a little time only, all receiving the same at the end, without distinction in position or reward. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that! What Kingdom of Heaven is this?
Evidently from the fact that the parable is given in consequence of the disciples' question regarding future reward for present sacrifice, it has reference to the spiritual phase of the Kingdom of God in the next Messianic Age. Then the Church of Christ, glorified and associated with him in the spiritual realm "beyond the Veil" will have ceased from their labours in the vineyard of this Age and appeared to receive their 'hire', the 'reward' of their consecrated walk before him. The householder, of course, is the Lord himself, going out himself to find disciples who will serve his interests in this world. His "going out" thus continues during the whole of this Gospel Age, from Pentecost until the setting up of the earthly Kingdom. But the third hour, sixth hour, and so on must refer, not to the early, middle and late centuries of the Age, but to stages in the lives of individuals at which the call comes to them. Quite obviously no one has laboured from Pentecost until today, for life does not last so long. But some there are, and such there have been at every point of time throughout the Age, to whom the call came in youth or early life, and who heard and obeyed the call and laboured zealously and faithfully until old age ended their labours. These are they who were sent into the vineyard "early in the morning". Others receive the call in middle life; these are they who respond to the householder's invitation at the third or the sixth or even the ninth hour. And some are already in the evening of life when they give themselves in whole-hearted surrender to the Lord Christ; they come in at the eleventh hour but the Lord has work for them to do and a work to do in them.
So it will be, then, when the hope of every true believer is realised, and the "General Assembly of the Church of the Firstborn, whose names are written in heaven" has become an accomplished fact. We shall meet our fellows and our companions of the pilgrim way, those that have gone before us into the glory land. These are the saints, martyrs, prophets and apostles of earlier times. We shall find that we are all equally citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, thinking no more of station or rank, of preferment one above another, but all rejoicing together in the wondrous companionship and over-lordship of Christ our Head, the heavenly Bridegroom. "With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought; they shall enter into the King's palace." The "penny" which each one will receive is the prize of eternal association with the Lord Jesus Christ in the glory of his Kingdom, and before the presence of the Heavenly Father. For the duration of the Messianic Age there is the inestimable privilege of working together with the Saviour for the conversion of the world.
Some may ask now, what there may be in this happy state to correspond with the "murmuring". Is there to be murmuring in heaven, amongst the redeemed and glorified saints? The idea is both absurd and unthinkable. Jesus meant something quite different from that. His story showed the disciples what they were making of the calling to which he had called them, and was yet to call others. They were the men who were manifesting the spirit of self-assertiveness, who wanted to be greater than others in the Kingdom, who even quarrelled among themselves as to which of their little band should be greater than the rest. That is the spirit, said Jesus in effect, that would lead you at the end to murmur against me when I finally apportion the crowns of life in the Kingdom. It was a warning, and the subsequent history of the disciples shows us that, though in some cases the lesson was long in being learned, at the end it was learned, and well learned.
Conrad Noel suggested in his "Life of Jesus", (1937) that this parable was given to define the 'economic' basis of life in what he called the Divine Commonwealth and what we call the Messianic Kingdom. He sees here an expression of the Divine intention that all men shall take their place in the world's work and labour according to their ability, and receive of that provision which the world affords, according to their need. There is no doubt that the principle is there. Jesus may very well have intended some such thought as a secondary teaching, applicable, not to the Church, but to the world of men. They will be engaged in learning those new laws of life that are to be promulgated during the Messianic Age. "Out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem". It is perfectly true that in that day men will have to learn the same lesson that the disciples of Christ are learning now. All, whether in heaven or on earth, who enter into everlasting life in that perfect condition which lies beyond the dethronement of sin and death, will give of their best and rejoice with their fellows in absolute equality of citizenship. Each will seek the welfare of others; all will be servants of all, and in that blessed relationship, hallowed for all time by One who himself came to serve and minister, will enter into their reward.