Laborers in the Vineyard

by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Christ teaches us that the just will live by faith. Those who dwell in the love of Christ cannot forget all that is of grace and instead harbor feelings of hate and resentment. Those who forget all that is of grace will be last and will completely lose what they worked for, while those who seem to be last, by keeping humility, will be first and foremost in the Day of Judgment.

The parable begins with the landowner’s call to work. He begins early in the morning hiring laborers, offering them a full day’s pay. Then at the third hour he hires several workers who are standing around in the marketplace. The same thing happens at the sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours. Each time, he promises, “Whatever is right you will receive.”

Then at the end of the day comes the payoff. The last ones hired are paid first, receiving a full day’s wage—a denarius—the same amount that the first ones had agreed to work for. Seeing this payoff, they assume they will be paid more. After all, didn’t they work much longer and harder than those who were hired at the eleventh hour? But when they receive the same pay as all the rest, they complain of unfair treatment.

The master’s response is to remind them that he had given them exactly what they had agreed upon. He emphasizes that it is his lawful right to dispense his goods as he wishes. Yet they had looked upon his desire to be gracious with an evil eye full of envy, greed, and stinginess.

This parable is connected with two questions that preceded it—the rich young ruler’s question of what he could do to earn eternal life and Peter’s question about what special rewards were in store for those who had left everything to become disciples. The parable of the laborers answers these questions and rebukes the attitude that they display. It is directed against the wrong spirit that all who enjoy spiritual blessings need to be warned about. Just before Christ begins the parable, he issues the solemn statement that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. He ends the parable on the same note—the last will be first, and the first last.

This Kingdom parable reminds us that some have been called early to work—for example, the Apostles and those who have grown up in the Church and in Christian countries. These cannot make the excuse made by those who are hired at the eleventh hour, that they are idle because they had been given no opportunity to work. The ones who have labored long in the vineyard have enjoyed the special privileges of grace and are doing nothing more than the duty they owe their Master.

But regardless of when they are called into the Kingdom, all of the workers receive the same pay—God himself. God says, “I am your great reward.” But gripers work for something besides the enjoyment of God. They glory in themselves and over others. It is possible for the Church to become a closed group made up of those who are proud of being involved from the beginning, enduring all the hardships. They may think they are advancing, but actually they are destroying their own life. To make greater advances is to become more like God in humility, love, and holiness.

The fact that all enjoy equally in the rewards encourages latecomers to work hard out of gratitude. The question to them is not “How much have you done?” but “Who are you?” Doubts about acceptance of your work won’t make you work harder, and this parable removes all doubts that God’s children share equally in full blessings of Christ.

If the workers in Christ’s Kingdom are paid on the basis of how long or hard they have worked, then salvation is of works and the reward is given out of debt, not grace. That is the very error the parable is meant to rebuke. We tend to think it is only fair and logical for those who have worked longer to be paid more. That tendency demonstrates how contrary the Gospel is to our logic and nature.

Since it is impossible to conceive of harboring spiritual pride in heaven, we are taught to resist it now, along with complaining about God’s grace to others and envying or grieving at the good of others. We must get rid of all feelings of pride in our own work as though it gives us a claim on God. Many are called to work in God’s vineyard, but few maintain a humble spirit.