[May 4, 2008] At the end of the section that began in 17:22 Jesus finishes with the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus describes a mid-sized farm in which the owner himself recruits his day laborers. He went at six in the morning and hired his first workers, agreeing to pay them the customary amount, a denarius for the day’s labor, and he sent them to work in his vineyard. He hired some more at 9 AM, but did not settle on a wage—just “whatever is right.” So far, this is what we expect. That the farmer hired workers again at noon and at 3 PM is unusual, and we are left wondering what he intended to pay them. It is even stranger that the farmer would hire anyone at 5 PM. At that hour they barely had enough time to get to the vineyard. We also wonder why no one had hired them—were they too old, or sick, or lazy? The farmer sent them also to the vineyard, but he did not agree to pay them anything.
Evening denotes sundown, and since the last ones hired only worked one hour, we may assume it was 6 PM. The farmer, now called the “lord of the vineyard,” called his workers and paid them for their labor. He paid the last ones first so we see the reaction of those first hired. We do not expect those who were hired at the last minute to be paid an entire denarius, a whole day’s wage. And when those first hired came, we expect them to receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. When they protested, so do we, for this violates our sense of fairness. They were all being rewarded for their labor and he was making those who barely worked at all equal to those who bore the burden and heat of the day. The farmer said, though, that he paid them what they had agreed on, and therefore he was not obligated to pay them any more. That he was generous to these others was his own business. He was not obligated to be so generous (“good”) to everyone. Our own reaction is checked along with theirs when he asked them, “Is your eye evil [meaning envious] because I am good [that is, generous]?”
What is this parable about? Typically, since the Reformation, interpreters have used this parable to oppose grace and the law. The first workers are the Jews who worked only for reward. They only get what they deserve, which is not very much—because who can earn God’s favor? Those who were hired last had no expectation and therefore they received God’s undeserved favor. So this interpretation says the Jews end up being cursed because they are under the law, and the Christians who believe are blessed with grace. The bourgeois interpretation is that work is good in itself and one should not be interested in reward. The modern interpretation is that God does not judge or reward anyone according to their work, but treats everyone with equal grace.
I disagree with these interpretations. But what then is this parable about?
The Church and the Kingdom
First of all, notice that this parable is about the kingdom of the heavens. It is not about the grace of salvation, nor about the church. In the church all are equal because we all are sinners dependent upon God’s mercy and grace. No one labors to be in the church. In contrast, this parable is about workers in God’s vineyard—the sphere of God’s work where labor is being done in view of the harvest. We continually see in the Gospel according to Matthew that the kingdom has to do with reward, and if we look at the context, this is also what is going on here. It is hard to interpret things correctly without looking at the context.
Ever since 17:22, Jesus has been teaching the disciples about living the life of the church in the light of the kingdom. The church and the kingdom are contrasts, like opposite poles, and we need to live in the dialectic between them. In other words, they are both true. It is not for us to choose one or the other, but to hold both of them together in tension.
The church is the sphere of God’s grace. We are all here by the mercy and grace of God. In the church we are all little ones; we are all equally brothers and sisters without rank. No one is higher or lower than another, because everything depends on God’s grace. We are able to forgive one another because we know how much we have been forgiven. We love the Lord Jesus because He has first loved us, even when we were His enemies, and He paid the ultimate price to make us His own. This fact should overwhelm us and transform completely how we regard one another. This is the church.
But Jesus is also teaching us to live the life of the church in the light of the kingdom. Just because we are saved by mercy and are forgiven and everything depends on grace, does not mean we can act any way we want. Over and over Jesus warns us that there is an accounting—both now in God’s dealing with us in this life, and in the age to come when we shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. I hope you have not missed this. Even in chapter 18 Jesus warns about the danger of causing one another to stumble, and of not forgiving our fellow believer. In chapter 19 Jesus speaks of how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom. The conclusion is not, since everything depends on grace we do not have to worry about it. The conclusion is rather that God will reward those who have “left all and followed” Christ (verse 27). This all has to do with the kingdom, with God’s purpose and work, and therefore with judgment and reward. On the one hand there is the reality of the church, which depends on the undeserved and unmerited grace of God. On the other hand, there is the kingdom, in which God holds us accountable. This is why I have repeatedly said that this whole section is about living the life of the church in the light of the kingdom.
At the end of chapter 19 when Peter says, “Behold, we have left all and followed You,” he asked, “What then will there be for us?” Notice that Jesus did not say that it was all the same. He said, “Truly I say to you that you who have followed Me, in the restoration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The restoration refers to the time of the kingdom, when Christ returns to judge His believers and to restore all things. It is only after this time that the eternal age begins—what the Book of the Revelation refers to as the New Heaven and the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem at the center of it. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be rewarded with thrones.
He then goes on to say that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or fathers or mother or children or fields for My name’s sake shall receive a hundred times as much and shall inherit eternal life.” Clearly the reward is dependent on the action described. As we see over and over in Matthew, the reward of the kingdom, which is the same as “inheriting” eternal life, is dependent on how we live. It is NOT unconditional. Grace is unconditional. Reward is not. Life in the church is unconditional. But reward is conditioned by how we live the life of the church. Eternal life is unconditional. Inheriting its temporal blessings in the kingdom is not. If we believe, we are assured of final salvation and eternal life. We are NOT assured of entering the kingdom unless we are faithful in our living. We have the gift of eternal life and it cannot be taken away. Whether we enter the kingdom depends on what we do with this gift. If we rearrange our life to make Christ our Lord, if we are willing to forsake all to follow Him, we will be rewarded a hundredfold.
But, Jesus says, “Many first will be last, and many last first.”
What Is Our Motive?
I pointed out last week that Peter’s question seemed to have almost a commercial interest. He gave up so much, how much does he get in return? I also said that Jesus overlooked this attitude in order to speak about the reward for all who have given up much for His name’s sake. Let us revisit that. Jesus only overlooked Peter’s attitude at first, to answer the question. Now he addresses it. This parable is a continuation of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, “What will there be for us” who “have left all and followed You”?
Since Jesus said they will be rewarded, it would be strange if Jesus now questions the whole idea of reward, as if to say it does not really matter. If this is not what Jesus is saying, what IS He saying? What is His point?
When we interpret parables, we have to use some latitude and pay attention to their intent. When the Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep on the mountain to seek out the one who is lost, it does not mean that Christ actually leaves the other sheep prey to the wolves and lions and bears while He only cares about the one. But it IS about the care He gives to the one. In the same way, this parable is not about how all are rewarded equally, but rather about the evil eye—the envy—of those who question that “many” who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.
There are at least two interpretations of who these first and last are. If we look at it historically, the first are those like Peter, Jews who left all to follow Jesus—they are those who were hired early in the morning to work in the vineyard. It seems as though Peter settles on a price—”What will we get?” Those who came to the vineyard later are people like ourselves. We will get what is right. Then there are those who come at the last minute. These are the Jews who do not turn to their Messiah until the end of the age when they will see Him whom they have pierced and will mourn for Him and repent, as the prophets foretold. Even though they come to the vineyard at the last minute, they too may be rewarded according to the generosity of the Lord of the Vineyard, and not according to the labor they have put out.
Another interpretation—perhaps more applicable here—is that Peter and the disciples are young people. They began to work in the vineyard early in their lives. Others come to the Lord in middle age and later in life. Then there are others who come at the last minute—they turn to Christ at the end of their lives. Those who have labored all their lives in the Lord’s vineyard may well feel superior to those who come late in life. After all, they have borne the burden and heat of the day.
Yet we do not know the mystery of Christ’s reward. He is sovereign, as Paul says about God in Romans 9. This means He does not ask our opinion; He does whatever suits His own purpose—”according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6). Nor do we really know the price that others pay. We only see the outside of things and we measure things with skewed eyes. God sees the interconnectedness and the real value of everything. He sees the unseen suffering of others. In the parable there is no question of NOT getting what you worked for. It is a question of what is, in our eyes, the Master’s inexplicable generosity.
At the end of John’s gospel, Jesus told Peter “by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had said this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also reclined on His breast at the supper … Peter therefore, seeing him, said to Jesus, ‘Lord, and what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me’” (John 21:19-22). Peter had an eye on another disciple and Jesus corrects him. How Christ may favor or not favor someone else in the church is none of your business. Envy must not exist in the church. It is an “evil eye.” Jesus says “You follow Me.”
Even though the kingdom does involve reward and it may give us the personal assurance that nothing is lost when we serve Christ, we must not compare ourselves to anyone else in the Body of Christ. There can be no competition. How Christ will reward each is His own business (see Romans 14:4). We must serve Christ with an eye only on Christ, to please Him alone. That we please Him is reward enough.
This brings us back to what Jesus taught in chapter 18 when He stood a little child in their midst and said you must be like this. We all must have humility with one another, as a little child in the midst of adults. No one knows whether Christ looks with less or more approval on another than on you. Live the life of the church in the light of the kingdom. But in terms of the kingdom, in terms of the Lord’s approval or favor on the Day of Judgment, let no one judge another, but let each of us regard all others as the same. We ALL are always as dependent on His mercy as when we first began.