[October 7, 2012] This parable has been subject to misinterpretation because the context has been ignored. The usual interpretation negates the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:27-29. We do not want to fall into the same trap. The parable is about the kingdom of the heavens; people typically confuse the kingdom with the church, which the gospel never does. The overall context, from 13:54 to 19:34 is about the church, but the focus of 16:21-19:34 is about the church in the light of the kingdom. My analysis of the parable can be found in “Do Not Envy or Judge One Another.”
Ever since Jesus announced His coming death and resurrection, He began to insist that His disciples follow Him on this path, that this path become the model of their discipleship. And He put this in the context of the church, always the church. When we come to the church it is a matter of God’s grace finding us. But now that we are securely in the sphere of God’s grace, and in the enjoyment of reconciliation, so that God is now our Father and we are in the Son, that grace—through the Holy Spirit within and upon us—becomes the basis and means of our living, and the Father judges us as sons and daughters on that basis. If “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ,” the Father also measures us “according to the measure of the stature of the fullness of” His Son (Ephesians 4:7, 13) and deals with us accordingly, in judgment and discipline and kindness, until we become what Christ is. For the believer, His judgment is a form of His grace (1 Peter 2:19-20; see 5:10).
So in 16:21—17:21 Jesus was most explicit, that a disciple must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (see also 10:37-39), and He shows them Himself—in His human nature—in glory, which glory will also be their reward for following Him in the way of the way of the cross.
Then we came to the second unit: 17:22—20:16. After an introductory periscope in 17:24-27, Jesus applies this to the disciples’ relationship to one another in the church, in 18:1-35. Then, after a transition in 19:1-2, Jesus turns to the church as it takes place in the disciples’ lives—their homes, whether they are married or single, how they regard children, and their property and possessions. Everything that seems “personal” is for the church and comes under the cross. The kingdom of the heavens rules over all makes judgment on all of this: nothing escapes the eyes of Him to whom we are to give an account” (Hebrews 4:13).
The parable of the workers of the vineyard is a continuation of Matthew 19:27-29. Jesus had just finished telling a rich young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and then come and follow Him. A person cannot really bring their wealth into the church with them; their wealth needs to be given up—given to the church so that it is at the Lord’s disposal and no longer their own, or given to the poor so the giver can have treasure in heaven. Since this is so difficult, Jesus says that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” but “all things are possible with God.” A rich man can let go of His wealth by the grace of God, but to do so apart from the grace of God (the powerful working of the Holy Spirit upon him), “this is impossible.”
Peter sees that in fact he and the other disciples “have left all and followed [Christ].” So the grace of God must have been working powerfully upon them. “What then will there be for us?” What reward will there be for us? This raises an issue that Jesus had not yet raised with respect to the wealthy who give up all they have. They cannot make this offering and sacrifice apart from the grace of God; it cannot even happen as their own work. But will they nevertheless be rewarded for it?
Contrary to the way the parable of the workers in the vineyard is usually understood, the answer is clearly “Yes.” “Truly I say to you that you who have followed Me, in the restoration, [that is] when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory”—this refers to when the revelation of Jesus becomes manifest at His coming, and the world is overthrown, and He begins to establish His kingdom among humanity, overcoming all opposition (sometimes this is just referred to as the coming kingdom—it is not the same as “eternity”)—then “you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The Twelve are the chosen eyewitnesses of the Gospel, their testimony being written down for posterity in the Gospel according to Matthew, but they will also become judges in the age to come, ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel. The prophets speak of how when the Messiah comes He will gather not just the Jews (the southern kingdom) but all the tribes of Israel (the “lost” northern kingdom) from the ends of the earth. It is hard to imagine what this means, but this is the prophecy. Jesus says that in the kingdom the disciples will rule over them, whatever that means. This is the meaning of Jesus’ words. Reigning with Him will be their reward. Unless the Lord grants it, I will not investigate this further with respect to the Twelve since I am a gentile and it does not directly concern the church. Nevertheless, “reigning with Christ” (associated with being “heirs with Christ” of His kingdom) is the reward that Paul speaks of (2 Timothy 2:12; see Romans 8:17) and Jesus also speaks of it in His words to the churches in Revelation 2:26-27; 3:21).
Then Jesus generalizes and says, “Everyone”—not just the Twelve, but from among all the disciples—“who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My name’s sake shall receive a hundred times as much and shall inherit eternal life.” We will receive a hundred times as much in this age and in the age to come (according to the Gospel according to Mark), and, in the age to come, we will be heirs with Christ in His kingdom (He who will inherit all things).
(The expression “inherit” eternal life refers not to the possession of eternal life within us through the indwelling Holy Spirit, as in the Gospel according to John, but to the enjoyment of the coming kingdom. Believers who possess eternal life by virtue of their regeneration, but who are unfaithful in their walk, will not enjoy the coming kingdom but will be disapproved of and shamed in the presence of Christ when He is manifested in His glory. This will not be their permanent condition, but it will nevertheless be in fact their condition during at least a portion of the age to come. To “inherit” eternal life is a reward for faithfulness, perseverance and endurance; not all the sons and daughters of God will qualify.
What is clear then is this: that to become a believer or a disciple is purely a matter of grace. Christ calls us—through the Gospel—and creates faith in us and repentance. We are redeemed by the grace of our Lord Jesus; we are His. We also need to be faithful to Him and follow Him by giving Him our all—including our home and all our possessions—but we can also only do this by His grace working within us. However, if we do, even though it was by His grace and not by the strength of our own will power and resolve, we will be rewarded with “a hundred times” what we have given up, with the “inheritance” of eternal life, and we will receive our inheritance as co-heirs with Christ and “reign” with Him (whatever that means).
That being said, now Jesus says, “But many first will be last and many last first.” And He tells the parable of the workers of the vineyard to explain what He means.
The parable is not itself that difficult to understand. If some workers work all day, some for part of the day, and some only for the last hour of the day, it would seem natural to equate the day with a lifetime and the different workers who begin to work at different times of the day with people who became disciples at different points in their life—some as young people, some in midlife and some when they are elderly. As we look around us in the church we see different generations of people who have served the Lord longer than others. We also see that some have borne “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” and others who remained idle all day long—whether as unbelievers or as unfaithful disciples and who only begin to “work” at the end of the day. So we are talking about people’s age and generation and how long they have been faithful disciples, all that.
Peter looked around him and saw his fellow disciples and said, “Behold, we have left all and followed You. What then will there be for us?” Jesus gave a direct answer in verse 28, and now in the parable He says indirectly, how He as the farmer “went out early in the morning to hire workmen for His vineyard and having agreed with the workmen for a denarius a day, He sent them into His vineyard.” If Peter is concerned about compensation, it is there. But Jesus is concerned about this attitude. Are you only working for the compensation? Then, you agreed with me for a denarius. “Take what is yours and go.”
The fact is that the farmer may be more generous than that. He may give to this last one even as He has given to you. Is it not lawful for Him] to do what He wishes with what is His? After all, in reality, He is rewarding us for what we could not accomplish on our own. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” If we come to Him early in life, if we are faithful to Him, this is not our doing but the working of His grace within us. So any reward is gratuitous. Since that is the case, we cannot judge Him for how He is chooses to be gracious. The reward is also gratuitous. If we judge Him, we forget that He is the judge. And what are we judging Him for? “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Are you envious because I am generous? If our attitude is that what grace accomplishes in us is our own doing and we want the payback to equal our “deserts,” then of course we will be jealous when He is more gracious than that. His “payback” is far more than what we deserve. We are still unworthy servants who have only done what we were told to do. We are like the jealous older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He will indeed reward us—for what He has done in us—but we are in reality unworthy of any reward. He alone deserves the credit for what we have been able to do.
So the parable is about envy. When our giving all to Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit within us, then it is all by grace. Nevertheless He will reward us for it. Let us never forget, though, that it is His grace. For if we begin to think that what we will get is what we deserve, we will become envious of others who have not done as much as us, or who have not done it for as long as we have, or as long as we think we are going to.
Yet we do not measure things the way God does. We will always measure things by their outward measure, for it is all we can. The judgment of God does not only measure what we do. It measures who we are, which only God can see. It measures quality as well as quantity. It sees the whole life and not one part of it, not only the last part of it. It weighs the motive and intention and not just the result. It is aware of where a person is beginning from and what the obstacles and opposition a person has faced. The judgment of God sees each person individually where they are, and not in comparison to any other. There is no way people can be lined up side by side and measured accordingly. So for us to attempt to measure each other by what we have done or accomplished is ridiculous. When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, when the reality of the totality who we are is exposed and revealed to His eyes, it will not be the same as what we imagine we see in each other or even in ourselves. If there is any reward, it will be because the Lord is good, that is, generous. When we judge others, it is because our eye is evil. Our judgment is bad; we are envious of them.
In our eyes, many who we think are “first” will be last and many who we think are “last” will be first.
In other words, the judgment of God, of Christ on His judgment seat, is and will be inscrutable. It does not mean that He will judge all equally, nor does it mean that He will not judge us at all or shield us from judgment. He will really judge us but He will see the reality and totality that we cannot see. He will also uphold us in grace so we are not utterly consumed (though His judgment may burn us; see 1 Corinthians 3, for example), and He will indeed reward us gratuitously for what He has done in us. If we have been unfaithful, however, and refused to work in the vineyard, that is another story which Jesus teaches about elsewhere. The point of this parable is about our envy of the Lord’s generosity to others.
The result is that we need to work not with an eye on others, comparing ourselves to them, but with a generous eye, generous toward others but also generous to the Lord.
- If we bear the burden of the day and the scorching heat, it is comforting to know that the Lord does not overlook this, but we should also do it out of love and not just for the reward, since we can never deserve all that He has promised to give us; we are not entitled to what He has promised to give us. The promise is on the basis of grace, and our attitude to the Lord should reflect this.
- And if we come to the vineyard late, let us not labor weakly, thinking that our reward will only be small and therefore our work should be in measure, but let us also labor with all our strength, out of love, entrusting ourselves to the generosity of the Lord but not with an eye on it, secretly imagining that we are somehow entitled to it.
This is the point I think Jesus is making here.