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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : IX. THE VINEYARD LABOURERS.

The Parables Of Our Lord by William Arnot

IX. THE VINEYARD LABOURERS.

|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. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market-place, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last; for many be called, but few chosen.| -- MATT. xx.1-16.

Again the heavenly kingdom is compared to the proceedings of a human householder. While in fertile plains, like Esdraelon, the grain-field was the Hebrew husbandman's chief care, on the mountain sides, the vineyards were the most valuable property, and required the greatest amount of labour. The steepness of the slopes on which the vine grows best, greatly increases the owner's toil. In many cases the terraces must be supported by strong stone walls; and not only must the manure be carried on men's shoulders up the steep, but in some cases even the soil itself is carried up in the same way, and laid upon the bare rocks.

Different kinds of work are required in vineyards at different seasons. In spring they prepare the soil; in summer they prune and tie up the vine branches; and in autumn all the joyous labour of the vintage comes suddenly on. Looking to the circumstance in the parable, that the labourers who began early counted much on having borne the heat of the day, we might be inclined to suppose that the scene is laid in the middle of summer; but the fact that the householder required so many labourers and hired all that he could find, points rather to the vintage in the end of autumn.

The master went out early in the morning to hire labourers. There was some spot, doubtless, recognised both by masters and men, as the common meeting-place for those who needed work, and those who needed workmen, -- the Cross or the Buchts of that place and day. This husbandman at once engaged all the men that he found, and sent them into his vineyard to begin work at six in the morning, -- the first hour of the Jewish day. The terms were arranged beforehand, -- a penny a day. The Roman denarius is reckoned equal to sevenpence half-penny of our money; but obviously it was considered the ordinary rate of a labourer's wages at the time.

The name of a great trysting place for selling cattle and hiring men and women on the eastern outskirts of the city of Glasgow, where the two operations resemble each other too closely for the credit of our institutions or the safety of society.

Again at nine o'clock the husbandman went to the market-place, and finding some unemployed men, sent them also to work in his vineyard. Again at mid-day, and yet once more at five o'clock in the afternoon he went out, and finding men on each occasion loitering about the market-place, he sent them also into the vineyard. In these cases, however, as was meet when the day was broken, the master did not promise any specific rate of wages; and the men, thankful for an opportunity of turning to some profitable account a day which would otherwise have been wholly lost, were content to accept whatever he might be pleased to give.

About six o'clock in the evening, -- earlier or later according to the season of the year and the consequent duration of daylight at the time, -- work in the vineyard ceased for the day, and each labourer, called forward in turn by the steward, received his wages in the master's presence. The steward, acting doubtless under special instructions, called first the men who had entered the vineyard at five, and quitted it at six, and gave each a penny for his hour's work. Surprised by the munificence of their employer, these men retire towards their homes with silent gratitude. Afterwards those who had laboured one-half, and those who had laboured three-fourths of the day, were called in succession, and each received also a penny. Last of all came the men who had laboured from morning till night. They had been standing near, and had observed that all their fellow-labourers, not excepting even those who had been employed only an hour, received the same uniform reward, each man a penny. As this process was going on, they cherished in silence the expectation that when their turn should come, they would receive more of the master's money, because they had done more of his work. But the steward, evidently acting on precise orders, gave each of these men also a penny, and no more. No longer able to conceal their disappointment, although they were well aware that they had no legal claim for more than they had received, they broke out into murmurs against their employer. Of course, he closed their mouths in a moment: he had completely fulfilled his agreement with them, and they had no right to interfere with his spontaneous generosity, whenever and towards whomsoever he might choose to exercise it.

By law, wages for the work of the day must be paid the same evening (Deut. xxiv.15).

Here, again, the key-notes of the parable are found at the beginning and at the end. The direct and immediate occasion of the discourse lies in Peter's question at the 27th verse of the nineteenth chapter, |We have forsaken all and followed thee: what shall we have therefore?| But as the parable sprang from Peter's question, so Peter's question sprang from an antecedent fact. To that fact, accordingly, we must look as the true ultimate root on which the parable grows.

As Jesus was going about in the Father's business, attended by the twelve, a young man came running forward to him, bending the knee in token of reverence (Mark x.17), and asking, |Good master, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?| Accommodating his lesson to the condition of the learner's heart, the Lord saw meet, at the close of his discourse, to lay a specific cross on this promising disciple, in order at once to reach and eradicate the specific disease that threatened the life of his soul, -- |Sell all that thou hast, and come, follow me.| The young man loved the world more than Christ: compelled to make his choice, he cleaved to the portion that he loved best. When by the sovereign act of the Lord he was placed in such a position that he could not enjoy both portions, he parted with the Saviour and clung to his wealth. Peter and the rest of the apostles listened and looked on, during this decisive interview: they gazed after the youth, perhaps with tears, as he slowly and sorrowfully withdrew. But their Lord did not leave the impressive fact to sink into their minds in silence: He interposed at the moment, to print the lesson permanently on their hearts, |How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven!| |Then answered Peter;| -- as usual this impetuous man burst suddenly into a speech upon the point in hand, before he had well considered what he was about to say. For one thing, there is no deceit in Peter's question; he thinks aloud, and his thought is one of intense and undisguised self-conceit. The spirit of the Pharisee was there, |Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men.| His heart at this moment was undisguisedly mercenary; his eye was on the main chance. We have done and suffered so much for God; what return may we expect for our services? That young rich man would not part with his portion in this world, in order to follow Christ: Peter, thereupon, made a most comfortable comparison between himself and the undecided youth, and expressed a hope that his own great devotion would not be overlooked in the day of reward.

I sometimes think the Papists acted wisely in making Peter the first Pope. He serves better as a type for them than any one of the twelve, unless they had gone all the way and chosen Judas. None of the true men were so forward as Peter in giving their judgment, or so frequently wrong.

The reply of our Lord to Peter's self-righteous demand is twofold. First, he owns and reiterates the truth that all labourers in his kingdom will be rewarded; and next corrects the abuse of that principle into which a self-pleasing human heart is apt to fall. In the discourse recorded at the close of the nineteenth chapter, he teaches the cheering truth that the Lord will richly reward the services of his people, and in the subsequent parable gives to them and us a solemn admonition against the error into which Peter had been for the moment betrayed.

The positive doctrine regarding compensation for all sacrifices and wages for all work needs only to be read in the memorable words of Jesus, as the evangelist has recorded them here. Notwithstanding the incrustations of ignorant self-righteousness that now and then covered and disfigured their faith, these Galileans have in very deed left all for Christ, and shall all in very deed receive from Christ a hundred-fold. Even Peter's own decisive life-act, -- his consecration to Jesus, was a higher and purer thing than his own foolish words at this time would represent it to have been. It was not with a mercenary eye to a subsequent equivalent that he left his nets and followed Jesus. That self-devotion in the simplicity of faith will be gloriously recompensed, notwithstanding the subsequent slips that dishonour the disciple and grieve the Master; but Peter, and through him all men, must be clearly taught that work done for the sake of the reward is not owned in the kingdom of heaven.

These two are thus united and distinguished by Draeseke, -- |Although the kingdom of God is God's gift in the souls of men, yet without a worthiness in men it can neither begin nor continue, neither reveal nor develop itself. And again, although our worthiness is necessary, we nevertheless obtain the kingdom, not through the merit of works, but from the fulness of grace, yea, from that alone. In short, the kingdom demands workers; hirelings it disdains (das Reich verlangt Arbeiter; Soeldlinge verschmaeht es).... Thus it stands shut against the hireling, open to the worker. Not as though the kingdom needed thy labour. He who makes the winds his messengers and the flames his servants, can do without thy hand-work, O little man. Thy labour avails not; but that thou shouldest be a labourer, that thou shouldest have a mind for God, and through that mind shouldest elevate thy life into a free and joyful service of him -- that avails.| -- Vom Reich Gottes, ii.40, 42.

Remarkable is the construction of the chain by which this writer connects the poor unemployed men who were standing idle in the market-place with the ever-during, ever-increasing satisfaction of their souls in eternity. So verlangt das Reich Arbeiter, nicht Soeldlinge. Es beruft die Arbeitlosen. Es stellt die Bernfenen an. Es beschaeftigt die Angestelleten. Es uebt die Beschaeftigten. Es belohnt die Geuebten. Es genuegt den Belohnten. Und Gnuege waehrt ewig; waechst ewig. -- ii.51.

Every one that hath forsaken earthly possessions for Christ's sake shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life, -- |But many that are first shall be last, and the last first.|

This short antithetic sentence is the very gate by which we enter into the meaning of the parable; if we rightly comprehend it, we rightly comprehend all. It is necessary to determine here the connection between this sentence and the doctrine, which is taught in the immediately preceding verses. While the Lord undertakes that service and sacrifice in his cause will be rewarded, he warns his disciples in the next breath that those who labour longest, or produce the greatest quantity of work, do not in every case, and necessarily, receive the highest reward. In his kingdom the reward is not measured only and always by the length of the service or the quantity of work; many who are first as to the amount of work done will be last as to the amount of recompense received.

A lesson drawn from this scriptural principle may be legitimately addressed to those who are not within the kingdom, but I think the Master in this parable primarily intends to draw distinctions, not between those who are within and those who are without, but between two classes of genuine disciples, -- between those who simply trust in the Lord and serve him in love, and those who, although also in the main believers, allow the leaven of self-righteousness to creep in and mar the simplicity of their faith.

On the other hand the text, Luke xiii.30, although precisely similar to this in form, distinguishes, as may be seen from the context, between those who are within and those who are without.

It is not said that those who are first in the quantity of work shall all or uniformly be last in the measure of reward, but |many| that are first shall be last. Some who are foremost in the amount of service may also be most free from the self-righteous spirit, and some who have laboured least may also receive least if they do their little under the influence of a hireling's selfishness. The meaning is, that although you be first as to length of time and quantity of labour, if the leaven of self-righteousness mingle in your offering, you will be lowest in the Master's esteem, and least in the day of reward; whereas, although you be last in point of time, and least in point of service, if you receive all from Christ's mercy, and render all in love to Christ, you will be higher in the end than some who seemed more energetic and successful workers.

|For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder,| &c. This picture will illustrate the truth which has been declared; the householder represents Christ, the vineyard his kingdom, and the labourers his servants. The main lesson of the parable concerns, not the way of redemption, but the service which the redeemed render to their Lord. The wages of the labourer represent the rewards which Christ confers upon his servants, but this must be taken with certain explanations and limitations, especially these two, -- (1.) That the reward is partly a thing now begun, and partly something that is completed in heaven; (2.) That the value of the reward depends essentially on the disposition of heart with which the workman receives it.

It is not necessary to determine whether the labourers who were first hired, and who laboured all the day, represent the Jews under the first dispensation, or those in the Christian Church who individually are converted in early youth, and continue in Christ's service throughout a long life, or those who, from special talent, or zeal, or opportunity, do and suffer most for the Lord and his cause. The all-day labourers may represent all these classes, each in turn, and especially the last. We must not understand exclusively by |the first| those who began first in point of time. The term indicates rather those who are first in the sense of being chief or greatest; it points especially to those who were first in rank as having endured the greatest amount of loss, and done the greatest amount of work in Christ's cause. In the parable it is true those who were first sent into the vineyard, in point of time, were chief among the labourers as to the quantity of labour contributed, but the time is only an accident. The matter truly brought into view is not the time, but the quantity of work. Time is here employed simply as a measure of quantity, for it is obviously assumed throughout that all the men performed equal amounts of labour in equal times. It conduces greatly to a clear conception of the whole lesson when you think of the first and last as indicating those who did and suffered most in Christ's cause and those who did and suffered least.

Those who toiled only one hour or other larger fraction of a working day had no contract as to amount of wages; they entered the vineyard and laboured without a bargain. They did not know what wages they would be paid with, but they knew what master they were working for; they were prepared to accept whatever he might be pleased to bestow. In this respect they correctly represent the truest of Christ's disciples -- those little-child Christians whom he sets up as a pattern for others. Those, on the other hand, who were first in point of time, and therefore first in point of quantity, made their bargain before they began. This is like disciples who slide back in some measure from the simplicity of faith and allow a mercenary motive to mingle in their devotions. Especially is it like Peter when, contrasting his own large sacrifices with the refusal of the young man to sacrifice anything, and counting himself first, while he looked down on others as last, he cunningly inquired, -- Lord, what shall we get for leaving all and following thee? In answer to his egotistical inquiry, he is informed in plain terms that he is one of those first who shall be last. This, however, according to all the analogy of Scripture, is not, in regard to Peter or any individual disciple, an absolute prediction of what shall be, but a warning of what may be if the same spirit remain.

Our Scottish forefathers at the period of the Reformation suffered much for Christ; some pined long in prison, some died at the stake. These were first, and we who contribute a few pounds to a missionary society, or teach a Sabbath school, or visit some poor families, are last in respect to the quantity of our doing and suffering in the Saviour's cause. But if any of those first were proud of their sufferings, they will be last in the reward; and whosoever of these last give their mite in simple love to the Lord that bought them, will be first when he comes to bring home his own.

Such is the structure of the parable that it must express the difference by giving one labourer not an absolutely but a comparatively greater amount of wages than another. The last are recompensed at a higher rate than the first, yet all go home with the same sum of money. But although the labourers are all equal in the absolute amount of wages received, the last are made higher than the first by a distinct addition to the pecuniary recompence -- that is, a contented, loving, thankful mind.

See the two groups of labourers as they severally wend their way home that evening. As to amount of money in their pockets, they are all equal: but as to amount of content in their spirits there is a great difference. The last go home each with a penny in his pocket, and astonished glad gratitude in his heart: their reward accordingly is a penny, and more. The first, on the contrary, go home, each with a penny in his pocket, and corroding discontent in his soul: their reward accordingly is less than a penny. Those who know how great a gain is godliness with contentment, and how small a gain is even godliness, when discontent is eating into it like rust, will allow that, while the labourers first and last alike had each his penny, yet the last were first and the first last in the real value of their reward.

Considering that Peter is evidently designated as one of the first who shall be last, I cannot understand the parable otherwise than as showing differences among the disciples of Christ, -- differences in simplicity of spirit while the labour lasts, and consequently in the value of the reward when the labour is done. As all the labourers get the wages of a day, so all who are represented by them, inherit the kingdom: but as one star differeth from another star in glory, so shall it be when Christ comes to gather all his own. They will wear the brightest crowns who thought most of their Redeemer's goodness, and least of their own sacrifice and work.

The latter clause of the 16th verse, |for many be called, but few chosen,| being evidently attached to the parable as its application by the Lord, demands our earnest attention. If we should understand by it, that many hear the call of the Gospel, but few are chosen by God and admitted through regeneration into his family, it would not be possible, as far as I can perceive, to assign to it any proper connection with the lesson of the parable. But by the terms in which this sentence is introduced, it is clearly intimated that it is the very conclusion and kernel, so to speak, of the doctrine which the parable was intended to convey. Whether we shall be able to understand it or not, it certainly must be something precisely in the line of the preceding instructions. In that direction we must seek for its meaning; for it is manifestly introduced as a gathering up in short and condensed form of all that the parable contained.

While in some cases the application of the parable which the Lord himself makes at the moment is full and perspicuous, it is in other cases like the parables themselves, and doubtless for good reasons, short, sententious, and partially veiled. In some cases the subjoined doctrine must be read in the light of the parable itself ere it can be understood. |Majus vero et certius auxilium interpreti paratur in illis locis, in quibus ipse Jesus sensum parabolarum explicat, quod quidem modo luculentius, ut in orationibus Mat. XIII. modo paucis tantum verbis fit. Saepe enim praemittitur vel subjungitur ab eo doctrina per parabolam prolata, quae tamen ipsa interdum paulo obscurius exprimitur, ita ut nisi per parabolam ipsam intelligi non possit.| -- Schultze de par. 86.

The exposition suggested by Bengel is simple, consistent, and clear; and it is, I think, correct. Taking the term |called| as signifying not all to whom the call of the Gospel is addressed, but those only who are effectually called, -- not those who only hear, but those who also obey the call, -- taking the term in this sense, which is a sober and scriptural view, he finds that this is not a distinction between saved and lost, but between two classes of the saved. The called and the chosen are both true disciples of Christ, and heirs of eternal life, and yet there is some distinction between them. Chosen must here therefore mean, what it did sometimes mean in ancient times, and does often mean still, the best of their kind. We constantly speak of choice or select articles, meaning the most excellent. The phrase, whether used proverbially before Christ's time or not, is in nature and structure proverbial. He either found it a proverb and used it, or he made it a proverb there and then, for such it essentially is. It seems to have been employed by the Lord on more than one occasion, and differently applied at different times. As we might say among a great number of manufactured articles, all true and genuine, |few are first-rate;| so, among a great number of real disciples, few stand out unselfish, unworldly, and Christ-like, honouring their Lord, and making the world wonder. Most, even of those who are disciples indeed, and shall inherit eternal life, are so marred by self-righteous admixtures, and unsanctified temper, and conformity to the world, that their light is dim and their witness inarticulate. Peter, for example, was one of the called, in that he heard and obeyed Christ, and was saved; but he was not a chosen or choice disciple, when he demanded of his Saviour what he should get for what he had done; or when in the hour and power of darkness, he denied all connection with Jesus of Nazareth. Alas! though there are many Christians, how few there are who forget the things behind, and press forward till they reach the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

In the transaction with the young man from which this parable remotely springs, an analogous expression is employed to indicate a chosen or choice disciple; |Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast,| &c. (xix.21.) The term |perfect| in that text seems to be entirely parallel with |chosen.| The meaning of both is determined by the main drift of the parable; and the meaning thus given accords with the analogy of faith.

Another remarkable confirmation of this exposition is found in the use of the same term, [Greek: eklektoi], in Rev. xvii.14. The word in that passage must have the same meaning that we have attributed to it in the parable. Two reasons, a supreme and subordinate, are given to account for the victory of the Lamb, -- his own omnipotence, and the trustworthy character of the instruments whom he employs. |The Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful;| [Greek: kletoi kai eklektoi kai pistoi]. If you understand here by [Greek: eklektoi], chosen by God in the eternal covenant, the logical arrangement becomes obscure. It would be strange if, in enumerating the qualifications of soldiers, one should represent first that they were summoned to the warfare, next that they were chosen for that purpose before, and last that they were stanch in the battlefield. If this had been the meaning of [Greek: eklektoi] it must have stood first in order. The fact that it stands second suggests another explanation. Take it, in the sense which it readily assumes and frequently bears, and the order of the series becomes at once transparent. The soldiers were |called, and choice, and faithful.| They were enlisted in the cause, excellent in character, and found unflinching when the fight began.

Some obvious practical lessons may be appended to the exposition.

1. Judge not. Let a man examine himself rather than his neighbour. When Peter saw the young man refusing to make a sacrifice for Christ, he complacently remembered his own sacrifices, and thought he had done remarkably well. Ah, Peter, Satan desires to have thee that he may sift thee as wheat; but what by the Master's rebukes addressed to him, and what by prayers poured out for him, he will be saved; yet so as by fire. You left all, you say, to follow Jesus; and how much was that? a share in a boat and some nets, both probably the worse for wear. Ah, Peter, if you had been as rich as this young man, I am not sure whether you would not have done as he did, -- gone away, sorrowful indeed, but away from Jesus!

Disciples of Christ that are poor, should beware of judging the disciples who are rich. You were enabled to break the tie that bound you to the earth; and you see a neighbour struggling with the yoke still on his neck. Be not high-minded but fear. The line that bound you was a slender cord; the line that binds that brother is a cart rope. He, if he is set free at a later day, may be first in the day of reward, and you last.

2. All whom the Lord meets and calls are sent to work, and all go. From the moment they meet the Master till the evening of life's labour-day, they work for him. They not only labour for the Lord, they labour |in the Lord.| Thus it is not a pain but a pleasure; it is their meat and their drink.

God needs not our work, but we, for our own sakes, need work in his kingdom. He can find other servants; but if we refuse his call we shall never find a |good Master.|

3. The true spirit of a worker is love to the Master, and to the work for the Master's sake. The moment that a thought of merit glides into the servant's heart, it brings him down, not indeed from the number of true disciples, but from the highest to the lowest class there.

Among the motives that, in these matters, sway a human heart, there are two forces equal and opposite: one is a humble, broken-hearted consciousness that you deserve nothing, and receive all free; the other is a self-righteous conceit that your valuable services deserve a great reward. If this latter spirit is the main spring of your activity, it determines your position to be altogether outside of the circle of true believers; if it intrudes more or less as a temptation, and tinges with self-righteous blemishes a substantial faith in Christ, it reduces you from the highest to the lowest rank of disciples, and from the first to the last in the final award of those who serve the Lord.

In one of its aspects the lesson of this parable is parallel with that which is taught by the experience of the penitent thief. Both greatly magnify the patience and long-suffering of God: they record and proclaim, each in its own way, that there is hope at the eleventh hour. But in such a case, a perverse carnal mind frequently turns the grace of God into lasciviousness. Because the mercy of our Redeemer is stretched to the furthest verge of safety to leave room for the outcast to enter, when on the darkening evening of the day of grace he flees at last from the wrath to come; souls cleaving to the dust, take the liberty of stretching their expectations a little further than Christ stretched his offer, and find the door shut, when they come too late. Ah, when the tender Saviour of sinners, by his parable, and the experience of the thief, gives you encouragement to come, although you are late; beware lest you take from his words wrested an encouragement to be late in coming.

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