For the kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is an householder…
This parable is one from which we are liable to draw some erroneous inferences unless we mentally hold it in strict connection with the circumstances in which it was originally spoken. When the rich young man turned away sorrowful, our Lord, sympathizing with the severity of his temptation, said, "Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven." Peter, seeing that he thus appreciated the difficulty of giving up property and detaching one's self from the world, suggests that those who overcome that difficulty are peculiarly meritorious. "Behold," he says, "we have left all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?" But in so speaking, Peter revealed precisely that disposition which most thoroughly vitiates all service for Christ - the disposition to bargain, to work for a clearly defined reward, and not for the sake of the work itself, and in generous faith in the justice and liberality of the Master. Read in this light, it is obvious that the parable directs attention to the fact that, in estimating the value of work, we must take into consideration, not only the time we have spent upon it or the amount we have got through, but the motive that has entered into it. An hour of trustful, loving service is of greater value to God than a lifetime of calculating industry and sell-deceiving zeal. While men are applauding the great workers who ostentatiously wipe the sweat from their brows and pant so that you can hear them across the whole field, God is regarding an unnoticed worker, who feels he is doing little, who is ashamed that any one should see his work, who regrets he can do no more, who could not name a coin small enough to reward him, but who is perfectly well assured that the Master he serves is well worth serving. It is thus that the last becomes first, and the first last. That we are meant to see this difference of spirit in the workers is obvious from the terms of their engagement. Those hired early in the day agree to work for the penny. At four or five in the morning no man in the market engages without making his own terms, and striking hands with his hirer as his equal. If he thinks one master's pay too little, he waits for a better offer; he is not going to work all day to oblige a neighbouring proprietor, but to make a good wage for himself. But in the evening the tables are turned - the masters have it all their own way. Possibly these men were the proudest in the morning, and missed their chance; but now pride gives place to hunger and anxious thoughts of the coming night. In no condition to bargain, they go, glad to get work on any terms, not knowing what they are to get, but trusting and grateful; the others went proud, self-confident, mercenary. This prepares us for the striking scene which ensued at the close of the day. Those who had barely got their work begun were first paid, and were paid a full day's wage. There must, of course, have been a reason for this; it was not mere caprice, but was the result and expression of some just law. It could not be that these late-hired labourers had done as much in their one hour as the others in twelve; for the others are conscious of having done their work well. We are thrown back, therefore, for the explanation on the hint given in the hiring, namely, that the men who bargained are paid according to their bargain; while the men who trusted got far more than they could have dared to bargain for. The principle is more easily understood, because we ourselves so commonly act upon it. It is work done with some human feeling in it that you delight in; that of the man who works not for you, but for his wage, is the work of a hireling, with whom you are quits when you pay him what he contracted to receive. Our Lord does not affirm, however, that all the last shall be first, and the first last, but only that many shall exemplify this reversal. "Many are called, but few chosen."
I. IT IS THE FACT THAT MANY WHO ARK FIRST IN MAN'S ESTEEM ARE LAST IN GOD'S RECKONING. We see plainly enough that many who are most diligent in the Lord's vineyard have a complacency, a consciousness that they are the good workers, which does not at all resemble the humble, trustful, self-ignoring spirit of these late-hired labourers. Perhaps they have once in their life made a great sacrifice as Peter had done, or perhaps they have quickly apprehended the duty peculiar to their own generation, whether it be caring for the sick, aiding the poor, or carrying the gospel to the masses, or subscribing liberally to Church objects. Or perhaps they do the work, not for the sake of the vineyard, but for their own sake - either that they may advance their own spiritual state, or win a good reputation, or maintain in their own minds the impression that they are indubitably good labourers. Now, if you deduct all who are working in one or other of these ways, you will come to the conclusion that "many are called, but few chosen;" many working hard, spending and being spent, and yet withal few choice workers, few who appeal to the Lord's heart and draw out his affectionate response by their lowly, unexpectant service.
II. MANY FIRST, BUT NOT ALL THE FIRST, SHALL BE LAST. Some at least of the best-known workers in the vineyard, some who entered it early, and never left it, for an hour, some who scarcely once straightened their hacks from toil and dropped asleep as they came to the end of their task, knowing nothing but God's work their whole life through, have also wrought in no bargaining spirit, but passed as humble a judgment on their work as the least of their fellow labourers on theirs.
III. AND THERE ARE SOME LAST WHO REMAIN LAST. Not all who do little do it well; not all who enter the vineyard late enter it humbled. Mercenariness is not confined to those who have some small excuse for it. Late entrance into the vineyard is to be on every account deprecated, and receives no encouragement from this parable rightly read. Do not think of the work of Christ as a mere extra, which can at any convenient time be added to your other work. It covers the whole of our life. All outside his vineyard is idleness. This parable may be viewed as the great Physician's prescription for envy in whatever sphere it is manifested, and may be applied in two ways.
1. Every man of us has as much at least as he deserves. Were God to say, "Take that thine is," in the strictness of just and exact retribution, which of us would willingly stand upon our right?
2. The second is found in these words, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" You are none the less because another is greater. You are what God sees best to make you, and what the other is he is of God's goodness. It is at God's expense, not at yours, that any man is blessed. But the teaching special to this parable is that our Lord measures our work, not solely by the amount done, nor by the skill we show in doing it, but by the spirit we are of in the doing of it. Many of us are called. Many of us are in the vineyard, and have long been so. In what spirit have we laboured? - D.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.