The Parable of the Workers in the Field
Selah » Parables
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. "About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. "He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?' " 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered. "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matt.20: 1-16)
What's That All About?
I've been a management consultant most of my life and before I became a believer I thought the Lord had violated all kinds of motivational principles, not to mention the theory of fair compensation, with this story. Seemed to me like the landowner in the parable was training his workers to show up late. They'd still get paid for the full day.
Then I was born again, and learned that the Lord's objective in teaching through parables was to enlighten His followers on the ways of the Kingdom, while confusing everyone else. (Matt. 13: 11-13) It had sure worked with me.
I learned that a parable is a heavenly story put into an earthly perspective, and that all the characters represent someone or something else. This one was no different. As usual the landowner represents the Lord, the workers His followers, and the vineyard, His Kingdom. The pay stands for the rewards of salvation. The work is what His followers do to deserve the reward, and the day is the length of time they're given to do it, normally their lifespan. This parable wasn't meant to be a management seminar. It was given to illuminate three critical principles having to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.
First, no matter when in your life you decide to join His Kingdom, you are entitled to all the rights and benefits pertaining thereto the moment you do. (Ephe 1:13-14) The last ones hired got the same pay as the first.
Second, you have to sign up before the end of the day. (Hebr. 4:7) No one was hired after the end of the day and as I said, the day represents our lifetime.
Third, if you think you deserve more in the Kingdom because you worked longer or harder or lived a better life than someone else, then you've forgotten how you got in. You weren't saved because of your merit or worthiness, but because of His mercy and grace. Thinking He owes you something extra is a sin that if left unconfessed won't get you thrown out, (remember every worker is a believer) but it could put a strain on your relationship with the Lord during your life and will certainly diminish your joy at having been accepted into the Kingdom.
Is Your Work All Done?
So what about the work that everyone, whether first or last, had to do to earn their pay? I thought salvation was free, and couldn't be earned. Earlier, the people had asked the Jesus, "What is the work God requires of us?" "The work of God is this," He replied. "Believe in the One He has sent." (John 6:28-29)
What a perfect opportunity to point out all the things required of us; the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or some new list that combined them both and added regular church attendance, tithing, with maybe some missionary work thrown in. No. "Believe in the One He has sent." Period. End of Story.
The workers who worked all day represent those who have believed in the One He has sent, but then for the rest of their lives have labored long and hard for the Kingdom. Nothing wrong with all their hard work, and it has probably achieved much good, but at the end of the age, if they think they'll be in for some extra credit, their true motives will be exposed. The jealousy they feel when a terrible sinner makes a last minute confession and is saved without any good works to his credit shows they haven't been working to express their gratitude to the Lord for what they've already been promised, but to earn something more for themselves. (1 Cor. 4:5)
And The First Shall Be Last
When the Lord said, "The last will be first, and the first will be last," He was describing the spiritual equivalent of being sent to the end of the line. Something like that actually happened to me once. I arrived early for a popular seminar, found a good parking space, took my place near the head of the line that was already forming, and began mentally selecting the great seat I'd head for when the doors opened. As the line quickly got longer and longer, I began gloating over the fact that I wasn't going to be one of those losers who always arrive at the last minute and get terrible parking and worse seats. No sir, not me.
Finally the doors did open and to my shock I discovered I'd been standing in the wrong place. The first ones there had been misinformed and had started the line in front of the wrong door. The real entrance was at a different door and suddenly I was nearer the end of the line than the beginning. Bummer! I had been feeling so smug and superior, and now I was the loser. I mentally missed the first 15 minutes of the seminar trying to calm down, and never did get over the fact that I had waited all that time to get preferred seating and now my seat was no better than anyone else's. Going from first to last stole my joy that day, and my superior attitude made it all the worse.
Take Home Pay
If you're one of those believers the Lord could accuse of being jealous over what someone else is getting, confess and do it now. Don't let another day go by, estranged from Him by your jealousy.
And here's one way the parable is different from life. Everyone knew the workday was 12 hours long, so all could predict its end. But who among us can predict the end of our lives? If you're someone who hasn't yet fully committed to becoming one of His followers please heed the advice from Hebrews 4:7, "Today if you hear His voice, don't harden your heart" and from 2 Cor. 6:2 "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." Join Him now, the wages are great and they pay eternal dividends. Selah 2-7-04