During my many years in the evangelical realm, I was blessed by having many good resources to help me understand the scriptures - teachers, preachers and books. Still, there were many passages that remained troublesome to me, in spite of the evangelical explanations offered. The parable of the vineyard workers is one of them. It never seemed right that the workers who worked one hour got paid the same as those who had worked all day. With an explanation from the author of Dynamis and the Church Father, John Chrysostom, I finally understand that the focus is not on compensation.
The Worthy Heart III ~ Is Grateful
Saint Matthew 20:1-16, especially vs. 15
“Is it not lawful for Me to do what I wish with My Own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”
In the parable of the vineyard workers, our Lord begins and ends with a declaration: the “...last will be first, and the first last” (vss. 19:30 and 20:16). This pair of verses acts like bookends to highlight the message of the parable and take us more deeply into what the Lord teaches.To best understand the message of the parable, review Christ’s challenge to a man who said he wished to follow Him (Mt. 19:16): “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor” (Mt. 19:21). Sadly, the man could not forego his possessions, and he went away (Mt. 19:22). The stringency of the requirement on the man perplexed the disciples: “Who then can be saved?” (Mt. 19:25). Peter quickly applied the message to them all and asked, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” (Mt. 19:27). Our Lord assured His disciples that they would have a place as rulers, “...judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” and that if anyone should give up the goods of this world to follow Him, he would be rewarded a hundred fold “...and inherit eternal life” (Mt. 19:28,29). After this, He makes the first statement: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt. 19:30).
Plainly, the Lord Jesus sought to reassure His first disciples in their commitment to Him. And He still desires that all his ‘followers’ not be ‘reward-oriented,’ but rather be grateful for Him our Savior and greatest Good. Plainly, God rewards those who are committed to Him. However, He rejoices in those who gratefully embrace Him as did Abram (Gn. 15:1).
The parable that follows the first bookend emphasizes the truth that ‘all laborers receive equal pay.’ Ordinary human thinking expects compensation to differ in proportion to labor expended, but our Lord is explicit on this point: the kingdom of God operates by its own rules which shatter the tidy categories of measuring reward. Gradations such as ‘first’ and ‘last’ are rendered meaningless by the ‘avalanche’ of God’s unmerited grace toward all men. See how Saint John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily applies to this parable:
"If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay; for the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first....Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward...."
Saint John Chrysostom understands that gratitude must brush compensation aside! In the mercy and saving love of our Lord, repentance and gratitude gain Life. “O give thanks unto the Lord and call upon His Name; declare among the nations His works” (Ps. 104:1).Commenting further on this parable, Saint John Chrysostom asks:
“But the question is this, whether the first have gloriously approved themselves, and having pleased God, and having throughout the whole day shone by their labors, are possessed by the basest feeling of vice, jealousy, and envy.”
May God’s grace elevate our gratitude and keep us from all envy and dissatisfaction - from questioning what God gives us in relation to what He bestows upon others.
O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; His mercy endureth for ever! (Ps. 105:1)