The Labourers In The Vineyard

Scripture Reading: Matthew 20:1-16

The key to this parable is found in what goes just before. A young man came to Jesus eager to follow him and asked what he must do. Jesus said he must give up his riches and go with Him. The young man found the cost too great and went away sorrowful. Then Jesus spoke seriously to His disciples about how hard it was for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. It cannot have been a high spiritual thought which was in Peter’s mind when he said to Jesus, “Behold, we have forsaken all and followed Thee; what shall we have?” Evidently he was thinking that they had done a very worthy thing in leaving all and going with Christ. But his question showed a spirit which was not pleasing to the Master, a mercenary spirit, a disposition to get the best out of duty and service and sacrifice. He expected reward and large reward for faithful service.

In true following of Christ such a question is never asked. Love never thinks of wages in anything it does. If, as a man does for another hard and self-denying things, he is always thinking of the way the other will pay him, expecting large compensation, there is no love whatever in what he does. He is a hireling. A mother never asks, as she cares for her sick child, losing rest, and suffering, “What shall I get for this?”

The answer Jesus gave Peter assured him that the disciples who had left all should be amply rewarded. But the parable we are not studying is not always thought of as a part of our Lord’s answer to the question. The chapter division in the King James Version obscures this pact. In the Revised Version, however, there is no break in the passage. The words, “For the kingdom of heaven is like,” connect this parable directly with the foregoing incident and show that Jesus would warn Peter and His disciples against the disposition to bargain and haggle for pay, or to compare their work with that of others, quibbling about proportionate rewards.

The parable makes it plain, first, that an agreement was made with the laborers. The householder needed men, and when the first came they accepted his offer of a penny a day and agreed to work for that. Later in the day, at different hours, other men were also engaged and sent into the vineyard. Some were even taken on only an hour before the day closed. Evening came and the workmen gathered to receive their pay. It happened that those who were last engaged and had worked only one hour were paid first. They received the full amount for a day’s work. We need not raise the question of fairness. It is evident that the men who had been in the vineyard only one hour had not done as much as those who began in the early morning and had wrought all through the long hours. The parable was spoken for a definite purpose — to condemn the greedy, grasping, bargaining spirit and to commend the thought of doing duty for its own sake whether there was adequate compensation or not. Those who came at later hours made no bargains as to their wages, leaving to him who employed them how much they should receive.

The parable is not meant to be a lesson in business. No doubt it is better usually to have an understanding as to wages, so that there may be no misunderstanding at the time of settlement. But it is in the Fathers’ business that Jesus is giving instructions, and here we need not trouble ourselves to put our contracts down in black and white, and need not ask, “What shall we get for this?”

“When the first came, they supposed that they would receive 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 spent but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden and heat of the day.” Peter could scarcely help hanging his head when the Master came to this part of the parable. He could have no doubt that He had him in mind in what He said about those who clamored for more pay. Peter’s words, “We have left all — what then shall we have?” had shown in Peter a feeling at least of satisfaction with himself. Somehow he felt that he had done a good deal for his Master, had made great sacrifices and that he ought to have a substantial reward for it all. Especially had his words revealed a feeling that he and his fellow-apostles should have a greater reward than those who had done less, come into the service later, made smaller sacrifices. When Jesus spoke of the first-hired laborers and their dissatisfaction with the pay they had received, Peter must have felt rebuked.

If these all-day laborers had the true spirit, they would have rejoiced that they had the opportunity to serve so many hours for their Lord. Instead of counting the hours they had wrought and considering themselves overburdened, overwrought, they should have felt themselves honored in the privilege. The Christian who heard the call of Christ in his youth and began in the early morning hours to serve Him should never cease to be glad for his long service. He should not consider the man who gave eleven hours to the world, and then for one hour followed the Master, as more highly favored than himself who had devoted all his life to the service of the Lord. “It is impossible that a man whose chief desire was to advance his Master’s work should envy another laborer who had done much less than himself.”

These first men were vexed because they did not receive more for their work than those who had come in at later hours. There are some who are envious of others because they seem to have easier work, lighter burdens, and more cheerful circumstances. This is an unhappy mood. They think God is not quite just and fair to them. They fret and chafe when they see others called to more prominent positions. They tell of what they have sacrifice, how hard they have worked, how much they have done, and do not hesitate to fret and complain because they have not the recognition they think they deserve. Other men who have been Christians not half as long as they have, and have not given or worked as they have done, are officers in the Church, are talked about and praised among men for their worth and service.

This is a most unwholesome disposition. It makes one wretched and unhappy. The true Christian spirit is glad for all the years of opportunity to do God’s service. It begrudges even one opportunity that has been lost. It does not complain that it has served so long — it grieves always that it has not served longer and more faithfully.

The question of pay or reward for Christian work is one that should never have a place in any heart. All service should be inspired by love. Of course, we have to live, and it costs to live. The minister, for example, who devotes his whole life to the work of Christ, has to live. But when Jesus sent out His disciples to preach He warned them especially against anxiety concerning their food and raiment. They were not to provide luxuries for themselves. They were not to have extra garments — they were going out under their Master’s command, and He would see that they should be cared for. The minister ought to be supported, ought to have his needs provided for. But when he haggles about the matter, shows anxiety and frets and complains, he is not pleasing the Master, nor practicing the spirit and disposition which He commends.

The motive in Christian service should always be like the Master’s. We should work for love — never for reward. We should never say to Christ, when called to any hard service, “What shall I get for this task, this self-denial, this sacrifice?” We should be ready to go anywhere, to do anything that the Master would have us do. We should never bargain for any reward, whatever we may do. We know that we shall have a reward, but we should never let that be our motive. We should devote ourselves with all the earnestness and all the energy we have to the service of Christ, whether we are to receive pay for the work or not.

An ancient legend tells of one who went about carrying in one hand a burning torch and in the other a goblet of water, crying, “With this torch I will burn up heaven, and with this water I will put out hell, that God may be served for Himself alone.” This parable teaches that all our service of Christ is to be lowly and self-forgetting. WE are to be eager to do God’s will whatever it may be, serving unto the uttermost, but never thinking of reward. We shall have reward if we are faithful, but our service is never to be for the reward. The true reward is that which comes in the serving itself.