The parable in our text is often called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and, although this parable convicted the Pharisees and teachers of the law in their thinking, it also, very often convicts us in our thinking even today.
The parable begins at the first hour of the day, probably between six and seven in the morning. The landowner went out into the marketplace and hired some workers. Now, right off at the start, there is something different about the hiring of this first bunch of workers and the hiring of the rest of the workers through the day. Verse two of our text says, “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” There was an agreed upon contract for these hired first. It was a verbal contract, but it was a contract nonetheless. The agreement was that the workers would work for a set wage, a denarius for the day.
The parable continues at the third hour of the day, about nine in the morning. The landowner went back to the market place and found some others standing around not hired. These also he hired to go and work in his vineyard. This time, notice what is their agreement. They agree to work for “whatever is right.” Their contract is open ended as far as how much they would be paid.
The parable continues at the sixth hour of the day, that is about noon and again at the ninth hour of the day, that is about three in the afternoon. Both times the landowner finds those who have not yet been hired and again, notice the contract, the verbal agreement which he makes with these later workers. They agree to work for “whatever is right.” Their contract is a verbal agreement based on an unspecified amount of payment.
The parable tells us that even up to the eleventh hour, about five in the afternoon, about an hour before quitting time, more were hired for “whatever is right.” Now, so we get the picture of what is going on, remember that the very first ones hired were hired for a specific amount, an agreed upon contract of one denarius for the day, that is for their work from between six and seven in the morning until six in the evening, about a twelve hour day. And remember, even though theirs was a verbal contract, it was still a contract. The rest of the group, those hired from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, those who worked anywhere from nine hours to one hour, were hired for an unspecified amount, namely, “whatever is right.” Their’s too was a verbal contract which was a contract.
The work is done, the day is over. The second part of the parable is the part of making compensation, that is the part of paying the workers. The paying part begins at evening, about six o’clock. Rather than pay those who were hired first, the landowner instructs that those who were hired last be paid first. Interestingly enough, if those who were hired first would have been paid first and had gone on their way they may never have seen that those hired last received the same pay. It almost seems like a slap in the face the way they had to watch as the others were paid as much as they were paid and for a lot less work. But let us look at the parable.
Those who were hired last were paid first and they received a denarius for their one hour of work. In other words, they received a day’s wage for their one hour of work and I am sure that they were quite pleased with their pay. Would we not like to be paid a days wage for working only one hour. Those hired second to last received a denarius for their three hours work and down the line the paying goes. Here again, if we were one of the ones hired later in the day we would appreciate the wage of “whatever is right,” because that would mean we would be getting more per hour than those hired before us. And even for those being paid a little less per hour than the ones hired last, those paid first, they had no beef, no hard feeling toward those being paid a little more per hour. As a matter of fact, everyone hired, except those hired first, were very pleased at their pay, no matter how much per hour it was.
But, those who were hired first, those who were hired and contracted with the agreement to be paid a specified amount, a denarius for the days work, when they were given only a denarius, they expected more. And why should they not expect more? They worked the longest and in the heat of the day. The ones who worked less hours were given a denarius. If we were one of those hired first we would certainly expect more, but they received the same as everyone else, a denarius. They grumble because they believed that they were being treated unfairly.
The question of those hired first is a question of fairness, at least it was a question of fairness in their own eyes. Yet, the answer they get is one of generosity and inclusion. According to the account of the events of this parable, they do not realize that they are not included in the grace and generosity of the landowner. As a matter of fact, they exclude themselves from the grace and generosity of the landowner because they believe that they are entitled to what the have earned. And they believe the others should not have been given that to which they were not entitled. Here is where we see that this is a parable of grace and generosity. The others are included by the grace and generosity of the landowner. Those who were hired first for an agreed upon contract are not included but are really the outsiders.
The last statement at verse sixteen brings us back to these words, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16). The question I will now ask is this, “where do you and I fit in this parable?” Are we a part of those who were hired first, second, third, or last? To help you decide, I want to introduce you to several people.
Grandma Schmidt has been a member of the same Lutheran Church for all of her life. She has been a Sunday School teacher for many of those years. She has been a member of the LWML and served in various positions of the LWML. She has always been available to help and serve in any and almost every way possible. According to our calculations, if anyone deserves to be acknowledged and rewarded, she is greatly deserving.
Harry has been a Christian only for about ten years. He has served on a couple of boards and committees. He helps out around the church as much as he can. Sometimes he is unable to be a part of what is going on, but again, if anyone deserves some recognition, everyone would agree that it would be Harry.
Mr. Evashephski is sixty and he became a Christian just last year. He likes to attend divine service and some of the social functions as well as carry in dinners, but he feels he is not sure of himself enough to serve on any board or committee. Everyone agrees that he is a nice person. Certainly everyone agrees that he is a deserving person.
Carla became a Christian on her deathbed. She came from what some describe as a pretty well to do family, but no one ever told her about Jesus or her need for forgiveness. Last fall, when she was taken into the hospital she met a pastor while he was visiting one of his members there. The pastor visited Carla and after a while she asked if she could be baptized. Not too much later she died. While not everyone agreed that she should have a church funeral, the pastor assured everyone of her faith and of God’s gift of eternal life for her.
Now, what do these people have to do with our parable, everything. In His parable Jesus reminds us that just as the landowner went out to hire workers for the vineyard and especially as he went out several times in the day and even up to the last hour of the day, so it is that God calls all people at all places and at all times to be a part of His kingdom. Yes, there are some who feel that they have contracted with God to be a part of His kingdom, that they have earned their spot, but they are unaware of the fact that they are the ones who have excluded themselves because of their refusal of God’s free grace and favor. God’s gifts are free and are freely given. To believe that one is entitled to what God is giving, that is to expect to earn what God is giving is to refuse His gifts.
Most important of all is the fact that God has given His Son for all. Jesus came. He humbled Himself. He put Himself last so that others might be first. He gave His life for ours. He gave His life so that we might have forgiveness of sins and life, eternal life. God is the great gift giver. He gives and we are given to. He calls all people to Himself and as we said, at any time in life and at any place in life. His call has nothing to do with our being deserving or undeserving. As a matter of fact, we are the ones who are undeserving and yet He calls us anyway.
The difficulty in the parable is the question I asked earlier, where are we in the parable? Are we those hired first and think we are deserving of heaven, is this something to which we believe we are entitled, or are we those hired after those hired first and appreciate God’s grace? Do we begrudge anyone who comes into the church at a later time in life thinking that they are not as deserving of God’s gifts as we are, or do we rejoice, as the angels in heaven, when anyone is brought to faith? My prayer is that we are the second, that is that we rejoice in those who are brought to faith at anytime in life. My prayer continues with the prayer that we are also the ones who are out and about sharing the Word of God with others so that they too might be a part of His kingdom.
Although God might allow us to be witnesses of all His good gifts and blessings, we are in no way entitled to nor deserving of any of them. It is only by His grace, through faith, which He has given to us, that we have forgiveness and have a part in His Kingdom. He is the one who earned everything for us, through His life, suffering, death and resurrection and He is the one who freely gives everything to us.
God is gracious and giving of all His good gifts and blessings and we are thankful for all He does and gives. When the landowner comes to give us what is actually Jesus’ reward I pray that we might all together stand and rejoice as He counts us worthy, by His grace, through faith in His Son, to be given a share in His kingdom and that we might respond and say, to Him be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.