The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

By Glenn Conjurske

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, though in reality simple and beautiful, has been a source of difficulty and confusion to most of those who have labored over it. Of its difficulty Archbishop Trench says, “It is a parable which stands only second to that of the Unjust Steward in the number of explanations, and those diverging most widely, that have been proposed for it; and only second to that, if indeed second, in the difficulties which it presents.”

Those difficulties arise primarily from two sources. The first is endeavoring to make the parable “walk on all fours”—-a thing generally impossible in interpreting parables. There are many items in parables which are there only to set the stage, or to make the story self-consistent and intelligible, and it is vain to inquire into the spiritual meaning of every small point. If they are intended to convey any spiritual meaning, that will be obvious enough without any minute inquiry. If such a meaning is not obvious, let them alone. Concerning this J. C. Ryle says, “In expounding this parable, we need not inquire closely into the meaning of the `penny,’ the `market-place,’ the `steward,’ or the `hours.’ Such inquiries often darken counsel by words without knowledge.” Thus in the parable of the prodigal son, it is fruitless to inquire after the meaning of the best robe, the ring, the shoes, the fatted calf, or the music and dancing. They all together portray the kind of reception which the returning prodigal receives from his father, and we need not search any further. Some, of course, will confidently proclaim that the best robe is the imputed righteousness of Christ. Well, then, let them tell us what the ring and the music and the dancing are.

But further difficulties with the parable before us arise from the theological predispositions of the interpreters. Especially is this so in our day, when the prevailing undue emphasis on the grace of God, and the consequent slighting of human responsibility, render men incapable of apprehending the most elementary points of the parable. But the keys lie at the door, if men are but observant enough to find them. Before proceeding any further, therefore, I give the parable entire, with its introduction and conclusion:

“But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first. 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. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received 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 wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that is thine, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” (Matt. 19:30-20:16).

The main point of this parable is the contrast between law and grace, and so between faith and works. As said, the keys lie at the door. At both the beginning and the end of the parable we are told that the last shall be first, and the first last. This is an expression used several times in Scripture, and it does not signify the mere disadvantage of those who shall be last, but their rejection. This is clear enough in Luke 13:28-30: “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And behold, there are last which shall be first, and first which shall be last.” This is addressed to those who ate and drank in Christ’s presence, and in whose streets he taught. They were first in their privileges in this life, but will be rejected in the life to come, as is perfectly evident in verses 25, 27, and 28.

The other key is the other word which follows the parable, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” This word is also used several times in Scripture, and always implies the rejection of those who are called, but not chosen.

The starting point, then, to the correct understanding of the parable is the fact that these “first,” who labored in the vineyard all day, are not merely disadvantaged in the end, but finally rejected. And yet some interpreters make the fact that they all received a penny—-and were thus all placed on the same level—-to be the main point of the parable. On this R. C. Trench says, “Many expositors have been sorely troubled how to bring these words [`the last shall be first, and the first last’] into agreement with the parable; for in it `first’ and `last’ are set upon the same footing: while in these words, it is rather a reversing of places which is asserted; those who seemed highest, it is declared shall be placed at the lowest, and the lowest highest: when too we compare Luke xiii.30, where the words recur, there can be no doubt that a total rejection of the `first,’ the unbelieving Jews, accompanied with the receiving of the `last,’ the Gentiles, into covenant, is declared.” For lack of apprehending this first point—-the final rejection of the “first” labourers—-many of the best expositors completely miss the meaning of the parable. They as it were strike all around the head of the nail, without hitting it, and meanwhile give excellent expositions of some particular parts of the parable, but still hold all of the labourers, first and last, to be saints destined for eternal life.

But there are further hints also that these “first” laborers are intended to represent those finally rejected by the Lord. One of those hints lies in the fact that the Lord addresses one of them as “Friend.” Three times only does the Lord use this form of address in the New Testament—-all in the book of Matthew. The first is to the man who came in without a wedding garment: “Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?” (Matt. 22:12). The second is to Judas in the garden, come to betray him: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” (Matt. 26:50) The third is the case before us: “Friend, I do thee no wrong.” Trench notes these three instances, and well remarks that this address “in Scripture is a word of an evil omen.” Another hint is found in the rest of the Lord’s address to the murmurer, “Take that is thine, and go thy way.” This, though but a hint, is appropriate as an expression of their rejection.

A stronger indication of the same thing lies in the fact that these “first” laborers were murmurers against God. The current antinomian theology may hold such to be saints, but the Bible speaks otherwise. “The Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgement upon all, and to convince all that are UNGODLY among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him. THESE are MURMURERS,” &c. (Jude 15-16). The fact is, these murmuring laborers represent exactly the same class as the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son—-both of them murmuring against God for his grace to the undeserving. These are no saints.

But if these murmurers against God are finally rejected by him, how is it that they receive “every man a penny,” the same as those who are received? Very simply, the parable requires it. These are they who stand on the ground of legal righteousness, which could hardly be represented by the Lord denying them the penny for which they had labored. To the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son the Father also says, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine”—-and yet there can be no question that this elder son represents the ungodly, legal Pharisees, who murmured against the Lord for receiving sinners (Luke 15:2), and for whose benefit the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son were spoken. I regard all of the above as fully establishing the fact that these first laborers, who are made last, are finally rejected of God, and I proceed to other features of the parable.

The ground upon which the laborers entered upon their work is the first thing we remark. The first laborers entered under an agreement or covenant—-so much work for so much pay. That covenant represents the law. (The day, by the way, obviously represents the time of our life.) All the others entered without any such covenant, trusting in the rectitude of him who hired them. The first stood on the ground of works, the rest on the ground of faith. They went to work with no “contract,” but with faith that their master would do right. Darby calls this “the great point” of the parable, saying, “The first adhered to justice; they received that which was agreed upon; the last enjoyed the grace of his master. And it is to be remarked that they accept the principle of grace, [namely,] of confidence in it [confidence in grace, that is]. `Whatsoever is right I will give!’ The great point in the parable is that—-confidence in the grace of the master of the vineyard, and grace as the ground of their action.” (I should rather say, faith as the ground of their action.)

There is an obvious difference in these arrangements also from the side of the householder. The first laborers were evidently hired for his benefit—-to work his vineyard. Of this I make nothing, except that it sets the stage for the contrast: all the rest were hired for their own benefit, for the master’s intent in hiring them was to give them more than their labors were worth. This obviously represents grace. The things which he speaks at the time of reckoning clearly mark the same difference. The first laborers stand on the ground of law, or strict righteousness, and to them he says, “I do thee no wrong.” But with respect to the others, who stand in grace, he says, “I am good.” It is to be further remarked that these last do actually receive grace—-actually receive more than they are worth. The first laborers receive no grace at all, not a mite of it, but receive exactly what they had bargained for and labored for. (That, of course, only in the setting of the parable—-for as a matter of fact, none ever did or will or can actually earn their penny by the works of the law.)

That these first laborers do in fact represent those who are of the works of the law, and so under the curse, is further proved by the obvious fact that they had no faith. Faith, in its essence, is confidence in the goodness of God, (and this is the ground upon which the later laborers entered the vineyard), but these first had no such confidence in the goodness of him who hired them. They felt themselves wronged by him, though he gave them exactly what they deserved. They expected to receive more than they deserved, and faulted the Lord for not giving it—-a true delineation of the spirit of those who stand on legal ground. Their hearts were far from their master, and they murmured against him. They had an “evil eye” towards him. This is legal and unbelieving altogether. It is to be further remarked that the first laborers bearing the burden and heat of the day aptly represents those who are under the law—-“a yoke which neither we nor our fathers could bear”—-a driver which whips the horse but does not feed him—-and in fact the strength of sin.

The penny, of course, represents eternal life. This it is which they fail of who are called but not chosen. There really can be no doubt of this, whatever the current antinomian theology may think. Interpreters who belonged to better days of the church saw no reason to question this. Here it may suffice to cite John Gill, one of C. H. Spurgeon’s predecessors as pastor of his London congregation, and a Calvinist of the Calvinists. He writes on “Call the labourers, and give them their hire,” “So Jews and Gentiles were called to partake of the same Gospel privileges; and so will all the faithful labourers in the Lord’s vineyard be called together, and have the reward of eternal life bestowed upon them, and be bid to enter into the joy of their Lord, and inherit the kingdom prepared for them, as they before were ordered to go into the vineyard, and work. And though eternal life may be called hire or reward, because as hire is given to labourers, so is eternal life; and as that is given at the even and close of the day, and when the labourer has done his work, so everlasting glory will be given to the saints at the end of life, and when they have done the will and work of God: yet it will not be bestowed by way of merit, or, as if there was a just proportion between the work, labour, and service of the saints, and the glory that shall be revealed in them.”

Likewise speaks Matthew Henry (another Calvinist) on the passage: “First, The general pay (v. 9,10); They received every man a penny. Note, All that by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, honour, and immortality, shall undoubtedly obtain eternal life (Rom. ii.7), not as wages for the value of their work, but as the gift of God.” Henry’s connection of this passage with Romans 2:7 is a very happy one.

The parable was in fact spoken in response to Peter’s question, “We have forsaken all and followed thee: what shall we have therefore?” (Matt. 19:27). In answer to this the Lord assures us that “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, AND SHALL INHERIT EVERLASTING LIFE”—-and then follows immediately with this parable. Surely its subject is eternal life.

Of course in drawing the contrast between law and grace, the parable has a dispensational application, as does much of the book of Matthew. These first laborers are the Jews, who were under Moses’ law, as many expositors hold. The book of Matthew was written particularly for the Jews, and it contains many things which, like this parable, are designed to humble their pride, and to provoke them to jealousy, beginning with the Gentile women in the genealogy at the very outset of the book.

Glenn Conjurske