The Labourers in the Lord’s Vineyard

Septuagesima—31 January 2021

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Matthew 20:1–16  (ESV) 

1 [Jesus said:] “The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’  5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Jesus tells many parables about the kingdom of heaven. The expression “kingdom of heaven” sounds so peaceful, but really, it is a sign of war and disruption. For the kingdom of heaven is God invading this fallen world to manifest His royal rule in Jesus, God-in-the-flesh. The kingdom of heaven is the rule, the reign of God in Christ Jesus over against all the passing kingdoms of earth. The nations, peoples, and rulers who persist in raging and plotting against God and His Anointed Son will perish, but blessed are all who take refuge in the Lord (see Psalm 2).

In Holy Baptism, you have found refuge in the Lord—not that you were seeking Him, but He was seeking you. And make no mistake about it, Baptism itself is an act of war and disruption in which God forcibly yanks you out of the devil’s kingdom and places you safe within the kingdom of heaven. As St. Paul proclaims in Colossians: [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (1:13-14). 

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Saviour became Man in order to establish the rule, the reign, the kingdom of heaven among sinners. It’s no wonder He talks so much about the kingdom of heaven. Now, sometimes our Lord emphasizes the future manifestation of the reign of God on the Last Day, such as when He says that the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise (Matthew 25:1-3). Here Jesus warns us that when He, the Bridegroom, does finally arrive on the Last Day, there will be no welcome to the wedding feast for those who are unprepared to greet Him. But in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, our Lord is emphasizing the present manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. It’s not what the kingdom of heaven will be like on the Last Day but rather what the kingdom of heaven is like right now as we live out our salvation today. 

The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Jesus the Bridegroom will return only once on the Last Day for His Bride, the Church. And so, the focus of the Parable of the Ten Virgins is on our preparing for a future event. But Jesus is also the Lord of His Vineyard who goes out each day to call sinners into His Vineyard. And so the Parable of the Labourers has a greater sense of present-time immediacy, for our Lord is addressing an aspect of the kingdom of heaven that impacts our lives not just on the Last Day but even today and everyday.

The Bible speaks of our salvation not just in the future tense but also in the present. As St. Paul proclaims: Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:1). And in this present-tenseness of salvation comes this warning from Psalm 95: Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts (vv. 7-8).

Today’s parable is warning us to not harden our hearts. The master calls labourers to work in His Vineyard. To those hired first, He makes a promise—a denarius for a day’s work. To the second group, He does not even specify the wage but says whatever is right I will give you. And to the group hired last He simply says You go into the vineyard too. Now, with this parable, it is important that we do not get hung on all the small points, like the amount of the wage and the talk of hiring. For you certainly cannot view your salvation in terms of earning a paycheque or being hired. That is not what Jesus is saying. Look instead at the parable’s main point, which is that the master calls into His vineyard undeserving people, to whom He makes and keeps His promise. And as you see the manner in which the Lord of the Vineyard keeps His promise, do not harden your heart.

Of course, that is the problem with those hired first. They allow their hearts to be hardened. And it’s not at all because the Lord of the Vineyard broke His promise to them. Rather, it’s that they become jealous of how generous the Lord is with the other labourers. If those hired first had kept their eyes focused on the Lord, then their hearts would have remained tender in their gratitude for the Lord’s faithfulness to them. But they take their eyes off the Lord and focus on how the other workers are receiving the same compensation. Instead of thanking the Lord for keeping His promise to them, they grumble saying, These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

You have made them equal to us—how dare you, God! How dare You give the same eternal inheritance to those who have not worked as hard and as long as I have in Your vineyard! How dare You give the same abundant riches to those who have sacrificed less than I have for Your kingdom! You have made them equal to us—that grumbling thought hardens our hearts every time we seek to compare ourselves to and promote ourselves above those who have worked and sacrificed less than we have in the vineyard, in the kingdom.

Today, our Lord is calling us to repent of our hardened hearts and to hear Him speaking to us in today’s parable. And here is what the Lord is saying to us all:

“I make no distinction among the workers in My vineyard. I love them all. I died for them all. I give them all the same undeserved gift of salvation. And so in My vineyard, there is no room for self-promotion, no occasion for competition, no basis on which one disciple can say to another, ‘I have no need of you’ or ‘I am more important than you are’.” 

Even the honoured apostles are ultimately simply labourers in the vineyard like every other baptized believer in Jesus (see J.A. Gibbs’ Matthew commentary).

It all comes down to the generousity of the Lord of the Vineyard. As He says to the workers hired first: I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? The Lord is really asking those workers: Or is your eye evil because I am good? If you take your eyes off of the Lord and start comparing yourself to other Christians, then your eye is evil and your heart is hardened. But the Holy Spirit is working today through the Lord’s holy Word and Supper to create in you a new heart, a heart that looks to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

In Jesus, God has invaded this fallen world with His undeserved favour, His grace. And God’s grace in Christ, by its very nature, gives without regard to any merit or worthiness in the one who receives it. The wages are given to the workers, but the amount of the wage has nothing to do with the effort expended or the time spent, as all in the vineyard receive the same amount. On the Last Day, the rule, the reign of God in Jesus will come in all its fullness. And all who have been called as workers in the vineyard—all disciples of Jesus, without distinction—will receive from the Master what He deems just, in accordance with His promise. 

And so, all comparing must now be put aside. For this is how it is in the kingdom of heaven, that eternal life is given to all saints as a free gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (see Romans 6:23). Yes, in Jesus, God gives away His kingdom for free to those who do not deserve it. No one comes in by right or merit. Thus, even after a lifetime of serving Jesus, we must all confess: “O God, we are Your unworthy servants, who are justified solely by Your grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (adapted from Luke 17:7 and Romans 3:24). And so, with our eyes and hearts fixed on God’s generous love and grace in Jesus, let us rejoice that we receive for free the salvation we do not deserve. Amen.