One of Christ's parables might strike some of us as unfair, but it holds valuable lessons about God's generosity and our need to stick to the course to the end.
Some workers were upset that the vineyard owner was generous to those who worked less.
Source: Providence Collection, GoodSalt.com
When I was 18 years old my father sold the family business and went to work for a construction company. I lost my job and needed another to make money for college. I tried getting on with my dad's new employer as a day laborer. That didn't work out too well.
Every morning men would gather in a large room at the company headquarters. Workers were always needed to carry material and do a lot of the grunt work on building sites. The pay was minimum wage, and the hours were long.
On two consecutive mornings I showed up eager to work and stood around with grown men twice my age and experience. Both times I was turned down for work. I watched as the boss handed out jobs to the others. It was disappointing and a bit humiliating for me. I was not used to being passed over.
After the second morning of no work I got the message. I was not going to be selected for any work that day or any day. I could not rely on my father's name or reputation, at least not with this company. I had to make my own way.
I went out and found work on my own. In fact I found two jobs and went on to make enough money to get a start on college that fall.
This experience taught me valuable lessons. I learned resourcefulness, to endure and to continue searching to find work. I learned that an owner can hire who he wants, when he wants, and pay the worker what he says is fair.
Those two days that I stood in the workroom of the construction company and looked for work taught me a life lesson. They taught me that the boss can do what he wishes with the resources of his company. If he is a good and gracious employer the company will prosper. It was not my place to argue with him. It was my responsibility to learn from the experience and get on with my life.
I've often thought about this experience when I read one of the parables Jesus Christ used to teach us about the work He calls us to for the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 20 Christ spoke a parable of workers toiling away in a vineyard. We are "hired" to work for God, and when we grasp this truth it gives our lives, and even the work we do in our lives, purpose and meaning. If we can grasp this key it ignites life with passion, energy and devotion.
Let's look at this parable for what we can learn about the work God is doing.
Workers brought on at different times
Jesus stated: "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent then into his vineyard" (Matthew 20:1-2).
The workday would begin early, perhaps at sunrise, and those wanting to work gathered in one spot to wait for the landowner to come and offer work. You can still see scenes like this throughout the world. Work is what defines a person. It's more than a means to pay the monthly expense. Work gives dignity and meaning to life. When people cannot find work for long periods of time their sense of identity and self-worth is eroded.
Christ is describing the work of a wealthy man of means who employs people at fair wages. A set wage (one denarius, a day's pay) is agreed. The workers enter the vineyard.
In Christ's parable, at "about the third hour," or 9:00 a.m., the landowner sees others standing idle in the marketplace and offers them work. They too enter the vineyard and begin to work. There is plenty of work to go around. This continues through the day. At three-hour intervals he returns to the town square and hires additional workers.
By mid-afternoon, 3:00 p.m., we have a scene that must look something like this: Many workers are engaged in the work needed to plant, maintain, prune and harvest the produce of a large vineyard. The need for more workers through the day could be due to a couple of factors.
One, perhaps the work needing to be done constantly grows. More crops are planted. Existing growth must be maintained. All of this takes human effort to get it done. New hires are the way to keep up with the work.
A second possibility is worker attrition. Maybe some hired early grow tired and leave the vineyard. Perhaps they decide the effort is too much, or they're not cut out for it. They have to be replaced because the work doesn't end—planting, maintaining and harvesting are ongoing in a vineyard. If some can't keep up and drop off, others must be found to replace them.
The parable continues. The work goes on and at 5:00 p.m., the eleventh hour, the need for workers is still there, so the owner goes out and finds people without work, without purpose because no one had hired them, and he gives them a job too. "You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive" (Matthew 20:7).
All paid the same
With the day at an end the owner sends his steward out to pay the laborers. Those hired at the end of the day are paid first. Those who were hired at the start of the day were last in line. Every laborer, no matter how long they worked, received the same amount—one day's wage, a denarius.
This example defies modern labor practices. But remember it is a parable, told to teach a specific lesson. God's ways and thoughts are not ours. We may think it unjust that one who works only a short time is paid the same as the one who works all day. But God doesn't. So let's listen to the point He makes.
After hearing the complaints—"these last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day" (Matthew 20:12)—the landowner replied, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did not you agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good? So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen" (Matthew 20:13-16).
Each worker had agreed to working for what the vineyard owner would pay. Those at the beginning of the day had accepted the offer of a denarius as fair and appropriate. No one had any room to complain about what they were given. What he would give to others was outside their agreement.
God holds all wealth, and He is generous and gracious to all. That is an obvious message through this parable. Those called and chosen at the "last" have access to God's Kingdom just as those called and chosen at the start of the day. God's grace to those who are faithful is a key lesson here. But there is more.
Endure to the end
Notice that all who were paid a wage received the wage at the end of the day. In other words, they had to endure to the end, remaining on the job until the day was done. The work of planting, growing and harvesting is continual until the job is complete. Only then, in the vineyard of the Lord, is the wage paid.
Do you love to work? I hope so because, as this parable shows, the Kingdom of God is like a vineyard full of workers, each hired by the owner to work in a specific role at a specific time. We have to love work enough to seek it and stay with it. We have to love the work of preparing for the Kingdom of God.
God will finish His work on Earth in this age. It is all being done in a set manner according to a great plan. Jesus Christ set His parables within everyday activities that form the basis of life. Through them we learn many things, including what the Kingdom is and how we may enter it.
What we see from this parable is that we must be willing to enter the vineyard and work. We must make ourselves available for God (the landowner) to find us. We have to want to work. And we have to endure to the end of the workday, however long that might be for each of us.
The calling to God's Kingdom is the highest and noblest in life. If we do not quit or lose heart we will receive the promised reward, God's gift of a crown of righteousness.
Years ago I learned a valuable lesson about work and staying with something. It would have been easy to get discouraged and think I could not find any work at all. I could have become bitter toward the owner who would not hire me, even for a day. It took perseverance to find the right job, to stick with it and to do it right.
All these lessons have been applied to the greater calling of the Kingdom of God. For me that has been a lifelong work of great meaning and purpose. May it be so for all of us!