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18, The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard #1

 

Chapter 18

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

Matthew 20:1-16

by Pastor Eric Chang

Montreal, January 4, 1981

 

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the market place. And to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too and whatever is right, I will give you.” So they went.

Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.” And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last up to the first.”

And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it, they grumbled at the householder, 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.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last 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?* So the last will be first, and the first last.”

*More literally, as in the margin, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

Today, we continue as we study the teaching of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 20:1-16. You will see that this parable continues with an immediate connection to Matthew Chapter 19 by the word “for” in “For the kingdom of heaven…”—being an explanation of the connection with what has preceded. Matthew 19:30 reads, “But many that are first will be last and the last first,” and so important is this in the Lord Jesus’ teaching that here, the same words appear again, in our passage today, in Matthew 20:16, so that this parable is an explanation of the meaning of the words, “many that are first will be last and the last first.” We shall have to look more deeply into what “first and last” means now.

How did you react to this parable?

Let us look at these verses, Matthew 20:1-16. As you read this parable, what is your feeling? What is your reaction to this parable? When you read it, did you not feel somewhat indignant that those people who had worked the whole day, from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night, finally also got only one denarius? That is not fair, is it? Especially those laborers who came at the eleventh hour, also got one denarius for working only one hour! How did you react as you read the parable? That is very important. I would like you to note your reaction to the parable carefully and consciously.

Or did you feel very happy? Oh, the master of this vineyard is so good! This poor fellow who came in at the end, and worked only one hour also got one denarius. He got the same as the fellow who worked twelve hours! Oh yes, God is so good! Is that your reaction? I doubt it.

It is very important that you note your reaction to the parable carefully. If you are among the majority, I think you will feel that the owner of the vineyard was not fair, am I right? I think you are more likely to have sympathy for the poor fellows who worked twelve hours and got one denarius, rather than have sympathy for those who worked one hour and got the same pay. It is not fair. In other words, I think most of you have identified yourself with those who were hired to work first, not with those who were last. The last to be hired do not need your compassion, but those who were first do, am I right?

Or do you have a mixed reaction? Maybe you felt it was too bad for the poor fellows who came first! But nice for the guys who came last! And as for the poor fellows who were hired in between, it was not too bad for them and not too good. Either way, they still came off somewhere in between.

With which group of people do you identify? Very honestly, just how did you react? Or did you react in a somewhat puzzled way? And if you reacted in a puzzled way, then just note that reaction, too. The reason for all this will become clear as we go along.

Commentaries of the greatest authorities on this parable

We know this parable has to do with “the first will be last, and the last first” in a rather vague sort of way, but what is it saying? In order to try to help you along, I will tell you what some of the greatest authorities on the parables today say. Then see what you think of their commentary on the parable.

1. Jeremias—the goodness of God

Take for example, Jeremias. Jeremias was professor at the University of Gottingen in Germany, and his standard work is called The Parables of Jesus. There he attempts to make some sense of this parable, and comes to the conclusion that it refers to God’s goodness. “Is your eye evil because I am good?” He sees the whole emphasis of the parable as speak­ing about the goodness of God—especially, goodness to those who are in need, who have the lowest place, who come last to work. That is his view of the parable in a nutshell.

Is that really what the parable says? Does it really tell us anything about the goodness of God? I very much doubt it.

Can God’s goodness be highly selective?

Let us analyze the question. As you read the parable, did a powerful impression of God’s goodness really come across to you? Was the first thing that struck you as you read the parable, “Oh, God is so good!”? Not really, I don’t think so. Certainly, you immediately felt that God was not at all good as far as the first group of workers were concerned, was He? I mean goodness could not be purely a relative matter. Either God is good or He is not good. It cannot be something relative. Where is God’s goodness to be seen in relation to that first group of workers? Is it some fault of theirs that they were the first group of people to be hired? Is it a sin to be working all day? In this parable, it seems that you have the misfortune of being the people who worked the longest hours, and for no guilt of their own. That doesn’t sound like goodness to us, does it? They were eager to work because they needed the money to support their family. They were in the market place because they were eager to find a job, and they did. They worked the whole twelve hours, but why did they only get one denarius? Is that goodness? Where is the goodness seen?

Yes, you can say there is something of goodness for those hired in the eleventh hour, but you can say that the goodness is progressively declining, since the first to be paid were those who came at the eleventh hour, and they got one denarius. But the goodness gets less and less, as we proceed to those who worked the longest hours, and also got one denarius. That is a very strange definition of goodness, if it is a definition of goodness at all!

What point is Jeremias making? Where is God’s goodness? Or is God’s goodness only to those who worked only one hour? Is His goodness to be understood relatively, for reasons better known to the laborers themselves than to us? Why did they not work? They said they could not get a job. That may be, but it may also be that they arrived late at the market place, when most of the others had already been employed. The reasons for their being late are not given to us.

But I find it difficult to see that the parable tells us about the good­ness of God. There are other parables that truly expound God’s goodness, are there not? You don’t need a parable like this to say anything about God’s goodness, because God’s goodness is highly selective here. And a highly selective goodness based on no sort of justice is very hard to understand.

Supposing the parable told us the first group of workers worked the whole day, but they were rather lazy, therefore, they got the same pay as the last, we can understand it. Maybe they put their feet up on the desk, twiddling their thumbs, and said, “I’ll be here twelve hours.” They did not do any more than the last group of fellows, who came in for one hour. The last group rolled up their sleeves and really got to work doing as much in one hour as the first group did in twelve hours. And so they both got one denarius. Yes, that is fair. I can understand that.

But here are fellows who were working for twelve hours, and I would like you to notice, there was no complaint against their work. No one had said that they were sipping tea for twelve hours, and then they got one denarius. Maybe the men who came in for one hour worked just as hard as the other fellows who worked twelve hours, but they worked only one hour, and they got the same pay! I don’t understand what goodness that is!

Can you make head or tail of this? Do you call that “a parable on goodness”? Frankly, I don’t know what Jeremias means, do you? I think that he is so desperate in trying to find any kind of meaning in the parable that he simply could not come up with a better explanation. That is the honest truth. As we go along, you will begin to realize this parable is giving the commentators real headache. We just don’t know what this parable is supposed to be telling us.

2. Schweitzer—God’s unmerited grace

What do we find if we turn to another great commentator, Professor Edouard Schweitzer of Zurich? What has he got to say in his comment­ary on Matthew? Well, he comes to virtually the same conclusion as Jeremias. He cannot think of a better explanation of this parable either, but to say that it expresses God’s grace, that He chooses to be good to whom He wants to be good. And if He happens to choose to want to be good to you, He is going to be good to you. Whether you deserve it or not is not the point. The point is God’s grace to those who have not worked is unmerited.

Is that the point? No, I doubt it. Well, is there something wrong with working? What crime did these poor fellows commit for working twelve hours? Is it a great misfortune? Maybe we should all be lazy so that God will be particularly kind to us, then we can inherit God’s grace. That is not the Biblical definition of grace at all. That sounds to me like utter nonsense.

3. Manson—God’s equal treatment of all people

What is more, Professor Manson of England—another great comment­ator—shows in his well-known work, The Sayings of Jesus, that this explanation of grace against works is not correct at all because they all worked. All these five groups of people, whether they were the first group of people, or they were of the third, or sixth, or ninth, or eleventh hour, they all worked. It is not that one worked and another did not work, but they worked different lengths of time, thus doing different quantity of work. It’s not a question that God’s grace was to those who did not work, because they all worked. If the parable were speaking of unmerited grace, the last group would have had to just walk into the market place at the twelfth hour, hired for one denarius, and not do a stroke of work. That would be grace! No, that is not what the parable is saying at all, and Manson is right, of course. So this gets us precisely nowhere either.

What is Manson’s own explanation? Well, Manson is equally con­fused as the others, because having denied that it is really no exposition of grace at all since all have worked, he is left with no idea what to say except that it expresses equality. God treats everyone equally because all got the one denarius. No matter how much or how little work you did, God treats all people equally.

That is a very strange exposition too, because the whole point is that He did not treat everyone equally. The last group of people actually got twelve times more per portion, than those who came in the first group. Where is the equality? Is it equality that they all got one denarius? That is precisely begging the question. That is not equality. There would have been equality if the last group got one denarius, and the first group got twelve denarii. That is equality, because the last group worked one hour, and the first group worked twelve hours. That is equal pay for equal amount of work per portion. Where is the equality if one gets one denarius for working one hour, and the other gets one denarius for working twelve hours? That is precisely the complaint of the first group that they are not being treated fairly. Those who are not equal were being treated as equals for the amount of work they did not do. I cannot figure out where is the equality. What does this so-called equality mean? Can you make any head or tail of this equality?

So Manson comes to the conclusion that there is really no “first” and no “last”; “first” and “last” are all the same thing. “The first will become last and the last will become first” means it is equal. That is a very strange way of talking about equality.

Should we not all be the last group?

And what is more, what does it teach us about God? Is it that regardless how much you sacrifice for Him, or how little you sacrifice for Him, He is going to treat everyone equally? Then what is the incentive? We will all come at the eleventh hour! “If you want to work twelve hours, go ahead! Ha, ha! Go and slave! I shall arise at the eleventh hour. Then I will work one hour because we are all treated equally, right?”

It is like the people who say, “I’m going to live in sin, then let’s say at the eleventh hour, just some time before I die in my old age, I will become a Christian. In the meantime, I can go to Las Vegas, go out with all those dance girls, and I can gamble. I can cheat on income taxes, cheat everybody and make my pile. I can sin all I like, and just before I die, I will rush into the church, grab the pastor and say, ‘I repent! I’ll become a Christian now!’”

Is this what the parable teaches us? If that is equality, and if we are not fools, we must surely draw that conclusion. You are all too young to be here. Wait until say, you are about fifty or sixty, until your hair is getting white, and hopefully you are still in good shape, that is the time to be a Christian—at the eleventh hour!

If you are Christians now, you are going to grind away to be a Christian—sweat it out in the scorching heat of the day, and you get only one denarius in the end. But that fellow who enjoys himself in all the sins of the world, comes in at the last minute, and lo and behold, he gets the same thing as you! So, what are you struggling for? You and I must be fools. What am I doing, spending my past twenty years preaching the gospel, when my Christian friends are getting rich? They are going to enjoy this world while I slug it out serving God and preaching the gospel. Then, they are going to get the same denarius as I do. Is this the equality and justice that this parable is teaching?

You will say, “Of course not! Surely if we have any sense left, that is not what the Lord Jesus is teaching, because the Bible says that every man will be judged according to his works. Are we being told we are not judged according to our works after all?”

Now I think you can appreciate the great problem of the comment­ators—they don’t know what to say. Manson comes to the conclusion that there is really no first and no last. In “the first shall be last and the last first,” first and last are all the same thing. It means it is equal. That is a very strange way of talking about equality. So after this meeting, you will say, “Now we understand this parable.” You will all decide to come to church again, at the eleventh hour, when you reach sixty years old, and I will say bye-bye to you. I don’t know how Manson came to this kind of odd conclusion, except that out of sheer desperation, he could not think of a better explanation to give.

4. John Sung—Serve God for nothing because you love Him

Let us try the Chinese preachers. Let us try John Sung. Perhaps, he will shed some great light on this passage, and we will begin to see the light of day. In John Sung’s 讲经解, A Summary of the Old and New Testaments, which is not an exposition, I quote:

“葡萄园的比喻是叫人做工不要工钱。应当为爱神而工作。”

So John Sung has come to the conclusion that the parable means that you work for nothing because you love God! The idea is that you go to the market place, and look for a job not thinking of the money. You work for the sake of working, because you do it out of love for God.

Now that really touches us because it seems to be so right that we should be willing to serve the Lord for no pay. We should be willing to do God’s work with no reward. That strikes a chord as a very true insight! No one can deny that it is true that we should be prepared to serve God for nothing, because He has given Himself to us through Christ Jesus.

This parable does not say serve God for nothing, though that is good

Although this insight is very genuine, that we should serve the God for nothing, we can hardly say that that is an exegesis of the parable. Now the thought itself is true, just as it is true to say that it is God’s grace to give to us not because of what we have worked. But does the thought that we should be willing to serve God for nothing really derive from this parable? It may come from some other part of Scripture, but I much doubt it comes from this parable, and I will let you be the judge of that.

Think of the parable again. Do you think the Lord Jesus is saying that for those laborers who came at the first hour, it was their crime that they came to work in the morning because they wanted to earn a denarius? Is that the point of the parable? Most certainly not! Would you go to the Unemployment Bureau and say, “I came to look for employment today, because I think it is very good for Christians to work. So don’t worry about the pay. I am willing to work for nothing.” What is this?!

The market place in those olden days was a labor exchange. People went there looking for a job. Have you ever heard of anyone going to look for a job because he doesn’t want any pay? Perhaps if you come from a very rich family, and you are a rich young master, then of course, who cares about the pay? You are there just for the job because you can afford to do so. But the people who go to the market place, or the Unemployment Bureau, are people who have a wife and children to feed. Maybe they also have relatives—a grandmother, or an uncle or an aunt waiting for some food to arrive. They don’t come to the labor market in order to work for nothing. I am not even sure it is commendable that you want to work for nothing. That is a very strange notion to think of.

Remember again, the thought that we should be ready to work for God for nothing itself is fine, but that thought has nothing to do with this parable. The parable is not speaking about this at all. The parable is about people who are looking for employment, and the reason you go to look for employment is because you need the money to feed your family as well as yourself. And there is no crime in this. John Sung’s suggestion would be almost that, it was wrong for these people to come to look for a job, with the intention of earning some money. Presumably, they go to look for a job with the intention of just doing a service to the landlord. That is not the point of the parable at all, is it?

5. Watchman Nee—Think of having started last, forget what you’ve left for God’s sake

If our dear brother John Sung is not helping us with understanding this particular parable, maybe we will try Watchman Nee. It seems to me Watchman Nee is much nearer the mark, but he puts his matter in a somewhat unfortunate way. In Watchman Nee’s Commentary on Matthew, he says this:

“The point of the parable is that a person should always think of himself as having commenced working at about the eleventh hour, forgetting what he has left behind for God’s sake.”

As I say, he is much closer to the mark, but the way he states it is unfortunate and unsatisfactory for this reason.

What does Watchman Nee mean by “a person should always think of himself as having commenced working at about the eleventh hour”? Does it mean that you arrive at the first hour, and immediately, you start trying to think to yourself, as you work through the heat and burden of the day: “Really, I only came at the eleventh hour.” Are we being taught a piece of self- deception? Is it a kind of mental juggling act? What point is being made?

Or you come at the third hour, and then you try this same piece of mental trickery. “It is true, I came at the third hour, but I will try to think that I came at the eleventh hour.” In other words, those eight hours in between are just to be forgotten presumably—“forgetting what I have left behind.” You see, there is truth in the statement, but it has an admixture of something false. Again, I let you be the judge of the matter, whether this makes any kind of sense to you. So it would seem that the earlier you come, the greater the mental trickery you have to play on yourself. You keep trying to imagine that although you came at the early hour, in fact, you only came at the late hour. Do you understand the statement of Watchman Nee?

You will say to me, “But you said that he was nearer the point. It seems to me that he is an awful lot further from the point.” No, I understand what he is trying to say. But as I said, the way he states it is most unsatisfactory. From the way he states it, it seems to be that being a Christian is a piece of self-deception. A Christian must above all things have the characteristic that he loves the truth. If I came at the first hour, there is no use for me to pretend that I came at the eleventh, because I did not. That is the fact of the matter. And if I came at the third hour, it is no use for me to try to think that I came at the eleventh hour, because the fact is, I did not come at the eleventh hour. All of these are unsatisfactory.

After all this time, you will say, “Okay, so what does the parable tell us?” I asked you to read it last Sunday, and presumably, you have been thinking about it, and maybe you have arrived at some conclusion by now. This is the kind of wonderful assignment the Training Team has to work on. No wonder they spend many sleepless nights sometimes! How should we understand this parable? What is it saying? The commentators are utterly frustrated and they are just in difficulty. What about us?

Details of the parable

I have already asked you to notice its connection to the previous chapter, as the message in this parable is integrally connected to the whole of Matthew 19. Let us try to understand the parable itself in its details.

1. A twelve-hour working day

In those days, it was not an eight-hour working day as we have today, but a twelve-hour working day. Today, we work only eight hours and we have a lot of time to waste. So, that is not good for the mental health. No wonder the society in the so-called “advanced” countries has been taking medication to keep their nerves calm! These people work so hard that at night-time, they are so tired that they don’t have to swallow any Valium, or any other medication, because they are too tired to think about this. They just go bed and sleep because they have to get up again at the crack of dawn. That is very good for the mental health as well as the physical health. That was why the Lord Jesus said in John 11:9, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” You have to understand there were twelve working hours in a day in order to understand what it means that people came at the eleventh hour. If you work an eight-hour day, of course, there is no eleventh hour to come at.

The rabbis tell us that the day started at sunrise, and did not finish until the stars came out in those days. In other words, it was more or less a twelve-hour working day, from sunrise to sunset. You get up with the sun, and you go to bed with the sun. You work the whole day-time.

2. An abundant harvest of grapes involves hiring extra labor

The harvest in this parable concerns a harvest of grapes, because a vineyard produces grapes. Grapes were a very important staple food and drink for the Jews; they are also a very fine food—rich in protein, in grape sugar, not to mention also its excellent taste as well as its energy-sustaining propert­ies.

It is clear from the parable that it was a very abundant harvest. As the need increased to conclude the harvest before the winter rains set in, and as the day progressed, the landowner of the vineyard saw that he needed extra hands to try to finish the work before the deadline. Hence after he had already hired the first group, he saw that they were not going to be able to cope with the amount of work, and he hired a second group to come and help.

But as the day progressed further, he saw that the harvest was so abundant that they still could not finish it before the end of the day. So extra labor was brought in constantly throughout the day to try to finish the work on time. This kind of occurrence was quite common and not at all difficult for the hearers of the parable to understand. The first group was hired at about five or six in the morning. Then the second group was hired at about the third hour, which was a little before nine o’clock in the morning. Another group was hired at the sixth hour, which is about noon time. Yet another group was hired at about the ninth hour, which is three o’clock in the afternoon. And the last group was hired at the eleventh hour, about five o’clock in the afternoon. So through all these periods of time, more laborers were brought into the field to do the work.

Another reason some were hired earlier was that they were at the market place earlier. Clearly, not everybody in the village lived the same distance to the market place. Some had to travel a much longer way, which means that they could not get to the market place very quickly. The only form of transportation for most people at that time was walking, unless you were well-to-do and could afford a donkey, a mule or a horse to ride on. If you lived say, ten miles away from the market place, you had a lot of ground to cover before you could get to the market place. Hence it was clear that people would arrive at the market place at differ­ent hours.

3. One denarius a day was a reasonable wage

Here, the denarius was the usual wage for a worker in those days. It was quite a reasonable wage, but it was not a minimum wage. Some people received only half a denarius. However, if you were a highly skilled worker, you might receive two of these half-denarius coins. Basically, you were paid according to your skill and experience, which is the same as today. One denarius could be seen as the average wage for this kind of work.

4. Laborers are paid at the end of the day

This parable says that laborers arriving at different hours to harvest the fruit are paid at the end of the day (cf. Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15). In those days, people were usually paid on a daily basis, because you might not be needed the following day, and you would have to find employment somewhere else. It was at the end of the day that the owner of the vineyard instructed his steward to settle accounts, and to begin payment with those who arrived last.

Now those who had arrived last had worked for only one hour. So they should have been paid one pondion. A pondion was one-twelfth of a denarius. What was their surprise was that they were actually paid a whole denarius—twelve times what they expected! So the next group was thinking, “Wow! These fellows got one denarius! We worked from three in the afternoon until now, so we have worked about three hours. Maybe we will receive three denarii!” But they also got one denarius. As for the laborers hired at noontime, who had worked six hours, they thought maybe they would get six denarii. And they also got also one. The first group who worked for twelve hours also got one denarius. What then is the parable telling us?

This parable diagnoses the Christian by his reaction

Let us go back to the beginning, when I asked you to study your reaction, as to how you felt about this parable when you read it. That is very important. What was your reaction when you read it? How you react to this parable depends entirely on who you identify with. Did you identify with the first group of people? Did you identify with the second, the third, the fourth? Or did you identify with those who were last in the parable? Who did you identify with?

Now if you had identified with the first group of people, you would have felt a sense of indignation, a sense of anger, a sense of injustice, because this is no way to treat the people who had worked the whole day. If the landowner wants to be kind, he should still be fair. Being just kind in a selective sort of way makes no sense. Did you feel that way?

Or you might say to yourself, “The owner of this vineyard is probably eccentric. He just says, “Can’t I do what I want with my money?” Who is arguing that you cannot do what you want with your money? That is not even the point of the discussion. The point of the discussion is, do what you want with your money, but do it fairly. How did you feel? Did you feel somewhat indignant but thought, “We’ll let it pass, because this steward is a bit of a nut case”?

Or did you feel happy for the last group? How can the poor fellow, who worked only one hour, feed a wife and children with one pondion, one-twelfth of a denarius? How can he survive on this kind of money? It is so good that the owner of this vineyard gave him the full day’s pay so that his children will not have to be hungry that night. Is that the way you felt?

Or was it some kind of confused reaction between all of these? Or by now, you are saying to me, why are you asking all this?

Jesus uses a diagnostic parable to expose your thinking

This parable is a most remarkable parable! I have expounded the teach­ing of the Lord Jesus systematically for ten years now (and of course, I have preached a long time before that too), and the more I study the teaching of the Lord Jesus, the more I am amazed. I have said before, that as I study the teaching of the Lord Jesus, I find that no man ever spoke like this man. It is incredible! He is able to use teaching in a way that no man has ever been able to use. He has been able to achieve a cer­tain result with his teaching, and no man even understands that method let alone use it! You will say, “Why are you waxing eloquent about this? We are still in the dark!”

The point of this parable is that it is a diagnostic parable. What is diagnosis? When a patient goes to the doctor, he asks you what you feel, then he diagnoses you from your description of your own discomforts, pains, or condition. This is a diagnostic parable! This is most remarkable! This parable is remarkable because it reveals your thinking! That is what it is there to do. And when we don’t understand that, we will never understand this parable at all. And that is why I said right at the beginning, take careful note of how you feel as you read this parable.

Now there are different kinds of parables in the parables of the Lord Jesus. There are descriptive parables that describe certain situations. There are prophetic parables that prophesy of things to come. But this is one parable which is remarkable in its character, because it is diagnostic. Hebrews 4:12 particularly, tells us that “the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword piercing into the depth of your heart, discerning your thoughts and your intentions.” I know of no parable that does this as uniquely as this parable. This parable, the Word of God, pierces into your thoughts like the sharp two-edged sword, exposing your thinking, showing you what you really are, like a mirror. Just look at yourself in the parable and you will see it there. You can diagnose your own condition. You can take your own spiritual temperature and see what your temperature is like. A unique parable! There is nothing like it at all!

Which group did you identify with? Why?

If you identified yourself with the first group, you felt indignant. Let me ask you a question: Why did you identify with the first group? Do you have the answer to that? I doubt it. Did you work the twelve hours like the first group? No. Then why did you identify with the first group? Can you find the answer to that?

Or did you identify with the second or third group? Why did you identify with those groups? Were you in the vineyard? No. Then why did you identify with that group? Remarkable isn’t it? We don’t really know the answer to that at this stage.

If you felt happy about the last group, why did you identify with that group? You were not working in the vineyard and yet you identified with that group. But if I am not mistaken, I think very few of you did. Why did you identify with that group?

The answer is deep in your own heart. The answer is not in the parable. This parable has just opened up your heart like a sharp two-edged sword—a surgeon’s knife; it pierced right in, exposing your thoughts, asking you why did you identify with this group or that group? The reason is in your own heart.

Or did you have a mixed reaction? If so, that also tells you your own condition, that you are sitting on the fence. You are not in a good position at all. You are still a wishy-washy type of Christian, and have not made up your mind where you stand.

Now please notice that this parable speaks in the first instance to Christians. It is not speaking to non-Christians, because there is nothing to diagnose about a spiritually dead man. You have to diagnose those who are spiritually alive.

Why do we say it has to do with Christians? Because we are talking about a vineyard, and we are talking about the owner of the vineyard, and as all commentators agree, it is a picture of God Himself. He is the owner of the vineyard.

Those who work in His vineyard are those who have been called by Him. He went to the market place and called us, and we responded to that call. We are talking about people who have been called. And as you know from the New Testament, every Christian has been called with a holy calling. Therefore in the Scriptural definition, every Christian is a Christian worker. The apostle Peter tells us we are all servants of God, not just pastors and preachers. You are a servant of God if you are a true Christian. You ought to be working in His vineyard.

Jealousy: the attitude of an unchanged Christian

So, what does it reveal to you? This parable is speaking to us, as Christians, revealing our response to God’s Word. I wonder if you felt the response was one that you can be happy about. Are you among the few people who responded with joy, because you identified with the eleventh-hour group? Perhaps not. Maybe you are among the majority, who identified with the first group, and felt that they were being unfairly treated. Or again, were you sitting on the fence? There is no neutral ground in spiritual life. If you were somewhere in between, your condition is not good.

We cannot finish our analysis today because I have had to proceed very slowly with the depth of this parable. I did not want to lose you along the way. I wanted to take it slowly, step by step, so that you understood precisely what the Lord Jesus is teaching here.

Look carefully at the attitude of those who are first. What is the key element of the attitude of those who were in the first group? The key element we see is envy. The owner of the vineyard asks in verse 15, “Is your eye evil because I am good? The eye being evil is simply an idiom in the Bible for envy, jealousy. God is asking, “Are you jealous, are you envious because I am generous?”

They are all upset. Why are they upset? Verse 12 tells us, because the others who came later were made equal with them. They found this very unfair. This is not equality at all. You are making those who are really unequal, equal with us. Hence their bitterness, their jealousy.

Verse 11 tells us they grumbled. Remember in Matthew 19:24, the Lord Jesus said it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. And I have expounded to you that camels are the most bad-tempered animals that are around in this world. They are grumblers, murmurers, bad-tempered creatures, and we see them again, here. Do you see the internal connection of all these passages? These are the camels, who cannot get into the kingdom, anymore than a camel can get through the eye of a needle.

Becoming a Christian means changed attitude and character

The most important thing in life is attitude, because it tells people and ourselves what we are, what we think, and why we behave in the way we do. This is the reason why a change of attitude is the most profound kind of change that can take place in any person. A change of attitude means a change of mind, and this results in a change of character.

Remember, I asked you why did you identify with this group, or that group? You might have thought, “There’s no answer to that question, because I wasn’t in the vineyard.” Yet you are able to identify with some group or other in the parable. Why? Your character matches the reaction of those people. Your reaction, your attitude tells what kind of person you are. This is the depth of this parable—it reveals your character.

It is wrong attitudes that result in breakdown of relationships. Think for example, of a relationship between a husband and wife who cannot get on. It is not a question of who is right and who is wrong. The question is what are the attitudes of these people? And that is where the evaluation becomes so difficult. It is one person or both have wrong attitudes, and because of these wrong attitudes, the marriage can utterly break down. It cannot continue because the attitudes are fixed. And when these fixed attitudes are in conflict, you have big trouble. Or take your relationship to your parents, or your parents’ relationship to you. How is it? Is it full of tension? It will be full of tension because their attitudes, or your attitude, or both your attitudes are wrong. Human relationships are entirely governed by attitudes. Attitude either causes the breakdown of relationships, or it causes these relationships to be sound.

Your relationship to God is also determined by your attitude. What is your attitude to God? Becoming a Christian is a change of attitude. It is not just a question of believing this or believing that. It’s no use to believe this and that if it does not change your attitude. Becoming a Christian, as Paul says, is to become a new person. And what is a new person? A new person is a person whose mind is changed, as Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Renewal of mind means your way of thinking, your attitudes change completely. Hence you can see that this parable reaches right down to the very basics of the Christian life. It tells us whether you have changed, or whether you have not changed. The Lord Jesus is not interested in whether you have made a profession of faith or not. The question is, have you changed or not? If you have changed, you are a real Christian. If you have not changed, you are not a Christian.

Becoming a Christian means repentance. What does repentance mean? The very word in the Greek, metanoia means a change of mind. Repentance is a change of attitude. Before, you did not mind sinning. Now, you are grieved at sinning. That is a fundamental change of attitude. Before, you did not mind hurting somebody, but now, you are grieved to hurt somebody. That is a change of attitude. Becoming a Christian is nothing unless it means this profound inner change, “the renewal of your mind,” as Paul calls it. That is what becoming a “new creature” means. That is what being “born again” means. “Born again” means nothing if it just means that I raise my hand, and I profess faith. It is nothing unless there is this change. And the most profound experiences in the human life have to do with changes of attitude.

A husband and wife, for example, who have been at each other’s throats for all their married life, are able to love each other in a new and deeper way, because of their change in attitude towards one another,. When we can see two enemies embrace one another again, their reconciliation just causes tears to run down our face! We are touched by these profound changes. What a change of attitude! We are touched by this change of attitude when parents and children, who could not get on with each other, are reconciled.

Change of attitude is what becoming a Christian is about. It means that whereas you were once self-centered and selfish, now your whole attitude undergoes a revolution. The first becomes last, the last becomes first is revolution.

This is a diagnostic parable, and I hope you know yourself a lot better, as a result of reading it. We will have to continue into the meaning of this the next time. So profound is the Lord Jesus’ teaching, that it takes a lot of time to expound it clearly, and it takes many occasions to go through it in its riches. For today, we must close at this point.

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church