20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’
8 “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ 9 And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” (Matthew 20:1-16, NKJV)
In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus compares workers’ wages to the kingdom of heaven. He describes a landowner who hires groups of workers at various points in the day. His first workers agree to work for one denarius, equal to about one day’s wages. As the day goes on, workers who began at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour are likewise hired with the promise of being paid “whatever is right” at the end of the day (Matt. 20:4).
That evening, the owner generously rewards one denarius to each of the late workers, but when he offers one denarius to the first workers, they complain, saying, “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” (Matt. 20:12, NKJV). The owner replies, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” and finishes with the most famous line of the parable: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20: 13-16, NIV).
Some interpretations of this parable use it as justification for the “deathbed conversion,” where repentance and confirmation of salvation occur directly before death. The workers represent people who convert to Christianity: the early workers are Christians born in the faith, who have spent most of their lives in the church, while the last workers are Christians who convert either on their deathbed or close to Jesus’ second coming. The denarius, then, represents salvation. All those who come to Christ, no matter when, will receive the same gift of salvation.
But such an interpretation raises more questions. Are we free to knowingly live a life of sin, as long as we make that last confession before death? The parable seems to support an odd loophole to salvation, that getting into heaven is decided by a technicality of whether your sins have been forgiven rather than that you love God and want to spend eternity with Him.
A more careful reading of the parable offers an alternate meaning behind Jesus’ words. The eleventh hour workers in the parable represent people who have not heard of Jesus previously. When questioned as to why they are not working, they reply in verse seven that “no one has hired [them]” (Matt. 20:7, NKJV). Even in the “deathbed conversion” interpretation of the parable, the fact that all workers receive the same wages does not indicate that Christians are given a free pass in life as long as they repent before they die. Instead, the parable assures us that there is no advantage to having been born a Christian and that all are likewise saved not by their works but by the goodness of Christ.
Then . . . if the first are last and the last are first, would we not want to be like those late workers, having only to have worked one hour before receiving the same reward? The conclusion of the parable still raises uncomfortable questions. The Christian life is not uncommonly thought of as one confined by rules and restrictions. Are some of us just “unluckily” born into a life where our Christian status prohibits (or “strongly discourages”) pre-marital sex, alcohol consumption, or relationships with non-Christians?
But what if the parable was not about salvation but about the gospel? The workers in the parable likely worked and lived day to day, as evidenced by the fact that the owner continually found unemployed workers throughout the day. The one work day depicted in the parable can be interpreted to culminate in death and salvation or to mark the beginning of a new, secure life in Christ; both interpretations work. The first workers were lucky – they found work quickly, with a man who promised them the standard wage for common laborers. On the other hand, imagine what it would be like to be one of the last workers, having fruitlessly waited anxiously all day for some work so that you could feed your family. Then, a landowner offers you work and you go, glad to have at least a chance to earn some money.
To your surprise, he chooses to pay you the equivalent of a full day’s wages. What is your response?
Excitement. Disbelief. Gratefulness. Elation. You run home and tell your family. You tell your friends. And, you return to work for him the next chance you get because you have found a generous boss.
The work in the vineyard in the parable represents the gospel of God. Without it, we as workers wait restlessly, not knowing what will become of us and our loved ones. In this interpretation, the reward is not only the denarius, which represents salvation, but also the opportunity of work that brings relief to the workers. Being hired earlier is not indicative of being subjected to restrictions for a longer time. Instead, it means that they do not have to worry for as long about their futures. And the later workers, having received the gospel, return home that much more eager to spread the good news and to return to work the next day.
The parable reinforces one of the greatest lessons of the Christian experience as seen in the sinful woman washing the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50), the paralyzed man in Capernaum (Mark 2:1-12), and thousands others who have been moved by faith: often the promise of salvation, more than actual salvation itself, drives the Christian faith. The knowledge of the gospel changes us, filling us with humbling disbelief and gratitude and allowing us the luxury of never having to worry about worldly concerns again.
Christina Park ’20 is a freshman living in Stoughton.