Vol. 11 — No. 6 February 8, 1970
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 whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. And 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 thee, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, 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.
In Christ Jesus, who if He dealt with us according to the standard of justice would damn us all but who will save us according to the principle of grace, Fellow Redeemed:
The verse immediately preceding the parable of our text is familiar: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” The Lord Jesus brought this parable to a conclusion with the same thought: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” It is obvious that the purpose of this parable was to illustrate this truth. But what precisely is the truth? Many are called, are gathered in the gospel-net, make their way into Christian churches and become members thereof, even prominent members of the church. But few are chosen. The percentage of church members, of people on the rolls of Christian churches, that will actually arrive at the final destination of heaven is few. The first—among them no doubt prominent clergymen and lay leaders—will be last—in this sense that they shall be excluded from heaven. They shall find the door closed. They shall find themselves in outer darkness where there shall be only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Whereas the last—among them many faithful nobodies in society and even in their own churches—shall be first—that is, they shall be resurrected to the presence of the Lord and shall inhabit the eternal mansions. In brief, the Lord is most solemnly telling us that many members of Christian churches, people who are considered to be Christians and who consider themselves to be Christians, will lose their souls’ salvation. Will this happen to you or to me? God forbid!
It was to put His own disciples on their guard lest this happen to them that Jesus told this parable. He wanted to impress upon their minds that the controlling principle of the Kingdom is GRACE, not reward according to works. Perhaps we can better feel the urgency of this parable by first considering the sequence of events that led up to its being told. A fine young fellow had come up to Jesus with an important question: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” The very question revealed that he considered eternal life to be the just reward for his doing of some good thing. But just what should he do? This is what he wanted to learn from Jesus. What Jesus wanted to teach him was that his whole way of thinking about eternal life was wrong, for eternal life is never a reward for works done but a gift of God’s grace. Jesus shook this man up by telling him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and come and follow Jesus. He wanted this man to realize that he was, in fact, a slave of idolatry and needed the forgiving grace that alone can open the gates to heaven.
The disciples had heard this exchange between Jesus and this nice young man. Peter got to thinking that he and the other disciples had done exactly what Jesus had told the young man to do. They had left their jobs, their families and all that goes with them and had followed Jesus. Certainly there must be a special reward for them! This is how Peter put it: “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” That question revealed that Peter was infected with the same deadly spiritual virus that had corrupted the thinking of the young man. What’s in it for us? We’ve sacrificed so much for you, Lord. Surely there must be a special reward for us. This way of thinking could easily have caused Peter to lose everything, to find himself among the last—that is, with the door of heaven closed tightly against him. The Lord didn’t want this to happen to Peter. That’s why He told the parable of our text. He doesn’t want us to find the gate of heaven shut against us. That is why He caused His Holy Spirit to move St. Matthew to record this parable. Let us study the parable by seeking to learn the answer to the question—
“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers unto his vineyard.” The householder is the Lord God and His vineyard is the visible church on earth. “And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” A penny a day was standard wages in those days—before inflation. But notice the way the laborers insist on dealing with the Lord. Their principle was “no contract, no work.” This is the accepted principle in labor-management relations today, but this is NOT the operating principle in the Kingdom of God. All of society operates on the principle of a reward for work done. A student gets grades on his report card according to his performance in the classroom and tests. An hour’s labor is worth so much, depending upon the skill and training that is necessary to do the work. Overtime is rewarded with higher pay. Seniority is compensated. Promotions and raises are rewards for excellence of service. Children are rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. This is the way life runs along. But this is not the way things are done in the Kingdom. The Kingdom does not operate according to the principle of reward for work done. When man attempts to obligate God by contract to reward him for his paltry works, he is condemning himself, for the only thing that any of us merit by our works is hell, for “the wages of sin is death.” The operating principle in the Kingdom is GRACE: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Eph. 2:8-9. Peter forgot this for the moment. When people in Christian churches die, forgetting this, they become “the last,” that is, they lose their souls’ salvation.
The Lord of the vineyard went out to the marketplace again the third, the sixth, the ninth, and even as late as the eleventh hour. He called laborers to work in his vineyard. The Lord simply said: “Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.” They simply took the Lord at His word and went to work—trusting that He would do what was right. So we have two groups of laborers, the first that worked on the basis of a hard and fast contract and the others who worked simply believing that the Lord would do the right thing. So it is among members of Christian churches. Some labor in the Kingdom with the idea that the Lord God is under obligation to reward them for their work, to pay them overtime, and to give them a bonus for extra effort and greater achievement. They think of the Lord as having a vast computer that keeps on tallying up their merits. In case the Lord may perchance forget some work, they are happy to call it to His attention, as did the Pharisee in the parable. They shall be “last.” They shall die only to open their eyes in hell. They shall indeed get just exactly what they have coming, for they have violated the governing principle of the Kingdom—GRACE. The other laborers also worked in the Kingdom but without thought of merit and reward, but simply trusting the Lord. Their attitude is different, for they live by grace and faith. They shall be “First,” welcomed by the Lord Himself into the mansions above. Let us be warned!
The difference between the two groups of laborers became evident when the time came for them all to receive their day’s wages. When we read the parable, we shall see again why many members of Christian churches will lose their souls’ salvation—
“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.” So those who had started working the eleventh, then the ninth, sixth, third hour received their wages first. And all the while the ones who had worked all day were watching. What did they see? “And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.” They got the same amount that the first had contracted for. Quite naturally the first figured “that they should have received more.’ After all a man who works eight hours should get a bigger paycheck than a man who works but an hour. But “they likewise received every man a penny.” What was their reaction? “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.” Sounds like a reasonable complaint, does it not? Isn’t this the way things work? If a company paid the same wages to some who worked but an hour that they did to others who worked an eight-hour shift, they would surely have a “wildcat strike” on their hands.
But things are different in the Kingdom. The lord says, “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?” Remember the contract, man. This is what you wanted, and this is what you get. Perhaps here is the place to stop and talk about “the penny” that these labourers bargained for and got. The “penny” is all the temporal blessings connected with being a Christian and doing church work. Jesus referred to it in the Sermon on the Mount when He gave instruction about almsgiving: “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” Matt. 6:2. What is that reward that good church workers get? Respect, praise of their fellowman, the reputation for being a good worker, a liberal supporter of the church. This is what Ananias and Sapphire gloried in—until they fell over dead at Peter’s feet and found they were “last,” permanent residents of hell.
The Lord gives the “penny” of temporal blessings also to those who live by grace and faith. But He has much more for them. He indicates that in speaking to the murmuring laborers: “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, 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?” The Lord is good! This is the fact that has such potential for blessing for us. No one works or has ever worked for the Lord that the Lord does not pay off with blessings. Our Lord is not cheap. He doesn’t take without returning. If you come to church regularly, serve your church, support it liberally, you will receive your “penny.” You will enjoy a good reputation among us. I will look upon you as one of the members that I can rely on to get a job done or to pick up and carry his fair share of the burden and more. Our Lord rewards everyone and anyone who works for Him justly and fairly. But is this all we want or need? Just justice, just a fair return for work done?
Those that want just that will turn up among the “last.” Why? Because we need more than justice. We need GRACE. All our efforts in the Lord’s behalf, all our good works, all our shining deeds in the sight of men will bring us the reward of temporal blessings, such as fare and reputation among men, but they will not and cannot atone for a single sin. They will not and cannot merit one ounce of forgiveness. If we cry for justice from our God, we stand condemned by that justice. If we murmur against His goodness, we turn our backs upon the arm of grace that reached down from heaven in the Person of Jesus Christ to save us. So many members of Christian churches will lose their souls’ salvation because they murmur against the goodness of the Lord. That is, they reject grace and hope to be saved by their works. What a tragedy! As your pastor it is my duty to urge you to be fruitful unto good works, not to weary in well-doing, to show forth your faith by your love. But it is also my duty to warn and to go on warning you never to put your trust and hope of salvation on those same works but rather exclusively in the goodness of the Lord which has appeared unto us in the GRACE that came in and through Christ Jesus, our Lord. It is so natural and so easy to turn from the GRACE of the Lord to ourselves to find assurance of salvation. That is a fatal turn. Let us be warned! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.