Matthew Chapter 20:1-16
The parable of the agreed wages of the vineyard workers
1 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. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny 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 unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 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? 7 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. 8 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. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 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. 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
LABOURERS IN THE VINEYARD
I CALL your attention to the particular teaching that is enshrined in this parable as part of our general consideration of the subject of spiritual depression, or, if you prefer it, the subject of unhappiness in the life of the Christian—the miserable Christian. I feel that we have arrived at a turning point. So far, we have been considering difficulties which I would put into the category of preliminary difficulties, those initial stumbling blocks —difficulties arising from a lack of clarity with regard to the entry into the faith and the Christian life.
Now we must take a step forward. We have not by any means dealt with all the preliminary difficulties, our treatment has not been exhaustive in that sense; but we have tried to pick out the more important causes of stumbling and of difficulty and of unhappiness. The kind or group of difficulties we now want to consider are those which tend to arise after that stage of the preliminaries. These difficulties, of course, may come at any point, but they do constitute a kind of group on their own.
As we come to consider them, we must again remind ourselves that the Scripture makes it very plain and clear that there is no part of this Christian life which is without its dangers. Nothing is so false to the teaching of the New Testament as to give the impression that the moment you believe and are converted, all your troubles are at an end and you will never have another problem. Alas, that is not true, and it is not true because we have an enemy, the Adversary of our souls. But not only do we have to contend with the enemy, there is still the old nature within, and these two together make it certain that we shall have troubles and difficulties; and it is our business to understand the teaching of the Scripture with respect to these, lest we be caught by the guile and the subtlety of the enemy. He follows us as he followed our Lord, all the way. When he had tempted and tried our Lord in the wilderness for forty days, we are told that at the end of it he only left Him ‘for a season’. He did not leave Him permanently, he came back again and again and followed Him all the way.
Look at his activities in Gethsemane at the very end, indeed he was still attacking when our Blessed Lord was dying on the Cross. Now to say that is not to be depressing, it is to be realistic, and to be realistic is always encouraging. There is nothing worse or more reprehensible than to drug people with some kind of soporific and then to allow them to wake up suddenly to find difficulties they are not prepared for. It is our business to anticipate these things in the light of Scripture. ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed’, and we have before us always that mighty Scripture which teaches: ‘Take unto you, therefore, the whole armour of God’. We are simply trying in these studies to put on the separate pieces of this strong armour that God has provided for us.
The point I would emphasize now, therefore, is that while it is of vital and supreme importance to start correctly, it is not enough. We must continue in the same way, for, if we do not, we shall soon find ourselves unhappy. In other words, I am laying down the proposition, that though we may be clear about the things that we have been considering hitherto—though the gospel has been presented to us and we have been converted, though we have started correctly and are in the Christian life, though we have heeded the warnings about the initial difficulties —yet if we do not continue, if we do not maintain our course in the same way, we shall soon get into trouble. There is a great illustration of this in the Gospel according to St. John, the eighth chapter, verses 30 ff. Our Lord was preaching one afternoon about the relationship between Himself and the Father, and we are told that: ‘As He spake those words many believed on Him’. Then our Lord looked at them and said: ‘If ye continue in My words then are ye My disciples indeed and ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free’. They seemed to be starting well but they must continue if they were to be truly free. It is exactly the same with some of the people depicted in the parable of the sower. There were those who received the Truth with great joy but they did not last. In other words the importance of continuing is a very vital principle and that is what I want to consider with you in the light of this parable.
As we come to look at it, it is very important that we should approach it correctly and understand it truly. It can be said with reverence that this is a very dangerous parable if we do not interpret it correctly. There are many who take hold of one thing only in it, namely ‘the eleventh hour’. They think to themselves: ‘I need not worry about my salvation now; I will do so at the eleventh hour, like the people who went in at the eleventh hour and got paid the same as those who had started early in the morning’. There is no more fatal mistake than this. As Bishop Ryle says of the dying thief: ‘Few are ever saved on their deathbeds. One thief on the cross was saved that none should despair; but only one, that none should presume’. Another dangerous thing is to turn the parable into an allegory, to take hold of each detail in the teaching and impose upon it some spiritual truth. That has often been done, but that is all due to the fact that we fail to remember that this is a parable, and the point to remember about a parable is that it is generally meant to illustrate one truth only. That is why, for instance, in the thirteenth chapter of this Gospel according to St. Matthew you find that our Lord spoke a whole series of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. You cannot see it all in one. One shows one aspect and another; they are all complementary, and each one is meant to convey one aspect of truth only. We must be very careful, therefore, that we do not turn the details into some kind of allegorical representation of the truth.
This parable, therefore, like all the other parables, is meant to teach one great truth. What is that? The answer, surely, is to be found in the word ‘FOR’ —’For the Kingdom of Heaven’. It is a pity that when they came to divide the Scriptures up into chapters they introduced a division at this point. Obviously the theme is a continuation of what we have at the end of the nineteenth chapter, and what we have there is the incident of the rich young ruler, so called, and our Lord’s comments to the disciples about that young man who had gone away sorrowful. You remember what Peter said to Him: ‘We have forsaken all and followed Thee, what shall we have therefore ?’ Now it was because of this that our Lord spoke this parable. Peter put his question. He said in effect: ‘Look, Lord, we have left everything, we have come after you, we have given up everything, what are you going to give us ?’ Our Lord answered his question and said: ‘Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel; And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for My Name’s sake shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last: and the last shall be first. “FOR” the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, etc.’ In other words, the whole point of this parable is addressed to Peter because of that claim which he made. Our Lord heard Peter’s question and He answered Peter’s question, but He obviously detected a very wrong and false note in that question; so it was in order to rebuke him, to reprimand him and to warn him most seriously, that our Lord spoke the parable. That, it seems to me, is proved conclusively by the way in which He repeats this statement about ‘many that are first shall be last and the last shall be first’. You get it at the beginning and you get it at the end.
Here, then, is the principle on which we must concentrate. What is it ? What is the doctrine ? It is that in the Christian life all is of grace from the very beginning to the very end. That is the message, that is the doctrine, that is the principle. Now we glanced at the teaching of this parable in a previous study but we were concerned then to take up the one point, that, because of this great principle of grace, those who do come in at the end are equally in with those who went in at the beginning. We were dealing then with the discouragement that often conies to men who may be converted in their old age. We saw that it is never too late, that salvation is not only for young people, but for all. Sometimes a man who is converted rather late in life is tempted of the devil in this way because salvation has come to him so late, and because of the years he has wasted. To such a man it is a great comfort that our Lord called these men and sent them in at the eleventh hour. We then looked at it from that point of view, but now in this study the emphasis is rather upon those who went in at the beginning. There can be no doubt at all but that the primary object of the parable is to address them and to issue to them this most serious and solemn warning.
The point about these people is that they started in the right way and then got into trouble later on. How often does that happen! That is why it is dealt with so frequently in the New Testament in such phrases as: ‘Ye did run well, who did hinder you ?’ There is a sense in which all the New Testament Epistles were written to help just this kind of person. These early Christians had believed and come into the early Church, but they had become depressed, and the Epistles were written in order to help them. It is something that is constantly threatening us, and it is a danger that tends to dog our footsteps throughout the Christian life. It is not enough to start correctly, we must continue in the right way. I am going to deal with many illustrations of this. The danger to many has been to go back into bondage and it is a very real danger at the present time because of the cults that thrive round and about us. People who have known the glorious liberty of the children of God sometimes go back into bondage and become miserable and unhappy. Very well, let us try to look at this as it is presented in this parable.
First of all let us try to analyse the cause of the trouble. Why did these men, who were sent into the vineyard early in the morning, cut such a sorry figure at the end? Here they are discontented and murmuring and grumbling—what was the cause of the trouble ? I would lay down as the first principle that their attitude towards themselves and their work was clearly wrong. I tend to agree with those who say that there is significance in this word ‘agreed’ in the second verse ‘And when he had agreed with the labourers’, etc. Now it is the truth that we are only told about this agreement in the case of these first people. We are told later on, you remember: ‘About the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market-place and said unto them: Go ye also into the vineyard and whatsoever is right I will give you’. And so he said to all the subsequent labourers. There is no talk about an agreement. He simply says: ‘You go and work and what is right I will give you’.And they went quite happily. But with the first people, who murmured at the end about the wages paid, there seems to be a suggestion that they demanded an agreement. Thus one feels at the very beginning that there was something wrong in their attitude. They have this tendency to strike a bargain, to make certain demands and to stipulate certain things. Whether we are right or wrong in sensing this about them, surely we are right in saying that they are very conscious of their work, they are very conscious of what they are doing; as they are working, they are in a sense keeping an eye upon themselves doing it. What a terrible thing that is! But are we not all guilty of it ? God knows the greatest problem that any man who preaches the gospel ever has to face is that while he is preaching he is in danger of looking at himself and watching himself and always being conscious of himself. It comes into all our service, it comes into everything we do. It is very true of the natural man of course. He is play-acting all the time and watching himself, and this thing tends to follow us into the Christian life. These men, clearly, were very conscious of everything they did. It is obvious from what they say that they had been watching themselves all the time.
Let us go on to the next point, which is that they were assessing their work. They were keeping an account of the others also, and keeping a careful record of all they did and how long they had been working, as well as how many hours they themselves had spent and how much they themselves had done—’the heat and burden of the day’. They knew it all in detail and kept a careful record and account of it. That is our Lord’s first statement about these people. Let us pause with that for a moment and let it sink deeply into us. Our Lord is concerned to denounce that attitude. It is fatal in the Kingdom of God. He detected it in Peter’s statement. ‘We have left all and followed Thee, what do we get?’ The suggestion of bargain and demand is implicit there. The fundamental attitude is so wrong and so entirely antithetical to the realm of the Spirit and of the Kingdom, as we shall see. But there it is and this wrong attitude is bound to lead to trouble eventually, as it did in the case of these men. What is so pathetic and tragic about this is that it brings a man into trouble at the very point where our Lord is most gracious in His dealings. What makes this parable so terrible is that these men are exposed for what they really were, and the terrible spirit which possessed them is revealed just when the householder in his graciousness gave a penny to the last exactly as to the first. It is then that it comes out and leads to trouble. Look at these men. Because of their initial wrong attitude, because of their forgetfulness of the principle of grace, they expected to receive more than the others, and they felt that they deserved more. Of course they were perfectly logical, they were quite consistent with themselves. Starting on their principle and from their attitude it is the logical conclusion. That is why I say that to start in that way inevitably leads to this position. They had a feeling that they were entitled to more and that they should be given more; they expected more and because they did not get it they were upset.
The next thing we are told is that they began to murmur. Now their happiness and their joy have gone altogether, and here they are murmuring because they were not given something extra. Is not that a terrible thing? But how true it is that Christian people can be guilty of this very thing that our Lord here depicts—this tendency to murmur as the children of Israel did of old, and as these people did at this point, commiserating with yourself, feeling you are not having your rights, feeling you are being dealt with harshly. There is a great deal of emphasis upon this in the New Testament. You remember how the Apostle Paul addresses a word about it to the Philippians. He reminds them that they are to be as luminaries in the heavens, they are to ‘do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life’ (Philippians 2. 14-16). What a tragic thing it is that Christian people can be miserable and murmuring instead of rejoicing in Christ Jesus. It is an outcome of the fact that they have forgotten that everything is of grace. They have forgotten this great principle that goes right through the Christian life from the very beginning to the very end.
But that is not all. It leads to another thing, namely, a contempt for others and at the same time a certain amount of jealousy of others. The men in the parable say, ‘Here 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’. It is the principle of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son and again is illustrated in many places in the New Testament. This tendency comes in and attacks Christian people who have been faithful in their witness and who have done most excellent •work. It comes in most subtle ways and makes them miserable because they feel that others have been rewarded in a greater way than they have. Those who have read Mr. Hugh Redwood’s account of himself in the years of his backsliding will know that this was precisely the cause of his trouble. A change of officers in the Salvation Army made him feel he was no longer the favourite. Somebody else was brought forward and made the favourite and he began to feel sorry for himself, and back he went into sin. Read his book ‘God in the Shadows’ and there you will find the account in detail. That is the kind of thing illustrated here. These men felt a contempt for the others, they were jealous of those men who were given so much when they had done so little. Their whole attitude was selfish and self -centred.
But above all, and this is the most serious and the most terrible thing of all, they had a feeling in their heart that the householder was unjust. In this condition they had persuaded themselves that this man was not righteous in his dealing with them. They were absolutely wrong, there was not a vestige of foundation for that attitude, but they felt it. And so the Christian is tempted of the devil to feel that God is not being fair. The devil comes to him and says: ‘Look at how much you have done, and what are you getting for it? Look at that other fellow, he has done nothing yet look at what he is getting’. That is what the devil says, and these people listen to him: ‘We who have borne the heat and burden of the day are only getting a penny—the same as these others who have only been working for an hour’. That is the spirit, and the thing that makes it so serious is that in that condition the Christian, unless he is very careful, will soon be ascribing unrighteousness to God. He will be feeling that God is not fair to him, that God is not giving him his rights, that God is not giving him his due.
What a miserable thing self is, what an ugly thing, what a foul thing. We are all guilty, of this, every one of us, in some shape or form. The devil comes to us and we listen, and we begin to doubt whether God is just and righteous in His dealings with us. Self needs to be exposed for what it is. Sin in its ugliness and foulness needs to be unmasked. It is not surprising that our Lord dealt with this wrong spirit in the way He did in this parable. It is the greatest enemy of the soul, and it leads to misery and unhappiness. It is bound to do so for every reason. It is utterly wrong, and there is nothing to be said in its defence.
That brings me to the cure. What is the treatment? It is to understand the controlling principle of the Kingdom of God. That principle which seems so obvious but which we are so prone to forget in detail. Our Lord puts it here once and for ever. I am simply putting what He said in other words. The principle is that in the Kingdom of God everything is essentially different from everything in every other kingdom. For, He says in effect, the Kingdom of God is not like that which you have always known, it is something quite new and different. The first thing we have to realize is that ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creature (he is a new creation), old things are passed away, behold all things are become new.’ If only we realized as we should, that here we are in a realm in which everything is different! The whole foundation is different, it has nothing to do with the principle of the old life. We have to work this out in detail, but first let me underline again that new principle. We lust say to ourselves every day of our lives: ‘Now I am a Christian,and because I am a Christian I am in the Kingdom of God and all my thinking has got to be different. Everything here is different. I must not bring with me those old ideas, those old moods and concepts of thought’. We tend to confine salvation to one thing, namely to forgiveness, but we have to apply the principle throughout the Christian life.
Very well, bearing that in mind, here are some of the details. The first thing is this. Do not think in terms of bargains and rights in the Kingdom of God. That is absolutely fatal. There is nothing so wrong as the spirit which argues that because I do this, or because I have done that, I have a right to expect something else in return. This is met with frequently. I know very good evangelical Christian people, who seem to be thinking like that. ‘Now,’ they say, ‘if we pray for certain things, we are bound to have them, for instance if we pray all night for revival we must have revival.’ I have sometimes described this as the ‘penny in the slot’ idea of Christianity. You put in your coin and you draw out a bar of chocolate or whatever else you want. Now this is that same attitude. Because men in the past have prayed all night that revival might come and revival has come, therefore let us have an all-night prayer meeting and revival will come. But that surely is to deny the whole principle which our Lord is teaching. I do not care what it is, whether prayer or anything else, in no respect must I ever argue that because I do something I am entitled to get something—never. And of course the principle can be seen to be true in practice. Think of the many such prayer meetings that have been held. And yet the revival has not come, and I am going to venture to say that I thank God that it has not. What would the position be if we could command these things at will ? But we cannot. Let us get rid of this bargaining spirit, that if I do this then that will happen. You cannot have revival whenever you want it and as a result of doing certain things. The Holy Spirit is Lord, and He is a Sovereign Lord. He sends these things in His own time and in His own way. In other words we must realize that we have no right to anything at all. ‘But’, says someone, ‘does not Paul teach about judgment and rewards in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in the fifth chapter?’ Certainly he does, and he does so likewise in the third chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and our Lord Himself in the twelfth chapter of Luke talks about those who are beaten with many stripes and those who receive few stripes and so on. Well, what of that? The reply is that even the rewards are of grace. He need not give them, and if you think you can determine and predict how they are to come you will be quite wrong. Everything is of grace in the Christian life from the very beginning to the very end. To think in terms of bargains and to murmur at results, implies a distrust of Him, and we need to watch our own spirits lest we harbour the thought that He is not dealing with us justly and fairly.
If you start in that way you end by robbing yourself. I like the way in which our Lord teaches that. If you strike a bargain with God, well then it is almost certain that you will just get your bargain and no more. These men at the very beginning had this agreement for one penny per day. ‘Very well,’ said the householder, ‘I will give you a penny.’ But when the others came he said to them: ‘You go and work and I will give you that which is right’. And they received much more than they expected. These last people got a penny; but they never expected it, and they had much more than they imagined. But the first got nothing but the penny. O Christian friends, do not make bargains with God. If you do, you will get only your bargain; but if you leave it to His grace, you will probably get more than you ever thought of. Of the Pharisees our Lord says: ‘Verily they have their reward’. They do these things in order to be seen of men; they are seen of men, that is what they wanted and that is all they will get, they will get no more.
Very well, let us go on to the next principle. Do not keep a record or an account of your work. Give up being book-keepers. In the Christian life we must desire nothing but His glory, nothing but to please Him. So do not keep your eye on the clock, but keep it on Him and His work. Do not keep on recording your work and labour, keep your eye on Him and His glory, on His love and His honour and the extension of His Kingdom. Keep your attention on that and on nothing else. Have no concern as to how many hours you have given to the work, nor how much you have done. In effect leave the bookkeeping to Him and to His grace. Let Him keep the accounts. Listen to Him saying it Himself: ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth’. That is the way you are to work in His Kingdom, you are to work in such a way that your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing. For this reason: ‘Thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly’. There is no need to waste time keeping the accounts, He is keeping them. And what wonderful accounts they are. May I say it with reverence, there is nothing I know of that is so romantic as God’s method of accountancy. Be prepared for surprises in this Kingdom. You never know what is going to happen. The last shall be first. What a complete reversal of our materialistic outlook, the last first, the first last, everything upside down. The whole world is turned upside down by grace. It is not of man, it is of God, it is the Kingdom of God. How excellent this is.
Let me make a personal confession. This kind of thing has often happened to me in my ministry. Sometimes God has been gracious on a Sunday and I have been conscious of exceptional liberty, and I have been foolish enough to listen to the devil when he says: ‘Now, then, you wait until next Sunday, it is going to be marvellous, there will be even larger congregations’. And I go into the pulpit the next Sunday and I see a smaller congregation. But then on another occasion I stand in this pulpit labouring, as it were left to myself, preaching badly and utterly weak, and the devil has come and said: ‘There will be nobody there at all next Sunday’. But, thank God, I have found on the following Sunday a larger congregation. That is God’s method of accountancy. You never know. I enter the pulpit in weakness and I end with power. I enter with self-confidence and I am made to feel a fool. It is God’s accountancy. He knows us so much better than we know ourselves. He is always giving us surprises. You never know what He is going to do. His book-keeping is the most romantic thing I know of in the whole world.
Our Lord spoke of it again in the third parable in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. You remember His description of the people who will come at the end of the world expecting a reward but to whom He will give nothing, and then the others to whom He will say: ‘Come ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you’. And they will say: ‘We have done nothing. When have we seen you naked, when have we seen you hungry or thirsty and given you drink?’ And He will say, ‘Because you have done it unto the least of My brethren you have done it unto Me’. What a surprise that will be. This life is full of romance. Our ledgers are out of date; they are of no value. We are in the Kingdom of God and it is God’s accountancy. It is all of grace.
Very well, that brings us to the last principle, which is that we should not only recognize that it is all of grace, but rejoice in the fact that it is so. That was the tragedy of these men. They see a penny given to those who only work for one hour, and instead of rejoicing at the sight of it, they begin to murmur and complain, to feel that it is unjust and that they are not being dealt with fairly. The secret of a happy Christian life is to realize that it is all of grace and to rejoice in that fact. ‘So likewise ye,’ says our Lord in another place, ‘when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you say, “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”.’ That is His view, that is His teaching, and that is the secret of it all. Was not that His own way? It was, according to St. Paul, who says: ‘Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’. You see what that means. He did not look at Himself, He did not consider Himself and His own interests only; He made Himself of no reputation, He laid aside the insignia of His eternal glory. He did not regard His equality with God as something to hold on to and say: ‘Come what may I will not let it go’. Not at all, He laid it aside, He humbled Himself, He forgot Himself, and He went through arid endured and did all He did, looking only to the glory of God. Nothing else mattered to Him but that the Father should be glorified and that men and women should come to the Father. That is the secret. Not watching the clock, not assessing the amount of work, not keeping a record in a book, but forgetting everything except the glory of God, the privilege of being called to work for Him at all, the privilege of being a Christian, remembering only the grace that has ever looked upon us and removed us from darkness to light.
It is grace at the beginning, grace at the end. So that when you and I come to lie upon our deathbeds, the one thing that should comfort and help and strengthen us there is the thing that helped us at the beginning. Not what we have been, not what we have done, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. The Christian life starts with grace, it must continue with grace, it ends with grace. Grace, wondrous grace. ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ ‘Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
From Spiritual Depression – Its Causes and Its Cure by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Chapter IX (9)