The Rich, Young Ruler came to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16, CSB). The Lord explained that eternal life is not a commodity to be earned by doing religious deeds. Jesus invited the man to make a choice: choose the god of money or choose the God of Mercy. The Rich, Young Ruler, refusing to give up his luxurious lifestyle, went away dejected and downcast.
I can almost see the Lord Jesus shake His head sadly. Turning to His followers, He spoke tenderly, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24, CSB).
Peter then stepped to center-stage and took the spot-light. Sanctimoniously, Peter said, “See, we have left everything and followed you. So what will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27, CSB). If Jesus shook His head at the Rich, Young Ruler, imagine the response to Simon Peter, the Super-Christian... Ugh!
To help Peter comprehend the matter, and to challenge all of us to consider our motivation for service, Jesus told the Parable of the Vineyard Workers.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers on one denarius, he sent them into his vineyard for the day. When he went out about nine in the morning, he saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into my vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is right.’ So off they went. About noon and about three, he went out again and did the same thing. Then about five he went and found others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one hired us,’ they said to him. ‘You also go into my vineyard,’ he told them. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, starting with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who were hired about five came, they each received one denarius. So when the first ones came, they assumed they would get more, but they also received a denarius each. When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner: ‘These last men put in one hour, and you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat.’ He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:1–16, CSB).
Jesus is not teaching that salvation comes to those who work hard. No! “He saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy” (Titus 3:4–5, CSB). “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift - not from works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, CSB). The parable is not about salvation, but about service.
Some have speculated that the first workers had a contract, a covenant, (one day’s work for one day’s wage) so they represent the Hebrew nation. Those hired at nine, noon, three and five represent the Gentiles. Maybe.
The point of the story seems to boil down to a simple truth. God is sovereign. He can demonstrate His generous grace and mercy as He pleases. Image a King who would pay a full day’s wage for just an hour’s work! That’s grace.