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Eleventh Hour Disciples – Matthew 20:1-16


Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ parable concerning the farmer who hired workers for his vineyard. Throughout the day he went to the labor exchange where he found workers: early in the morning, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, and an hour before sun-down.

He made an agreement with those hired first. They agreed to work for a denarius a day. He told those hired later, “Whatever is right, I will give you.” Even those hired at the eleventh hour had the same message. “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”

So far, no one has a problem. An agreement, a labor contract if you please, is covering the earliest hires. That is not hard for us to accept. We are accustomed to labor contracts and understand them. “You work; I pay” or “I work; you pay.”

We are a little less certain about the rest of the hires, however. “I will give you what is right.” Who determines what is right? How do I know I can trust you to do what is correct? Can I be sure you will not exploit me? After all, some employers would sometimes keep back wages (see James 5:4). How can I be sure you will treat me fairly. I have come late to the vineyard. Will you really treat me “right”?

So the owner calls everyone to line up to receive their pay, beginning (surprisingly) with those hired last. When they step up, they are astonished to receive a full denarius. They have received far more than they expected. They have the same amount as those who worked twelve long, hot hours had agreed on.

Each person who came to the paymaster received the same amount – including those hired early in the morning. They supposed they would receive more, so they complained to the owner of the vineyard.

It did not seem fair to them – and (be honest now) it does not seem fair to us. If one group worked one hour and received a denarius, why do these – who worked twelve hours through the heat of the day – also get only the same? Where is the justice in that?

The master replied to the complaint:

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good? – Matthew 20:13-15

Here is a lesson on grace as opposed to justice. Justice would have given the late-hires a lesser amount. Grace gave them equal portions. This, however, is a lesson I missed for many years. For a long time I applied this only to the time of life in which one came to the Lord. Some (such as I) came early in life and labored an entire life in the Lord’s vineyard. Others came later, some even in the eleventh hour of life.

One day it dawned on me that those hired early were under contract. At the end of the day, all they received was their wages. There was no grace involved. It was, as Paul wrote,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:2-5

When I realized the difference between earning wages and receiving a gift, I came to realize that I was an eleventh hour disciple, one paid (actually given) far more than he deserved. I realized that my salvation is by grace through faith.

What lessons does this parable teach us (if we will but pay attention to it)?

  • Trusting God is more important that negotiating with Him. Those who came late in the day could have tried to negotiate. Had they done this instead of trusting the owner to do right by them, what would have happened? Likely, those who came at noon would have gotten a half-denarius, those at mid-afternoon would receive a quarter-denarius, and those at the eleventh hour would have only a twelfth-denarius.
  • God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. Why should I try to determine just how God should treat each person? His mercy is His to dispense. I need, instead, to learn how to be merciful as He is merciful. I need to do my best to teach what I understand His will to be – but I always need to be accepting of His judgments. I should never complain if He grants someone more than I think he “deserves.” What if He forgives someone who is not baptized? Forgiveness is His to give, not mine to withhold. Why should I complain that this person does not deserve forgiveness? After all, I receive far more than I deserve as well.
  • If I go to God expecting justice, He will give it to me. Justice means getting what is rightfully mine. Since I am a sinner, what is rightfully mine is my wages – which is death. If the bargain is “Keep My Law and you will receive life,” I will die – for I have not kept the law in its fullness. Why should I insist on justice for everyone else – and expect to receive mercy myself?
  • If I trust God and serve Him faithfully as long as I am in the vineyard, He will save me. Some were idle all the day long until the eleventh hour. When hired, they worked. Had they been slackers in the vineyard would they have received the denarius? We certainly have no reason to think so. Did they do equal work for equal pay? Hardly. Did they work as hard during their single hour as others did in the heat of the day? We do not know. We do have reason to believe they were workers, not slackers, once they were in the vineyard. How do we stay in the vineyard? Change the metaphor a little and look at what Jesus said in John 15.

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. – John 15:5-7

I remain safe only by keeping connected with Jesus. How perfect is my connection? Can I, with my imperfect connection, judge someone else as unworthy because I do not think he is still connected? Jesus is the judge of that, not me.

  • The Laborers in the Vineyard is a parable of Grace. Perhaps it was a warning to the Twelve who said in the previous chapter, “We have left all to follow you.” Jesus recognized that, but closed His remarks to them in that chapter by saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This is exactly how He closed the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard as well. What was the warning? Simply this: “Do not become smug in your relationship to me.” To become smug would be dangerous, for our feeble sense of right and wrong does not bind God’s grace.

Nothing binds His grace but His own love.

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