Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Day Labor in the Vineyard -- Part 3

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is not a feel good story. This series of lessons has been exploring it to fully understand its meaning. If you are just joining this brief study, you should start at the beginning. Click here to do so.

The commentators have suggested different coinage, different work ethics, pharisaical attitudes, and concepts of eternal life to solve the puzzle of this parable. As I showed yesterday, none of these interpretations are completely satisfactory. I have derived a personally satisfactory answer, that involves the broader context of this parable. One of the reasons that more students of the Scriptures have not also seen this has to do with chapter divisions in the Bible.

Chapter and verse divisions in the Bible are arbitrary. They are useful for lookup and cross-reference, but there is nothing necessarily significant to them. Sometimes they can even hide significance. Take the current situation. Compare the last line of Matthew 19 with the last line of our parable:

“But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” (Matthew 19:30, NASB)

“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The parable is a continuation of a situation whose beginnings are in chapter 19, but none of the commentaries that I have read on this parable link the parable to the situation. There is a double whammy here. Chapter 20 starts a story. It is one of the parables of Jesus and we tend to treat His parables as self-contained. However, it should now be clear that this parable is part of a broader story.

So let's go backwards and see where we get to. Starting with the context of why Jesus first said, "But many who are first will be last, and the last, first."

Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first." (Matthew 19:27-30)

So Jesus relates His parable on the heals His answer to Peter's question, but there does not seem to be a good connection between the two. On the other hand, it is obvious that Peter's remarks are, themselves, part of a larger context. Let's go backwards one more time:

And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 

And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 

Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” 

And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; You shall love your neighbor as yourself"/p>

The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” 

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 

But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God .” 

When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26)

The incident with this young man who comes to Jesus asking what "good thing shall I do", prompts Peter to ask his question. The young man could not let go of his goods, but Peter and the others had. They had left everything, to follow Jesus. Notice how these events flow into the telling of the parable: First, the rich young man and his questions, then Jesus' commentary on why the rich young man walked away, followed by Peter asking how it will be different for the disciples. It seems to me, then, that verses 29 and 30 are important transitional verses:

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first." (Matthew 19:29-30)

Let me suggest to you, that the parable has no direct application to anyone "who has left houses or brothers" etc.. Jesus talks of their reward and then uses the word "but" to distinguish another group. That group is the "many" of verse 30, and the attitude of the rich young ruler is our key to who the "many" are.

Relating the Rich Young Man to the Workers in the Vineyard

The rich young man is very much like the first workers hired by the landowner.  This is the key to understanding the parable. I suggest to you the symbolism in this parable breaks down like this:

  • The landowner is, in fact, the Lord God, and His generosity is one of the main points of the parable.
  • The vineyard represents the work God wants accomplished on earth.
  • The hired workers represent Christians who contribute to the work of God, but have no personal concern for it. Instead their interests lie outside the welfare of the vineyard.
  • The denarius represents basic daily provisions, including eternal life, given to all such workers by a generous God.

The rich young man wanted a good thing: eternal life. It is clear, however, that he was more interested in eternal life than the giver of eternal life. He fell short in his understanding. By asking, "What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?", he was asking, "How can I obligate God to give me eternal life on my terms?" By not wanting to follow Jesus, but only wanting to obey the Torah, the rich young man exhibited the mentality of a day laborer toward the kingdom of God. If his words were honest, he had in fact worked harder at his obedience than most. At the end of the day, however, salvation is God's gift to all Christians.

What were the workers in the vineyard after? They were after daily bread for themselves and their families. The landowner knew this. He was, therefore, gracious to pay a day's wage to all. The landowner was paying according to need, not remuneration for labor.

The following letter illustrates a hired hand mentality in a believer:

Dear Mr. Torrey,

I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something I am confident is according to God's will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of the Presbyterian church for thirty years, and have tried to be a consistent one all that time. I have been superintendent in the Sunday school for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, and yet God does not answer my prayer and I cannot understand it. Can you explain it to me?

Neither the "hard labor" of this letter writer, the hot back-breaking work of the vineyard laborers, nor the disciplined self-determined obedience of the rich young man obligate God or the landowner. The landowner's heart and interest is his vineyard, not the hired men. The Lord God's interest is His kingdom, not workers whose interests lie outside the kingdom. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is about varying degrees of work done by those whose lives are separate from the welfare of the vineyard. By extension, there are believers who work hard and do useful work for the kingdom of God, but are not committed to its welfare.

They are the day laborers of the Kingdom. There are many varieties. There are the "Name It and Claim It" brand who look for scripture promises God has to keep. There are the "Success through Salvation and Spirit" brand who measure spirituality by worldly goods. There are others who believe that God must have some special little word for them for all the trouble they've had putting up with those around them. There are some who feel they have put up with more than their share of life's troubles; Surely God has an extra measure of 'rest' or satisfaction for them.

Dare I ask you, "What accounting are you keeping for your extra labor? What extra miles have you walked? What does God owe you that's special?"

I am not done with this. Tomorrow I will show the other path.

Thursday: The other path

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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