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ANALOGIES IN THE PARABLE OF THE LABORERS IN THE VINEYARD
The householder is God.
The chief steward is Jesus Christ to whom the Father hath committed judgment.
The vineyard is the church.
The laborers who are hired to work in the vineyard are Christians.
The penny payment stands for the eternal reward in heaven.
The evening is the end of life, and, in a sense, the judgment.
The ones first hired represent the legalists and their "contract" with God.
The ones hired last, without any agreement, are those who rely on God's grace.
The generosity of the householder represents the goodness of God.
The complainers represent the self-righteousness of those who consider themselves worth more than others.
The time sequence in hiring represents acceptance of the gospel call at early and later times in the life cycle of Christians.
The work represents service Christians are expected to give God in his church.
Only the parable of the unjust steward has elicited more numerous and diverse explanations by commentators than has this one. It will be seen from the above that here indeed is another one; but, among so many and various opinions, ONE MORE could not possibly do any harm!
Many difficulties are seen no matter how the parable is explained; and yet a number of the analogies are so plain and unmistakable as to make a very vivid impression on the mind.
On this first verse, let it be noted that God expects workers, not shirkers, in his kingdom. He hired laborers, not drones. The initiative, as always, rests with God and not with man. From that remote day when God went seeking Adam in Paradise, the Father still seeks people to worship and love him in order to redeem them (John 4:23). It is obvious also that God expects man to work in His farm, or vineyard; that is, in HIS church! The laborers were hired into His vineyard. They were not told to go to work in the vineyard of their choice! Complexities in the religious conditions of the post-Reformation era, in which we live, do not relieve worshipers of the solemn obligation to make certain that they truly work in the Lord's field, and not in another's. The place to serve God is in the true church established by Jesus Christ. No one can suppose that the householder (God) in this parable would have rewarded the workers for labor in any field but His own.
The most difficult part of this parable is the time sequence, which is met in the first line of it, continues all the way through it, is the point of contention at the end of it, and which is obviously one of the very significant things in it. Many commentators refuse to hazard an opinion as to what the "early morning" means; and some, of course, would remand it to secondary status in the parable, viewing it as incidental or inert mattter. Those who have offered an explanation have made it the early part of man's physical life, the morning of human history, the patriarchal dispensation, the Abrahamic portion of Jewish history, the personal ministry of Christ, and just about everything else. Following the view that the "evening" represents the end of life, this writer would refer the time sequence events to various ages of converts; thus, a young person accepts the call early in the morning, others later; and old persons, nearly at the end of life, are said to come in at the eleventh hour.
The KJV uses "penny" instead of shilling for the coin. Inconsistency may appear in the fact that it is not always the young who take an attitude of "bargaining" with the Lord, so much work for so much pay. However, if our analogies be allowed, they were the ones who DID make that mistake here. Furthermore, the temptation to that very attitude is greater on the part of one who contemplates giving his whole life to God and who brings relative innocence and purity of youth to the vineyard. Conversely, the temptation is diminished in those who come later in life, scarred and broken by sin, and realizing their plight of unworthiness and hopelessness far more keenly than any young person could possibly realize it.
God's invitation to men is constant and not confined to any age or condition of life. Morning, noon, evening and twilight, the Master calls men to work in his vineyard. Notice too the Master's evaluation of the work men do outside the church. Those not working in the vineyard are simply standing around "idle." All is lost except what is done for Christ and at his direction. All frenzied human endeavor is the grossest idleness when contrasted with work in the vineyard of the Lord.
One of the mysteries is why these men were not hired earlier. If, as the householder suggested, they had been standing around all day, why had they not been hired already? The householder was then on his fifth trip to the marketplace; laborers were urgently needed; and it may not be supposed that the householder had deliberately passed them by without an invitation; and yet they alleged that the reason for their unemployment was their lack of opportunity to work, or lack of an employer. Difficult as that may appear, however, the analogy Jesus sought to convey in this situation, and as it applies to spiritual things, is far easier to understand. God is calling people all the time; but, through the influence of Satan, some do not hear, or hearing do not believe, or believing yield to various seductive deterrents. Therefore, we reject the view that those eleventh hour workers were justified in their day-long idleness on the grounds that they had had no chance to work. True, that is what THEY said the reason was; but we appeal to the words of the householder as a complete refutation of their flimsy alibi. It is quite easy to believe men rather than God, as witnessed by the commentators who accept the paper-thin alibi of those late workers. Would the wise and generous householder (standing here for God Himself) have charged those men with idleness unless he in fact had seen them on his repeated trips to the marketplace? No, we dare not disallow the charge of the householder on the basis of the weak excuse they gave. It is a further commentary on the love, fairness; and goodness of God, that the householder accepted them anyway.
This view should not be embarrassing. The attempt to show that the eleventh-hour workers responded as soon as they had a chance is an unconscious effort to lend merit where none existed. The groundless view that this interpretation might encourage one to wait until the evening of life to respond to the gospel call is negated when it is remembered what a frightful chance those late workers took. Who could have dared to suppose that the householder would again appear in the twilight on his fifth mission to the market place? The gospel abounds with warnings that the first call should be heeded. "Behold, NOW is the accepted time."
The chief steward in this analogy is Christ our Lord to whom the Father hath committed judgment; he is the head of the church and shall preside at the judgment of the Great Day. Christ shall mete out to the wicked and to the righteous their just dues.
When even was come
indicates the end of earthly life; and, due to the association of judgment with life's end, it has a dual significance, applying not only to the end of life in the earthly phase of the kingdom but having an application to the eternal judgment also. In any case, no pay until evening. That is the big message here. Men may never abandon their labors in the church on the assumption that they have done enough. Those in advancing years should take sharp notice of this. Payment will come at the end of the day; and it may be dogmatically assumed that any who abandoned work earlier received nothing at all for their labors. It corresponds to Bible teaching that these men were paid at the end of the day (see Deuteronomy 24:15; Leviticus 19-13; Job 7:2; Malachi 3:5; James 5:4).
The representation of eternal life by so small a consideration as a day's wages raises a question and certainly stands opposite from the usual analogies employed by the Lord, such as the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the banquet in the king's house. However, special considerations that required the approach adopted here is discovered in the events and conversations that concluded Matthew 19. The great wealth of the rich young ruler and his inability to give it up to follow Christ, and the subsequent fixation of the apostles' attention on the problem of rewards and sacrifices, and the Saviour's elaboration of the believer's great reward (see on Matthew 19:29) - all these things had contrived to throw the whole problem out of perspective. This parable is a reduction of the whole economy of redemption to such a minute scale that those apostles, accustomed to dealing with small things, would have no difficulty at all grasping the truth. Eternal life, together with all spiritual blessings, is made to correspond to so simple and ordinary a thing as a shilling, a day's pay; and all the sacrifices, labors, and exertions of men to attain eternal life are made to appear as a day's work, or even a very small fraction of a day's work. Suppose that some incredibly wealthy and fabulous city, such as New York, should be sold for fifteen cents, or fifteen dollars! Who could quibble about the price either way? Price simply bears no relationship whatever to the purchase in such supposition. That is exactly what Christ was teaching in this parable. Whatever people do, however long or short their service to God, whatever of sacrifice, blood, or tears, however soon or late they began to serve him, the reward is so fantastically great that the conditions for obtaining it, whether more or less in certain cases, must forever appear utterly and completely insignificant. Nor is the shilling, or penny, a problem in this view. Christ had just elaborated the rewards at the end of the last chapter; and the shilling appears in the parable as the symbol of those rewards simply because that was the usual day's pay in that age. Even so, it is not inappropriate, because a day's wage is the support of life, not only in that age but in every age. Even a geographer knows the device of making a cipher stand for the world itself!
The expectation of those men was groundless because they had firmly agreed with the householder for a shilling a day. Their expectation of more resulted from the comparison they made between themselves and the ones who came to work later. It was that very thing, the envy, jealousy, and petty attention to little differences - it was all that Jesus was trying to remove from the apostles' hearts. The perverse and sinful judgments and rankings of themselves among themselves, with the consequent jockeying and maneuvering for position and advantage - these things constitute one of man's most shameful and hurtful patterns of behavior. Paul paid his respects to that vice in these words:
For we are not bold to number or compare ourselves with certain of them that commend themselves: but they themselves, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves with themselves, are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
The workers first employed fell into that same foolish trap. As a result, they developed a conceit that turned to outrage when the householder made them equal to the latecomers.
That the human race needed this parable is perfectly evident from the fact that most people can find a feeling of sympathy for the viewpoint of the "firsters"! There are many in all generations who would have been just as outraged as were they. And why were they angry? The householder had interfered with and upset their petty schedule of ranks and values. The inflated evaluation of themselves as compared with the latecomers had been unceremoniously kicked in the teeth. They had no case, but their spiteful anger flared just the same. Every minister of the gospel has heard this same murmuring in the church when someone says, "Why should he be a deacon; I've been in this congregation twenty years!" "Why should that man be an elder or on the building committee? My Uncle Charlie started this church in a schoolhouse; we've all been members here since it started? This is exactly what Christ was fighting in this parable.
"Thou hast made them equal to US!" There is the bull's eye of the trouble. WE are the people. WE have done the work, shouldered the load, borne the heat, and carried the mail. Those latecomers ought to be away down on the scale compared to US! Every church on earth has the US problem. It existed among the sacred numbers of the twelve apostles. But wherever the problem exists, nothing solves it like getting things in the proper perspective. That is what Jesus sought to do with this parable. The FIRST ones became last by their very bitterness and pettiness and their self-righteous preferment of themselves above others; and those LAST became first by their loving trust of the householder. That is the principal point Christ himself drew from the parable. See Matthew 19:29 and Matt. 20:16.
The cause of the trouble in that ancient vineyard was not the generous and loving householder but the spiteful jealousy of the laborers hired that morning. Jesus' use of the word "Friend" here does not carry the same connotation that the word has for many in our day. He thus addressed Judas who came to betray him (Matthew 26:50).
Note the words, "take up." Can it be that some of those disgruntled workers had even thrown their pay on the ground at the chief steward's feet? The words do certainly suggest that. What an insight such conduct affords. What a wreckage of human personality comes of envy and jealousy! Envy, pride, self-righteousness, and egotism had so embittered those men that they repudiated a fair and honorable bargain, turned on their benevolent employer, murmured against him, and threw their wages on the ground!
Here, of course, is the point that most commentators find so difficult. Ancient and modern expositors alike seem to stumble on the problem, "How can people like that be represented as redeemed?" The complainers in the parable actually appear as having their wages thrust upon them after having thrown their pay on the ground. They were the ones who worked all day in the vineyard, and they were the ones who went home with their just pay. How can salvation be justly ascribed to men with such a pattern of behavior and with such an attitude?
To be sure, the difficulty might be avoided by making this incident an inert or inactive part of the parable; but it received too much stress for that. This writer views it as another example of the Father's goodness, just like that represented by the father of the prodigal son who received him, and later went and entreated the elder brother also. We conclude that God will save even people like that if they give Him half a chance to do so. If we disallow such a possibility, we fall into the same error as the "firsters" in supposing that we meek and gentle trusters of God's grace are better than THEY, and that the good householder would in some way injure US (there's that word again) if he saved sinners like them! In any case, the solemn warning in the next verse is squarely directed at all the "Us-es" in either category.
Let it be remembered that all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. This parable shows that men may forget this in two ways: (1) They may forget it like the ones who worked all day and supposed that they were better than the ones who came later; (2) and they may forget it like the eleventh-hour workers would have forgotten it if they had objected to the householder's payment of the "firsters" on the grounds that the "firsters" had the wrong attitude! Although such a development did not occur in the parable, such an objection against the householder is found in the writings of commentators from Origen and Irenaeas to Alford and Trench. Let no man object to God's saving men on any grounds whatsoever: (1) whether from the allegation that some have not worked like "US," or (2) from the allegation that their ATTITUDE makes them inferior to "US," or from whatever premise, real or imaginary, true or false. It is altogether righteous and lawful for God to do what he wills.
It was with this declaration that the parable began and ended. The grand lesson is that men do not deserve or merit salvation. In the case of the laborers, those who worked all day did not deserve their pay after having thrown it on the ground. That act forfeited their further right to it. In spite of their lack of merit, the good householder required them to pick it up, thus giving it to them in spite of their forfeiture. The ones who labored only an hour did not deserve their pay either. They had certainly done nothing to merit a day's wages. Not even their wonderful "attitude" entitled them to a day's pay. Their reward was as much of grace as was that of the bitter "firsters"! Some of the people of our own day who fancy that their sweet and pious attitude in some way entitles them to God's favor should take note of this. The householder had every right to have cut them off with a trifle instead of a whole day's pay.
People simply do not and cannot MERIT salvation. People do not merit salvation either by works or by attitudes of trust. The meek and trustful spirit is to be desired; so also is the worker; but neither class of people, nor yet another class combining the virtues of both, can in any degree merit salvation. It is all of grace and not of debt; nor does that exclude obedience.
THE THIRD PROPHETIC ANNOUNCEMENT OF JESUS' PASSION
In the two previous prophetic announcements of his impending Passion, in Matt. 16:21 and Matt. 17:22,23, Christ had revealed the following details of his approaching death and resurrection:
Death would be accomplished in Jerusalem.
Scribes would have a part in it.
Chief priests would be involved.
The elders of the people would also be instruments of his death.
He would suffer many things from them.
He would not merely die, but be killed, a far different thing.
He would rise from the dead.
His resurrection would occur on the third day.
He would fall into their hands by being "delivered up," that is, betrayed.
In the place before us, Christ added the following supplemental details:
He would be condemned to death, indicating a trial by tribunal.
The Gentiles would have a part in it.
Gentiles would mock him.
Gentiles would scourge him.
Gentiles would crucify him.
Thus, no less than 14 pertinent and significant details of the approaching Passion were pinpointed by Christ. In these three prophetic announcements of his Passion, it is plain that every circumstance of those awful events was fully known by the Lord BEFORE it occurred.
It is stated that Jesus took the apostles "apart." Throughout his ministry, there were numbers of occasions when Christ withdrew from the hustle and bustle of daily work to engage in prayer, meditation, contemplation, and quietness. It was in such an hour that he gathered strength to approach the cross. Disciples in all ages should not neglect the ministry of the quiet hour in which the soul may take its soundings, the true perspective be ascertained, and in which the resources of the spirit may be replenished at the fountain of prayer and meditation. Vance Havner put it like this, "`Come ye yourselves apart ... and rest awhile' (Mark 6:31). This is a MUST for Christians. If you don't come apart, you WILL come apart." F1
Christ had not yet succeeded in eliminating the "me first" virus from the hearts of the Twelve. James and John, aided by their mother, pressed him for a decision that would leave out Peter and the others. Repeated announcements of Christ's impending death (and resurrection which they continued to ignore) only kindled greater enthusiasm on their part for solving the problem of "head man" in the church after Jesus' death. The wife of Zebedee did a noble thing in worshipping Jesus; but her request was founded in ignorance of what his kingdom would be.
The request of the wife of Zebedee meant that she wanted James and John to be the first and second ministers in the coming kingdom, envisioning such offices, no doubt, as those of Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer! Some have found a mystical fulfillment of her request in the fact that James was the first apostle to die and John was the last.
If one wonders why the apostles thus behaved, it should be remembered that they were still sold under sin. The great redemption had not yet taken place.
The word "cup" as used above refers to the bitterness of Jesus' sufferings. He prayed in Gethsemane that "this cup" might pass from him. The ready response of James and John showed how little they understood the implications of what the Master had just said.
Christ did not reveal who would have such honors. All such things had been prepared and predetermined by the Father in the foreknowledge of God's eternal purpose. The whole drama of human redemption was planned "before the world was"; and the important places in his kingdom were in no sense up for grabs under the press of human ambitions. The prophecy that James and John would indeed drink of the Saviour's cup was fulfilled when James was martyred under the sword of Herod (Acts 12), and as, in all probability, John suffered at a much later date.
Christ did far more than merely deny the request of that ambitious woman on behalf of her sons. He went much further and explained that the usual concept of some men ruling over others would not be allowed in the kingdom of God under any circumstance.
Why this indignation against James and John? Was it not their mother who had made the request? Yes. But without doubt, James and John had also desired top honors and had enlisted the good offices of their mother to help procure the coveted positions. The indignation of the ten was properly directed. Thus, Satan used human ambition to split the very heart of Jesus' chosen cadre of followers.
This statement of Christ does not merely repeat a well-known fact for emphasis. This is not a case of poetry in which the meaning of the first clause is exactly duplicated in the second. The full meaning appears when the pyramidal quality of Gentile government is observed.
Their Great Ones
The Rulers of the Gentiles
There are three ranks (tiers) of authority. Thus, the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over the Gentiles, and their great ones exercise authority upon the rulers of the Gentiles. Christ categorically denied any such pyramidal system of government any place whatsoever in his kingdom. "All of you are brethren" (Matthew 23:8). True greatness in Christ's kingdom lies not in office but in service. Jesus very wisely identified such pyramided governments as "Gentile," thus indicating their rejection in his kingdom of love and service, rather than of strutting power. That such Gentile forms of power exist in so-called Christian religions today does not nor cannot make it right.
It is strange that the disciples did not see that quality in Jesus, or, seeing it, seemed incapable of imitating it. His humility, meekness, and utter disregard of worldly ambition did not evoke any similar attitude on the part of the Twelve. The reason appears to be in this very text. They were still sold under sin. The great ransom for man's salvation had not yet been paid. True, the Holy Sacrifice was even then preparing to go up to Jerusalem and offer himself for the sins of all mankind, and thus to redeem them from the power of the evil one; but meanwhile the debt for sin remained undischarged, and Satan was doubling and redoubling his efforts to thwart God's holy purpose.
A ransom for many!
"Who gave himself a RANSOM for all" (1 Timothy 2:6). "God sent ... his Son to be the PROPITIATION for our sins" (1 John 2:1,2). "Ye were REDEEMED with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot, even the blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:19). "For ye were BOUGHT with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:20). Ah, how wonderful is the thought that Christ ransoms from sin! In the terrible night of this world's darkness and despair, how grandly do these glorious words go marching in the gloom of human wretchedness and sin - "ransomed, redeemed, propitiated, bought with a price!"
TWO BLIND MEN OF JERICHO
This miracle is recorded by all three of the synoptics, and their various accounts present a nice little package of "discrepancies" which are the peculiar delight of skeptics and agnostics. Trench summarized the difficulties thus:
According to him (Matthew) there are TWO blind men ... and only ONE in the other gospels. Luke appears at first sight partially to contradict one of these statements, and wholly the other; for him, the healed is but ONE; and Christ effects his cure not as he was QUITTING, but at his COMING NIGH to the city. Mark occupies a middle place, holding in part with one of his fellow evangelists, in part with the other; with Luke, he names only one who was healed; with Matthew, he places the miracle, not at the entering into, but the going out from, Jericho; so that the three narratives, in a way as curious as it is perplexing, cross and interlace one another. F2
The problem of the time or place of this miracle, whether as Christ was leaving or entering Jericho, disappears in the light of what is certainly known about that locality. A. T. Robertson said:
The discrepancy as to place, "as he went out from Jericho," or "as he drew nigh to Jericho," is best explained by the recent suggestion that the healing occurred after he left old Jericho, and as he was approaching the new Jericho which Herod the Great had built at some distance away. F3
Thus, as always, alleged contradictions flow out of men's ignorance of all the facts, not out of any real errors by the sacred writers. Add to Robertson's observation the obvious and undeniable fact that, with two Jericho's close together, any blind beggar would naturally choose a site between them! Both and all three gospels are correct. He was entering one Jericho, leaving the other. Far from being any problem, therefore, these separate accounts are overwhelming proof that the gospel writers are independent witnesses and completely trustworthy.
The difficulty mentioned above, whether there was one healed or two, is resolved in the truth that there were actually two, as stated by Matthew; and that Luke and Mark, following a pattern often observed in the New Testament, mentioned only one, the most important (to them). Mark's account shows that he was personally acquainted with Bartimaeus and his father. Thus, the healing of one known personally to Mark as a respected friend would naturally overshadowed other healings that occurred at the same time. There is no contradiction that Matthew named two, a fact that could be contradicted only by an assertion that Jesus healed ONLY one, a statement that neither Mark nor Luke made.
Those unfortunate men heard that Jesus was passing by, and they began to cry out for mercy, calling him the Son of David, a popular Jewish name for the Messiah. It is a truth worthy of our attention that even the blind, physically, could SEE that Christ was the Holy One, thus qualifying them in this category as far more perceptive than many who were spiritually blind to the excellence of Jesus.
Trench taught that the multitude might have acted out of consideration for the Master in thus trying to restrain the cries of those blind men; but it appears far more probable that Christ's old enemies, the Pharisees, or their spies, were also present (though not mentioned), and that their efforts sprang from an evil desire to silence those loud proclamations of Christ as the Messiah, a fact so abundantly attested by Jesus' mighty works, and so generally known among the people, that such a spark as might have been provided by the cries of those blind men could have set off a great demonstration. On no other occasion is it recorded that the multitude tried to silence a cry for help. Thus, there must have been some rare and unusual reason for it in this case. The repeated cries, "Thou Son of David," echoing up and down the wayside were just such an affront to the Pharisees as to provoke their interference with it if, as might be supposed, they were present. Be that as it may, whether done by that multitude with or without Pharisaical inducement, Satan must have been the prime instigator. No humor may have been intended in this wonderful narrative, but elements of it are undoubtedly present. Just imagine the spiritually blind Pharisees trying to "shush" the cries of those blind beggars who were screaming to high heaven in the presence of a great multitude that here indeed was the Messiah, a fact perfectly clear to everyone except his evil lordship, the Pharisee!
Love stands still at the cry for help, How noble was our Lord's conduct on that occasion! He was never heedless of the cries of the poor, the suffering, the sick, or the blind, or the unfortunate. Multitudes may be in a hurry, but Christ is not in a hurry. Here is an act of compassion that suggests a great passenger train stopping to aid a child to cross the street, or the conduct of Robert E. Lee, of whom it is said that he dismounted during a battle to lift a tiny bird back into its nest. But of course there is really nothing in the conduct of men that may properly be compared with the compassion of Jesus.
Mark adds the graphic words that Bartimaeus cast off his garment that he might better run to Christ. Thus, naked, or nearly so, this poor beggar, blind, despised, and suffering the most abject shame and poverty, appeared as an object of the utmost pity as he stood trembling before the Lord of Life and heard the blessed words, "What will ye that I should do unto you?" With such a word Jesus brought his petition from the general to the particular need, as Christ so often did. Naturally, there was no aching hope in a blind man's heart that could surpass the desire to see.
Christ's wonderful compassion set him apart from others. Alas, compassion is not a common human trait. How few there are who have the grace to see and the compassion to pity the sufferings of others. It is far easier to ascribe their woeful condition to their own sins or misdeeds and to go blindly and heedlessly onward without regard to those of our fellow mortals who make up the company of earth's wretched sufferers. How glorious it is that Jesus saw the man, and all the human tragedy, and the bleeding human heart that beat beneath the beggar's tattered shirt. H. Leo Boles observed from Mark's account that Jesus bade them, "Go thy way." And yet, with an affectionate disobedience, they followed him as their benefactor.
It was their way to follow him, since they were obedient after all. The blessing which they sought in receiving sight may have led them to become his disciples and receive spiritual blessings. F4
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.