For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matthew 20:1–16)
You can see their point. Like many others they had gone to the marketplace to find work, waiting for some landowner to come out looking for workers. Agriculture is a seasonal business, and when the vines need picking then pickers are needed. So there you go, as soon as the sun lightens the sky and join the others. As the landowners arrive to hire labourers, you bustle about trying to catch their eye. Trying to look up to the job, reliable. Looking to feed your family. Hoping for the daily denarius. The landowner points to you, a denarius is agreed and off you go to the vineyard.
As the sun continues to climb, the heart climbs with it. Soon sweat drips and your head gently spins from dehydration. The work is relentless, and after three hours another bunch of workers come along to help. The sun still climbs, and as the noonday heat beats down another group join you to gather the grapes. Three hours later, as shadows are beginning to grow, yet more come.
Finally the sun drops, and a cool begins to wash over the vineyard. The work is still relentless, especially if you’ve been out in the sun all day, but it is easier now. That last lot who have just shown up really have had it easy. They’ve only worked an hour, and it was the easiest hour. But who cares! You’ve earned a full day’s wage. Hard work, but it has its reward.
The thing is the easy work got the same reward. Those who idly spent the day in the market place, chatting amongst themselves, seeking the shade of the tree and the buildings, got their daily denarius without their daily work. It’s just not fair.
Now, as a story this is bad enough but when you realise that this is a parable, and that Jesus is likening the landowner to God it becomes all the more concerning. Why isn’t he rewarding hard work? Why do those who came late get the same as those who have laboured long? Yes, he might say “do you begrudge my generosity” but surely there is an issue of fairness too? Perhaps the disciples were thinking to themselves “we’ve followed Jesus for ages now, and have put up with the abuse, surely that’s worth something”.
Yet that is to misunderstand the “kingdom of heaven”. The point is that you are either a citizen, or you’re not. The person who received their citizenship yesterday has the same rights and responsibilities as the one who received their citizenship years before. It’s the same passport, the same taxation regime, the same legal rights. You don’t get a discount on income tax after paying for ten years, the rate stays the same.
There is more, too. Note that none of these workers was brought up on the vineyard, they all had to be invited to come along by the landowner. None of them had their place amongst the grapes by right, but had to wait for the call. It’s the same with the Kingdom of Heaven: no-one is born there, or is a citizen by right. We all have to respond to the call of God. We await his good timing, and his good pleasure. That’s what it is to be in the Kingdom of Heaven.
When you look at the parable again with that understanding you begin to see its glorious point, the fact that it is never too late. We all experience the call of God at different times of our life, and that is not because we are deficient in some way but simply because God calls different people at different times. If we are in the bunch who are called early in life, then good. If it is in our eightieth year that the place our faith in Christ, then good. It is our job to respond. That’s all.
This parable is a parable of grace. It speaks of the generosity and patience of God. It demonstrates that our place in the Kingdom of Heaven is dependant in him, and his invitation. Not on ourselves, or our own hard work, but on his grace and that grace alone.
There are many stories of those who came to faith in later life, and for those in later life these are stories of great hope. God doesn’t give up on us in our younger years but he can issue his call at any time, even the eleventh hour. To be called late is not disgrace, to be called early is no hard work. The main thing is this: are you a citizen or not?