Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The laborers who received the same wages


This parable, which some Church writers call the parable "of the husbandmen called to work at various times of the day," we find in the Gospel according to Matthew:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a dinarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market place, and said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a dinarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a dinarius. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a dinarius? Take what thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen"(Matthew 20:1-16).

At the dawn of the Church's history, the Word of God summoned [men] to the Kingdom of Heaven in the midst of the Jewish people. The Old Testament prophets, Saint John the Forerunner, and the God-Man Himself summoned ancient Israel first to the work in the vineyard of the Lord God. After that, the Holy apostles and other preachers carried the Good Tidings throughout the whole world. The Gospel summons individual men and whole nations to work in Christ's fields. It calls all men to God's work who stand idle in the market place, spiritually adrift and unemployed.

The "hours" - the third, sixth, ninth, eleventh - can signify either (1) the various periods of the Church's history, when one or another people was first summoned to take part in the building the Kingdom of God, or (2) the various moments in one's man's individual life (early youth, maturity, old age), when the heart first hears and accepts the summons of the Word of God.

The "evening" is the end of the work day, that is, the end of the Church history on earth or the end of one man's life, his hour of death. Just as the owner of the vineyard went out himself to seek laborers for himself, so Christ Himself also summons workers to Himself: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you" (John 15:16), He says to His Apostles. Every good thought, every good impulse to labor for the Lord, for the salvation of one's soul, comes from the Lord: The Lord calls all unto salvation, calls all into His vineyard, into His Church to labor; but it depends on man to obey or not to obey this divine call, to take the grace-filled impulse to heart or to oppose it. This is man's freedom.

The "penny" [denarius] is the token of eternal salvation in heaven. Whoso come early in the morning and whoso come late gain the same reward. This unfairness grieved those who came early, who then murmured against the owner. Here human, formal fairness wants to set itself up against divine compassion.

The husbandmen would not have begun to murmur against the owner if he had given to the "last" less than one dinarius, that is, a sum too small to provide basic costs for a single day. They first had no business with those who had come "last." Their souls felt envy, unfriendliness, and condemnation of the owner's unfairness in equal compassion, which hurts their pride. How could those called "first" be equal to those who came "last."

The elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son also spoke in a like manner: "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf"(Luke 15:29-30).

The morally insignificant feelings that gripped the first (and the elder son) undermined the quality of their labor in the Lord's field. After all, one can work even a whole day in a bad mood and do nothing good. But in "one hour," one can do more with diligence, love for the work, and trust in the owner.

The husbandmen's appraisal proved to be formal, while the owner's was spiritual and moral. And according to this appraisal, the "last" became "first" and the "first" "last." The envious may completely lose their participation in the Kingdom of Heaven. For, Christ added, "many be called, but few chosen" (Matthew 20:1-16).

This parable of the Lord teaches us that God sends grace and eternal life to man, not as by measuring his works or his time inside the Church, but by God's mercy. The Jews thought that they deserved greater reward as the original members of the Messiah's Kingdom, greater than for Christians of non-Jewish descent who had joined this Kingdom later. But God has different measures of righteousness. He values sincerity, diligence, pure love, and humility more than the external and formal human works. The good thief who repented later but sincerely on the cross and believed in the Savior with his whole heart, was worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven equally with other righteous people who served God from early childhood.

Saint John Chrysostom supplements this parable of the Lord: "If any be pious and God-loving, let him enjoy this fair and radiant solemnity. If any be a wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored in fasting, let him receive now his denarius. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him receive today his just due. If any have come after the third hour, let him feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth hour, let him doubt nothing, for he will in no way suffer loss. If any have come later than even the ninth hour, let him draw nigh, doubting nothing, fearing nothing."

"If any have only arrived at even the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid for his slowness: for the Master, Who is munificent, receiveth the last even as the first: He giveth rest to him that came at the eleventh hour, even as to him who wrought from the first hour; on the last He hath mercy, and the first He pleaseth; to this one He giveth, and on that one He bestoweth; and the works He receiveth, and the intention he welcometh, and the deed He honoreth, and the purpose He praiseth. Wherefore, then, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord: both first and second, receive your reward. Ye rich and ye poor, dance with one another. Ye abstemious and ye slothful, honor the day. Ye that have fasted and ye that have not fasted, be glad today. The table is full . . . let all enjoy the banquet of faith: Receive all ye the wealth of goodness!"

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