Do you remember the parable that Jesus told his disciples about the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16)? There was a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers to work in his vineyard. He agreed upfront with the labourers on the terms of employment: a denarius for a day’s labour. Presumably, these labourers got to work straight away. The parable goes on to say that the master of the house went out at about the third hour and found others idly waiting in the marketplace for work. With those, he didn’t negotiate the specific terms of remuneration, but simply said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” The Master then went out again at the sixth hour and again at the ninth hour and hired more labourers the same way.
At the end of the day, when it came to the payment of wages, he started by giving a denarius to those who were hired last—a very generous wage. Those who were hired earlier, got excited, expecting him to give them more than a denarius, since they worked the whole day. But they too received a denarius, as agreed upfront.
Now, it’s not the main point of the parable, but at the same time it’s also not a peripheral observation: Clearly those who were called earlier were leading a purposeless existence. Matthew 20:3 mentions that those who were called around the third hour were “standing idle in the marketplace.” They had no work. They had no purpose. We might even say they had “no hope” and were “without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12) The parable implies that part of the labourers’ reward the work itself but, at the end of the day, those hired earlier proved that all they really wanted was the money and they took no pleasure in the work itself. They probably would have been happier to get a denarius while living exactly the way they were. They grumbled when they did not receive more than those who had been called earlier in the day, citing “the burden of the day” and “the scorching heat.” Clearly, they had found the work unpleasant and, frankly, unwelcome.
When we remember that this parable was given to teach spiritual truths—to teach the nation of Israel about the coming inclusion of the Gentiles—our own sinful hearts are revealed.
How do we view the work that God has given us? Of course, we need to be grateful for our vocational employment, but I primarily have in mind here our spiritual “employment”—all the things God has commanded us to be engaging ourselves in: discipleship, spending time in the word, gathering with other saints, raising godly children, giving generously of your time and money, denying worldly lusts, learning to love and appreciate God above everything, enduring suffering, being contented, etc. Are these things a sort of suffering to be endured or are they a joy in themselves? As you look back over the past year, do you see a growing appetite for godly service, or does anything that takes you away from your hobbies feel like a wrench? My intention in writing this is not to put anyone in on a guilt trip: We all realise that we have a way to go before we are what we will one day be. But are you, by God’s grace, more than you once were? Can you observe that growth in your own appetites? Let me encourage you to use your attitude to spiritual service and acts of obedience as something of a “spiritual temperature” indicator. When scanned by the word of God, is your temperature coming out worryingly low? Have your heart and mind been transformed such that, for you, Christianity is more than simply a get-out-of-hell-free card? Have you come to learn that God is the gospel? Can you say with Job, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15)?
These are not easy questions to answer. If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself sympathising with the original labourers. The heart of the gospel is salvation by grace, not salvation as a reward for our hard work. We work hard, being compelled by a love based on a gift already received, to later be experienced fully. We don’t serve in order to receive payment. The motivation behind our work makes all the difference in the world.
Labouring by your side in the vineyard,