The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Matthew 20.9-15.
In New Testament times, the working day began at six and ended at six — a twelve hour day (see John 11.9); and a day’s pay was one denarius. In this parable which Jesus told (and of which only the ending is given above), an employer takes men on at 6 am, 9 am, 12 noon, and 5 pm (the eleventh hour); then, at 6 pm, he gives each of them his pay, and each receives a whole denarius. Those who were hired at 6 in the morning begin to complain, “It’s not fair. We’ve worked longer than anyone else, so we should receive more.”
The point of the parable is surely that, as Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2.8-9). The basis of what we receive from God is not our performance but his generosity to those who are his. It would have been possible for the landowner to pay each man what he deserved — there was a coin called the pondion which was a twelfth part of a denarius — but, as someone has said, there is no twelfth part of the love of God!
This parable has sometimes been called “The Gospel of the Penitent Thief” because, though the thief on the cross next to Jesus turned to him only in Jesus’ dying minutes, Jesus promised him “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.43). He encountered the generosity of God in Jesus and was “saved” at the eleventh hour.
I once came across this epitaph of a man who had died in a riding accident which expresses hope in the same truth …
Between the stirrup and the ground
I mercy sought, and mercy found!
The truth of the parable of the workers in the vineyard is well-expressed in that Dennis the Menace cartoon that I am so fond of. Dennis and his friend are walking out of Mrs Wilson’s house with cookies in both hands. Dennis’s friend wonders what they had done to deserve the cookies, so Dennis explains: ‘Mrs Wilson doesn’t give us cookies because we are nice. We get cookies because Mrs Wilson is nice.’
Thank you, Lord, that you are such a generous God. I gladly receive all your gifts freely given to me this day, but most of all your great gift of salvation. Amen.
Note: In a few hours time I shall be flying to the Greek island of Skiathos for a week. While I am there, I shall endeavour to continue to post to this blog but whether I succeed or not will all depend on wi-fi access. So if you are a regular visitor, I apologise in advance for any absence of fresh pieces of toast and hope you will maybe help yourself to some bacon and eggs instead!