Verses 1–16

This parable of the labourers in the vineyard is intended,

I. To represent to us the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 20:1), that is, the way and method of the gospel dispensation. The laws of that kingdom are not wrapt up in parables, but plainly set down, as in the sermon upon the mount; but the mysteries of that kingdom are delivered in parables, in sacraments, as here and Matt. 13:1-58 The duties of Christianity are more necessary to be known than the notions of it; and yet the notions of it are more necessary to be illustrated than the duties of it; which is that which parables are designed for.

II. In particular, to represent to us that concerning the kingdom of heaven, which he had said in the close of the foregoing chapter, that many that are first shall be last, and the last, first; with which this parable is connected; that truth, having in it a seeming contradiction, needed further explication.

Nothing was more a mystery in the gospel dispensation than the rejection of the Jews and the calling in of the Gentiles; so the apostle speaks of it (Eph. 3:3-6); that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs: nor was any thing more provoking to the Jews than the intimation of it. Now this seems to be the principal scope of this parable, to show that the Jews should be first called into the vineyard, and many of them should come at the call; but, at length, the gospel should be preached to the Gentiles, and they should receive it, and be admitted to equal privileges and advantages with the Jews; should be fellow-citizens with the saints, which the Jews, even those of them that believed, would be very much disgusted at, but without reason.

But the parable may be applied more generally, and shows us, 1. That God is debtor to no man; a great truth, which the contents in our Bible give as the scope of this parable. 2. That many who begin last, and promise little in religion, sometimes, by the blessing of God, arrive at greater attainments in knowledge, grace, and usefulness, than others whose entrance was more early, and who promised fairer. Though Cushi gets the start of Ahimaaz, yet Ahimaaz, choosing the way of the plain, outruns Cushi. John is swifter of foot, and comes first to the sepulchre: but Peter has more courage, and goes first into it. Thus many that are last shall be first. Some make it a caution to the disciples, who had boasted of their timely and zealous embracing of Christ; they had left all, to follow him; but let them look to it, that they keep up their zeal; let them press forward and persevere; else their good beginnings will avail them little; they that seemed to be first, would be last. Sometimes those that are converted later in their lives, outstrip those that are converted earlier. Paul was as one born out of due time, yet came not behind the chiefest of the apostles, and outdid those that were in Christ before him. Something of affinity there is between this parable and that of the prodigal son, where he that returned from his wandering, was as dear to his father as he was, that never went astray; first and last alike. 3. That the recompence of reward will be given to the saints, not according to the time of their conversion, but according to the preparations for it by grace in this world; not according to the seniority (Gen. 43:33), but according to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. Christ had promised the apostles, who followed him in the regeneration, at the beginning of the gospel dispensation, great glory (Matt. 19:28); but he now tells them that those who are in like manner faithful to him, even in the latter end of the world, shall have the same reward, shall sit with Christ on his throne, as well as the apostles, Rev. 2:26-3:21. Sufferers for Christ in the latter days, shall have the same reward with the martyrs and confessors of the primitive times, though they are more celebrated; and faithful ministers now, the same with the first fathers.

We have two things in the parable; the agreement with the labourers, and the account with them.

(1.) Here is the agreement made with the labourers (Matt. 20:1-7); and here it will be asked, as usual,

[1.] Who hires them? A man that is a householder. God is the great Householder, whose we are, and whom we serve; as a householder, he has work that he will have to be done, and servants that he will have to be doing; he has a great family in heaven and earth, which is named from Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:15), which he is Owner and Ruler of. God hires labourers, not because he needs them or their services (for, if we be righteous, what do we unto him?), but as some charitable generous householders keep poor men to work, in kindness to them, to save them from idleness and poverty, and pay them for working for themselves.

[2.] Whence they are hired? Out of the market-place, where, till they are hired into God’s service, they stand idle (Matt. 20:3), all the day idle (Matt. 20:6). Note, First, The soul of man stands ready to be hired into some service or other; it was (as all the creatures were) created to work, and is either a servant to iniquity, or a servant to righteousness, Rom. 6:19. The devil, by his temptations, is hiring labourers into his field, to feed swine. God, by his gospel, is hiring labourers into his vineyard, to dress it, and keep it, paradise-work. We are put to our choice; for hired we must be (Josh. 24:15); Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. Secondly, Till we are hired into the service of God, we are standing all the day idle; a sinful state, though a state of drudgery to Satan, may really be called a state of idleness; sinners are doing nothing, nothing to the purpose, nothing of the great work they were sent into the world about, nothing that will pass well in the account. Thirdly, The gospel call is given to those that stand idle in the market-place. The market-place is a place of concourse, and there Wisdom cries (Prov. 1:20, 21); it is a place of sport, there the children are playing (Matt. 11:16); and the gospel calls us from vanity to seriousness; it is a place of business, of noise and hurry; and from that we are called to retire. “Come, come from this market-place.”

[3.] What are they hired to do? To labour in his vineyard. Note, First, The church is God’s vineyard; it is of his planting, watering, and fencing; and the fruits of it must be to his honour and praise. Secondly, We are all called upon to be labourers in this vineyard. The work of religion is vineyard-work, pruning, dressing, digging, watering, fencing, weeding. We have each of us our own vineyard to keep, our own soul; and it is God’s and to be kept and dressed for him. In this work we must not be slothful, not loiterers, but labourers, working, and working out our own salvation. Work for God will not admit of trifling. A man may go idle to hell; but he that will go to heaven, must be busy.

[4.] What shall be their wages? He promises, First, A penny, Matt. 20:2. The Roman penny was, in our money, of the value of a sevenpence half-penny, a day’s wages for a day’s work, and the wages sufficient for a day’s maintenance. This doth not prove that the reward of our obedience to God is of works, or of debt (no, it is of grace, free grace, Rom. 4:4), or that there is any proportion between our services and heaven’s glories; no, when we have done all, we are unprofitable servants; but it is to signify that there is a reward set before us, and a sufficient one. Secondly, Whatsoever is right, Matt. 20:4-7. Note, God will be sure not to be behind-hand with any for the service they do him: never any lost by working for God. The crown set before us is a crown of righteousness, which the righteous Judge shall give.

[5.] For what term are they hired? For a day. It is but a day’s work that is here done. The time of life is the day, in which we must work the works of him that sent us into the world. It is a short time; the reward is for eternity, the work is but for a day; man is said to accomplish, as a hireling, his day, Job 14:6. This should quicken us to expedition and diligence in our work, that we have but a little time to work in, and the night is hastening on, when no man can work; and if our great work be undone when our day is done, we are undone for ever. It should also encourage us in reference to the hardships and difficulties of our work, that it is but for a day; the approaching shadow, which the servant earnestly desireth, will bring with it both rest, and the reward of our work, Job 7:2. Hold out, faith, and patience, yet a little while.

[6.] Notice is taken of the several hours of the day, at which the labourers were hired. The apostles were sent forth at the first and third hour of the gospel day; they had a first and a second mission, while Christ was on earth, and their business was to call in the Jews; after Christ’s ascension, about the sixth and ninth hour, they went out again on the same errand, preaching the gospel to the Jews only, to them in Judea first, and afterward to them of the dispersion; but, at length, as it were about the eleventh hour, they called the Gentiles to the same work and privilege with the Jews, and told them that in Christ Jesus there should be no difference made between Jew and Greek.

But this may be, and commonly is, applied to the several ages of life, in which souls are converted to Christ. The common call is promiscuous, to come and work in the vineyard; but the effectual call is particular, and it is then effectual when we come at the call.

First, Some are effectually called, and begin to work in the vineyard when they are very young; are sent in early in the morning, whose tender years are seasoned with grace, and the remembrance of their Creator. John the Baptist was sanctified from the womb, and therefore great (Luke 1:15); Timothy from a child (2 Tim. 3:15); Obadiah feared the Lord from his youth. Those that have such a journey to go, had need set out betimes, the sooner the better.

Secondly, Others are savingly wrought upon in middle age; Go work in the vineyard, at the third, sixth, or ninth hour. The power of divine grace is magnified in the conversion of some, when they are in the midst of their pleasures and worldly pursuits, as Paul. God has work for all ages; no time amiss to turn to God; none can say, “It is all in good time;” for, whatever hour of the day it is with us, the time past of our life may suffice that we have served sin; Go ye also into the vineyard. God turns away none that are willing to be hired, for yet there is room.

Thirdly, Others are hired into the vineyard in old age, at the eleventh hour, when the day of life is far spent, and there is but one hour of the twelve remaining. None are hired at the twelfth hour; when life is done, opportunity is done; but “while there is life, there is hope.” 1. There is hope for old sinners; for if, in sincerity, they turn to God, they shall doubtless be accepted; true repentance is never too late. And, 2. There is hope of old sinners, that they may be brought to true repentance; nothing is too hard for Almighty grace to do, it can change the Ethiopian’s skin, and the leopard’s spots; can set those to work, who have contracted a habit of idleness. Nicodemus may be born again when he is old, and the old man may be put off, which is corrupt.

Yet let none, upon this presumption, put off their repentance till they are old. These were sent into the vineyard, it is true, at the eleventh hour; but nobody had hired them, or offered to hire them, before. The Gentiles came in at the eleventh hour, but it was because the gospel had not been before preached to them. Those that have had gospel offers made them at the third, or sixth hour, and have resisted and refused them, will not have that to say for themselves at the eleventh hour, that these had; No man has hired us; nor can they be sure that any man will hire them at the ninth or eleventh hour; and therefore not to discourage any, but to awaken all, be it remembered, that now is the accepted time; if we will hear his voice, it must be to-day.

(2.) Here is the account with the labourers. Observe,

[1.] When the account was taken; when the evening was come, then, as usual, the day-labourers were called and paid. Note, Evening time is the reckoning time; the particular account must be given up in the evening of our life; for after death cometh the judgment. Faithful labourers shall receive their reward when they die; it is deferred till then, that they may wait with patience for it, but no longer; for God will observe his own rule, The hire of the labourers shall not abide with thee all night, until the morning. See Deut. 24:15. When Paul, that faithful labourer, departs, he is with Christ presently. The payment shall not be wholly deferred till the morning of the resurrection; but then, in the evening of the world, will be the general account, when every one shall receive according to the things done in the body. When time ends, and with it the world of work and opportunity, then the state of retribution commences; then call the labourers, and give them their hire. Ministers call them into the vineyard, to do their work; death calls them out of the vineyard, to receive their penny: and those to whom the call into the vineyard is effectual, the call out of it will be joyful. Observe, They did not come for their pay till they were called; we must with patience wait God’s time for our rest and recompence; go by our master’s clock. The last trumpet, at the great day, shall call the labourers, 1 Thess. 4:16. Then shalt thou call, saith the good and faithful servant, and I will answer. In calling the labourers, they must begin from the last, and so to the first. Let not those that come in at the eleventh hour, be put behind the rest, but, lest they should be discouraged, call them first. At the great day, though the dead in Christ shall rise first, yet they which are alive and remain, on whom the ends of the world (the eleventh hour of its day) comes, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds; no preference shall be given to seniority, but every man shall stand in his own lot at the end of the days.

[2.] What the account was; and in that observe,

First, The general pay (Matt. 20:9, 10); They received every man a penny. Note, All that by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, honour, and immortality, shall undoubtedly obtain eternal life (Rom. 2:7), not as wages for the value of their work, but as the gift of God. Though there be degrees of glory in heaven, yet it will be to all a complete happiness. They that come from the east and west, and so come in late, that are picked up out of the highways and the hedges, shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at the same feast, Matt. 7:11. In heaven, every vessel will be full, brimful, though every vessel is not alike large and capacious. In the distribution of future joys, as it was in the gathering of the manna, he that shall gather much, will have nothing over, and he that shall gather little, will have no lack, Exod. 16:18. Those whom Christ fed miraculously, though of different sizes, men, women, and children, did all eat, and were filled.

The giving of a whole day’s wages to those that had not done the tenth part of a day’s work, is designed to show that God distributes his rewards by grace and sovereignty, and not of debt. The best of the labourers, and those that begin soonest, having so many empty spaces in their time, and their works not being filled up before God, may truly be said to labour in the vineyard scarcely one hour of their twelve; but because we are under grace, and not under the law, even such defective services, done in sincerity, shall not only be accepted, but by free grace richly rewarded. Compare Luke 17:7, 8; 12:37.

Secondly, The particular pleading with those that were offended with this distribution in gavel-kind. The circumstances of this serve to adorn the parable; but the general scope is plain, that the last shall be first. We have here.

1. The offence taken (Matt. 20:11, 12); They murmured at the good man of the house; not that there is, or can be, any discontent or murmuring in heaven, for that is both guilt and grief, and in heaven there is neither; but there may be, and often are, discontent and murmuring concerning heaven and heavenly things, while they are in prospect and promise in this world. This signifies the jealousy which the Jews were provoked to by the admission of the Gentiles into the kingdom of heaven. As the elder brother, in the parable of the prodigal, repined at the reception of his younger brother, and complained of his father’s generosity to him; so these labourers quarrelled with their master, and found fault, not because they had not enough, so much as because others were made equal with them. They boast, as the prodigal’s elder brother did, of their good services; We have borne the burthen and heat of the day; that was the most they could make of it. Sinners are said to labour in the very fire (Hab. 2:13), whereas God’s servants, at the worst, do but labour in the sun; not in the heat of the iron furnace, but only in the heat of the day. Now these last have worked but one hour, and that too in the cool of the day; and yet thou hast made them equal with us. The Gentiles, who are newly called in, have as much of the privileges of the kingdom of the Messiah as the Jews have, who have so long been labouring in the vineyard of the Old-Testament church, under the yoke of the ceremonial law, in expectation of that kingdom. Note, There is a great proneness in us to think that we have too little, and other too much, of the tokens of God’s favour; and that we do too much, and others too little, in the work of God. Very apt we all are to undervalue the deserts of others, and to overvalue our own. Perhaps, Christ here gives an intimation to Peter, not to boast too much, as he seemed to do, of his having left all to follow Christ; as if, because he and the rest of them had borne the burthen and heat of the day thus, they must have a heaven by themselves. It is hard for those that do or suffer more than ordinary for God, not to be elevated too much with the thought of it, and to expect to merit by it. Blessed Paul guarded against this, when, though the chief of the apostles, he owned himself to be nothing, to be less than the least of all saints.

2. The offence removed. Three things the master of the house urges, in answer to this ill-natured surmise.

(1.) That the complainant had no reason at all to say he had any wrong done to him, Matt. 20:13, 14. Here he asserts his own justice; Friend, I do thee no wrong. He calls him friend, for in reasoning with others we should use soft words and hard arguments; if our inferiors are peevish and provoking, yet we should not thereby be put into a passion, but speak calmly to them. [1.] It is incontestably true, that God can do no wrong. This is the prerogative of the King of kings. Isa. there unrighteousness with God? The apostle startles at the thought of it; God forbid! Rom. 3:5, 6. His word should silence all our murmurings, that, whatever God does to us, or withholds from us, he does us no wrong. [2.] If God gives that grace to others, which he denies to us, it is kindness to them, but no injustice to us; and bounty to another, while it is no injustice to us, we ought not to find fault with. Because it is free grace, that is given to those that have it, boasting is for ever excluded; and because it is free grace, that is withheld from those that have it not, murmuring is for ever excluded. Thus shall every mouth be stopped, and all flesh be silent before God.

To convince the murmurer that he did no wrong, he refers him to the bargain: “Didst not thou agree with me for a penny? And if thou hast what thou didst agree for, thou hast no reason to cry out of wrong; thou shalt have what we agreed for.” Though God is a debtor to none, yet he is graciously pleased to make himself a debtor by his own promise, for the benefit of which, through Christ, believers agree with him, and he will stand to his part of the agreement. Note, It is good for us often to consider what it was that we agreed with God for. First, Carnal worldlings agree with God for their penny in this world; they choose their portion in this life (Ps. 17:14); in these things they are willing to have their reward (Matt. 6:2, 5), their consolation (Luke 6:24), their good things (Luke 16:25); and with these they shall be put off, shall be cut off from spiritual and eternal blessings; and herein God does them no wrong; they have what they chose, the penny they agreed for; so shall their doom be, themselves have decided it; it is conclusive against them. Secondly, Obedient believers agree with God for their penny in the other world, and they must remember that they have so agreed. Didst not thou agree to take God’s word for it? Thou didst; and wilt thou go and agree with the world? Didst not thou agree to take up with heaven as thy portion, thy all, and to take up with nothing short of it? And wilt thou seek for a happiness in the creature, or think from thence to make up the deficiencies of thy happiness in God?

He therefore, 1. Ties him to his bargain (Matt. 20:14); Take that thine is, and go thy way. If we understand it of that which is ours by debt or absolute propriety, it would be a dreadful word; we are all undone, if we be put off with that only which we can call our own. The highest creature must go away into nothing, if he must go away with that only which is his own: but if we understand it of that which is ours by gift, the free gift of God, it teaches us to be content with such things as we have. Instead of repining that we have no more, let us take what we have, and be thankful. If God be better in any respect to others than to us, yet we have no reason to complain while he is so much better to us than we deserve, in giving us our penny, though we are unprofitable servants. 2. He tells him that those he envied should fare as well as he did; “I will give unto this last, even as unto thee; I am resolved I will.” Note, The unchangeableness of God’s purposes in dispensing his gifts should silence our murmurings. If he will do it, it is not for us to gainsay; for he is in one mind, and who can turn him? Neither giveth he an account of any of his matters; nor is it fit he should.

(2.) He had no reason to quarrel with the master; for what he gave was absolutely his own, Matt. 20:15. As before he asserted his justice, so here his sovereignty; Isa. it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Note, [1.] God is the Owner of all good; his propriety in it is absolute, sovereign, and unlimited. [2.] He may therefore give or withhold his blessings, as he pleases. What we have, is not our own, and therefore it is not lawful for us to do what we will with it; but what God has, is his own; and this will justify him, First, In all the disposals of his providence; when God takes from us that which was dear to us, and which we could ill spare, we must silence our discontents with this; May he not do what he will with his own? Abstulit, sed et dedit—He hath taken away; but he originally gave. It is not for such depending creatures as we are to quarrel with our Sovereign. Secondly, In all the dispensations of his grace, God gives or withholds the means of grace, and the Spirit of grace, as he pleases. Not but that there is a counsel in every will of God, and what seems to us to be done arbitrarily, will appear at length to have been done wisely, and for holy ends. But this is enough to silence all murmurs and objectors, that God is sovereign Lord of all, and may do what he will with his own. We are in his hand, as clay in the hands of a potter; and it is not for us to prescribe to him, or strive with him.

(3.) He had no reason to envy his fellow servant, or to grudge at him; or to be angry that he came into the vineyard no sooner; for he was not sooner called; he had no reason to be angry that the master had given him wages for the whole day, when he had idled away the greatest part of it; for Isa. thine eye evil, because I am good? See here,

[1.] The nature of envy; It is an evil eye. The eye is often both the inlet and the outlet of this sin. Saul saw that David prospered, and he eyed him, 1 Sam. 18:9, 15. It is an evil eye, which is displeased at the good of others, and desires their hurt. What can have more evil in it? It is grief to ourselves, anger to God, and ill-will to our neighbour; and it is a sin that has neither pleasure, profit, nor honour, in it; it is an evil, an only evil.

[2.] The aggravation of it; “It is because I am good.” Envy is unlikeness to God, who is good, and doeth good, and delighteth in doing good; nay, it is an opposition and contradiction to God; it is a dislike of his proceedings, and a displeasure at what he does, and is pleased with. It is a direct violation of both the two great commandments at once; both that of love to God, in whose will we should acquiesce, and love to our neighbour, in whose welfare we should rejoice. Thus man’s badness takes occasion from God’s goodness to be more exceedingly sinful.

Lastly, Here is the application of the parable (Matt. 20:16), in that observation which occasioned it (Matt. 19:30); So the first shall be last, and the last first. There were many that followed Christ now in the regeneration, when the gospel kingdom was first set up, and these Jewish converts seemed to have got the start of others; but Christ, to obviate and silence their boasting, here tells them.

1. That they might possibly be outstripped by their successors in profession, and, though they were before others in profession, might be found inferior to them in knowledge, grace, and holiness. The Gentile church, which was as yet unborn, the Gentile world, which as yet stood idle in the market-place, would produce greater numbers of eminent, useful Christians, than were found among the Jews. More and more excellent shall be the children of the desolate than those of the married wife, Isa. 54:1. Who knows but that the church, in its old age, may be more fat and flourishing than ever, to show that the Lord is upright? Though primitive Christianity had more of the purity and power of that holy religion than is to be found in the degenerate age wherein we live, yet what labourers may be sent into the vineyard in the eleventh hour of the church’s day, in the Philadelphian period, and what plentiful effusions of the Spirit may then be, above what has been yet, who can tell?

2. That they had reason to fear, lest they themselves should be found hypocrites at last; for many are called but few chosen. This is applied to the Jews (Matt. 22:14); it was so then, it is too true still; many are called with a common call, that are not chosen with a saving choice. All that are chosen from eternity, are effectually called, in the fulness of time (Rom. 8:30), so that in making our effectual calling sure we make sure our election (2 Pet. 1:10); but it is not so as to the outward call; many are called, and yet refuse (Prov. 1:24), nay, as they are called to God, so they go from him (Hos. 11:2, 7), by which it appears that they were not chosen, for the election will obtain, Rom. 11:7. Note, There are but few chosen Christians, in comparison with the many that are only called Christians; it therefore highly concerns us to build our hope for heaven upon the rock of an eternal choice, and not upon the sand of an external call; and we should fear lest we be found but seeming Christians, and so should really come short; nay, lest we be found blemished Christians, and so should seem to come short, Heb. 4:1.