Sell, Give and Follow

In Matthew 19 a rich young ruler asked what he could do to inherit eternal life and Christ instructed him to sell, give and follow, which caused the young man to go away sorrowing. Peter picked up on Christ’s words, and asked, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” (v27) Would the disciples get a better reward since they actually had sold, given and followed? Christ said they would sit on twelve thrones, judging Israel. In Matthew 20:21, follow­ing the ‘Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard’, Salome asked the Lord if her sons could sit next to him in his kingdom, which links directly back to the answer Christ gave to Peter’s question (19:27). When the disciples sit on those twelve thrones, could her boys sit on either side of the King? Peter wanted a better reward than the rich young man; James and John wanted a better reward than the rest of the disciples. The disciples were vying for position before Christ and promoting themselves at the expense of each other. It is in this context that the ‘Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard’ is delivered. It prompts us to question whether as individuals we see ourselves as more worthy of a reward than our fellow labourers.

Whatsoever is Right

A householder went out at daybreak and hired some men to work in his vineyard. He made an agreement with them to work for him for a penny a day. He re­turned to the marketplace at intervals through the day and each time he saw other men standing idle and hired them. He agreed to pay these men “whatever was right”, or whatever was equitable. There was no agreement made about wages with the second and subsequent groups of labourers; they went to work relying on the goodness of the householder.

Finally, at five o’clock in the afternoon, the house­holder again visited the marketplace and finding men asked why they had been standing there idle all day. They answered that no one had hired them. The house­holder made the same promise to these men as he had made to all the men he had hired since the first: if they went to work in his vineyard, at day’s end they would receive what was right. These latecomers probably had no expectation of receiving a penny – a day’s wage – for an hour’s work.

At the end of the day the labourers were called, and the householder instructed his steward to give them their wages, beginning with the last-hired and ending with the first. Why did he do this? He wanted them all to see and know what he was doing and in so doing provoke them to consider his righteousness. The fact each labourer received a penny at the end of the day is worth noting. The men who complained about their wage needed to have their thinking corrected and be caused to consider the righteousness of God, but they were not receptive to this.

Each labourer was paid a penny, but the first com­plained for they supposed they should receive more. Under normal circumstances they would have been content with their wages, but doubtless they reckoned more work deserved more pay – regardless of the con­tract they had entered into. They were discontent and murmured against the householder: “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.” (Matt 20:12 NKJV)

Their complaint is understandable, for they had done twelve times the work of those who had come at five o’clock in the afternoon, and they had indeed worked through the heat and burden of the middle of the day, not just in the cool of the evening.

The householder responded, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a dena­rius?” (v13 NKJV) The word for “no wrong” is adikeo, which is the negative of the word used for ‘what is right’ dikaios (v4, 7). He fulfilled his agreement with the first and certainly did no wrong to the last. The householder had dealt righteously with each party, even though the first was unhappy. The householder had a right to do what he wanted with his labourers and to distribute his wealth as it pleased him, and there was no law that would condemn him for fulfilling his contract on the one hand, or for being too generous on the other. The primary teaching to come from this is that our heavenly Father has the right to deal with us as He sees fit, and we ought not to question Him.

But how is twelve times the work versus one time fair? Christ did not directly give a reason, but one is embedded in the parable. The householder was aware the last men he employed had been idle (literally unem­ployed) in the marketplace all day because no one had hired them. They were not idle by choice, but for want of an opportunity to work. Lazy men would not have stood all day waiting for employment, yet at the end of the day these men were still waiting with diminishing hope of work. In this parable, the householder rewarded his labourers based on their willing spirit, rather than on any contractual achievement. Christ was teaching that it would be unjust to judge on achievement alone. The last hired had waited all day for an opportunity to work, had often been overlooked, but had grasped the first opportunity that presented itself. They were rewarded accordingly.

A Statute and Ordinance in Israel

This provides us with food for thought for ecclesial life. It is useful to compare this parable with an ordinance David made following the sacking of Ziklag by the Amalekites. David followed the raiders, overcame them, recovered his possessions and took a great spoil. However, we see in the record that not all David’s men did the same day’s work. Of his six hundred men, two hundred had been so faint they could not cross the brook Besor to continue on to the battle, and so David had instructed them to tarry there and mind the stuff. Returning victorious from battle, wicked men among the four hundred didn’t want to share the spoil with those who sat by the brook. Like the labourers who had done the twelve-hour shift, some of David’s men saw an equality of reward for an inequality of work as grossly unfair. David seized the opportunity to remind them it was God who had wrought the victory; therefore it was not a case of what the warriors had recovered, but rather of what God had given them (1 Sam 30:23). David said “But as his part is who goes down to the battle, so shall his part be who stays by the supplies; they shall share alike.” (1 Sam 30:24 NKJV) This became a statute and ordinance in Israel forever.

On what basis did David say this? Again, a reason is found in the chapter: the men who had stayed at the brook were so faint they did not have the ability to follow David “for two hundred stayed behind, who were so weary that they could not cross the Brook Besor” (1 Sam 30:10, 21). It was not that they didn’t have the desire to press on; they had given as much as they could and did not have the capacity to do more. David’s ordinance took into account people’s ability to serve. David’s 600 men had equal opportunity to serve in the battle, and all 600 were willing to serve, but 200 lacked ability. David however rewarded their willing spirit.

We don’t have identical abilities to work, but God willing we will all receive the same reward. We shouldn’t use our circumstances as an excuse not to work. We must do all we are able. If all we can do is get to the brook and guard the stuff, then that’s what we should be doing. If all we can do is find work at the eleventh hour, then that’s what we should be doing. If we have been blessed with the opportunity to do more we should do it, and be careful not to despise those who can’t.

Christ has given us a victory which we, through weakness, could not win for ourselves. “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:57) Even though none of Christ’s followers have been able to follow him into the battle he fought, he is willing to share the reward with us.

It shall not be so among you

In Matthew 20 the focus is on our opportunity to work, rather than our ability. No one had hired the men who had stood all the day idle until the very end of the day. They were willing and able to work but lacked opportunity, so it was right for them to be rewarded equally. The householder saw their willingness to work as service in itself. Against this parable we might put Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

This lesson from the parable in Matthew 20 was primarily for the disciples, who were vying for better positions. It is bookended by Peter’s question in chap­ter 19, “What shall we have therefore?” and Salome’s request for James and John to sit either side of Christ in his Kingdom. Jesus admonished the disciples that the worldly logic of lording it over each other is not the way to greatness among his true followers: “It shall not be so among you” (v26). Christ has called us to serve, not to be served. Instead of despising the efforts of those who may lack ability or opportunity, or both, and pushing ourselves forward, let us encourage each other to work in our corner of the vineyard and forward the work in whatever way we can.

She did what she could

This perfectly balanced parable is not condoning lazi­ness in the Truth. Paul commands “that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess 3:10). He did not say could not work, but would not work. Again, in 2 Corinthians 8:12-14 Paul says if we first have a willing mind, our effort will be rewarded according to what we have, not according to what we have not. If there is an equality of effort there will, God willing, be an equality of reward. The parable does not promote laziness: the men who laboured for one hour had previously stood there all day waiting for an opportunity for that work to come along.

In Mark 14:8 the woman who anointed Christ’s feet was commended by him. He said her actions would be spoken of for a memorial of her wherever the Gospel is preached for the simple reason that in her moment of opportunity she had done what she could. Like the labourers in the vineyard, and the weary men by the brook, we too will be commended by Christ if we follow our calling and do what we can.