Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Rembrandt Laborers in the Vineyard

Let’s imagine a Lebanese vineyard, with vines sagging with grapes for the harvest. The cool mornings of fall have arrived.

The owner of the vineyard has arisen before dawn. He, all his family, and his trusty steward have worked hard through the summer. The good weather has yielded a rich abundance of ripe grapes. Now an enormous amount of work needs doing, in short order. All the grapes must be picked and gathered, pressed, and trod.

So the owner is walking the road to the town square before sunrise. He meets a large group of men who themselves are on their way to the square. In the dim light, the owner stops the men and offers them the customary wage for a day’s work.

The owner hopes these men will work hard, and they do—but not quite as hard as he imagined they would. So, when the time comes for the workers’ first break of the day, the owner marches down the road again, to the square.

In the crowded square, he finds some workers with whom he has dealt before. They like him, and he likes them, even though they are not in the habit of getting up quite as early as he does. “Come on, fellas, get to work for me.” They do not even discuss what he will pay them. The wage is set by custom, the Law of Moses forbids holding a laborer’s wages overnight, and the workmen know that this owner never cheats anybody.

The owner does not expect this second group of men to tear up the hedgerows. So, when the second work break of the day comes, and all the workers sit down on shady spots of grass for lunch, the owner hoofs it back to the town square yet again.

Martin gym“We are nowhere near where we need to be today,” he is thinking to himself. “I need more men. Don’t really care who they are, so long as they can stand up straight.”

Same thing at the mid-afternoon work break. His brisk pace to the square leaves his tunic drenched with sweat this time, because the sun is riding high in the sky and beating down with Mediterranean vengeance. But his workers, while diligent enough, still have not made the progress that he wants to make today. “Sure, it’s hot right now,” he thinks to himself, “But tonight could bring a frost and kill my grapes on the vine.”

A couple hours later, the sun has arced, and shadows start to fall. The owners’ sweaty tunic now feels cool to his skin. His neighbors, he knows, are thinking about settling down in their houses for the evening. But our owner says to himself, “You know, there are probably still a few shiftless losers hanging around in the town square. I could still get a couple hours work out of them before it gets dark, if I hustle down there right now.”

Now, this vineyard owner has plenty of money. He’s already the richest vintner in the county. How did he get that way? We are witnessing how. This is a man who never gets caught flat-footed by an early frost, because he fills every minute of harvest-time daylight with men pulling grapes in his fields.

He thinks to himself as he jogs into the town square at 5 o’clock, “These maladroits will accomplish something. ‘No one has hired us?’ Maybe that’s because you hardly know how to tie your shoes. Come on. My steward will tell you what to do, and I will make it worth your while.”

denariusThis rich owner does not deal in anything smaller than one-denarius pieces, which is the coin for one day’s work. When you are as rich as he is, why bother with loose change?

So, of course, when it gets too dark to work anymore, and the steward pays everyone, the early birds grumble when the 5 o’clock crew gets the same coin. Let’s ask ourselves this: What is the difference between the owner and the early-bird crew? All of them had awoken before the cockcrow. All of them had spent the whole day in the vineyard, pressing forward with the task. All had drenched their tunics with sweat in the noonday sun. The difference between the early birders who grumble and the owner? We read it in the parable: The owner is generous.

But maybe generous in a different way than we think. Generous in a more truly divine way. Generous enough to have conceived exactly how he wanted his vineyard worked that day. Generous enough to press his plan forward with relentless attention and resourcefulness. Generous enough to rise above all petty squabbles, and recruit every willing man, because all he cares about is results.

This vineyard owner reminds me of the best coaches I had when I was young and athletic. They knew which players had the most skills, to be sure. But they also knew that you couldn’t win a high-school basketball game without at least eight boys who were ready and willing to get on the court when asked, and do exactly what they were told, for exactly as long as they were expected to do it–be it for one minute or for forty. The good coach does not think of glory for himself personally, or for any individual player. He thinks of only one thing: Winning the game.

Let’s do something great together. Each must do his or her part. When we have succeeded, we will all share the glory.

Whenever our eyes open for the first time each morning, the Lord Jesus is saying those exact words to each one of us.

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