by John Calvin
As this parable is nothing else than a confirmation of the preceding sentence, the last shall be first, it now remains to see in what manner it ought to be applied. Some commentators reduce it to this general proposition--that the glory of all will be equal because the heavenly inheritance is not obtained by the merits of works but is bestowed freely. But Christ does not here argue either about the quality of the heavenly glory or about the future condition of the godly. He only declares that those who were first in point of time have no right to boast or to insult others, because the Lord, whenever he please, may call those whom he appeared for a time to disregard and may make them equal or even superior to the first.
If any man should resolve to sift out with exactness every portion of this parable, his curiosity would be useless; and therefore we have nothing more to inquire than what was the design of Christ to teach. Now we have already said that he had no other object in view than to excite his people by continual spurs to make progress. We know that indolence almost always springs from excessive confidence; and this is the reason why many, as if they had reached the goal, stop short in the middle of the course. Thus Paul enjoins us to forget the things which are behind (Phil. 3:13), that, reflecting on what yet remains for us, we may arouse ourselves to persevere in running. But there will be no harm in examining the words, that the doctrine may be more clearly evinced.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder. The meaning is, that such is the nature of the divine calling as if a man were, early in the morning, to hire laborers for the cultivation of his vineyard at a fixed price, and were afterwards to employ others without an agreement but to give them an equal wage. He uses the phrase kingdom of heaven because he compares the spiritual life to the earthly life, and the reward of eternal life to money which men pay in return for work that has been done for them. There are some who give an ingenious interpretation to this passage, as if Christ were distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews, they tell us, were called at the first hour with an agreement as to the wage, for the Lord promised to them eternal life on the condition that they should fulfill the law; while in calling the Gentiles no bargain was made, at least as to works, for salvation was freely offered to them in Christ. But all subtleties of that sort are unseasonable, for the Lord makes no distinction in the bargain but only in the time; because those who entered last and in the evening into the vineyard receive the same wage with the first. Though in the Law God formerly promised to the Jews the wage of works (Lev. 18:5), yet we know that this was without effect, because no man ever obtained salvation by his merits.
Why, then, it will be said, does Christ expressly mention a bargain in reference to the first but makes no mention of it in reference to the others? It was in order to show that without doing injury to anyone, as much honor is conferred on the last as if they had been called at the beginning. For, strictly speaking, he owes no man anything, and from us who are devoted to his service he demands as a matter of right all the duties which are incumbent on us. But as he freely offers to us a reward, he is said to hire the labors which, on other grounds, were due to him.
If any man infer from this that men are created for the purpose of doing something, and that every man has his province assigned him by God, that they may not sit down in idleness, he will offer no violence to the words of Christ. We are also at liberty to infer that our whole life is unprofitable, and that we are justly accused of indolence until each of us regulate his life by the command and calling of God.
And when the evening was come. It would be improper to look for a mystery in the injunction of the householder to begin with the last, as if God crowned those first who were last in the order of time; for such a notion would not at all agree with the doctrine of Paul. They who are alive, he says, at the coming of Christ will not come before those who previously fell asleep in Christ, but will follow (1 Thess. 4:15). But Christ observes a different order in this passage because he could not otherwise have expressed, what he afterwards adds, that the first murmured because they did not receive more.
So the first shall be last. Christ only meant to say that everyone who has been called before others ought to run with so much the greater alacrity; and next, to exhort all men to be modest, not to give themselves the preference above others but willingly to share with them a common prize. As the apostles were the firstfruits of the whole church, they appeared to possess some superiority; and Christ did not deny that they would sit as judges to govern the twelve tribes of Israel. But that they might not be carried away by ambition or vain confidence in themselves, it was necessary also to remind them that others who would long afterwards be called would be partakers of the same glory, because God is not limited to any person but calls freely whomsoever He pleases, and bestows on those who are called whatever rewards He thinks fit.