by Alfred Edersheim
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.' So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.' And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius." (Matthew 20:1-10)
The principle which Christ lays down in this parable is that while nothing done for him shall lose its reward, yet, for one reason or another, no forecast can be made nor inferences of self-righteousness be drawn. It does not by any means follow that the most work done, at least to our seeing and judging, shall entail a greater reward. On the contrary, "many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first." And in such cases no wrong has been done; there exists no claim even in view of the promises of due acknowledgment of work. Spiritual pride and self-assertion can only be the outcome either of misunderstanding God's relation to us or else of a wrong state of mind towards others. It betokens mental or moral unfitness. The parable is an illustration and teaches nothing beyond this. Work for Christ is not a ponderable quantity--so much for so much--nor we the judges of when and why a worker has come.
Yet the parable conveys much that is new and comforting. (1) The abundance of work to be done. (2) The anxiety of the householder to secure all available laborers. (3) That it was not from unwillingness or refusal that the laborers had come at later hours, but because they had not been there and available earlier. (4) That when they had come, they were ready to go into the vineyard without promise of definite reward, simply trusting to the truth and goodness of him whom they went to serve.
When it is time to pay the laborers, the order of payment is inverse of that of labor, and this is a necessary part of the parable. If the first laborers had been paid first, they would either have gone away without knowing what was done to the last, or if they had remained, their objection could not have been urged except on the ground of manifest malevolence towards their neighbors; in other words, not that they themselves didn't receive enough but that the others had received too much.
But it was not the scope of the parable to charge with conscious malevolence those who sought a higher reward or deemed themselves entitled to it. We note that those of the third hour did not murmur because they did not receive more than those of the eleventh hour. They had not made any bargain with the householder at the beginning, but entirely trusted him. But those of the first hour had their greed excited. Seeing what the others had received, they expected to have more than their due. They now appealed to justice, but from first to last they had justice. Their "so much for so much" principle of claim (law, work, and pay) had been satisfied. Those laborers who, owing to the lateness of their appearance, felt they had no claim, trusted to the Master; and as they believed, so it was unto them. Such a Master could not have given less to those who had come when called, those trusting to his goodness and not in their deserts. Their reward was now reckoned not of work or debt, but of grace.
If all is to be placed on the new ground of grace, then the laborers who murmured were guilty either of ignorance in failing to perceive the sovereignty of grace (that it is within his power to do with his own as he wills), or else of malevolence, when they looked on the Master with an evil eye. And so, in the illustrative case of the parable, "the first shall be last, and the last first." And in other instances also, though not in all, "many shall be last that are first, and first that are last."