Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, by Father Basil William Maturin

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’

He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last. – Matthew 20:1-16

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It would be impossible to conceive of a greater contrast than that which exists between the idea of life as represented in this Parable and as described at different times by Saint Paul. Saint Paul’s images mostly depict life as full of activity, struggle, effort, intensity. The athlete in the race-course, (Corinthians 9:24) the combatant armed for battle. (Ephesians 6:13) He describes life as he knew it from his own experience. To a man of his ardour it must be intense. He puts his whole soul into all that he does; his life is a constant struggle and it is always at high pressure. It is full of light and darkness. None could suffer as he and none could have such moments of intense joy. He feels keenly for all those for whom he has laboured; rejoices with them and weeps with them. He pours out his soul in tender love towards those who have suffered for the Gospel and been faithful, and he weeps and breaks his heart over those who have been unfaithful. His arguments are again and again interrupted by strong outbursts of feeling.

Whether as Jew or Christian his life was lived at the very highest pressure; he could not do things by halves. He throws all his influence and the power of his life first into the effort to stamp out Christianity, and then, when he has been convinced that he was wrong, into the effort to build it up. Truly his life was well represented under such images as he loved to use: ‘I therefore so run not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.’ (1 Corinthians 9:26) The recitation to the Corinthians of some of his experiences to show them the ground of his sympathy gives us a glimpse of what his life was: ‘Five times received I forty stripes save one; thrice was I beaten with rods; once was I stoned; thrice I suffered shipwreck; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often , in perils of waters; in perils of robbers; in perils by mine own countrymen; in perils of the heathen; in perils in the city; in perils in the wilderness; in perils in the sea; in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness; in watchings often; in hunger and thirst; in fastings often; in cold and nakedness; besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.’ (2 Corinthians 11:24)

It was while he was in prison at Rome that his unwearied energy enabled him to write such Epistles as those to the Ephesians and Colossians. Nothing can daunt him. With his eye upon the goal, he presses towards the prize of his high calling in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And Saint Paul represents a class of persons. There are many who, in their way, are like him. They must be up and doing. The world calls to them for what they have to give, and they must give it Life to such men and women is no resting-place, but a field of constant activity and labour, the scene of keenest joys and bitterest griefs. They pass in quick succession from midday light to midnight darkness. Their minds are racked with disappointment and failure, or swept with the joyous delight of success and victory. All that they feel, they feel intensely. It is with them as in Saint Paul’s image of the racecourse, every nerve and muscle is strained – a slip is a hopeless failure – life is one rush forward to the goal to be lost or won.

What a complete and absolute contrast such imagery presents to that of the Parable drawn by a greater Hand than Saint Paul’s! ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an Householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard, and when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.’

An athlete in the racecourse, trained and keen, and a day labourer hired to work in a vineyard, beginning in the early morning and plodding on through the long monotonous hours of the day, watching the shadows change and lengthen, till the sun has passed from east to west! What a contrast!

The great world, with its vast interests and busy life, lies outside of his ken. He hears in the distance the hum of its life. He hears the quick and eager steps of some one coming, and passing on his way. He leans upon his spade and listens, but he is shut out from all the stirring scenes of that exciting life. What is going on in the wide world outside he knows not From time to time a stranger enters the vineyard bringing in for the moment the breath of the outside world, and revealing a different tone of existence, and the labourer looks up from his work and wonders where this man comes from, and what strange life he leads, and then he stoops to his work again.

Here there is no pressure, no stimulating competition, no applauding crowd; it would seem almost, no prize worth struggling for. All is still and hushed and sheltered. The quiet sounds of nature take the place of the noise and rush of life. The labourer has the field to himself, he can take it quietly, and do as much or as little as he pleases; indeed, anything like speed and excitement would be out of place, it would be impossible for him. All the training of his nature is for quiet and leisurely movements. The day is long and the work is slow, and the labourer has caught from Nature her deliberate and measured ways. Spring time and autumn, summer and winter, they come in their due season and they cannot be hastened, and the labourer knows the signs of their approach, and he knows that he must wait their time, and so he will not hurry. His movements are in sympathy with the earth which he tills and the vine which he dresses; it will take its time and so will he. Speed and haste would be out of place, would be useless in the sheltered quiet of the vineyard.

And outside, sometimes pushing its way up to the very vineyard gates, is the roar and rush of a noisy, struggling, fighting world, where life and death, success or failure, may depend upon one minute lost or gained. The labourer hears the noise of this life, but he is shut out from it all; it has gone by him with a rush and left him far behind and forgot his existence in its eager struggle onward; he has nothing to do with it, he doesn’t understand its ways or its meaning, he is the product of a wholly different environment He would be lost or crushed in its boisterous and excited activities. To him the world is a place of quiet and routine, and ordered changes and regulated movements. He knows exactly what will happen each day, he can arrange every detail beforehand. He has never to prepare for the unexpected, he is never taken off his guard. No startling surprises break in upon the routine of his life to take him unawares. Morning after morning he goes forth to his work and to his labour until the evening.

The characteristics that are acquired by the conflict in the outside world would be of little avail here; indeed, most of the power that the athlete gains by training in the racecourse would not only be of no use, it would be a disadvantage. What could he do in the vineyard? He could not wait and plod, and go on day after day in a monotonous life sheltered from competition and struggle; his very gifts would be defects. The more he excelled in the other life the more he would fail in this. And the labourer’s strength lies in qualities which would be defects in the athlete.

The athlete and the labourer – what a contrast they present in life and in character. The one the outcome of a long training in a life of conflict and pressure and excitement and change. The other in a life of routine and monotony. Each perfect in his way, but each wholly unfit to do the other’s work. The gifts which would most certainly ensure success in either involving necessary failure in the other. The one quick, alert, keen, eager, capable of enduring intense strain, self-possessed, able to keep his head in presence of an applauding crowd; with light, firm step, and his eye quick to see every movement around him and everything that can turn to his advantage. The other slow and regulated in his movements, easily put out by the occurrence of what is unexpected, wholly unfitted for noise and crowd and bustle and haste, under such circumstances simply pushed out of the way and passed by; but capable of any amount of plodding and endurance, able to wait through the long months of winter, till the first whisper of spring calls him forth to work again; putting his seed into the earth and then content to wait till the autumn to see the fruits of his labour. He has learnt that all hope of success depends upon his waiting upon Nature’s slow movements and taking the opportunities she gives for work. He cannot order her, he can but accept what she gives. Many a day that he has meant to spend in work he has had to spend in waiting, prevented by rain or frost There is a quiet self-restraint gained by all this constant yielding to another’s ways, a patience and self-possession that never fail him. His slowness, and leisurely ways, and lack of fire are trying to the onlooker, but in the long run they are proved to be his strength, the earth and the sun and the growing trees and the budding flowers, and the measured tread of the seasons have taken this man into their secrets and given him something of their character. He is as strong and patient and reliable as they.

And yet compare these two men together and who would not choose the athlete – all the advantages seem to be with him, all that most attracts and wins admiration. He is the perfect outcome of competition and energy, ready at every point for all life’s emergencies and high endeavours. He cannot be overlooked in the crowds or passed by, or forgotten, he is always to the front, always remarkable, always excelling, others have little chance in competition with him. Yet the world could not get on without the labourer. The athlete himself depends upon the labourer for his daily bread. Behind life’s active scenes of strife and noise, the labourer goes on tilling the soil, sowing and reaping, planting and pruning the vine. He it is to whom all men turn for food. The labourer it is who by his quiet, steady, patient life keeps the world alive. The racecourse with all its excitement and its eager crowds could not exist unless the labourer in the quiet of the far-off vineyard will bend himself to his task.

It is necessary, therefore, that there should be both these lives, the world cannot get on without either; yet who would choose the dullness of the vineyard if he had the chance of the brilliant victories of the racecourse and the arena? No doubt the heart of many a labourer sickens at the monotony of his life and longs for more stirring scenes; yes, and perhaps many a tired wrestler envies him his more peaceful life.

There is one thing that keeps each in his place, and gives to each life its true value and interpretation. Each has entered upon his life in obedience to a call from the same Person. It is not self-chosen. What holds each in his place is not merely taste or inclination, it is something far nobler and stronger. It is the power and influence of a Person, the recognition of His Call. It is the great principle of Vocation. The loyal and hearty surrender to the personal claim of Christ He knows the world’s needs and the men who under His training and the influences of His grace are best able to supply them. He calls whom He wills to the vineyard or to the arena. Sometimes we can see the natural fitness of the call, sometimes we cannot He delights to effect by grace what the weakness of man’s nature cannot attain to. Sometimes we see the man of ardent temperament sent into the vineyard, sometimes the man of a naturally quiet and retiring disposition sent into the arena. Saint John, the son of Thunder, had the discipline of his hundred years of waiting. Jeremiah was forced into the thick of life’s most stirring scenes. All Saint Paul’s life of activity and suffering was, as he tells us, a response to the call of Christ, ‘I will send thee far hence to the Gentiles.’ (Acts 22:21) He surrendered his life, with all its great gifts and energy, to the service of One whom he recognized as his Master. Leave out the Call of our Lord from the life of Saint Paul, and it has no meaning. He was not spreading a cause, he was serving a Person. The name by which he delighted to call himself was ‘Paul, the slave of Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Titus 1:1) As an old man, writing to the Galatians, he points to the scars and wounds with which his body was covered, and he calls them ‘the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ (Galatians 6:17) They are the brand marks of his servitude. His body is stamped with his Master’s name. Such is Saint Paul’s own interpretation of a life which, for activity and excitement of events, has never been surpassed.

All he is doing has in his own words but one meaning and object: ‘This one thing I do, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3:14)

And the labourer, too, in the Parable entered the vineyard at the call of the Householder, ‘Go work today in My vineyard.’ It was as truly his vocation as the more stirring life was the vocation of the other.

He who called each knew better than they knew themselves, both the men who were called and the work to which He called them. ‘He went out to hire labourers into His vineyard:’ it was no accident. He knew the men and what they needed. The race-course has its dangers, and so has the vineyard. And there is but one power which can protect men from the dangers of each, and that is the constant realization of the Call which has led each to his own place.

How can the labourer stand out against the demoralizing effects of his surroundings? How can he keep up heart or interest amidst the same round of work day by day, the same deadening routine? How can he help becoming heavy, mechanical, stupid? How can he amidst such surroundings develop any largeness of heart, inspiration, enthusiasm? Many a man struggles against such influences for a time and then sinks crushed beneath them. The deadening weight of mechanical labour works out all heart and interest and aspiration, till the mind becomes stupid and the heart dead.

There is but one means by which the heart can be preserved fresh and young and the will firm and buoyant, and that is by bringing into all this stifling routine the inspiring presence of a Person. Let the labourer work under the Eye of Him who has called him, let him live in constant fellowship with One whose Presence is always an inspiration, and who is more interested in the worker than the work, and all will be changed. The companionship of a great and much-loved Person dispels all monotony and gives interest to the most commonplace acts. The heart may get chilled and deadened if it has only to deal with things; it cannot if it has to deal with a Person whom it loves. In such a relationship there is an inexhaustible store of interest and vigour and power of expansion. The personal companionship inspires the most mechanical work with interest. The meanest and most sordid surroundings become transformed by a well-loved presence. Let a man be ever so crushed and chilled by the dead monotony of a changeless routine of mechanical work, let him to all appearance have himself become but a part of the machinery he is working, nevertheless if a Person be introduced into the midst of this chilling round of work, a Person who can touch his heart, how quickly all is changed; the fire begins to kindle within that transforms all the appearance of things:

‘Beneath the veriest ash there hides a spark of soul
Which, quickened by love’s breath, may yet pervade the whole
O’ the grey, and free again, be fire; of worth the same,
Howe’er produced, for, great or little, flame is flame.’

And this is precisely where the labourers who were first called failed. They settled down to their work for their pay. They did work more than any of the others and endured more fatigue. All that they said of themselves was true. The work was done, but they themselves deteriorated. Their work had just that effect upon them which was most to be deprecated. It produced just those defects in character which it tends to produce. They became wholly out of sympathy with their Master who had called them. They cared nothing for His interests, but only for their own. They looked with jealous criticism on every new worker who entered the vineyard. They did not care for their Master’s work being done, all was measured by its effect upon themselves.

We see in the labourers that were called early in the morning all the characteristic faults of the narrowing and mechanical influences in which their lot was cast They had not the faults of the athlete, but they had all the faults of the labourer. They were workmen hired to get through a certain amount of work, and nothing more. They had the virtues which regular work tends to develop and they had the vices, and they had nothing more. They were the creatures of circumstances, they had not found any power to counteract the evil effect of circumstances. And thus they wholly and completely failed of the purpose for which they were called. That purpose was not to get through a certain amount of work, but to develop a certain character and to resist certain evil tendencies. The circumstances of their life played upon them to the full, and produced its natural results of good and evil. A man is not to be praised because he has not the vices which belong to another temperament and other circumstances, nor because life has developed in him certain good habits almost unconsciously to himself. But he is to be praised who has found the remedy for the evil effects which his surroundings tend to produce; who can live the most circumscribed life and not get narrow, who can go through the same routine of work day after day and not become mechanical. And what is the remedy, but the constant recollection of the personal call and the personal relationship. In the memory of that call is life and vigour, freshness and interest, daily renewal, perennial youth. Every day’s work is the weaving of a closer and more intimate friendship between the labourer and the householder. What is work, what is time when all is hallowed by the charm of an ever-closer fellowship with one most worthy of our affection; the hands will never weary if the heart is warm and cheered. If the heart be quickened with life the whole nature is alive, and the whole man is growing, outgrowing the narrow limits to which his body is confined.

But this the labourers had not found, they had failed to find the true protection against their dangers, the true inspiration for their work. They had worked themselves till all heart had died in them. Their failure was typical. It was complete. Of failure such as our Lord would warn us against, the instance is absolute. These men became what any labourer would naturally become, and wholly failed to use the remedy He provided. They got what they worked for and nothing more: ‘Take that thine is and go thy way.’

Life gained for them what they bargained for, and ended in a separation from Him for whom they worked. A separation which was, indeed, inevitable, inasmuch as life never taught them its one invaluable lesson, to know Him who had called them to work for Him.