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§ 240. Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. (Matt., xx., 1-16.)

Here, also, belongs the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, which opposes all assertion of one’s own merits, and all anxiety for rank and rewards among the servants of the kingdom of God. This parable admits of many and various applications; but, in order to understand it correctly, we must consider it by itself, apart from the introductory and concluding passages.645645   The words “The last shall be first, and the first last” (v. 16), cannot possibly denote the punctum saliens of the parable; in it the last are not preferred to the first the latter simply fail to receive more than the former, as they had expected. Nor do they complain of receiving their wages last, but only that they do not get more than the others. It is something merely accidental, necessary only for the consistency of the representation, and arising merely from its form, that the turn of the first comes last; they had to see the last receive equally as much as themselves before they could complain of it, and thus give occasion for the utterance of the truth which it is the main object of the parable to set forth. In Luke, xiii., 30, the same words occur (“there are last,” &c.), but in a totally different sense. Here the “last” are those who are wholly shut out from the kingdom of God; and the passage teaches that many from among the nations, estranged from God, should be called to share in his kingdom; while, on the other hand, many should be excluded from it who had held high places among the ancient people. Taken in this sense, these words would be foreign to the scope of the parable. The latter clause of the verse, “many are called, but few chosen,” mean (according to Matt., xxii., 14) that many are outwardly called, and belong by profession to the kingdom of God. Nor is this relevant to the parable; which draws no contrast between the few and the many, the called and the chosen; and, in fact, makes no mention at all of such as are entirely excluded from the kingdom. We, therefore, cannot but suppose that this parable, so faithfully preserved, and bearing so indubitably the stamp of Christ, is joined to the words that precede and follow by a merely accidental link of connexion. (In this supposition, which, indeed, has long been a certainty with me, I agree with Strauss and De Wette.) The most elaborate efforts to harmonize the passages in question with the parable only result in destroying its sense, so pregnant with characteristic Christian truth.. Among these elaborate attempts must be reckoned the interpretation recently given by Wilke (Urevangelist, s. 372). The collocation of the parable in Matthew may afford a clue to its interpretation. Peter appears (xix., 27; although we prefer Luke, xviii., 28) to have a passion for rewards, and the parable bears upon such a disposition, which, by-the-way, prevailed at that time. In this connexion, also, the words “Many that are last shall be first,” &c., might bear against measuring by merit, judging by appearance, &c. Christ may, perhaps, have spoken the words in this sense; though, as we have seen, he gave them another; but they cannot be made to fit the parable.


The prominent idea of the parable is, that all who faithfully obey their call, who are. truly converted, and labour diligently after their conversion, whether it occur at an earlier or later period, whether the term of their new life is long or short, are made partakers of the same blessedness in the kingdom of God. The question is not what they were before their conversion, but what they become after it. All who have reached this point have the same thing in common; for all receive the principle of the higher life, with which, where it really exists, is also presupposed the entire new moral creation that proceeds from it; although this latter may yet be far from complete, and can only be fully realized in the future. No one is entitled to ask more than his fellow receives; there being no human merit in the case, all that is given is of God’s free grace and mercy in redemption. And it applies not only to the relations of nations (e.g., the later called heathen, to the Jews), but also of individuals.

But how important a thing it is for us that a parable exhibiting the doctrine of free and unmerited grace, so strongly put forth by Paul, has been preserved to us! Taken in connexion with that of the talents (pounds), it forms a complete whole (the two parables being mutually complementary to each other) of Christ’s truth; on the one hand, that the gifts of grace are equally bestowed, and are to be received by all alike in humility of heart; and. on the other, that there are various stages of Christian progress, depending upon the use that is made of the grace given: on the one hand, the humble receiving of grace is contrasted with the asserting of one’s own merits; and, on the other a self-active zeal is opposed to slothful inactivity

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