Insights from the Laborers in the Vineyard

Jesus gives us many parables that start like this, “For the kingdom of Heaven is like..” First of all, what is the “kingdom of Heaven”? This phrase speaks about how God works. Where He reigns, the place will operate like this. Calling it the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t necessarily limit these rules to Heaven. It can be wherever God reigns including the New Earth and even here and now in the lives of individuals. That is what we are asking for when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” So, in the case of the parable of Laborers in the Vineyard what do we learn? Here is the parable:

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’16 So the last will be first, and the first last.

Matthew 20:1-16 (ESV)

Out of context this parable seems to paint a picture of eternity being an egalitarian society. Everyone is equal. But perhaps the most important interpretation rule is “scripture interprets scripture.” Other passages on the same topic help you understand the meaning of the passage you are reading. In fact, the interpretation above seems to be in conflict with the passage that immediately precedes it.

27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Matthew 19:27-30 (ESV)

There are other passages like this one that seem to support the idea that some will be rewarded based on their stewardship of this life. The uniting phrase is the mysterious line, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” What does this mean?

In Matthew 19 the phrase indicates that many who are wealthy will not be the wealthiest in Heaven or in many cases even be there. The world is turned upside down. In the parable of the Laborers what order is turned upside down? It could be a comparison of someone who is part of the Kingdom from childhood to those who come to faith late in life. No doubt it is not time in the Kingdom that God rewards. I see this as a commentary on people groups rather that individuals. The “first will be last” phrase is often directed at the Jews. Many will expect preferential treatment of the Jews as the people of God, whereas other people groups are just receiving the Gospel now or will in the future. All have the opportunity to work for God’s Kingdom. All are saved in the same way–by grace through Christ. This isn’t a parable about the equality of reward to the individual, though the pay metaphor certainly pulls us that way.

If other passages tell us that Heaven is not egalitarian in every way, won’t that create problems? Here on Earth many problems are created by haves and have nots. First, Jesus is not explicit as to what reward is. It is likely to be honor. It looks also like it is relationships. The Parable of the Talents seems like it is responsibility or even property of some sort. Whatever it is, we don’t deserve it. It is not an entitlement. “We are unworthy servants we have only done our duty.”

The other thing to note is that we will be different. Sinful nature creates jealousy, inequity and resentment. Whatever God gives will be just and we will all rejoice that it is given. That said, Jesus and Paul encourage us to pursue reward, as long as we understand that we had to be saved by grace.

Does God Reward Us in the Afterlife?

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

Luke 17:10

These words of Jesus strike at the reason why this topic should feel awkward. As sinners, we don’t deserve a place in Heaven or the New Earth period. Nothing that we can do can compensate for our sins. The very fact that we are saved by grace should eliminate any thought of additional reward. Except it doesn’t. Jesus talks about it frequently, so does Paul.

Another passage that seems to eliminate any thought of individual reward and paint an egalitarian picture of eternal life is the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20. In this story, workers are added to the workforce every three hours. At the end of the day, the workers who came in last are paid the same as those who worked all day. This is often interpreted to mean that our experience as redeemed people in the afterlife will be essentially equal.

There are two problems with this interpretation. First, the context around the parable shows that Jesus is speaking to the status of the Jews. They will be counted equal with people from other nations that come later. Also, salvation is never counted as a wage or prize that you earn. It is a gift that is beyond our earning.

When Jesus or Paul talks about reward, what could this mean? First, without grace reward is impossible. Our deeds can follow us only because our sin isn’t following us thanks to Jesus.

Then I heard a voice from Heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Revelation 14:13

The reward is God’s choice nothing is owed to us. Therefore, the attitude noted above in Luke is part of a rewardable deed. So is love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have the faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

When these are in place, some manner of reward is possible.

If any man builds on this foundation (grace in Christ) using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one passing through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:12-15

This passage indicates that the saved may be rewarded or not. But what is the nature of the reward? Honor is a part of it. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) or the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19) give the accommodation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Honor is also spoke of in 1 Peter 1:7.

The two parables also speak of expanded stewardship in some form. Faithful stewardship results in being put in charge of more. Whatever the “more” proves to be.

We can also expect that our reward is somehow connected to relationships. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his reward:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20

Honor, expanded stewardship and people, these are the most detailed description we currently have of our possible reward.

Reward is usually spoken of in the context of Judgment Day. Judgment Day for the redeemed is not to determine whether we are saved or not. That was determined long before that event. It is a judgment of our deeds. The reward is something primarily realized in the New Heaven and New Earth. I say primarily because an “inheritance” kept in Heaven is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:

In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in Heaven for you

1 Peter 1:3-4

This could just be the whole environment of Heaven both during the Intermediate period and post-Judgment Day or it could have in view some degree of reward. We will have to wait and see.

A lack of equality in honor, stewardship and relationship leads to jealousy and resentment here on Earth. That is all a product of our sinful natures. This will no longer be an issue during any time in Heaven or the New Earth because sinful nature is gone. It will only be an additional blessing that God chooses to give.

Reward In Eternity

The idea of receiving some sort of reward, honor or earned responsibility in either Heaven or the New Earth really bothers some people. It should make us uncomfortable a little. It is a fundamental truth that we don’t deserve to experience the joys of Heaven or the freedom of a new creation. We are sinners and we can only gain access to these places as a gift.

Still, the Bible (primarily Jesus) speaks of reward, treasure, and commendation frequently. So how can being saved by grace and receiving an earned reward go together?

It starts with serving as a disciple. One cannot even be a true disciple of Jesus without understanding that we are so chosen by grace. The same is true of being a “steward”. You don’t have the job unless you’ve been hired by God. So for a successful disciple/steward the right attitude is required. Jesus puts it this way:

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.”

Luke 17:10

There is no room for entitlement, competition, or pride. We serve Jesus because we love Jesus, we believe in Jesus’ work, we are commanded to serve, and if we receive nothing for it, it was still the appropriate reaction to how Jesus has served us by His life and death. That said, it doesn’t mean that Jesus can’t reward or honor whoever he wishes.

Just looking at the word “reward” as it refers to something that is given after death, we come up with this list:

Matthew 5:12/Luke6:23 Enduring persecution because of Jesus

Matthew 5:46/Luke 6:35 Loving your enemies

Matthew 6:1-4 Giving to the needy secretly

Matthew 6:5-6 Praying secretly (Could be an earthly reward as well)

Matthew 10:40-41 Supporting the workers of God’s Kingdom

Matthew 10:42 Giving a cup of cold water to a child (Indicating the scope of what God rewards)

1 Corinthians 3:14 Building on the foundation of grace in Christ honorably

1 Corinthians 9:17 Accurately and willingly sharing God’s Word

Colossians 3:24 Doing anything well as for the Lord

Speaking generically about God rewarding: 2 John 1:8, Revelation 11:18

Jesus speaks about laying up treasures in Heaven: Matthew 6:19-21, Matthew 19:21 (for giving to the poor)

1 Timothy 6:19 Treasures in eternity by being rich in good works

Receiving a “commendation” from God:

1 Corinthians 4:5

Hebrews 11:2

Matthew 25:21,23

A reward, treasure or commendation is something earned. Entrance into Heaven or the New Earth is something given through the forgiveness of sins, because there is no way we could earn it.

It is clear that for those saved by Jesus, Judgment Day is about reward and not about salvation. Salvation has already been determined. It seems that God’s reward, whatever it is, can be received while living, in Heaven, or after Judgment Day. But what is it?

For good reasons the Bible is not specific. I think our sinful nature would be tempted to abuse thoughts of specific reward. The Bible does refer to honor coming through commendation. It also speaks of heightened responsibility in the New Earth for good stewardship here. (Parable of the Talents) One last idea is that reward can be connected to the people we assist. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his “hope or joy or crown of boasting…our glory and joy.” The thought of ongoing joyful relationships as a reward is particularly appealing.

One counterpoint often cited to the idea of reward is the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard”. (Matthew 20:1-16) In this story workers are hired throughout the day to work in God’s vineyard. At the end of the day, they are all paid the same; giving the idea that eternal life is egalitarian. While equality in many respects will be the feeling in the Kingdom of God, since sinful competition and favoritism will be a thing of the past, this story speaks primarily of grace and love and not reward. Late comers to God’s Kingdom are as valued as those who have been there (as a people) for centuries.

One final verse to bring out on this topic is 1 Corinthians 3:15. This is a picture of Judgment Day for those who are saved. The section speaks of building on the foundation of Christ with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw. In other words, living in a way that is changed and honors God or simply receiving grace and being largely unchanged. Judgment Day will reveal how well our lives have been spent “by fire”. This describes some sort of supernatural judgment process. Verse 15 concludes the section in a way that shows the value of grace and the value of good discipleship:

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:15

What does awareness of this dynamic of God’s Kingdom do for us? It helps us trust in mercy of God for one. It also shows a value of our lives that does confuse salvation with good living. I take away peace that I belong to God and eternal life with Him is mine, even if I frequently fail. I also take away excitement about having a God-given purpose of life. It is my hope to please God and make a difference. It is my duty.

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