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. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 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.’ 9 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.