Understanding the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is indeed a simple story, but there is much doctrine that lies beneath the surface. Those who see this parable as only a story about coins and investments might be prone to derive an interpretation based solely on a monetary mind-set. When seen this way, the parable is indeed unfair. But this is not about economics. This parable is about the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel.
Most parables are easier to understand once their context is understood. In the case of this parable, the context includes chapter 19, the chapter that precedes the parable.
Peter is the person whose response provides the impetus for the parable. Usually we think of the Savior directing his reprimands toward the Pharisees and Scribes—such is not the case in this instance. Elder McConkie explains:
This difficult parable is closely linked with what goes before, and can only be understood in connection with it. It rebukes the spirit of Peter’s enquiry, “We have left all and followed thee; what shall we have?” (Matt. 19:27).
The Twelve through Peter had demanded a superlatively great reward, because they had been called first and had labored longest. Such a reward had been promised them, should they prove worthy of it (Matt. 19:28), though at the same time it was darkly hinted, that some outside the apostolic circle would prove in the end more worthy than some of the apostles.
The irony of Peter’s request is unmistakable—“We have given up everything, so what’s in it for us?” The thought is almost comical! It could be said that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is thus a parable not just rebuking Peter, but anyone, for that matter, with an overblown sense of entitlement. Still, there is more to this parable. The perplexing question that is raised with regard to the seeming inequality of the rewards given for the work accomplished still demands explanation.
The Righteousness of the Reward
It is interesting to note the way in which the Lord of the Vineyard characterizes the reward—he speaks of it as not only being “right” but even “lawful”—that is to say, the reward is fair and does not violate spiritual law—the law of justice, that is. My friend who I mentioned at the outset, I am quite sure, might resort to the notion that “mercy cannot rob justice.” The fact that the reward is described as being “lawful” would thus mean that mercy is not compromising justice in any way. So then, in what ways is the reward “right” and “lawful”?
First of all, everyone agreed on this. Each laborer knew what they would get for the work that would be accomplished. This should be reason enough. But the real reason the reward is just (and here is where we get to the heart of the parable) is that this profound teaching deals with the very essence of the grace and mercy of the Savior’s Atonement. Surely we can understand to some extent the complaint of those who labored longest in the vineyard if we see it through the perspective of capitalism. That is to say, we reap what we sow. Not only do the scriptures sustain this notion, but likewise many philosophies and fiscal sound bites: “we get what we work for,” “waste not want not,” “an honest day’s wage,” and so forth. But once again, the interpretation of this parable is not one that seeks to teach capitalism nor any aspect of economic endeavor. This parable is teaching us about the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
The Penny is Eternal Life
Eternal life is a word used by Christ in modern revelation to mean living forever in the actual presence of God. Eternal life, then, is more than salvation into a kingdom of heaven, it is exaltation to the highest kingdom, where God Himself dwells.
The reward for laboring in the vineyard is not a result of our efforts alone. The penny, which symbolizes eternal life, is something that none of us can earn. We are told in the scriptures that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23). We are to rely wholly, not partially, upon the merits of Christ (see 2 Nephi 31:19). In this light it is absolutely ridiculous to think that a certain amount of labor or works (personal righteousness) will satisfy for the total price of eternal life. In this regard Dallin H. Oaks once taught:
“Man unquestionably has impressive powers and can bring to pass great things by tireless efforts and indomitable will. But after all our obedience and good works, we cannot be saved from the effect of our sins without the grace extended by the atonement of Jesus Christ.”
Similarly, Elder McConkie observed:
Suppose we have the scriptures, the gospel, the priesthood, the Church, the ordinances, the organization, even the keys of the kingdom—everything that now is, down to the last jot and tittle—and yet there is no atonement of Christ. What then? Can we be saved? Will all our good works save us? Will we be rewarded for all our righteousness?
Most assuredly we will not. We are not saved by works alone, no matter how good; we are saved because God sent his Son to shed his blood in Gethsemane and on Calvary that all through him might ransomed be. We are saved by the blood of Christ. . . .
To paraphrase Abinadi (a Book of Mormon prophet):
“Salvation doth not come by the Church alone; and were it not for the atonement, given by the grace of God as a free gift, all men must unavoidably perish, and this notwithstanding the Church and all that appertains to it.”
None of us will ever really “earn” or deserve the “penny”—that is, no mortal will ever merit eternal life by works alone. Another thought—the response of the first group of laborers to the reward given is interesting and a bit perplexing. We “have borne the burden and heat of the day.”
When one contemplates the murmuring response of those who labored all day in the vineyard, especially in light of the interpretation, the expression is ironic at best and absolutely absurd at worst: “Oh, how difficult it has been to keep the commandments. Oh, how horrible it has been to be in the covenant relationship. Oh, the drudgery of having true happiness and peace my whole life. Oh, the burden of having the joy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost. I am so envious of those who have labored but one hour. I wish I could be like them . . . the darkness, the depression—oh, the exquisite misery I could have had during my life . . . the horrible pain of happiness!”
One would expect that the lifetime enjoyment of peace and spiritual prosperity would be in and of itself its own reward, regardless of even greater rewards in the next life. Indeed the labor that we put forth, in the gospel at least, is more than just mere work—living the gospel is a way of life. It is a lifestyle that carries its own recompense. One should be delighted to be a laborer in the Lord’vineyard.
When we truly contemplate this antagonistic attitude toward a righteous life, we are almost inclined to ask if the dreary all-day-long laborer was truly converted in the first place. Was he just going through the motions? Was his service and commitment to the kingdom for reasons other than those approved by Father in Heaven? Perhaps there are those who labor in the vineyard with a chip on their shoulder, as if they are doing the heavens some great favor. It is as though commitment to the kingdom is, in their minds, inextricably linked to a life of oppression, frowns, and loathing due to the arduous walk of Christlike living.
The Idle Laborers
These late arriving types, who we are told stood idle in the marketplace, are not idle in the sense of being lazy, complacent, or even rebellious. When asked why they were idle these workers responded by saying, “Because no man hath hired us.” It is apparent from this phrase that these workers were in the marketplace, wanted to be hired, and were willing to work—but none was available at the time. Nevertheless they waited; diligently, patiently, they waited for work—no matter how much or how little. They did not go home or to the pool hall to pass the time.
We would expect that the long-laboring workers would look with compassion on those who truly wanted to work but were genuinely unable. In this regard it is worth noting that God can reward this last group equally with the first because of their willingness alone. We often misunderstand or completely ignore this aspect of the gospel.
Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks said,
For present purposes its lesson is that the Master’s reward in the Final Judgment will not be based on how long we have labored in the vineyard. We do not obtain our heavenly reward by punching a time clock. What is essential is that our labors in the workplace of the Lord have caused us to become something. For some of us, this requires a longer time than for others. What is important in the end is what we have become by our labors.
Many who come in the eleventh hour have been refined and prepared by the Lord in ways other than formal employment in the vineyard. These workers are like the prepared dry mix to which it is only necessary to “add water”—the perfecting ordinance of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. With that addition—even in the eleventh hour—these workers are in the same state of development and qualified to receive the same reward as those who have labored long in the vineyard.
This parable teaches us that we should never give up hope and loving associations with family members and friends whose fine qualities . . . evidence their progress toward what a loving Father would have them become. Similarly, the power of the Atonement and the principle of repentance show that we should never give up on loved ones who now seem to be making many wrong choices.
Instead of being judgmental about others, we should be concerned about ourselves. We must not give up hope. We must not stop striving.
Late Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson said,
“God, the Father of us all, uses the men of the earth [of all faiths], especially good men, to accomplish his purposes. It has been true in the past, it is true today, it will be true in the future.”
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is a timeless story with deep meaning for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. It is a powerful warning against the spirit of pride and entitlement. Additionally, and more important, it is a potent statement and a sublime testimony regarding the grace, mercy, and awesome power of the atoning sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, it could just well be that the preferred way the Savior chose to teach about the multitudinous principles relating to his infinite Atonement was through the carefully cloaked statements contained in these seemingly simple stories of everyday life. The Lord told Enoch, “All things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual” (Moses 6:63). So it is with the parables of the laborers in the vineyard.
*C. Robert Lines in Parables of Redemption, Horizon Publishers, Springville, Utah, 2007.