Title: Parables Bible Study 6: The Laborers and the Vineyard
Subject: The Kingdom of Heaven
Age: 13+ years
Location: Matthew 20:1-16
Handout for note taking: Bible Study Worksheet (see below)
Begin the Bible Study with a prayer. Read the passage, and then allow time for quiet reflection. Share the following notes on the parable.
The theme of the Kingdom of Heaven is front and center in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. It is a simple description of those who have responded to the call to enter the Kingdom, the call to salvation. The sequence is important.
The interpretation of the Church Fathers involves the symbolic and allegorical. The hours, for example, are symbolically the periods in the history of salvation:
- Adam to Noah
- Noah to Abraham
- Abraham to Moses
- Moses to the coming of Christ
- Christ to the end of the world
Again the hours are symbolically the stages in one's life in which we answer the call of salvation:
- Middle age
- Old age
A real lesson of this parable is found in the last half of the story during the dispute that arises over the distribution of wages. It is interesting to note briefly how different modern commentators and the Fathers approach the scriptures. St. John Chrysostom and Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 is one example. For St. John Chrysostom there is great significance that this parable is book-ended in a sense by the statement of Jesus: "Many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first," whereas for modern commentators this verse is arbitrarily placed. St. John sees in the repetition of this statement "a reference to the chosen people, who were first given the opportunity to live according to God's will, since it had been revealed to them in their righteous ancestors, such as Noah, Abraham, and Job, and by the inspired prophets. All were called, but only a few turned out to be true righteous servants of God.*"
St. Paul takes the same approach in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12. Similarly both St. Paul and St. John Chrysostom point to the importance for those of us who have come after the Jews who have at some point and at first accepted Christ but have afterwards neglected to show virtue. 1 Corinthians 10:12; "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."
The connection of these passages to this parable:
"The reaction of those who had labored from the first hour to receiving the same wage as those who had worked only one hour illustrates the difficulty some who have been Christians from their youth may experience in remaining faithful and virtuous until the end.**"
Here are additional thoughts by St. John Chyrsostom:
- The vineyard represents the injunction of God and His commandments.
- The time of laboring is present life.
- The laborers symbolize those that are called in different ways to the fulfillment of the setting forth of God's commandments.
- Early morning, the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours symbolize different ages of those who have drawn near to God and proved themselves. (On Matthew, Homily 64,3).
- The wages for hire are God's gift of eternal life, salvation, and citizenship in the Kingdom. The gift is the same no matter when one responds.
St. Augustine points out that the laborers responded at the moment they were called. Think to the disciples who immediately left their nets. And there is still time. When we consider St. Augustine's note that the laborers responded when they were called and the immediate response of the Disciples to Jesus invitation, we then have to consider the nature of our own response to God's call. In other words we know like many of our brothers and sisters that it is time to change. Our consciences tell us of not only the need per se but more to the point, the necessity of a change. In a phrase, our souls depend upon it.
Yet we delay. We procrastinate and we think there is still time. However, we can't be certain. The only point that eternity is possible is in the present, it is the only true thing we have. Someone on his death bed is initially scared, then is excited, and he is uncertain if his life and his repentance was enough.
Early difficulties of the last versus the first include the Apostles and the call of St. Paul, and the Jews who accepted Christ and the Gentile converts. Today, those of us who have labored long and hard can and do look down on those who at the last moment or recently accepted God. Or we may feel we deserve more. This must cause us to think of the penitent thief. (At the 11th hour,) Some can not be blamed for their tardy response. Maybe like the Gentiles who no prophet went to, no one has called them. The household of faith, we, have not invited them and truly proclaimed the message of Christ:
"With how much affection then ought we to be importunate with our friends, with whom we may live not a few days in this world, but in God's presence forever: Let them then love us, and do what they hear us say, and worship Him, whom we also worship, that they may receive what we also hope for." St. Augustine, Sermon on the New Testament Lessons, 37.
The passage 1 Timothy 2:4 comes at the conclusion of the making of a catechumen and before the baptism proper: "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
At this time, read the passage once more and again, allow time for quiet reflection. If there is time, you may have a discussion about this parable.
End the bible study with a prayer.
*For this study, I have relied heavily upon the writing of Archbishop Dimitry, Parables, pp. 35-40.
*Archbishop Dimitry, Parables, pp.37-38.
Ibid, p. 38.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas
Click the link to return to the Parables Bible Study page or continue to the next Parables Bible Study session: The Marriage Feast of the King's Son.