Grace is not grace if it is in any way earned or deserved (Romans 11:5-6). This is exactly what the Jews failed to understand. God chose Israel purely by grace out of all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God preserved faithless Israel purely by grace for the sake of His holy name and the promises which He had made (Ezekiel 20; 2 Kings 8:19, etc.). Yet Israel responded either with hypocrisy (Jeremiah 7:1-4) or pride (Luke 18:9-14). Even the rich young man, whose question about eternal life in Matthew 19 forms the context for this parable, placed his trust in his keeping of the commandments.
Yet I think it would be equally problematic to see in this parable a kind of divine equality, as if God’s free grace meant that heavenly rewards are all the same. This would make Jesus’ answer to Peter in Matthew 19:28-30 difficult to comprehend. Jesus does not rebuke Peter for his question. Those who have left everything will receive a great reward in the world to come. The key in understanding grace is in Matthew 20:15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” It is God’s freedom of action that makes grace to be grace. Anything else is an attempt to bind Him and make it an issues of wages.
The parable opens with a master seeking workers for his vineyard. The Lord refers to Israel on several occasions as His vineyard (Isaiah 5; Jeremiah 12:10; Ezekiel 19:10; Psalm 80:8-11). Like the master of this house, the Lord calls us out of the world and into that vineyard. Idleness is the way of the world. The Lord set Adam to labor in the garden before the fall into sin (Genesis 2:15). If anyone will not work, let him not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Lord calls us to holy labor and sets our hands to the task.
The different hours that the master calls workers only accentuates the difference between the first called and the last. When the evening has come, all are given the same amount: a denarius, or a normal day’s wages. The amount is instructive for us. If the master in desperation for laborers promised some extraordinary amount, we might draw the conclusion that the reward for our labors is the key. “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). Yet the reward that is set before us, the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), is sufficient for us. It is not worthless even if we might regard it as petty according to our standards, because grace is not grace if it is a matter of wages.
This, then, highlights the earlier point. God is free to do what He pleases with what belongs to Him. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). Grace is not a birthright, a matter of the flesh. God owes no one anything, because we are all lawbreakers. The master of the vineyard would be perfectly just if he hired no one. Those who labored twelve hours didn’t deserve more for their labor, because they didn’t deserve to be in the vineyard in the first place. May our eye not be evil because God is good! Righteousness comes by faith, not by works, and the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever, because He chose us when we were yet His enemies.
The reward of righteousness, then, is also purely a matter of grace. The right hand and the left hand of Christ, indeed places of great honor, belong to those for whom the Father prepares them (Matthew 20:23). To judge the twelve tribes of Israel on twelve thrones is indeed a tremendous honor (Matthew 19:28). Yet they are not a matter of right. The last will be first and the first last, because God gives to each of us according to His pleasure, not according to our desires or imaginations. If we are in the vineyard, let us rejoice for that reason alone, for it is already a sign of God’s undeserved love for us. The crosses which God makes for us will be different from Christian to Christian, because He is working out His own purposes in us.