(1) Introduction. Read Matthew 20 1-16.

It is not all that easy to see how the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard illustrates the saying of Jesus: "But many that are first will be last and many who are last will be first." See Matthew 19-1. The workers in the vineyard all end up with the same payment.

The parable is quite a long one and yet it seems to have been told to illustrate one simple point: It is best to rely on God's grace than to bargain with him.

Lastly, many who read this parable have a sneaking sympathy for the labourers who bore the burden of the work and the heat of the day. Perhaps, I do! I can identify with the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

It is possible that some of the lessons I draw from the parable were not intended by Jesus - however, this does not mean that they are irrelevant.

(1) What all the labourers in the vineyard had in common.

They were all:

(a) Needy. The men who turned up in the village market place throughout the day were all casual labourers. They had no land and depended from day to day on finding work to support themelves and their families. Their need for work was unrelenting and desperate.

We are all needy when it comes to our spiritual well being. Each of us needs admittance to the Kingdom and to stay in it.

(b) Dependent. The day labourers were dependent upon the willingness of the landowner to hire them. The landless men were unable to support themselves. Without work and the wages provided by the landowner, they and their families would starve.

Every man and woman's ultimate well being depends on God's provision. We pray: "Give us this day our daily bread." God provides for the spiritually hungry. Jesus is the Living Bread.

(c) Paid the same. All those accepted for work in the vineyard by the landowner were paid the same. They were paid what they needed. Each received the living wage of one denarius.

Ultimately, irrespective of their fortunes in life, each servant of God will receive at the final reckoning, eternal life.

(2) The early workers.

These individuals were:

(a) At an advantage. These labourers were in the market place and available for hire at dawn - 6am. So, it seems likely that they lived in the village near which the vineyard was located.

In the same way, the Jews were at a huge advantage when it came to entering the Kingdom of God. They had been prepared through the centuries for the coming of the King. Eventually he lived among them. The first members of the kingdom were the men who heeded his call - the disciples and other close followers - including devout women.

Sadly many Jews preferred to work in other vineyards than the one belonging to the Son of God.

Today, many young people are at a great advantage when it comes to believing in Jesus and serving him. They have been born into a Christian home, taken to church at a tender age, participated in the church youth activities and so on. What a privilege! I count myself amongst that number.

(b) Expected much of. The labourers who were hired at 6am were expected to put in a full 12 hours, working from dawn to dusk, toiling throughout the hottest part of the day.

So it is with those fortunate enough to become subjects of Jesus at an early age. God expects from them a lifetime's service. That has been the case with me. I have been working in God's vineyard for almost all my life. As I approach my 76th birthday the work does not get any easier!

(c) Of a bargaining disposition. The early recruits of the landowner made a contract with him. They bargained with the vineyard owner and agreed to work a twelve hour day for one denarius. This was the going rate.

In working to contract the labourers made it clear they were working for themselves. It must be remembered that the parable was prompted by Peter asking Jesus: "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"

It is undoubtedly true that some people belong to the Church and work in it for what they get out of it. There are many things the Church can provide: Company, friendship, comfort, attention, respect, recognition, approval, a stage for our talents.

(d) Lacking trust. The dawn till dusk labourers did not trust the landowner to pay them a fair wage. They needed a witnessed, verbal contract before committing themselves to the vineyard owner's employ.

Do we really believe what Jesus promised? He said: "And do not set your heart on what you will eat and drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well." See Lk12v29to34.

I decided to become a Geography teacher rather than train for the ministry because I did not consider that God had provided over generously for my father who was a Grace Baptist Pastor. My brother Paul, on the other hand, gave up a well paid job as a senior probation officer, to work full time as a minister of a small, inner city, Baptist church. God provided for him and he has had a happier and more fruitful life than I have.

However, when I gave up my teaching post to look after my widowed, invalid father, I trusted God for the future. When my father died, I was almost immediately appointed to teach Geography at Debenham High School - a lovely school with friendly, affectionate, appreciative pupils.

We CAN trust God to provide for us.

(e) Unconcerned for unemployed. It seems likely that as long as they had work for a 12 hour day the gainfully employed vineyard workers were unsympathetic towards those remaining without work.

This was certainly true of the Jewish Christians in the early church in Jerusalem. They were not overly concerned about the Gentile unbelievers. They needed Peter to convince them that the Gentiles, too, were candidates for the Kingdom of God. Later, representatives of the Jerusalem church tried to convince Gentile converts in Antioch that they needed to be circumcised to be saved. Paul had to confront Peter and Barnabas over this issue. Throughout his ministry Paul's most bitter opponents were Jews.

Today, there are inward looking, exclusive, reformed churches that are content to have fellowship with the elect and are unconcerned about those whom God has not chosen.

(f) Unimpressed by the generosity of the vineyard owner.

The contracted workers did not rejoice that everyone was going home with a living wage - sufficient to feed a family for a day. No, they reckoned that if the men who worked an hour were paid a denarius they deserved more for working longer and in adverse conditions. The grumblers did not consider that those who laboured but one hour deserved the same pay as themselves.

In the early years of the church several Jewish Christians were still thinking in terms of the old covenant God made with Abraham. They were the elect people and circumcision was part of the contract made with God. It is highly likely that many Jewish converts to Christ were not interested in taking the gospel to the Gentiles and welcoming them into the family of God. Devout Jews had kept the Law and so, compared to the Gentiles, were more deserving of Jesus' saving work.

I know modern Christians who are disinterested in, and unsupportive of, missionary work. They consider that all the resources of their church should be expended at home. There are lots and lots of folk who need saving in Britain. They may even believe that a country like England which has for centuries honoured Christ is more deserving of God's blessing than somewhere like India.

Churches are not always welcoming to certain groups of people. We forget that Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners. Slaves were well represented in the early church. They were not well represented in the white churches in the American South. In other parts of the world God's grace is not extended to people of a different race, tribe, caste, class or culture. In the Philippines Chinese Christians are not always welcome in a Filipino majority church.

(2) The late workers.

These landless, casual labourers were:

(a) Not necessarily to blame for coming late to the market place. Perhaps they had gathered elsewhere for work and been disappointed. Some may have come from distant village and tried to find work in other vineyards without success. This seems more likely than that they came late to the market place because they had overslept.

Some folk come late to the Kingdom of God because they have tried unsuccessfully to find spiritual satisfaction elsewhere. In the words of the hymn:

          I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
          But ah! The waters failed!
          Even as I stooped to drink they fled
          And mocked me as I wailed.

I have read of eventual converts to Christ who have tried to find spiritual satisfaction in a variety of ways: eastern religions, transcendental meditation, mysticism, paganism, drugs. Eventually they come to Jesus and find satisfaction in him.

(b) Still wanted by the vineyard owner. They were not rejected because they had looked for work elsewhere. What mattered was their eventual availability to serve the interests of the kingdom.

The church should welcome whoever comes to it, notwithstanding their chequered past.

(c) Willing to trust the landowner. The men hired at 9am, 12pm and 15pm did not bargain with the vineyard owner. They trusted him to treat them fairly. The labourers were just pleased, finally, to be accepted and given meaningful work to do.

It is often a great relief to late comers; indeed, an immense delight; to be accepted into God's Kingdom and put to work for Jesus. Such late in the day converts are more than happy to serve the King without thought of reward.

(d) Given at the end of the day not what they earned but what they needed.

No man or woman can, after entering Christ's Church, earn what they most require. It must remain a gift for those who trust the King; it is the gift of ETERNAL LIFE.

(3) The last labourers.

This group of casual workers:

(a) Were unemployed because no one wanted to hire them. They may have been Samaritans trying to find work in Jewish vineyards or out of work shepherds and as such widely despised.

In the time of Jesus, there were groups of people who were excluded from the synagogue for being unclean - people with various illnesses, collaborators with the Romans, Gentiles, prostitutes, the demon possessed. It should never be said of the church that it is unwelcoming to any group of people. Yet it has been. Black people were not welcome until recently into white churches in the South of the U.S.A.. Some British churches would not welcome an influx of gypsies.

(b) Were fortunate the vineyard owner was still prepared, late in the day, to hire labourers. By this time the men who had been trying to find work for eleven hours were desperate.

It is a great pity that people in he twilight of their lives are not desperate for entry into God's Kingdom. They should be queuing up to sign on for the Heavenly Employer.

(c) Were often those who worked with the greatest commitment. It is quite likely that those employed for 12 hours flagged during the heat of the day and eased up as they neared the end of their shift.

Sometimes this is true of those who have worked for God over many, many years. They get tired, jaded and even hopeless. I can remember asking my mother why she didn't come carol singing round the village to collect money for Spurgeon's Homes. Her reply was succinct: "I've done my whack!"

The dieing thief who recognised Jesus for the king he was, did not have long to serve Jesus. However, he set too with a will to rebuke the other thief who continued to hurl insults at the Saviour. Lk23v40to43.

I knew a little man, William White, who became a Christian in his 80s. For the remaining few years God gave him, none could have been a keener Christian than Willie. What he lacked in quantity of service he made up for in quality of service.

(4) The vineyard owner.

God is like the vineyard owner in that he:

(a) Needs workers. Jesus made this plain when he gave his disciples the Great Commission. Mt28v16to20.

          Go, labour on while it is day,
          The world’s dark night is hastening on;
          Speed, speed thy work, cast sloth away,
          It is not thus that souls are won.

(b) Honours contracts freely entered into. We may serve God and labour in his church for status, honour, influence, respect, reputation, popularity. The Pharisees served God in this spirit. They made broad their phylacteries, whitened their faces and prayed at street corners. Jesus said, "They have their reward." If we serve God for benefits in this life we may well receive what we bargain for. The disciples were in danger of falling into this trap. They argued about who should be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. The mother of James and John asked Jesus to promise a special place for her sons in his kingdom.

(c) Welcomes workers at all hours of the day. It doesn't matter what age we are, Jesus can find us work to do in his kingdom. No one is turned away for being too young or too old; for being early or late applicants to work in his vineyard.

(d) Rewards those who trust him. Those who trust God rely on his grace. The vineyard owner exhibited grace to his workers, not be paying what they earned but giving them what they needed. All those who trusted the landowner were paid the same because he was giving them what they needed. They all had the same need.

Every man and woman needs beyond all else, eternal life. This can never be earned - however long and hard we work. It can only be received as a gift from God; an expression of his grace; the grace that accepted Jesus' atoning sacrifice for sin at Calvary on our behalf.

It is no coincidence that the next few verses in Matthew deal with Christ's death and resurrection.

Salvation is by grace and through faith. We must trust the owner of the vineyard to supply our greatest need.