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. . . . 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?”
(Matthew 20:1,6 ESV)
You have been called to labor. So have I. Not to just any labor, mind you, and not to labor just anywhere; but we have each been called by the Master to labor in His vineyard according to the specific work to which we have been tasked.
Jesus uses a parable in Matthew 20:1-16 to teach that salvation, as a gift of God’s grace and kindness, is bestowed equally upon those who receive it late in life as well as those who spend the majority of their lives laboring in the vineyard.
All who labor in the vineyard receive the same wages (Matthew 20:8-10) regardless of what time of day they enter the field. Hence, the meaning of the statement, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). Equal wages means equal salvation. This is the primary lesson in this passage, but it’s not the only lesson.
One thing I love about the Bible is how the same passage of scripture can have multiple (valid) meanings and applications. In this respect, the Bible is like a precious jewel that reflects a different aspect of its beauty through each of its many facets.
Suppose we view this parable now through another lens. What if this day in the parable were to represent the life of someone who has already received salvation by grace through faith, but is not really doing anything purposeful with their life? In other words, they’re standing idle in the marketplace. Stated differently, this could be a person who attends church services, but never gets involved as a functioning member of the living organism known as the Body of Christ. Their failure to function leaves them standing idle in the marketplace (or sitting idle in the sanctuary).
If you’re someone who has spent the majority of your life pursuing your own interests and agenda, it’s not too late to find and fulfill your purpose in the kingdom of God. You just have to recognize the Master’s voice when He taps you on the shoulder and asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” I find this parable both interesting and significant in that it shows the master of the vineyard going into the marketplace repeatedly throughout the day to hire more workers. This says to me that no matter what season of life I’m in, Jesus has work for me to do. And all work in His kingdom is significant, no matter how great or small the task; no matter how visible or unseen.
John chapter 4 tells the story of a conversation Jesus had with a woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well near the town of Sychar. While His disciples go into town to buy some food, Jesus passes the time by speaking with this woman about a number of things, the most significant being the living water that He could give her.
When the disciples return, they are surprised to find Jesus speaking with this woman, but nobody has the courage to satisfy their curiosity by asking Him why He’s talking to her. When the woman leaves to go back into town, the disciples encourage Jesus to eat. He then matter-of-factly tells them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32). The often obtuse disciples begin asking one another if anybody has already given Him something to eat. Seeing they don’t know what He means, Jesus spells it out for them: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
This statement reveals that fulfilling our God-given purpose is what nourishes and satisfies our souls—at least that’s what Jesus said of Himself. Yet, I’m quite certain that some of us aren’t doing what God has called us to do, which leads to our being spiritually malnourished.
In verse 35 of John chapter 4, Jesus tells the disciples not to consider the harvest as some future event, but to lift up their eyes and see that the fields are already white for harvest. This must have been important to Him, for in Matthew 9 and Luke 10 we also see Him mention this plentiful harvest and the shortage of laborers needed for reaping its fruit. We also hear His plea that we pray earnestly for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest.
Shifting our focus back to John chapter 4, it’s easy to see how verse 34 is the key to understanding verses 35-38: if I have no sense of God’s purpose or direction for my life, I may see the harvest in plain view but never do anything about it. It’s essential to know that God has called me to do not simply to see or to know. Let us not be what I would call modern day seers—those who see what needs to be done but do nothing about it. Instead, let us be those who roll up our sleeves and do the work.
We can be those who pray for God to send laborers into the harvest, or we can be those who enter into the labor of those who have gone before us (John 4:38). Better yet, we can be those who pray and work.
Why do you stand here idle all day?