MATTHEW XX. 1-16
At that time: Jesus spoke to His Disciples the following parable: The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And having agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing in the market place idle. And he said to them: Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just. And they went their way. And again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did in like manner. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he saith to them: Why stand you here all the day idle? They say to him: Because no man hath hired us. He saith to them: Go you also into my vineyard. And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith to his steward: Call the labourers and pay them their hire, beginning from the last even to the first.
When therefore they were come, that came about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first also came, they thought that they should receive more: and they also received every man a penny. And receiving it they murmured against the master of the house, saying: These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, that have borne the burden of the day and the heats.
But he answering said to one of them: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine, and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? Is thy eye evil, because I am good? So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.
ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM: ON PREPARING FOR SALVATION
What does this parable mean? For that which is said at the end is not in agreement with what is said in the beginning, but announces something wholly contrary. For in the first part He shows all men as receiving the same rewards; not some being excluded, and others admitted to enter. And both before the parable and after, the Lord has said something that is contradictory: The first shall be last, and the last first; that is, that those who came later shall be placed before the very first; these now ceasing to be first, and being placed after those others.
What this may mean He then makes known, saying: For many are called, but few are chosen, so that He may at one and the same time urge onwards the former, and comfort and console the latter. But the parable however does not say this: but that the chosen ones shall be made equal with those who have been proved just, and have laboured much: for these latter say: Thou hast made them equal to us, that have borne the burden of the day and the heats.
What then is the meaning of this parable? This we must first make clear; then we shall consider the other question. The vineyard, He says, is the particular injunctions of God, and His Commandments: the time of labouring is our present life; the labourers are all those who, in different ways, are called to the fulfilment of these commands. The morning early, the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, the eleventh, hour stand for those who at different periods of their lives have drawn near, and have done a good work.
But now the question arises: if those first called were so worthy in their lives and pleasing to God, and have shone out in the midst of all their trials throughout their days, how is it that they now have turned to evil feelings, namely: to envy and to jealousy? For seeing the others profiting equally with themselves they say: These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the heats.
And even though they would lose nothing, nor would their own wage be lessened, from envy and jealousy they were resentful of what the others received. And furthermore, the Master of the vineyard answering in regard to these latter, and, as it were, justifying Himself to those who had so spoken, adjudged them guilty of envy and jealousy by these words: Didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Is thy eye evil because I am good?
What is to be understood from these words? For the same appears in other parables also. For the son that was worthy is shown to have fallen into the same evil state of mind, when he saw his prodigal brother about to receive more and greater honour than he had ever received (Lk. xv. 28). For as the last were more honoured in being paid the first, so was he more honoured by this abundance of gifts; and to this the older brother gives testimony. What then are we to say? In the kingdom of heaven there is no one disputing or accusing in this manner. Far from it. For there is neither envy nor any jealousy. For if in this life the sanctified give up their lives for sinners how much more will they rejoice when they behold them dwelling amid the joys of heaven, which they believe to be equally the possession of all.
Why then did He use this form of speech? His discourse was a parable, and accordingly it is not fitting to take literally every word spoken. But when we have learned the purpose of the parable, we should gather in this, and not be too concerned as to the rest. Why was this parable composed, and what does He mean to lay down for our instruction? He wishes to make more eager those converted in later life, and to convince them that they should not think that their reward will be less. So he shows others as taking badly their good fortune; not that He may show the former as touched by envy; far from it, but that He may make plain that these who came last enjoy such honour that it can cause envy to others. Just as we sometimes say: he criticised me because I so honoured you. Not that we wish to accuse this person of a fault, but to show how great was the courtesy shown.
But why did He not hire them all together immediately? As to His own will, He has done so; and if all have not obeyed, it was the will of those called that made the difference. And so some are called early in the morning, some at the third hour, some at the sixth and the ninth, some at the eleventh: when they would be disposed to answer the call. This Paul also says: When it pleased him, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace (Gal. i. I 5). When did it please Him? When he was ready to obey. For the Lord willed it from the beginning, but because Paul would not have been obedient, then it pleased Him only when Paul was disposed to obey. In like manner He called the Good Thief, though He could have called him earlier; but he would not then have answered the call. For if Paul would not have obeyed earlier, much less would the Good Thief.
And that these say: No man hath hired us; here, as I have said, we must not examine with too close scrutiny all that may be included in the parable. It is they, not the Master of the vineyard, that say this. Neither does He go into that with them, as He seeks not to confuse them, but to bring them to Himself. That He, for His part, has called all, and from the first hour, the parable itself declares, saying: that he went out early in the morning to hire.
From everything that is said it seems to us therefore, that the parable is directed to those who have embraced the way of virtue in their early youth, and to those who embraced it in later age. To the former so that they might not become proud, nor scornful of those coming in later life, to the latter that they may learn that it is possible in a brief while to earn the whole wage. Because, prior to this, He had been speaking (Mt. xix) of great fervour, and of rejecting riches, and of contempt of the world. For this there was need for great courage of soul, and of youthful fire. To kindle a flame of eager love, and form in them the will to endure, He showed that it is possible, even for these last come, to receive the wage of the whole day. But He does not say this, lest they be tempted to pride, but He shows that the whole wage comes from His own kindness and bounty, and that by His help they will not be lost, but will attain to ineffable joys. And this principally is what He means to lay down for our instruction in this parable.
That He adds: So shall the last be first, and the first last, and, that: many are called, but few chosen, need not cause wonder. For this is not something which He, as it were, inferred from the parable, but means this: as the former has happened, so shall the latter; for in the parable the first did not come last, but all, beyond hope and expectation, received the same wage. And as that happened contrary to hope and expectation, and they who came late were made equal to the first comers, so shall this which is yet more wonderful come to pass, namely: that the last comers shall be placed even before the first, the first being placed after the last. Here we are speaking of two different things. To me He here seems to be hinting at the Jews, and at those believers who first shone forth in virtue, and then, turning aside from doing good, fell away, and also to those who, having risen up from evildoing, soon outstripped others in virtue. For daily we see many transformations of this kind, both in believing and in the conduct of life. Accordingly, Dearest Brethren, I entreat you, let us use all diligence that we may remain steadfast in our holy faith, and show ourselves worthy in our daily lives. Unless we lead a life that is in harmony with our faith we shall be grievously punished. And this the Blessed Paul declared from the beginning, when he said: And did all eat the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, but adding that not all were saved, but many of them were overthrown in the desert (I Cor. x. 3-5). And in the Gospel Christ has declared this same truth for He made reference to many that had cast out devils, and had prophesied, and yet were dismissed into darkness (Mt. vii. 22, 23). And all these parables, such as that of the virgins, that of the fisherman’s net, that of the thorns, of the tree that failed to bring forth fruit, demand the virtue that comes from good works. . . .