A Story About People Who Come Late
Once upon a time a man owned a field. One day he needed people to work in this field, and so very early in the morning he went out to the place where people gathered who needed work. He hired some of them to work the whole day and promised them a fair wage. Then later in the day, he went back and hired more people. In the mid afternoon, he returned and hired some more. Then one last time, about an hour before quitting time, he went back and hired even more laborers.
When the workday was done, he began to pay the workers, starting with those who had worked only about an hour. To everyone's surprise, he paid those last workers the same amount that, in the early morning, he had agreed to pay the laborers that he had hired first and who had worked the entire day! Those workers who had worked the whole day, when they saw that those who had worked for just an hour were paid the same amount that they had been promised, were glad and said to themselves, "he is going to pay us much more than was agreed!"
But as the owner of the field paid the laborers, it turned out that he paid everyone, no matter how long they had worked, the same wage. It was the wage that he had promised to those who were going to work the whole day. Naturally the workers who had worked the longest were upset, but the owner of the field said to them, "Look didn't I pay you the wage we had agreed on? As for these other workers, it's my money. Can't I spend it the way I want?"
Jesus told this story, and it is recorded in the New Testament. I believe Jesus meant the owner of the field to symbolize his Father. I am sure he meant the story to scandalize his readers, because it is a direct attack on the idea that we should desire to get from God what we deserve. Instead the story emphasizes God’s grace and undeserved generosity. I think Jesus told this story for at least three reasons:
First of all I think Jesus wanted the Jewish people (his own people) who had been God's chosen people for almost 2000 years, to understand that through him, God was now bringing in the non-Jews to be a part of His people. And these newcomers (called Gentiles) would have an equal place in God's family even though they were coming in thousands of years late!
Secondly, I believe Jesus told this story to show that it is never too late, and a person is never too old, to accept him as Lord and Savior. We see this same truth acted out at his death when a Jewish thief being crucified with him believes in him at the last minute, and Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Even if it is the bottom of the ninth inning and even if a person has lived their whole life worshiping other things besides the true God or actively rebelling against God, it is not too late for them to turn to Jesus and be saved!
Thirdly I think Jesus wanted us to understand that we can never earn salvation from him because it is a free gift from his Father purchased by his death on the cross for us. We can only, with open hands and with muted tongue, receive it. It is a great illusion for any of God’s people ever to think that by our good works we could ever have earned the free gift of being loved by Him. Jesus is telling us all that belonging to him and to his Father is not about what we deserve, but about what God chooses to freely and unexpectedly give us out of his bottomless love and grace. In that respect we are all people who have worked only an hour and who have gotten incredibly more from God than we could ever deserve or imagine.
Winfield Casey Jones is a retired pastor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece first appeared in the Pearland and Friendswood Reporter News.