The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1)
The Lord does not treat us as our sins deserve
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
Nor will he harbor his anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve,
Nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is his love for those who fear him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
For he knows how we are formed,
He remembers that we are dust.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard
The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day, and sent them into his vineyard.
About the third hour he went out and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. He told them, “You also go into my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour, he went out and found still others standing idle. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
They answered, “Because no one has hired us.”
He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last and going to the first.”
The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came, and each received a denarius. So when the ones who were hired first came, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the householder, saying, “These who were hired last worked only one hour, yet you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”
But he answered one of them, “My friend, I am not treating you unjustly. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Isn’t it legal for me to do what I want with my property? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last; for many are called, but few are chosen.
Arcana Coelestia #9180
Working to deserve heaven
There are people who learn and absorb true ideas from the Bible, or from the teachings of the Church, or from various other people, or even from themselves by drawing their own conclusions—but they do it for the sake of personal gain. In other words, they do it to earn important positions, to gain wealth, or so that they will deserve heaven. In the deeper meaning these are symbolized by “hired servants who will come for their pay”—that is, who must submit themselves and serve.
For religious people, personal gain should be the last priority, not the first. When it is the last priority, it is a servant; but if it is the first priority, it is the master. People who consider personal gain to be the first priority are upside-down people. In the next life, they appear upside-down, with their head in hell. But people who see kindness and faith, and therefore the Lord and the neighbor, as the first priority are right-side-up people. In the next life, they appear upright, with their head in heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1)
Here we are, still talking about money!
The previous parable of the kingdom of heaven was about the great debt we owe to the Lord, which we can never repay, but which the Lord forgives if we do our best to use what we have been given in acts of mercy and kindness toward our fellow human beings. In our parable for this chapter—the parable of the workers in the vineyard—we have gotten to work doing just that. We have allowed the Lord, who is the “householder” in the parable, to hire us to work in the vineyard of spiritual life. The hook embedded in the parable is about the payment we will receive for our labors—and our attitude both toward the rewards and toward the labor itself.
The most obvious zinger of the parable is that Jesus, in telling it as he does, blatantly flouts the laws of fair wages and equitable hiring practices. Obviously, those who work more should get paid more, and those who work less should get paid less. It’s only fair. And for the Lord to construct a story in which people who have worked just one hour, in the cool part of the day just before sunset, are paid the same as those who have worked twelve back-breaking hours through the heat of the day . . . well, how else can we say it? This guy would have the labor unions picketing his house in short order!
That was exactly the effect that the Lord intended the parable to have on his listeners—and on us today. Parables are not meant to soothe us and confirm us in the things we already “know” and believe. Instead, they are meant to jar our sensibilities, to shake us up, to get us moving beyond the boundaries of our habitual ways of thinking, to expand our level of love and compassion beyond their current smallness. The parables are meant to be subversive. They are intended to break up all our comfortable, habitual, worldly patterns of life.
If this parable annoys you; if it causes you to protest, to inwardly shout, “That’s not fair!” . . . wonderful! It has done its job! It has gotten your attention. It has found a chink in your armor, and is worming its way into your psyche to turn things upside-down there.
The ways of the Lord are radical and revolutionary. They are in direct opposition to many of our most ingrained attitudes and beliefs. They run counter to the world’s values. And the point of this particular parable is that the attitudes common to this world will end out last and lowest, while the spiritual principles that “practical” people see as impractical, if not downright unjust, will be first and highest in the end.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
Let’s get specific. The “common sense” attitude of the world is, as I mentioned before, that the more we work, the more we get paid. We earn our money through the work we do. And it is obvious to us that if we do more work, we deserve to get paid more.
That is what those workers who were the first to be hired thought. Notice that it says, “He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day.” This implies that there was some bargaining, and he agreed to the rate of pay that the workers bargained for. For those hired later in the day, the householder simply told them, “I will pay you whatever is right.” There was no bargaining. They simply went and did the work, trusting that they would receive just compensation. But not the first ones to be hired; they had to make a deal, assert their rights, get the promise of a specific rate of pay from the householder before doing a lick of work.
That is where we are when we first start out on our spiritual life. Up to that point, we have been living and working for what we can get out of life. For our earlier, materialistic self, the main focus is the reward, the pleasure, the money, the power that we will get if we expend our energy and do some work. The work itself is just a means to that goal. And our goal is satisfied every payday, when we get our wages and can enjoy the fruits of our labor for ourselves and for our family and friends.
When this is our mindset, the most important thing is that we get paid as much as possible for the work we do. We will take a higher paying job even if we don’t like the work as well because more money is obviously better! And like the laborers who were hired first, we will be very jealous of our right to receive what we consider to be just compensation for our work.
Spiritually speaking, this means that as we start out on our course toward heaven, we are focused primarily on heavenly (and material) reward for ourselves. And if we can get some immediate benefits and satisfactions, so much the better! The main idea for us at that time of our lives is that if we are going to go through all the trouble of living according to God’s rules instead of our own, we had certainly better get handsomely rewarded for it!
We speak of “having our priorities backwards,” but in Swedenborg’s colorful language, this attitude describes a person who is “upside-down.” Our feet are where our head should be, and our head is where our feet should be. In other words, we put our own happiness and well-being—which, for truly spiritual people, is at the low end of the priority scale—right up at the top of our priority list.
And what should be at the head of our priority list? We can all answer in unison: loving the Lord and loving our neighbor. Jesus himself said that these are the most important of all the commandments. This means that we are not fully reborn—not fully angels—until our primary goal in life is to love the Lord by loving and serving our fellow human beings, and putting their happiness before our own.
When we are still materialistic in our thinking and motives, this looks completely naïve and ridiculous. In fact, we think it would lead to great injustice and harm if we were to adopt it. But the main harm we are worried about is harm to ourselves. “If I don’t stick up for myself, who will?” That’s how the reasoning goes. As long as we are in the grip of this mindset, we continue to agitate for our own rights, privileges, comforts, and happiness, thinking we are just being “fair,” and doing what “anyone would do.”
But notice that the Lord calls us to work in his vineyard anyway!
When those morning workers bargained with the householder, he didn’t say to them, “Well, if that’s your attitude, I don’t want you working in my vineyard anyway.” No! He went ahead and hired them. And in exactly the same way, the Lord “hires” us to work in his spiritual vineyard even if we start out with many faulty attitudes. The point is to get us moving, get us working toward spiritual life—and let the rest sort itself out along the way.
Now let’s consider the workers who were hired during the day. In those times, the work day was twelve variable hours, reaching from dawn to dusk. In the summer, the hours would be longer, and in winter they would be shorter, in order to fill the day. The grape harvest in Palestine begins in August, the hottest month of the year, and reaches into October. So it spans the fall equinox, when days and nights are of equal length.
Roughly speaking, then, the workers we have been focusing on so far—those hired at the beginning of the day—started at our six o’clock am, and worked until six o’clock pm, a full twelve hours that stretched through some of the hottest days of the year. More were hired at the third hour, our nine o’clock am; the sixth hour, our twelve o’clock noon; the ninth hour, our three o’clock pm; and finally the eleventh hour, our five o’clock pm, just an hour before the workday ended.
And not only were they all paid the same wage that the twelve-hour workers received, but the last hires got their wages first, and those who had started first had to wait until last!
From a material world perspective, this is all wrong. But it begins to make sense when we think of each crop of workers as a new development in our spiritual life and growth. As I already mentioned, those hired at the beginning of the day represent the beginnings of our spiritual life, when we are still thinking, “What’s in it for me?” We bargain with God, trying to get the best eternal deal for ourselves. As we start out on our spiritual path, we are still thinking of ourselves first, and of God and other people afterwards.
Notice that these workers later complain that they “have borne the burden and the heat of the day.” When we are in our natural state, and thinking of ourselves first, spiritual growth is, indeed, hard, hot labor! We face many struggles in overcoming our natural selfishness and our societally approved materialism. It is a burden for us not to think of our own advantage first, but to give others equal consideration. We get hot under the collar at the thought that others might get spiritual benefits without all the struggles we have to face in order to “get paid.”
To put it another way, we must face the heat of our desires for lower things—physical pleasures, money, and personal power—in order to make it through to the point where we are focused on higher things: God’s love in our hearts, leading us to love and care for the people around us.
The workers hired at the various hours represent our progress from our upside-down spiritual beginnings. Each of the hours mentioned is a multiple of three. And three represents a state of completeness, when our heart, head, and hands—or our love, understanding, and actions—are working together. Each time we complete a phase in our spiritual development, we metaphorically hire a new crop of workers within ourselves, appropriate to our new phase.
As far as I know, Swedenborg does not give a specific meaning for each set of workers. He simply says (in Apocalypse Explained #194) that three, six, and twelve have a similar meaning. But the meaning he is referring to is the general meaning of completeness.
However, based on the general stages of spiritual development we go through, we could assign these meanings to the three sets of hires:
- Those hired at the third hour could be seen as the time when we willingly obey the Lord’s commandments, whether or not we understand them.
- Those hired at the sixth hour could be seen as the time when, through working in the vineyard of learning from the Lord and the Bible, and making what we have learned a part of ourselves, we follow the Lord’s commandments based on an intelligent understanding and appreciation of them.
- Those hired at the ninth hour could be seen as the time when we begin to follow the Lord’s commandments not from mere obedience, nor even from mere understanding, but because we are beginning to love doing what the Lord leads us to do.
In the story, none of these bargained for their wages. In each of these states—acting from obedience, from understanding, and finally from love—we are not so concerned about what we will get out of doing the right thing. Instead, we are concerned to do the right thing. The work itself, and serving the Lord and our neighbor, begins to be our first priority. In Swedenborg’s words, we are turning right-side-up by getting our priorities straight.
Finally, we hire our spiritual “eleventh hour workers” when at last we realize that in ourselves we are nothing, and the Lord is everything. We are nearing the end of our spiritual work day when we are willing to simply listen to the Lord, and humbly and innocently be led where the Lord wants us to go. Then our work is light; we work one short hour, and immediately get our spiritual reward.
At that point in our lives, we are no longer trying to buy our way into heaven. Instead, we are allowing the Lord to spiritually buy our life from us, so that it is the Lord’s and not ours. And the beautiful thing is that once he has bought our life, he gives it back to us with rewards richer than we could ever have imagined.
(This post is the ninth chapter in my book, On Earth as it is In Heaven, originally published in 2005. For a description and Table of Contents, please click here. This material is copyright 2005 by Lee Woofenden.)