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What Does the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard Teach about God’s Mercy?
While on His way to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus taught “very demanding and exalting doctrines relating to marriage and consecration.”1 Jesus then answered concerns related to these doctrines that some of His disciples had regarding salvation and who would be the greatest in heaven. Jesus tenderly crafted His corrections through a parable about day laborers hired to work in a vineyard. Through this parable, Jesus demonstrates how all who enter the covenant path and endure to the end in following Him will be blessed with exaltation and eternal life as the Lord has agreed.
In this parable, God is cast as a “householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1). After making a covenant with some workers to labor in his vineyard, the man ultimately returns four other times to the marketplace—at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours—in order to hire other laborers. While, as John and Jeannie Welch observe, “this parable accurately depicts the hiring practices for day workers” in New Testament times, it is unusual in the sense that “an employer did not normally hire workers by the hour or for half days.”2
Hiring day workers late in the day shows how great and urgent the work is that the householder needs to have done. It is likely that the householder wants to maximize the harvest before the crop “is too ripe or too late or the weather turns bad.”3 Similarly, God is concerned for all His children and is constantly at work to be sure that we all have the opportunity to be gathered into His barn.
This parable further diverges from standard expectations of a mortal mindset when all the workers are paid at the end of the day. Beginning “from the last unto the first,” the workers are all paid the same amount of money—a denarion, which was the standard day’s wage at the time—no matter what time they were hired and began work in the vineyard. This seeming unfairness led some of the workers hired earlier in the day to complain at the householder’s generosity: “And when they had received [their pay], they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought [labored] but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day” (Matthew 20:11–12).
Such comments drew out the householder’s gentle rebuke: “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny [a denarius]? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:13–15).
While Jesus does not say what the reaction of the laborers was following this correction, this parable forces us as disciples of Christ to reevaluate our expectations regarding the nature of the blessings God offers and gives to all His children. While in a mortal economy it would make sense to expect more pay for more hours of work, such is not the order of heaven. Those who enter the covenant path at the start of the day and work with the Lord will be just as blessed as those who enter the covenant path at twilight. Hence, not only will the “last … be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16), but “the first will be equal to the last, and the last will be equal to the first,” as John and Jeannie Welch have observed.4
Because of the Lord’s goodness, those who are hired at the beginning of the day should in no way feel slighted. Just as promised, they have received their pay. Rather, all can rejoice together in the fact that the Lord is so merciful that He would offer the same blessings to all people who have come and labored for Him.
Some who have studied this parable “see this as referring allegorically to the Gentiles who will readily accept and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ first, while the Jews and the house of Israel will come last because they will be slow to recognize him.”5 While that is a possible reading, John and Jeannie Welch note that in this context, Jesus “was more likely thinking of disciples who had followed him from day one … as opposed to others who had come along in the second and third years of Jesus’s ministry.”6
Furthermore, it is also possible that this meaning could be expanded to show that the disciples who joined at the first hour could be understood as the Lord’s disciples in the first dispensation, with successive dispensations of the gospel being brought to pass as the Lord visits again and calls new prophets. In Doctrine and Covenants 88:51–61, the Lord describes how He works with His disciples at the various hours of the day. When the Lord visits each servant, they enjoy “the light of the countenance of their lord” (D&C 88:58).
In this scenario, those who work with the Lord in the first hour could possibly represent “Eden and the dispensation of Adam.”7 The eleventh hour, as evidenced in Doctrine and Covenants 33:3, would be the latter days, preparatory to the twelfth hour and second coming of the Lord.
Ultimately, this parable demonstrates God’s love, justice, and mercy toward His children. He loves all His children and desires that they will come to Him, and He is continually at work in His vineyard, calling others to join Him in His work, especially as any time is running out and the needs and opportunities for success are growing more critical.
This parable likewise demonstrates that “God is a god of covenants.”8 As such, He will always honor His promises. He will justly reward all who have covenanted with Him and have worked to keep their covenants. Indeed, covenants are central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and all people are invited to make these sacred covenants as they participate in ordinances of the gospel and fulfill the will of the Father (see Matthew 7:21–23; 3 Nephi 14:21–23).
Just as the laborers in this parable joined at various times of the day and each was generously given the same reward, people over the centuries who join the covenant path at various times will be equally rewarded. Indeed, the Lord knows that those who were hired in the late afternoon had spent the entire day waiting patiently in the marketplace, hoping that someone would give them the opportunity they longed for to join the Lord and to thrust in their sickles with all their might (see D&C 4:4). Mercifully, Heavenly Father “is most interested in what we become in this life, as we progress along the covenant path of the plan of salvation that leads to life eternal. How fast, how soon, how proficiently we move is not the issue. God cares much less about where we stand than where we are headed (see Ezekiel 18:21–23).”9
In light of all that this parable teaches us about the Lord, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explained, “This parable—like all parables—is not really about laborers or wages any more than the others are about sheep and goats. This is a story about God’s goodness, His patience and forgiveness, and the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a story about generosity and compassion. It is a story about grace. It underscores the thought I heard many years ago that surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it.”10
John W. Welch and Jeannie S. Welch, The Parables of Jesus: Revealing the Plan of Salvation (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2019), 156–163.
Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” April 2012 general conference.
- 1. John W. Welch and Jeannie S. Welch, The Parables of Jesus: Revealing the Plan of Salvation (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2019), 157. These teachings are recorded in Matthew 19.
- 2. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 159–160.
- 3. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 160.
- 4. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 160.
- 5. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 160.
- 6. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 160.
- 7. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 161.
- 8. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 156.
- 9. Welch and Welch, Parables of Jesus, 156; emphasis added.
- 10. Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” April 2012 general conference.
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