Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder, who went out at break of day to hire laborers into his vineyard. 2. And having made an agreement with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3. And having gone out about the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the market-place. 4. And he said to them, Go you also into the vineyard, and whatever shall be right I will give you. 5. And they went away. And again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and acted in the same manner. 6. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and said to them, Why stand you here all the day idle? 7. They say to him, Because nobody hath hired us. He saith to them, Go you also into the vineyard, and you will receive what shall be right. 8. And when the evening was come, the master of the vineyard saith to his steward, Call the laborers, and pay them their hire, beginning with the last even to the first. 9. And when they came who had come about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10. And they who had come first thought that they would receive more, and they also received every man a penny. 11. And when they had received it, they murmured against the householder, 12. Saying, These last have been but one hour at work, and thou hast made them equal to us, who have endured the burden of the day and the heat. 13. But he answering one of them, said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14. Take what is thine, and go away: and I intend to give to this last as much as to thee. 15. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own property? Is thy eye evil, because I am good? 16. So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last: for many are called, but few are chosen.
As this parable is nothing else than a confirmation of the preceding sentence, the last shall be first, it now remains to see in what manner it ought to be applied. Some commentators reduce it to this general proposition, that the glory of all; will be equal, because the heavenly inheritance is not obtained by the merits of works, but is bestowed freely. But Christ does not here argue either about the equality of the heavenly glory, or about the future condition of the godly. He only declares that those who were first in point of time have no right to boast or to insult others; because the Lord, whenever he pleases, may call those whom he appeared for a time to disregard, and may make them equal, or even superior, to the first. If any man should resolve to sift out with exactness every portion of this parable, his curiosity would be useless; and therefore we have nothing more to inquire than what was the design of Christ to teach. Now we have already said that he had no other object in view than to excite his people by continual spurs to make progress. We know that indolence almost always springs from excessive confidence; and this is the reason why many, as if they had reached the goal, stop short in the middle of the course. Thus Paul enjoins us to forget the things which are behind, (Php 3:13,) that, reflecting on what yet remains for us, we may arouse ourselves to persevere in running. But there will be no harm in examining the words, that the doctrine may be more clearly evinced.
Matthew 20:1. For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder. The meaning is, that such is the nature of the divine calling, as if a man were, early in the morning, to hire laborers for the cultivation of his vineyard at a fixed price, and were afterwards to employ others without an agreement, but to give them an equal hire. He uses the phrase, kingdom of heaven, because he compares the spiritual life to the earthly life, and the reward of eternal life to money which men pay in return for work that has been done for them. There are some who give an ingenious interpretation to this passage, as if Christ were distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews, they tell us, were called at the first hour, with an agreement as to the hire; for the Lord promised to them eternal life, on the condition that they should fulfill the law; while, in calling the Gentiles, no bargain was made at least as to works, for salvation was freely offered to them in Christ. But all subtleties of that sort are unseasonable; for the Lord makes no distinction in the bargain, but only in the time; because those who entered last, and in the evening, into the vineyard, receive the same hire with the first Though, in the Law, God formerly promised to the Jews the hire of works, (Le 18:5,) yet we know that this was without effect, because no man ever obtained salvation by his merits.
Why then, it will be said, does Christ expressly mention a bargain 643 in reference to the first, but make no mention of it in reference to the others? It was in order to show that, without doing injury to any one, as much honor is conferred on the last, as if they had been called at the beginning. For strictly speaking, he owes no man any thing, and from us, who are devoted to his service, he demands, as a matter of right, all the duties which are incumbent on us. But as he freely offers to us a reward, he is said to hire the labors which, on other grounds, were due to him. This is also the reason why he gives the name of a hire to the crown which he bestows freely. Again, in order to show that we have no right to complain of God, if he make us companions in honor with those who followed us after a long interval, he borrowed a comparison from the ordinary custom of men, who bargain about the hire, before they send laborers to their work.
If any man infer from this, that men are created for the purpose of doing something, and that every man has his province assigned him by God, that they may not sit down in idleness, he will offer no violence to the words of Christ. 644 We are also at liberty to infer, that our whole life is unprofitable, and that we are justly accused of indolence, until each of us regulate his life by the command and calling of God. Hence it follows, that they labor to no purpose, who rashly undertake this or that course of life, and do not wait for the intimation of the call of God. Lastly, we learn from the words of Christ, that those only are pleasing to God, who labor for the advantage of their brethren.
A penny (which was rather more than four times the value of a French carolus,) 645 was probably the ordinary hire for a day’s work. The third, sixth, and ninth hour, are expressly mentioned, because, while the ancients were wont to divide the day into twelve hours, from sunrise to sunset, there was another division of the day into every three hours; as, again, the night was divided into four watches; and so the eleventh hour means the close of the day.
8. And when the evening was come. It would be improper to look for a mystery in the injunction of the householder to begin with the last, as if God crowned those first who were last in the order of time; for such a notion would not at all agree with the doctrine of Paul. They that are alive, he says, at the coming of Christ will not come before those who previously fell asleep in Christ, but will follow, (1Th 4:15.) But Christ observes a different order in this passage, because he could not otherwise have expressed — what he afterwards adds — that the first murmured, because they did not receive more 646
Besides, he did not intend to say that this murmuring will take place at the last day, but merely to affirm that there will be no occasion for murmuring The personification (προσωποποΐα) which he employs throws no small light on this doctrine, that men have no right to complain of the bounty of God, when he honors unworthy persons by large rewards beyond what they deserve. There is no foundation, therefore, for what some have imagined, that these words are directed against the Jews, who were full of malice and envy towards the Gentiles; for it would be absurd to say that such persons receive an equal hire with the children of God, and this malignity, which leads men to exclaim against God, does not apply to believers. But the plain meaning is, that, since God defrauds no man of a just hire, He is at liberty to bestow on those whom He has lately called an undeserved reward.
16. So the first shall be last. He does not now compare the Jews to the Gentiles, (as in another passages) nor the reprobate, who swerve from the faith, to the elect who persevere; and therefore the sentence which is introduced by some interpreters, many are called, but few are chosen, does not apply to that point. Christ only meant to say that every one who has been called before others ought to run with so much the greater alacrity, and, next, to exhort all men to be modest, not to give themselves the preference above others, but willingly to share with them a common prize. As the apostles were the first-fruits of the whole church, they appeared to possess some superiority; and Christ did not deny that they would sit as judges to govern the twelve tribes of Israel. But that they might not be carried away by ambition or vain confidence in themselves, it was necessary also to remind them that others, who would long afterwards be called, would be partakers of the same glory, because God is not limited to any person, but calls freely whomsoever He pleases, and bestows on those who are called whatever rewards He thinks fit.
“Un pris conveml;” — “a price agreed upon.”
“Cela ne sera point tirer trop loin les parollcs de Christ;” — “this will not be straining too far the words of Christ.”
A penny (δηνάριον) was worth about sevenpence-halfpenny of our money. — Ed.
“Pource qu’on ne leur donnoit non plus qu’aux derniers;” — “because no more was given to them than to the last.”