Jesus had declared that the salvation of the rich would be a difficult thing. Peter drew attention to the fact that they (the disciples) were not rich but poor, and that this poverty was in a large measure voluntary: upon which he invited Jesus to state to them the advantages of their sacrifice. In this, there was a mixture of childlike simplicity with just a trace of complacency verging on vain-glory. This accounts for the double nature of Christ's answer, which deals with both aspects of Peter's attitude.
First, Jesus deals with the sincere aspect. He tells the disciples frankly that the counterpart of their fellowship with him in the day of his contempt would be a participation in his power and glory, when he should sit upon his throne in the day of restitution. He further says that "everyone" who had sacrificed for his sake would be recompensed a hundred-fold and inherit everlasting life. But he adds a statement that suggests a qualification: "But many that are first shall be last, and the last first." The mere giving up of worldly advantage for His sake would not ensure final acceptance with God unless the act were performed and accompanied with an acceptable spirit of modesty and self-abasement: "For" -- and he proceeds to employ a parable which can only be rightly understood in view of these attendant circumstances.
It is a parable of hired labourers. The owner of a vineyard goes out early in the morning and employs all that accept service at a penny a day. About nine o'clock (to adopt modern time) he goes out again, and finds other hands loitering unemployed in the market place. He sends them to his vineyard with the general assurance that he will make their wages right. He did the same at twelve o'clock, and three. Again, at five, when the day is nearly done, he pays another visit to the market place and finding another batch of men idle, he sends them to work in his vineyard.
At the close of the day, the whole of the labourers were mustered for payment of wages. Payment began with those who had come last. The early comers, looking on, imagined that as they had worked all day, they would get more than those who had worked only a part, although the contract was for one day's pay. When their turn came, they received what they had agreed for: but because the others had received an equal amount, they grumbled. Hearing their grumbling, the owner of the vineyard reasoned with one of them on behalf of the rest --
"Friend, I do thee no wrong. Didst thou not agree with me for a penny? .... Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?"
It is customary to understand this parable as teaching that every one of the accepted will be alike in their status in glory; that those who have just believed and taken on them the name of Christ and passed away without the opportunity of faithful stewardship, will rank equally with those who through long years of trial have "borne the burden and heat of the day." Another favourite idea with some is that it teaches that every one who believes will be saved without reference to their "walk and conversation." Those who take this view speak of "the penny of eternal life." They suppose the penny to teach that every one called to the vineyard will receive eternal life, and that the difference between acceptable and unacceptable labouring will be in the position assigned to them in the state to which eternal life will introduce them.
There are reasons for rejecting both views. The first reason lies in the interpretation which Jesus himself gives of the general drift of the parable. He concludes it with this remark: "So the last shall be first and the first last: for many be called but few chosen." As the labourers represent the "called," this makes it certain that they are not intended to stand indiscriminately for the saved. They stand for the called -- not for the chosen, though they include the chosen. The parable is employed expressly to teach that it is not everyone casually employed that is selected as a permanent servant by the owner of the vineyard. This reason is of itself decisive. There are others. It is not fitting that any class of the saved should be represented by those who "murmur against the good man of the house," or who have an "evil eye." The idea that all are to be equal would conflict with the plainly enunciated doctrine of the New Testament that the standing of men with Christ in the day of account will be determined by the account they have to render. This doctrine is rejected by the Christianity of the day, as a great many other true doctrines are. It has been nullified by the mis-application of that other true doctrine, that salvation is "by grace " "not of works, lest any man should boast."
There is no conflict between these doctrines, when it is seen that the doctrine of salvation by grace applies to the foundation and initiation of the plan. If salvation primarily depended on "works" no man could be saved: for "all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death." One sin is quite enough to ensure death, as shown in the case of Adam in Eden. Salvation, to be possible at all, has to be "by grace," by favour. This favour takes the form of the forgiveness of sins, by which a man becomes justified in the sight of God, and an heir of life eternal. But forgiveness is on conditions. The preaching of the Gospel is a proclamation of the conditions. The conditions not only determine the question of forgiveness or no forgiveness, but they also affect the questions of how high in glory those who are forgiven will rise, for there are degrees of attainment in Christ: and it is here where the element of "account" comes in. It is here where "works" will determine a man's position. The man who in this connection exclaims: "Not of works" does not "rightly divide the word of truth," but wrests it to his own destruction.
Nothing is more plainly or more frequently indicated than that the called will be judged with reference to their works, and that their position will depend upon their account. Let these examples suffice -
"Behold I come quickly, and my reward is with me to give every man according as his work shall be" (Rev. 22:12).
"The Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according to his work's" (Matt. 16:27).
"Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour" (1 Cor. 3:8).
"He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Cor. 9:6).
"Have thou authority over ten cities... be thou over five cities" (Luke 19:17-19).
What then is the teaching of the parable? That not every one who labours in the vineyard will receive the Lord's favour at the last; that not even the forsaking of houses and lands and relations, or the bearing of the burden and heat of the day, will commend to God a man who is a murmurer, or has an evil eye, or who is great in his own eyes: that it is a necessity that a man recognize the absolute sovereignty of the Lord of the vineyard, both as to possession and the right to do as he wills, uncontrolled by any will, or wish, or whim, on the part of those whom he favours with employment: in a word, that "except a man humble himself as a little child, he shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven."
The paying of the penny is a mere part of the drapery of the parable, but if a specific counterpart to it is insisted on, it is found in the fact that the Lord is just, and will give all that the holders of the covenant can justly claim to receive -- which is merely resurrection. Every thing beyond this is favour-grace: and the Lord bestows this of His own bounty, and only where men find favour in His eyes.