40 – The Rights of Ownership

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 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? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen (Matt. 20:1-16).

The theocentric principle here is the sovereignty of God in choosing who is to be redeemed and who is not.


The Right of Voluntary Contract

This is one of Jesus' pocketbook parables. Most people understand the affairs of the marketplace far better than they understand theology. Jesus used pocketbook parables to communicate fundamental theological truths.

The householder had authority over his vineyard. He had the right to offer to hire whomever he pleased. No one had to accept his offer. The laborers were sovereign over their decision to accept his offer or reject it. Between the householder and a laborer, a bargain was possible.

The householder's primary goal was to care for his vineyard. This is an extension of God's assignment to Adam: to dress and defend the garden. He sought assistance in this task. He made use of the division of labor. He could not do everything that needed to be done. So, he went into the marketplace to hire workers.

He went out early in the morning. He found men who were willing to work. He offered them a penny a day. They accepted his offer and headed for the vineyard. Then he went out at the third hour (nine in the morning by Roman standards).1 He found other men standing idle. This time, he offered work on a different basis: "whatsoever is right I will give you" (v. 4). They trusted him, accepted the offer, and headed for the fields. He repeated this three hours later and six hours later. At the eleventh hour — late in the day — he did it again. "Whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." They accepted. They trusted him.

Then came the time of payment. He faithfully followed the Mosaic law. He paid them on the day of their labor. "Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning" (Lev. 19:13).2 He abided by God's law. He was a just man.

He told his steward, "Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day."

He had promised the early laborers a fixed wage. He paid them what he had promised. He had promised the others a fair wage. He paid them what he had paid the full-day laborers. Surely this was fair to the part-timers. But the full-day laborers begin to complain as soon as they received their pay. "This is unfair." They had worked so much longer. They deserved more. So they said.

The employer's answer rested on the moral validity of contracts. "Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 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?" They had been paid what he had promised. What was the moral basis of their complaint?

Imperfect Knowledge and Risk

Earlier that morning, they had not known that there was going to be employment later in the day for a full day's wages. They had wanted employment at the wage offered. He had offered it to them. The arrangement was perceived by employer and employees as mutually beneficial. They went to work. They received what they had been promised. No one had been cheated.

Those who came later were more trusting of the employer. He had not said exactly what he would be pay. They would be paid what was right. They agreed to this verbal contract. They would not have an enforceable contract in any court if he paid them too little — too little from their point of view. Nevertheless, they decided that he was a righteous man who would not cheat them. They were proven correct at the end of the day.

The early workers had borne less risk. They had an enforceable contract. The later workers bore more risk. They did not have a specific contract. When men bear greater risk, they seek a higher rate of return to compensate them for the extra risk. The men who had gone to work early received a lower hourly rate of compensation, but they had borne less risk. The others received a higher hourly rate, but they had borne greater risk. There was nothing inherently out of order with the respective pay scales.

The parable ends with final payment. I believe this parable refers to the entire history of the kingdom of God. This final payment refers to final judgment. There would not be work available the next day. Had there been another day of work, cunning workers would have put off going into the marketplace until the afternoon, hoping to reap a full day's wages for a partial day's work. But the parable is not about second chances. The laborers in this parable did not have advanced information on the outcome of everyone's efforts. They had only a promise: a penny (early comers) or "what is right" (late comers).

The parable is not about long-term labor-management relations. It is about the kingdom of God in history. Men make decisions about what they can expect from God for their obedience. They think about the risk-reward ratio of their decisions. The early morning workers compared the risk of nonpayment vs. payment. They also compared expected wages with the likelihood of better employment offers later in the day. They concluded that a day of work in the vineyard was the best available offer. They did not have information about the employer's previous payment practices.

Those who came into the fields later did not have specific information about their pay. They could not spread the word to other workers that they were being paid a penny for less time in the fields. That might have created a walk-out on the part of the early workers. Only at the end of the day did they all receive information about comparative hourly rates of pay. By then, their work was completed.

God comes to every man, whether late in his life or early, and offers to pay what is right. Some men trust Him; others do not. For those who truly love their kingdom work, it matters little who gets paid what, just so long as they remain in favor with the Employer. The opportunity to work is what matters most to them. If they were recruited early, so much the better: more time to serve God.

The parable speaks of groups of workers. They are grouped by the time of day in which they were recruited. There is a collective aspect of this hiring process. It is not just a person-by-person recruiting process. It is this collective aspect that reveals what the parable is really about: Jews and groups of gentiles.

False Expectations

The workers who had toiled through the day had expected a penny for their efforts. But then came the time of payment. The paymaster eventually paid the early workers a penny, but he did not pay them first. He began with the latest comers and moved backward. None of the late comers who had arrived at the ninth hour complained about the pay given to the eleventh-hour arrivals. None of those who had arrived at the sixth hour or third hour complained.

As the pennies were handed out, the earliest comers may have grown worried. Each worker was being paid a penny, no matter how long he had toiled. Would the original contract still apply to them? Or would it be revised at the last moment? Doubt must have spread among the members of the first group, as each group was paid. What was going on here? Everyone was being paid the same. Yet no one was complaining. The third-hour arrivals had worked almost a full day, yet they did not complain. This was very strange. Why were they silent? This pay schedule was clearly unfair. But the earliest comers did not speak up in protest until their turn came, and each received his penny. They did not risk protesting until it was clear that their contract would not be revised upward. Then they complained bitterly. "Thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day."

Equality. That was what bothered them. Not the money as such, but the equality it implied. It was all right with them that the others had been treated as equals, no matter how early or late they went to work. But why should any of these late comers be regarded as the equals of the earliest comers? Yes, all the other late comers deserved a penny, no matter when they arrived on the job. But the earliest workers deserved more. It did not matter what they had agreed to. The fact that late comers were being paid a penny made the early comers resentful. They were somehow being cheated — not contractually but morally. They knew they deserved more. When, at the end of the day's labor, all workers were paid the same, the old-timers could not contain their anger at the employer.

It is obvious who the complainers were in this parable: the Jews. Jesus made it plain in this parable that the final reward — access to heaven — would be handed out equally to all those who had worked in the vineyard. This was clearly a matter of mercy to the gentiles. The same reward would be obtained by all, irrespective of the time of day they arrived on the scene. All of the late arrivals accepted this, but the original workers did not. There should have been something extra for them, they believed.

The employer told them otherwise. "Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 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?" Their eye was intensely evil. They deeply resented the grace shown by the employer to the other employees. It made the late comers appeal equal to the original men in the fields. This equality led them to protest.

Few Are Chosen

Jesus said, "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen" (v. 20). Who had been called? All of the unemployed workers had been called. All those who responded to the call had been chosen to work. Then what did Jesus mean about few being chosen? Chosen for what? It is clear: eternal life.

The payment was the same for all. This has to refer to payment at the end of the day, i.e., final judgment. There would be no tomorrow. This time frame is history. They had all worked. They were all paid the same. The first ones to go to work were the last to be paid. The first nation to go to work in God's Old Covenant kingdom was Israel. The parable warned the Jews that those who would arrive later — the gentiles — would be paid the same as the Jews, who had arrived first.

The Jews had been told about what covenant-keepers would receive: the earth. "What man is he that feareth the LORD? him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose. His soul shall dwell at ease; and his seed shall inherit the earth" (Ps. 25:12-13). "For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth" (Ps. 37:9). The basis of inheritance is ethics, not race or nationalism. There had never been any doubt about this on God's part. But the Jews misinterpreted this promise. They saw it in terms of nationalism. The victory would go to Israel. Gentiles could gain a share of this by becoming Jews, but access to the kingdom would always be through Israel. Israel would always have priority.

Not so, Jesus warned in this parable. Access to God's kingdom is always by God's grace. God would invite other groups in throughout history, Jesus said. Nation by nation, gentiles would enter the kingdom. Late arrivals would gain the same reward: eternal inheritance.

In the parable, the late arrivals were paid first. The earliest arrivals did not know for sure that they would be paid the same amount. This parable made it clear: the Jews would be paid the same. The gentiles had not yet been invited into the kingdom at the time that Jesus gave this parable, but they soon would be. The sovereignty of God is the basis of who gets chosen. God had called the Jews, but they would soon lose title to the kingdom. "Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matt. 21:43). They would no longer be first in terms of status. Jesus knew their hearts. He knew God's plan. They would not accept final payment — salvation — on the basis of equality with the gentiles. Many Jews were being called, but few would be chosen.

Jesus understood the pride of the Jews. Since they had been working longer, they thought they should be paid more. They wanted eternal life, plus something more, presumably status. Jesus' previous lesson indicated that the plus — status — would go to the apostles, who would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28).3 Jews and their representatives would be subordinate in the kingdom to the founders of the church.

This parable was a warning to the Jews. If they objected in advance to the payment offered for participation in the kingdom, they would not enter the kingdom. The earliest workers in the parable had not been told that others would come later, work shorter hours, and be paid the same. But the Jews were now being told this. The complaining workers of the parable clearly would not have accepted their jobs on these terms. Jesus warned them: you had better accept payment on God's terms. The New Covenant would not favor any group, He said. Each group would have to accept its equality of legal status, i.e., judicially saved by grace.

When Christ said that many are called but few are chosen, He was referring to two groups, Old Covenant Israel and the gentiles. He was not referring people in general. He was not speaking of the percentages of people brought to saving faith in every generation in relation to the general population.4 He was referring to the percentage of Jews who would enter the kingdom in the long period prior to their eschatological grafting in.5 In this parable, all of the late comers — the gentiles — gratefully accepted their pay. It was the original workers who complained. The employer asked: "Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" This was what Christ was asking the Jews. Were they going to interpret God's coming act of grace to the gentiles as something evil because the gentiles would arrive in the kingdom later than the Jews had? Were the Jews going to reject the offer of eternal life because the same offer would soon be made to the gentiles? In the parable, Christ did not answer the question, but He made it clear that the morning workers resented equality with the late comers. The implication was that they would never have accepted the job on this basis. Many are called, but few are chosen.

The reference to groups of workers symbolizes nations. The Jews constituted one nation. Gentile nations would also come into the kingdom. This parable is not exclusively about individuals; it is also about groups. The Jewish nation was one group among many. This was the stumbling stone of Jesus' message.

It is clear that the parable is about salvation: payment at the end of the day. All of the workers will be paid the same, Jesus said. This has to refer to eternal salvation. But isn't eternal salvation strictly individual? Not according to the Bible. God brings nations into eternity. "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9-10). "And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it" (Rev. 21:23-26).

This parable deals with nations or peoples: Jews and gentiles. Jesus said that gentile nations will come into the kingdom over time. He was warning the Jews: accept this arrangement or have the kingdom removed from you. They did not heed His warning.

The Owner's Rights

The employer asked the ungrateful workers, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" Few verses in the Bible more eloquently defend the principle of private ownership. This parable is about God's sovereignty in inviting gentiles and Jews on equal terms to participate in the New Covenant kingdom. But its language defending this doctrine of God's sovereignty is not theological; it is judicial. The employer affirms his legal right to dispose of his own property as he sees fit.

This answer was intended to confound Jesus' critics. It is God's right to invite anyone He chooses into His kingdom. It is His right to grant to gentile converts access to the kingdom on exactly the same judicial basis that He grants it to Jews. The first to gain title to the New Covenant kingdom will be the gentiles, Jesus told the Jews. Paul made this even clearer in Romans 11. The Jews, although they came first into the Old Covenant kingdom, will be last to come into the New Covenant kingdom.

In the interim period when both covenants were in force, before the deaths of the apostles, Old Covenant Israel was given equal access to the kingdom. The kingdom was definitively transferred to the church with Christ's resurrection (Matt. 28:18-20). It was progressively transferred after Pentecost. In A.D. 70, the kingdom was finally taken from the Jews and transferred to a new nation, the church. After the fall of Jerusalem, Old Covenant Israel ceased to exist. Rabbinic Judaism replaced it: the triumph of the Pharisees over the Sadducees, who had been associated with temple sacrifices.6

This parable teaches that the authority of the owner over the use of his property is analogous to the authority of God over the terms of salvation. This parable is a therefore stumbling block for every defender of socialism, communism, fascism, and the Keynesian economy. This parable sets forth a judicial principle that leads to an inescapable conclusion: the modern welfare State is biblically illegitimate. Critics of biblical economics who argue that the Old Testament may have laid down laws that will produce a free market economy, but the New Testament does not, have steadfastly refused to comment on this parable.


When the parable says many are called but few are chosen, it refers to the Jewish nation. When it says that the first shall be last, it refers to the Jewish nation. The groups of workers in the parable came into the field at different times. Members of each group were paid at the same time. The later arrivals were paid first, from the latest to the earliest. The first nation — the Jews — was paid last. Workers were also paid the same.

This parable asserts the sovereignty of God in establishing the terms of access to the kingdom of God and payment for participation. It does so by invoking the right of property owners to do as they please with their property. It affirms the right of voluntary contracts between employers and employees. It defends the private property order against those who think that some higher principle of justice should override the terms of a labor contract. Occasionally, the Bible reveals such principles, such as the requirement that employers pay their employees no later than the end of the working day. The Bible should inform us of such exceptions to the sovereignty of contracts, not disgruntled workers or their political and academic spokesmen.

The top priority set forth in this parable is faithful adherence to contracts and righteous dealing with others. An employer is allowed to give more to a worker than the worker expects. The employer is not to be criticized by those workers who receive what they had previously agreed to.


The sixth hour after sunrise in the Roman calendar was noon. The length of the hour varied according to the seasons.
Gary North, Leviticus: An Economic Commentary (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), ch. 13.
Chapter 39, above.
This passage is not a valid proof text for amillennialists or premillennialists who would use it against postmillennialists.
"And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?" (Rom. 11:23-24). Cf. Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, [1864] 1950), p. 365; Robert Haldane, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (Mad Dill Air Force Base, Florida: MacDonald Pub. Co., [1839] 1958), pp. 632-33; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1965), II, pp. 65-103.
Herbert Danby, whose English translation of the Mishnah is still considered authoritative by the scholarly world, both Jewish and gentile, commented on the undisputed triumph of the Pharisees after the fall of Jerusalem (which lives on as Orthodox Judaism): "Until the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 they had counted as one only among the schools of thought which played a part in Jewish national and religious life; after the Destruction they took the position, naturally and almost immediately, of sole and undisputed leaders of such Jewish life as survived. Judaism as it has continued since is, if not their creation, at least a faith and a religious institution largely of their fashioning; and the Mishnah is the authoritative record of their labour." Herbert Danby, Introduction, The Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, [1933] 1987), p. xiii.

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