The parable of the laborers is an interesting one. Here at the Thang it seems like every time we start making progress in discussions about exaltation and showing that exaltation is more a function of what we become and how close our relationship with God is than of what we get, someone trots out the parable of the laborers as a proof text allegedly showing that exaltation really is a thing that we get (like entrance to the Celestial amusement park) and which is hardly related to our efforts at all. I think this idea that Celestial glory and character can be given to any of us is simply an incorrect doctrine (and that is the problem I have with the implications of Robinson’s popular Parable of the Bicycle). But I can see why the parable of the laborers would lead people to the wrong conclusions. Here it is from Matthew 20:
1 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.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 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?
7 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.
8 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.
9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 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.
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
So a standard interpretation might go like this:
The householder = God.
The laborers = Any one of us as individuals.
The wage = salvation/exaltation.
The conclusion that many people draw from this is that whether we serve God all of our lives or if we decide to (or are finally invited to) serve him near the end of our lives the reward will be the same because God is powerful and gracious and further because he can do whatever he wants.
Now just in case it is not obvious to you, there are problems with this interpretation from a Mormon theological point of view. First, if this is truly the way God works then deathbed repentance will lead to exaltation. The scoundrel that repents in the end of his life would presumably receive the exact same Celestial theme park ticket as the saint who devoted his entire life to serving and loving God and his fellow man. The problem for us Mormons with that is that modern prophets have consistently denounced the notion of deathbed repentance . The other thing that doesn’t work is the “election” issue that some Christians read into this parable. That is that those who received the wage in the parable were only those who the householder went out and specifically picked — not everyone got the invite.
Now there are surely lots of ways to look at this parable but I just thought of one that I want to float by y’all. It utilizes some of our modern scriptures to change some of the casting of the characters being represented in the parable.
The thing that stood out to me this week as I read this parable is the seemingly odd conclusion drawn at the end of the story: So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen
This conclusion doesn’t really logically follow the parable if we interpret in the standard way I outlined above. First, the “last and the first” laborers all received exactly the same wages in the end of the parable. There was no difference in the final reward despite the differing lengths of time put in and presumably all got paid at the same time so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say the first shall be last to me. Second, the parable indicates that everyone who the Householder “called” ended up being “chosen” to work and be paid so saying “many are called but few are chosen” doesn’t seem to fit at all based on the standard interpretation.
My theory is that the problem is that the parable ought to be interpreted like this instead:
The householder = God.
The laborers = various nations or people with the first called being the Jews/Israel.
The wage = The blessings associated with the fullness of the gospel as bestowed on nations. Further it could also include the general blessings the individual people who and keep covenants with God enjoy.
Consider the context in which the concluding statement of the parable “the last shall be first, and the first last” is used elsewhere in scriptures:
And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles; and after he has manifested himself unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles, then he shall manifest himself unto the Gentiles and also unto the Jews, and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. (Alma 13: 42)
63 Graft in the branches; begin at the last that they may be first, and that the first may be last, and dig about the trees, both old and young, the first and the last; and the last and the first, that all may be nourished once again for the last time. (Jacob 5)
29 And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.
30 And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last. (Luke 13)
The connecting concept in all of these scriptures is that even though Israel was the first, in the last days the gentiles will receive the gospel. The idea is that eventually both the Jews and gentiles will be part of God’s people. Therefore, I think it is not a stretch to say that the parable of the laborers represents Israel as the early laborers and the nations of the gentiles as the later laborers. The workday represents the history of the modern world.
It seems to me that by interpreting this parable this way the unworkable theological implications of the more traditional interpretation go away.
What do you think?
[1.] “Some of our old traditions teach us that a man guilty of atrocious and murderous acts may savingly repent when on the scaffold; and upon his execution will hear the expression, “Bless God! he has gone to heaven, to be crowned in glory, through the all-redeeming merits of Christ the Lord.” This is all nonsense. Such a character never will see heaven. Some will pray, “O that I had passed through the veil on the night of my conversion!” This proves the false ideas and vain notions entertained by the Christian world” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 157).