The Eleventh Hour
Gordon L. Bissett, Penarth, Cardiff, Wales
Matt. 20. 1-16.
It is late afternoon in a vineyard in the Holy Land. A group of labourers enters, and the men walk between the rows of vines. They are amazed that they are silent, empty rows, with no clusters of grapes and no busy workers.
At last they reach the farther end of the property and there they find a large band of men, all hurrying to finish the harvest before the golden afternoon sunshine fades into the dusk of evening. Now the newcomers begin to understand. The harvest has taxed the labour resources of the owner of the vineyard, and the almost empty vineyard proclaims the approaching end of a fruitful season.
Since early morning the owner has gone every three hours in search of more and more workers, and still there is much to be done. Now, after waiting only two hours, and with only one hour of daylight left, he takes on yet more men. He will pay them well for this brief hour's work, such is his determination to complete the harvest. How glad and surprised these later workers are going to be, when at pay time they receive just as much as their tired and dusty companions who have toiled all day.
THE PRESENT REALITY
In the lifetime of many today the geographical frontiers of the gospel have been greatly restricted. At the same time the world's ‘exploding’ population astronomically outnum-bers the company of those born again into God's ‘holy nation’, let alone those of that company who really work for the Lord.
Has the gospel failed to produce the hoped-for harvest? No! In the light of the parable before us, we may think that God's harvest is almost complete. It would indeed appear to be the eleventh hour of His working day. But that twelfth part of the work that remains offers opportunities that far exceed our labour resources. So where are the workers?
THE CHALLENGE TO LOITERERS
‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?‘, Matt. 20. 6, NKJV. Why do men fail to respond to the call of the Lord of the harvest? We may consider four possible reasons, the first being suggested by the parable itself.
1. No call
‘Because no one has hired us’, v. 7. There was some excuse for that. One must not reap another man's field without his command or permission, and one must not presume to do the Lord's work without His commission. An early missionary venture described in the Bible had tragic results for just that reason, 2 Kgs. 17. 24-33.
That missionary was sent, not by God, but by man, and a pagan man at that. The priest sent by the Assyrian king to convert the puppet population of Samaria was a product of the corrupt priesthood of the break-away northern kingdom. No wonder, then, that his ‘converts’ were like him and his predecessors, ‘They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods‘, v. 33. Alas, much of the missionary enterprise of professing Christendom bears the same stamp.
But, we may ask, where were those unemployed loiterers when the lord of the vineyard first went to the marketplace in search of workers? Why did they not hear his call? Why do men not hear His call today? Let us beware lest we miss a true call through being away from the place of God's will for us, or through being so immersed in the noise of worldly pleasures and pursuits that the Lord's call falls on our deafened ears.
2. Blind eyes
These may well prevent us from seeing the urgent need for workers. ‘Do you not say, “There are still four months?”, . . . look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest‘, John. 4. 35. Apparently, the grain fields of Samaria were still green, not ready for harvest, when our Lord and His disciples arrived at Sychar, but then He saw that the disciples were looking on the Samaritans in the same way. It probably never occurred to them that Samaria had any part in the Messiah of Israel, so they did not say a word to anyone about the Saviour of the world who had come with them to the very entrance of the town.
But the Lord implied that these Samaritans were ready to be gathered into the kingdom, and He proved it when both the woman at the well and her friends from the town quickly came to believe in Him.
Do we ‘stand idle all day’ because we do not believe that the people all about us are ready to listen to the gospel? How easily we excuse ourselves, saying, ‘The time has not come’, like the Israelites in Haggai 1. 2. Or, like the pessimistic farmer in Ecclesiastes. 11. 4, ‘He who observes the wind will not sow; and he who regards the clouds will not reap‘. Yet the real motives for our silence are fear, unbelief, disinterest, or occupation with our own affairs.
3. Delayed obedience
Our own unwillingness to respond to the call of God may hold us back while others hasten like the eager young Elisha after the retreating figure of Elijah. In Matthew 21. 28-31, the Lord gives a concise parable about obedience. The first son addressed retorted, ‘I will not go‘, but later he repented and went. The classic example of such delayed obedience is, of course, the prophet Jonah. It might well be said that, the long suffering of God waited, during Jonah’s futile and costly flight from obedience. To call the chastened prophet again, and to send to Nineveh a word of warning that would call many to repentance, took longer on account of it.
Have we kept Him waiting? Did we hear His call, perhaps during a Christian camp or a missionary convention? But other paths were beckoning, sunlit, companionable paths of romance or occupation, and we said, ‘No, Lord’. He still waits. Why not respond now like the son who afterwards regretted his initial refusal and went? There is still time to work, even at this eleventh hour.
4. Final disobedience
The second part of the parable in Matthew 21 reminds us of the tragedy of this. Like the elder brother of the prodigal son of Luke 15, this other son proves worse than his brother. Obsequious as the Pharisees he typifies, he exclaims, ‘I go sir!’, but he never goes. What then of our earlier promises to God? Perhaps we once sang, sincerely, ‘Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to Thee’. What happened? Have we snatched back that offered life in order to live for ourselves after all, forgetting our promise to go?
Surely it is the eleventh hour
In the lengthening shadows the Lord is still sending workers into the remaining corners of His vineyard. If we go and work even for but one hour, how great will be our joy and satisfaction when the Lord comes and calls His servants into His presence. All who for His sake have left all and followed Him will learn with wonder that His bountiful reward far exceeds any human concept of payment.
‘His servants shall serve Him, and they shall see His face’. What more could anyone long for? Dare we be disobedient to the heavenly vision? Let us then hear His voice, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard‘.