Parables of Jesus: The Laborers

“Parables of Jesus: The Laborers,” Ensign, Sept. 2003, 48

New Testament

Parables of Jesus:

The Laborers

The Lord invites each of us to examine our motives for serving in His kingdom.

When I joined the Church in 1975, there were few members in the Philippines. Since that day the Church has grown dramatically. My homeland now has almost half a million members. I have been honored and pleased to labor in the Lord’s vineyard during these years in many positions of responsibility. But my years of service raise a question: Am I entitled to a greater reward in heaven than a new convert who is faithful but who lives only a few years before passing beyond the veil? The Savior has answered this question, like many others, with a parable.

“What Shall We Have Therefore?”

One day as the Savior was with His disciples, a rich young man came to Jesus and asked, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor … and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21), Jesus responded. This answer astonished His disciples. They wondered among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). Jesus discerned their thoughts and explained that eternal life is possible for those who forsake all things for His sake (see Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 19:26).

Peter then asked on behalf of all the Apostles, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” (Matt. 19:27).

Jesus’ answer was both a glorious promise and a stern rebuke. First, He assured them that after the Resurrection they, the Apostles, would sit upon 12 thrones and judge the house of Israel. He then warned, “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matt. 19:30), and He taught them the parable of the laborers.

Every Laborer a Penny

Jesus likened the kingdom of heaven to a householder who went out early one morning to hire laborers. In Jesus’ day unemployed men often gathered in certain public places to meet potential employers. The householder agreed to pay his laborers the usual daily wage of a penny (a Roman denarius) and sent them into his vineyard. Later, at about the third hour (9:00 A.M.), the householder went again to the marketplace and found others standing idle, waiting for work. These he also hired, but this time he did not tell them how much they would be paid. He agreed to pay “whatsoever is right” (Matt. 20:4). The laborers readily agreed and took their places beside the other workers in the vineyard. At about the sixth and ninth hours (noon and 3:00 P.M.), the householder again hired more workers. Then one last time, at the eleventh hour (5:00 P.M.), he went to the marketplace and hired new laborers. As before, he told them their pay would be whatever was right.

When evening came, the householder called all his laborers together, paying first those who had worked but one hour. To the surprise of all the workers, the one-hour laborers received a full day’s pay! The householder then proceeded to call forth all the part-day workers, paying each the same amount, regardless of the number of hours spent in the vineyard.

We can imagine that when those who had worked the longest saw what was being given to the part-day workers, they jumped to the conclusion that they would receive not only the promised penny, but also a bonus—after all, they had worked more than anyone else! So when the householder paid them but a penny, they complained, “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” (Matt. 20:12).

The householder responded, “Friend, I do thee no wrong” (Matt. 20:13) and reminded them that they had been paid their promised wage. He asked the murmurers two penetrating questions: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own [money]? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matt. 20:15).

Surely the householder had been fair and charitable with all who had worked in his vineyard. Jesus then concluded, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matt. 20:16; see D&C 121:34–40).

Beware of Pride

Many of us have jobs that pay by the hour. For all of us, the harder and longer we work, the more we expect to be paid. But the economy of heaven is different. When we are baptized, ordained to the priesthood, or participate in the ordinances of the holy temple, we covenant to be obedient to God and magnify our callings. In return, the Lord promises that if we are faithful we will receive “all that my Father hath” (D&C 84:38), or exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God (see D&C 84:33–41). There is no higher wage or reward that the Lord can offer; it is the greatest of all His gifts (see D&C 14:7).

Do our feelings ever seem to echo those of the ancient Apostles, who asked, “What shall we have therefore?” Do we think we deserve a greater reward because we were called first or labored longest? The bargaining spirit of those hired first has no place in the gospel. Although while we labor we may not comprehend the full significance of His reward, we can trust that we will receive from the Lord “whatsoever is right.”

President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) cautioned us to beware of pride, for it “is essentially competitive in nature. … Some prideful people are not so concerned as to whether their wages meet their needs as they are that their wages are more than someone else’s. Their reward is being a cut above the rest. This is the enmity of pride.”1

Beware of Murmuring

When I was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in college, our commandant used to tell us, “Obey first before you complain.” When I joined the Church, I said to myself that I would do the same thing. Whenever I am asked to comment on the topic of obedience, I explain how this philosophy has blessed my life.

When the Lord calls, we should not worry about the pay. We should simply go to work and do our best. What does it matter who gets the credit? We should thank the Lord for the opportunity to work in His vineyard.

I hope we never murmur against the Goodman of the House, our Savior Jesus Christ, or against His servants—from the First Presidency to our local leaders. Let us remember the Lord’s instruction: “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38).

The Reward Is the Same

Experienced and new members will be greatly blessed as they work side by side to accomplish the great latter-day harvest. Each of us needs to work at our own assignments with all our heart, might, mind, and strength. We are to avoid becoming jealous of the rewards or accomplishments of other disciples. When we work with an eye single to the glory of God, we leave the eventual reward or glory for such labors to the judgment of the Lord.

Does my service of more than 25 years entitle me to a greater reward in heaven than a new convert who is faithful but who may give only a short period of service before passing beyond the veil? The Lord’s answer is no. To those who qualify for the celestial kingdom, the promise of the Father is that all who labor, no matter when each is called into the vineyard, will be “equal in power, and in might, and in dominion” (D&C 76:95). The Lord is a generous paymaster. He will surely pay “whatsoever is right.”

Let’s Talk about It

  1. Ask family members to make a list of the rewards they believe a person can receive from laboring for the Lord. Read the “Every Laborer a Penny” section, and review why the full-day laborers were so unhappy. Bear testimony that the Lord is a generous paymaster.

  2. Ask family members to think of a long-time acquaintance who is not a member of the Church. Ask them whether they would feel upset if this person suddenly had the same opportunity to enjoy gospel blessings that they have. What could they do to help this person enjoy gospel blessings?


  1. “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4–5.

Detail from Jesus and the Fishermen, by Zimmerman © Quebecor Printing

Illustration by Robert T. Barrett

Detail from The Last Judgment, by John Scott