Spiritual Meaning of

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Matt. 20:1-16.

For the Kingdom of Heaven is like 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 market-place, and said to them; Go you 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 says to them. Why stand you here all the day idle? They say to him. Because no man has hired us. He says to them. Go you also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall you receive. So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard says to his steward. Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last to 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 owner of the house, saying. These last have worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do you no wrong: did not you agree with me for a penny? Take what is yours, and go your way: I will give to this last, even as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own! Is your eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

The Householder signifies Jesus Christ, as to his human and divine nature, who is so called, as being the Source and Preserver of all Goods and Truths, which make Heaven and the Church.

Early in the morning denotes the first state of the Church, when the light of the Divine Truth, which makes the Church, first begins to be manifested; and by going out early in the morning is signified, the first dawn of the influx of the Divine Good and Truth into the men of the Church.

By the vineyard is meant the Church, which is called a vineyard, from its being planted with vines, or heavenly truths, derived from Jesus Christ, who is the True Vine; and by the labourers in this vineyard are to be understood, all those who cherish in heart and life the above Goods and Truths of the Word of God, preserving them from all those natural evils and false persuasions which have a tendency to destroy them; and by hiring these labourers is to be understood, the blessed recompense of heavenly and eternal life, proposed to all such faithful labourers.

It is said, that when the Householder had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

By a penny a day is to be understood, the recompense given and procured under every particular state of the reception and growth of heavenly truth; and by agreeing with the labourers for this penny is to be further understood, conjunction of life with Jesus Christ, which is the result of that reception and growth.

Sending, when applied to the Divine Being, denotes the putting forth, or emanation, of His own Divine Power; and, therefore, by sending the labourers into his vineyard is to be understood, the communicating to them Divine Power from Himself, by which they might be enabled 'to cherish, in their own hearts and lives, the heavenly goods and truths of His Most Holy Word.

By the Householder going out is to be understood, the Divine Influx into the men of the Church; and by his going out about the third hour, is to be understood, a successive state of natural life with the men of the Church.

The market-place signifies a state of the natural life in which man is capable of procuring to himself the Goods and Truths of Heaven and the Church; and by the Householder seeing others standing idle in it is to be understood, the Divine inspection exercised on those who were not yet converted from a natural state of life to a spiritual state, having never done the work of repentance from a sincere desire to attain regeneration through conjunction with the Divine Love and Wisdom. All such are said to be idle, because they have never applied themselves to that one thing needful, which is the great work for which they were sent into the world.

But the Householder said to them, Go you also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is just, I will give you.

By saying to them is meant, a Divine dictate in their hearts and consciences; and by go also into the vineyard is meant, the object of that dictate, in instructing them that it is the Divine Will, grounded in the Divine Love and Mercy, that no human being should stand idle, but that every one should endeavour to cultivate, in his own heart and life, those heavenly graces and virtues which the Father of Mercies is desirous to implant in the minds of all his children, for their eternal happiness and salvation.

By the words, whatsoever is just I will give you, the Householder would instruct the idle, that they have a just God to deal with, who rewards every one according to his works; in other words, who imparts the grace of His own Love and Wisdom to every one, in proportion to his desire of it.

The sixth and ninth hour signify successive states of the natural life before man becomes spiritual; and by doing likewise is meant the same thing as hiring labourers into his vineyard; that is to say, the recompense of eternal life, proposed to all those of the Church, who are faithful and diligent in cultivating the graces of the Divine Love and Wisdom.

We now come to the eleventh hour, which is mentioned in the succeeding verse. Jesus Christ distinguishes the period of human life into twelve hours, when he says, Are there not twelve hours in the day? By the eleventh hour, therefore, is to be understood, the last period of natural life preceding its completion; in other words, preceding the period of final decision, either for eternal happiness or misery.

The Householder now first proposes the question, Why stand you here all the day idle? to the intent that he might lead those to whom it was addressed, to make the profitable inquiry in themselves concerning the causes which withhold them from cultivating the graces, and bringing forth the fruits of the Divine Love and Wisdom in their own minds and lives. For such is the design of all inquiry proceeding from the Most High. It is not made for his own sake, or for his own information, but for the sake and for the information of others, by suggesting to them the spirit of inquisition which may conduct them to a right knowledge of God and of themselves, by leading them to explore their own secret intentions and purposes, and thus to discover the interior operations of their own minds.

From the answer, Because no man has hired us, we learn, that the true reason why mankind, in general, live carelessly, and with indifference to their eternal concerns, is, because they have never been brought to reflect, in their own minds, on the inconceivable happiness reserved in heaven for all those who have cherished in their hearts and lives the graces of heaven; that is to say, the graces and virtues resulting from a right reception of the Divine Love and Wisdom.

It is said, that when evening was come, the Lord of the vineyard said to his steward. Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last to the first. By the evening is meant in this passage, the termination, or final period, of man's natural life, when he enters upon the great realities of another world, and becomes associated with spiritual beings in that world, agreeing with the interior state of his own mind, whether it be good or evil.

The Lord of the vineyard properly denotes the Divine Good of the Divine Love; and His steward, therefore, denotes the Divine Truth of His Wisdom; hence, as a steward administers to his Lord, so the Divine Truth administers to the Divine Good. Moreover, all man's spiritual recompense is dispensed from the Divine Good by, or through, the Divine Truth; and, therefore, the Lord of the vineyard here says to his steward: Call the labourers, and give them their hire; because the hire of the labourers denotes their spiritual recompense, and all spiritual recompense is from the Divine Good, in conjunction with the Divine Truth.

It is said, beginning from the last to the first, because the subject relates to recompense, and all recompense has reference to joy, delight, and happiness; and this recompense commences, first, in the natural principle, which is the last, or lowest, and then advances to the higher, or first principles of the human mind, called spiritual and celestial; nor is it full till it is communicated conjointly to all the principles.

By a penny, it has been already shown, is meant the recompense given and procured under every particular state of the reception and growth of heavenly truth; and, therefore, by receiving each a penny, is to be understood, that each received a recompense of heavenly joy and delight, proportioned to the reception and growth of heavenly truth in his own mind and life.

By the first supposing that they should receive more than a penny, it was intended to point out what is the general mistake and misapprehension of mankind in regard to future recompense. For it is commonly supposed, that what is called the recompense of the righteous will be dealt out hereafter, either according to the arbitrary mercy of the Almighty, or in the way of payment for particular acts of service done by his creatures, just as a master here on earth pays his servant wages for the work which he has performed. Whereas, the real truth is, that every one is rewarded hereafter, according to his reception of heavenly life; and since all heavenly life is of love and charity, therefore, every one is rewarded hereafter according to the state of his mind, in regard to those two heavenly principles, namely, Love to the Lord, and Charity towards his neighbour. It is, moreover, to be observed, that all heavenly joy and delight spring from, and are connected with, those two heavenly loves, and, therefore, it is impossible for any one to attain heavenly joy and delight, which is the pure recompense of the righteous, only so far as, by the cultivation of heavenly truth in his mind, and its fructification in his life, he is rendered receptive of the full influence and operation of the above two heavenly loves. These first, therefore, likewise received every one a penny; in other words, they received happiness according to the state of their love and affection.

But it is said, that when they had received it, they murmured against the Householder, saying, These last have worked one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and heat of the day.

This murmuring denotes, that they had not worked in the vineyard from a right principle, but rather to establish their own merits; in other words, they had done good with a view to recompense, and not from the love and affection of doing good; and they had imbibed truth for selfish or worldly ends, and not from the genuine affection of truth for its own sake. And, where this is the case, it is always attended with a desire of pre-eminence and distinction, even in spiritual things; whereas, the love of goodness for the sake of goodness, and of truth for the sake of truth, is always accompanied with that spirit of self-humiliation and charity towards others which takes delight in seeing others exalted even to the highest state of happiness, whilst it is content itself to take the lowest place. And the reason is, because true love and charity find all their happiness in seeing others happy, and in serving them to promote their happiness.

The burden and heat of the day are expressions to denote spiritual labour, or the difficulties which man has to surmount in the work of regeneration. Two distinct expressions, therefore, are made use of, to denote the two distinct sources of such difficulty, namely, error in the human understanding, and evil in the will, the former being called a burden, and the latter heat. To bear the burden and heat of the day, then, is to endure patiently the opposition arising from the natural false persuasions in the understanding, and the natural cravings or perverse desires in the will. The day, according to its spiritual meaning, denotes every successive state in the regenerate life.

But the Householder answering, said to one of them, Friend, I do you no wrong: did you not agree with me for a penny?

In the original language of the New Testament, the labourer is not here called friend, but companion; and this latter term is very well adapted to express the relationship subsisting between him and the Householder, which the term friend does not express. For a companion is one with whom we have acquaintance indeed, but this not of any very intimate sort, such as marks the connection of friendship. In the language of God, therefore, every man is called His companion who has gained any acquaintance with Him, through the knowledge of His Word and Kingdom; but he is never called a friend, until he obeys that knowledge, so as to find a delight in obedience, and in the application of what he knows to the purification and reformation of his life.

The Householder says to the labourer, I do you no wrong, by which he meant to instruct him, and, through him, all the generations of men, that His ways, as being the God of the universe, are ways of justice and of judgement, and that He deals with all His children, and cannot but deal with them, according, to the most exact measure of what is right and equitable resulting from those divine principles. He meant, therefore, to teach further, that none of his children have any reason to complain of the dispensations of the Divine Providence towards them, because the wrong, or injustice, is always on their part, and not on God's, from whom nothing can proceed but what is grounded in the purest love and mercy, directed by an infinite and unerring wisdom.

The Householder further says to the labourer, Did you not agree with me for a penny? thus instructing him, that he had no reason to complain of injustice, when he had received the recompense which had been previously agreed upon; and, through him, instructing all labourers in the spiritual vineyard, that they always receive reward in proportion to their labour; in other words, that the good of heavenly love is always communicated to them in proportion to the earnest desire with which they seek it, and the sacrifices which they make of their self-love in order to attain it.

In the next verse the original has it. Take your own, and go; by which is meant, that man ought to be content with that measure of the divine grace and mercy which is imparted to him by his Heavenly Father, because in all such grace and mercy, to whomsoever it is given, there is contained an infinity of blessing, and, therefore, he has no occasion either to be discontented at his own lot, or to envy another's, because it is impossible that he himself should receive more than an infinite good, and it is alike impossible that any one else should receive more, consequently, every receiver has reason to be fully contented with the promised recompense.

Again, I will give to this last even as to you, is expressed in the original, I am willing to give to this last, even as to you; and, therefore, the Householder meant to instruct the labourer, and, through him, all other spiritual labourers, that God is ever willing, out of His adorable and inexhaustible mercy, to communicate Himself, and all that He has, to the least and lowest of His creatures, and that the only limit set to such communication, is the capacity of his creatures to receive. He meant, therefore, to improve that capacity, by exciting in his creatures such a devout sense of His fatherly tenderness and loving-kindness, as may dispose them to exert all possible earnestness in rendering themselves suitable to receive and to co-operate with His Divine Love and Wisdom.

The Householder then proposes these two significant questions to this murmuring labourer:- Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is your eye evil, because I am good? The purport of the first question cannot be understood, until a correction be made in its expression; for, in the original tongue, it is not said with mine own, but in mine own, and according to this mode of expression the sense is plain and obvious, teaching that the Almighty has all power in His own kingdom, and in his own people, to mould and form them after His own image and likeness, but with an endless variety, according to the several capacities and degrees of reception in each. It was intended, therefore, to teach further, that man's highest duty consists in preparing himself to be a humble and thankful receiver of the Divine Mercy and Truth, because, in such case, he admits into his mind a measure of the Divine Omnipotence, to which he attaches himself, and in connection with which he finds the Scripture fulfilled, which says, All things are possible to him that believes.

The question, Is your eye evil because I am good? involves in it two points of the greatest moment, to be well considered by every.intelligent mind. The first point is, that God is the purest goodness, and, consequently, that from him no evil can come of any sort or degree. The second point is, an inquiry concerning the origin of evil, and particularly concerning the origin of a perverse understanding, or judgement, signified here by an evil eye. The Almighty, therefore, by this significant question, intended to lead all his children to explore in themselves, so as clearly to discover, the origin of all that corruption of the will, or heart, and that perverseness of the understanding and thoughts, which are so manifestly at variance with His Divine Love and Wisdom. He meant thus to lead them to see that all evil originates in a perversion of good, and, therefore, is nothing else but a good separated from its divine source, by being supposed to belong to man as his own, and not to be derived continually from God.

The parable concludes with these words. So the first shall be last, and the last first, for many are called, but few chosen, by which is meant, that they who have cherished humble and lowly sentiments of themselves, shall be exalted in the divine favour and mercy; in other words, they shall become receptive of that favour and mercy in a degree proportioned to their humiliation. On the contrary, they who have cherished high ideas of their own merits, and have thought to gain the highest place in Heaven, in the way of recompense for their good works, will be last and lowest in the divine estimation, and that because by their high opinion of their own merits they have separated themselves from a right reception and acknowledgement of the divine mercy and favour, and have thus been led to impute salvation to themselves, more than to God.

The called, are they who receive the knowledge of God in their understandings; and since this is the case with the generality of those who possess the Sacred Scriptures, or Word of God, therefore they are said to be many: but the chosen, are they who receive the love of God in their wills, together with the truth of God in their understandings, for these are they whom God always chooses, as being in most agreement with the purities of His own love and mercy: and since this love of God is a plant of rarer growth than the knowledge of God, therefore, these are said to be comparatively few.

We learn generally from this parable, that the Almighty in His infinite mercy, is at all times desirous to communicate to man His own eternal truth, for the purpose of reformation and regeneration, and that with this view He invites man to co-operate both with his will, his understanding, and his works, that so all those principles of his life may be formed according to the truth, and rendered productive of its heavenly fruits of love and charity. We are instructed further, that different persons are called, at different periods of life, to this great work, and that some, therefore, enter upon it at an earlier period, and some at a later, but that the recompense promised to all is the same, namely, that every one shall be gifted with heavenly love and wisdom in proportion to his desire of those heavenly graces, and in proportion also to the sincerity with which he labours to remove all opposite principles from his heart and life, and to bring all his natural affections, thoughts, and delights, into subjection to the spiritual ones in which they originate. We are, further, instructed to guard against all that selfishness of our spirit, which would incline us either to seek to establish our own merits, and thus to be greater in the Kingdom of Heaven than others, or to seek to depreciate the merits of others, and thus to love to see them below ourselves. And, lastly, we learn that we ought thus to abase ourselves, and to exalt others, from a feeling sense and apprehension of that divine inexhaustible mercy, which is always willing to make others happy out of itself, and which thus finds its own greatest bliss in imparting bliss to others. Thus may we humbly hope to become the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, whilst we are seeking to be the least, and not to be found amongst the called only, but amongst the chosen also, whilst we labour to bring our whole will, understanding, and operation, into an entire conformity and submission to the Divine Will, Wisdom, and Operation of Jesus Christ.