By Kalyn Stralow
The “eleventh hour” is one of those idioms that feels like it has always existed in public consciousness. Seriously, hop on Wikipedia for two seconds and just see how many movies, books, shows, songs and albums use it as their title. And with good reason. It’s a great phrase that projects a sense of drama and suspense. (And if it was good enough for all them, you better believe it was good enough to be the title of this blog post too.)
I had never really considered it to be a religious phrase. In fact, I usually think of it in the context of a last minute agreement between opposing government parties before a looming deadline, or a dramatic rescue from a building seconds before the roof caved in. Or the kind of miracle the creators of Fyre Festival seemed to think would somehow magically occur as their ill-fated luxury music weekend loomed.
But it originates in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, a story told by Jesus that is unique to the book of Matthew. What I find most interesting is what we have retained about the essence of “the eleventh hour” in popular sentiment – an undercurrent of heroism, or of near disaster averted at the last possible moment.
That’s not exactly how we Christians usually view those eleventh-hour joiners in Jesus’ parable, is it? It was a story originally intended for the disciples, setting the reader up to empathize with the viewpoint of those early-morning laborers, who get paid the agreed upon price, yet still feel this sense of frustration that the people who only worked one hour are also being paid a full day’s wage.
We focus on the chastening component of it, and the reminder that making comparisons and grumbling is NOT a Kingdom-focused attitude.
But this is one of those rare cases where I also love what culture has held onto from this parable over time: the heroic, last-minute rescue. It focuses on the most beautiful and grace-filled part of the parable, as the landowner is still actively seeking out and drawing in people to his vineyard even in the final hour. The landowner graciously chooses to give payment far beyond what their eleventh-hour labor deserves. It is indeed a rescue story. It is our rescue story!
Even though I often relate most to those earlier workers – working to heed the warning not to draw comparisons or pass judgment against other laborers – I want the grace and mercy of God to come shining through first and foremost from this parable to the culture at large.
And it’s incredible to think of all the pastors and preachers and readers of Scripture in ages past who so clearly communicated this aspect of Jesus’s parable in Matthew 20 – so much so that the heroism in God’s desire to continue rescuing people to the very last possible moment managed to make it through the gradual secularization of the phrase. It’s a point of connection that I am glad to draw attention to with those who don’t believe in Jesus.
“Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15)
May our eyes not be envious, but instead celebrate the generosity of our Rescuer, who continues to make room for anyone who will come, no matter how late the hour.