"Verily from the eleventh hour the chief of the house (began) to pay the penny, when he led the thief into the kingdom of heaven, before he led Peter or his other apostles, and rightly so, for the thief believed in Christ at a time when his apostles were in great doubt".
    (Aelfric c.955-1020, Homily for Septuagesima.)

The literary quality of the Bible has been one of the greatest influences on English literature and the culture of Western civilization for over 2000 years. Other writers ranging from John Milton (Paradise Lost 1667, Paradise Regained 1671, Samson Agonistes 1671), to Christopher Smart (A Song to David 1763), Lord Byron (Cain 1821), and in the modern era James Bridie (Jonah and the Whale 1932) and Christopher Fry (A Sleep of Prisoners 1951) have chronicled their imaginative stories and people from the Bible. Since the Bible was for so long a part of the widespread cultural tradition of English-speaking people, allusion and direct excerpts are recurrent in all literary genre. Accepted practice carries on with the integration Biblical allusions such as coals of fire , a soft answer, the root of all evil, a thorn in the flesh, cover a multitude of sins, and the eleventh hour.

Aelfric translated the Latin text above and then offered a homily on it. He gives further details about it: Se hyredes ealdor is ure scyppend `The householder is our Creator'. Then he likens those who come at the eleventh hour with the good thief at the crucifixion. The OE text tells: "Verily from the last the householder began to pay the penny, when He led the thief into the kingdom of heaven before He led Peter or his other apostles." Aelfric had previously explained in what was a typical sermon of his day that the householder is Christ.

The eleventh hour is an allusion to the parable of the laborers found in Matthew 20: 1-16, in which those workers hired at the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour working day were paid the same amount as those who began in the first hour.

    The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
      "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
      "About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
      "He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
      " 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
      "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
      "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
      "The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
      "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
      "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (NIV)
A parable is a picturesque figure of language in which an analogy refers to a similar but different reality and in some cases it can refer to a proverb, taunt, allegory and in this instance a story. Sometimes also called the parable of the Generous Employer it occurs in the book of Matthew just after the parable about The Rich Young Man and precedes Jesus’ second prediction of his death.

In this narrative from Matthew, Jesus uses an illustration set in the daily lives with the intentions of making it more understandable to his audience and even though he has drawn it from day to day events, it does not portray normal everyday actions. On the contrary it illuminates unexpected behavior. The main reason Jesus used stories to illustrate is self evident, he wished to teach and parables frequently served a useful purpose in concealing his message from those who were hostile to him, not only could he disarm his listeners while making them quite memorable: by his parables he could publicly teach about the kingdom of God while the representatives of the Roman Empire could find nothing seditious about them.

During this time those who made contracts with the householder got treated according to the householders terms. The laborers hired at the market place at six in the morning were told they'd get a denarius--the minimum wage for a day's labor. Skimpy or plentiful, they agreed to it. At that time the usual working day was twelve hours, pretty much sun up to sundown and the ones who came on later, especially those hired at the "eleventh hour", were more than willing to work for whatever they could get in the remaining hours of the day. One expert explains the story as follows:

    In the parable the vineyard owner goes back to the market at 5:00 in the evening, as the sun is just beginning to set, with only one more hour of daylight. It is literally the eleventh hour, since Jewish people measured the day from 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. There he finds workers idle at the end of the day and he asks them, "Why are you standing here idle." We might think that they were lazy and didn't want to work. But their answer reveals differently, "Oh no, we want to work but no one has hired us." The fact that they'd been waiting there for 11 hours meant that they wanted to work, in fact that they were desperate to work. They needed money to feed families who might go hungry.

    "Oh yes," they said, "We will go to the field for one hour, we are so glad to have the work. Pay us whatever you will." So they go with the vineyard owner and work for one hour. At 6:00, the vineyard owners would line up all the day workers to pay them. According to Jewish law, (Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24) "You shall not keep someone's pay for a day's work overnight. You shall give it to them at the end of the day, at sundown." This law was prescribed out of deference to the poor who were desperately counting on that money to feed their families. They were to be paid at 6:00.

Those eleventh hour employees were working on faith that the employer would be fair and what seemed "more than fair" to the latecomer appeared like less than fair to the early risers. There have been many analyses as to the meaning of this tale; in particular with relation to its timely phrase.Saint Antony’s early interpretation of this term relies on a purely numerical interpretation of the eleventh hour. Eleven is the sum of one and ten: there is one God, the supreme interest of the contemplative, and Ten Commandments, which summarize the perfection of the active life. His inferences appear to be that the complete Christian life is the sum of both. Later theologians explain the allegory as the right to work manifested as the right to life. The workers of the eleventh hour have the same right to work as the first laborers and the right for them and their families to live from that work.(Paraphrased from John Paul II encyclical On Human Work)

In today’s more secular world the eleventh hour has become an idiomatic phrase meaning at the ‘last possible moment’; as in We turned in our report at the eleventh hour. Similar idioms along the same lines are; the lateness of the hour, advanced hour, small hours, wee hours, day's end, sunset, night time, last minute, high time. down to the wire, nick of time, even Shakespeare gets in on this act with his origin of the phrase ; the time is ripe.

Probably the most unusual and poignant example of an eleventh hour event since Biblical times happen eighty-three years ago, in 1918 when the Great War finally ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month that guns finally ceased firing after four years of continuous warfare.

    What happened at the end of the First World War illustrates a particularly bizarre aspect of combat psychology. The word got around that the Armistice was being declared, that a general, pervasive cease fire order would come into effect at eleven hundred hours on the morning of November eleventh. Many human beings on the front lines died in the final minutes of the war…

    Military men on both sides loaded up during the period of eerie quiet as the clock ticked off the last minutes before 11 a.m. And then, just as the second hand closed to mark the hour, an enormous, single, ear-shattering explosion wracked the entire front, as seemingly everyone who had a weapon fired it. The glory was to have been the person to fire the last shot in the First World War. Many newly dead and dying were counted when the smoke cleared around 11:11

Since then each year at 11am on the 11th November, many people observe a moment of silence in respect to those who died.



The Most Surprising Payday in History:

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, p.568