I just love American idioms and I also love learning about their origin. The "11th hour" of today, refers to coming to a deal at the last moment, when almost all hope of coming to a successful deal appears to have vanished, but alas it hasn't! It can also refer to accomplishing something at the very last instant, such as what a procrastinator might do, or being up against the wall in a "do or die" moment.
The origin of this phrase refers back to Matthew: 20. In which it is stated: "For the kingdom of heaven is like unto 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 marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye 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 saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." And further: "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 finally we have: " But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen."
First a little background on the hours as described in this passage. In the United States we are use to the daylight being longer in the summertime and consequently the daylight being shorter in the wintertime, because with our modern clocks we divide time into equal hours of equal length throughout the year. In Roman times, there were also twelve hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness, but the amount of physical time of those hours would vary depending upon the season, so the 11th hour in Jesus' time really did refer to the absolute last hour of daylight.
A first reading of this Bible passage brings to many readers a feeling of injustice, after all, the initial laborers had to labor all day in the sun and heat of the day, whereas the latecomers had not had to deal with that burden, nor the length of the time in the vineyard, yet each laborer received exactly the same payment. This seems wrong, but is it? The householder has not broken his agreement with the initial laborers, they were paid exactly what they had contracted for, so the complaint becomes one of "I did more and they did less for the same compensation." But isn't that envy at its worse or possibly regret that you were the early bird?
A further interpretation is to take the above passage as an allegory in which the householder is God, and the laborers are me and you. Our laboring in God's vineyard and his invitation for us to labor there is a call for us to come to him and join him in our salvation. Looking at it this way, we should rejoice if we were amongst the first that went into the vineyard for that means we not only listened to but we also obeyed the word of God. For those, that came later, they too rejoiced for having being saved up and till the 11th hour. For we must be mindful to remember we can only truly be saved when we are still within the daylight or "light" of God's presence and not in the darkness of denial or abandonment. The payment for all of us laborers should be the same, which is paradise for all. There is not a lesser paradise for latecomers, former sinners; it is all the same salvation. That is our precious payment. That is the grace of our all merciful God.