Last week we heard the acid test of true Christianity from Tim Keller. How do you know when someone has had a genuine experience of grace? They are marked by a sense of wonder. They are amazed that God loves them. That really comes out when we suffer. The true Christian continues to trust in God’s goodness in times of suffering, while the merely religious person asks, “what was all of this service to God for?”
This week we will see another test of authentic Christianity. Here’s the test:
How do you respond when someone gets better than they deserve?
More specifically, how do you respond when that better is better than your better?
Our text this morning is Matthew 20:1-15.
It begins with a typical introduction from Jesus – “the kingdom of heaven is like” . . . Jesus then tells a surprising story about a man who hires a group of day laborers to do some work on his property. The conclusion of the parable, in verse 16, is a plain summary of the lesson of the parable.
The last will be first, and the first will be last
Let’s start by asking, “who is this parable for?” Who is Jesus addressing? What question is he answering?
To understand that, we have to look no further than the first word in our text. “For.” Those of you who have taken seminars on how to study the Bible have heard the cliché – when you see a “for” at the beginning of a sentence, you must ask, “what is the for therefore?” To find out, we rewind to the previous section. In chapter 19, verses 16-30, we find that fascinating conversation between a man we know as the rich young ruler who approached Jesus to ask a serious question – “what good deed must I do to have eternal life.”
Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and the young man honestly answers that as far as he can tell he’s done his best and kept them all. Jesus replies, “if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The young man went away sorrowful for he had great possessions.
Then the Peter turns to Jesus, “we’ve left everything and followed you, what will we have?”
Jesus tells him in verse 28 “in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
This is a conversation about eternal life, about wealth and inequality, and about service and reward.
The central question is “what service will I have to provide to earn eternal life?”
According to the religious idea of the day, the rich young ruler has done everything required to earn God’s favor (his wealth is a sign of what he can expect.) According to the idea of Jesus, to earn God’s favor requires an absolute sacrifice which will not be possible.
Peter sees the young ruler’s failure and seems to think that where the rich person has failed to earn the payment of eternal life, he and the other disciples are doing quite well and wonders what payment they can expect in return.
Jesus tells Peter they will be rewarded, but warns him that the kingdom of heaven is more complex and mysterious than a simple formula of service and reward – “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Let’s take a quick pause here.
The rich young ruler was depressed, believing he could never get to the point where he could surrender to Jesus and probably would never enter heaven. Peter was feeling pretty good because he was pretty sure he had already done what was required to enter heaven.
How about you? Have you done enough? Will you be turned away or welcomed when the kingdom of heaven arrives?
Are you expecting the favor of God in your life because of your service?
When Jesus says the last will be first and the first last, where do you fit?
Let’s get into the parable.
The first and central character is a master of a house who has a vineyard and needs work done. He’s up early in the morning, heading to the day labor office to find some help. Some early risers are there lined up outside the door eager to work and earn some cash. They talk and make the arrangements, the workers will spend a day at the vineyard in exchange for a denarius apiece.
This was a common practice at the time. Day laborers had some of the most difficult lives of all people. Slaves had it better because they were assured of regular meals, health care and a roof over their heads. Day laborers were so vulnerable that the Torah required them to be paid at sunset because they needed the money to buy food for the next day. Rabbinic writings had specific instructions for how to pay laborers in proportion to the amount of time they had worked.
In this story the laborers are hired at about 6AM and promised a denarius – A denarius in Jesus day was silver coin which was worth about a days work.
A few hours go by and the master is back at the marketplace. It’s now 9AM and he sees some men standing around with nothing to do. They talk, he offers them work and an arrangement is made.
This time there is no amount settled. The master simply promises he will pay them what is right (verse 4). They head to the vineyard where the first group has been working for three hours and is probably happy to see reinforcements.
Twice more the man is at the marketplace (at the 6th and the 9th hour or noon and 3PM), and twice more groups of laborers walk off towards the vineyard to work for whatever the master will deem is right.
At this point we are wondering, what is the master of the house doing at the marketplace all day?
Once more time, at the 11th hour, or 5PM, the man goes to the marketplace and finds more men standing around. To this last group he asks the question – “why are you here idle all day?” They reply, “no one has hired us.” At this point they have lost all hope of bringing something home for their families. Why are they still around? Maybe they don’t want to face their wives and children. He sends them off into his vineyard, there is no mention of any agreement for pay this time.
At the end of the day, the owner has his foreman call the laborers to pay them their wages, and if you’re paying attention, the key phrase pops up in the story in verse 8 “pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.”
The group who started at the 11th hour come forward and they receive a denarius. A full day’s wages. At 4:55 these men were deflated, lingering in the street, wondering how to face their family. An hour later they held a silver coin in their hands and can’t wait to go home.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. The world of Jesus’ parable is a world where everyone has the opportunity to earn a living.
Everyone is taken care of, even those who feel like they missed the boat and it’s too late for them. It’s a generous world in which no one has to be anxious – everyone will be looked out for and provided for. No man will have to go home and explain to his wife and children that their will be no breakfast tomorrow. No wife or child will have to wonder if Dad will find work today. Because there is someone in that world who is good and wise and present, someone who can be counted on to act with integrity, sovereignty and generosity.
Isn’t that good? If we stop at verse 9 in the parable it is. The world Jesus describes, the world of the kingdom of heaven is a place we all should want to be. But Jesus’ story doesn’t end there does it?
Not everyone is happy are they?
Not everyone is rejoicing that these men who only worked an hour have received a denarius. You remember, that’s what the men who started at the crack of dawn were promised. Let’s go back to the story.
The late comers have just received much better than they deserve.
At this point, those who began at 6AM, when they hear the excitement of the latecomers receiving a full denarius, their ears perk up and they whisper to one another excitedly, believing that they are about to get a raise.
By the time the foreman has gotten to the first group, they are surprised to find the same coin in their hands as all the rest.
How do they respond? How would you respond in that situation. Verse 11. They grumbled at the master. Can you blame them? How would you like to get yourself out of bed before anyone else, work in the fields all day long and at the end of the day watch as the guy who showed up at 5PM and worked for an hour in the cool of the evening gets the same pay for 10 less hours?
It isn’t fair. Verse 12. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
It’s not fair. It’s not right. You have to agree, don’t you?
You have made them equal to us. They are less worthy than we are.
The Master replies to one of the men, “friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?”
Isn’t that answer frustrating? It’s so unsatisfying. Because what can you say to that? It’s true. You agreed to work for a denarius. You can’t argue. But still!!! Why???
The Master sends them home, take what now belongs to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? I choose to give this last worker the same I gave to you. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
Or do you begrudge my generosity. Literally he asks, “Is your eye evil, because I am good.?” (In the ancient middle East, saying that someone had an evil eye was a way of saying they were envious or stingy.) Is your eye evil, because I am good and generous?
That word “good” shifts the whole perspective of the story.
Why does this master keep going back to the marketplace all day long?
Why does he pay the ones who worked an hour the same as the ones who left their sweat all over the field? Generosity. He does it because he is generous. Because he doesn’t want anyone who is willing to work end a day hungry.
Because in his eyes, all of the men are equal. They are equally in need of generosity.
What in the world does this mean for us?
The straightforward interpretation tells us that we are the workers. Just like the early bird workers, we are prone to feel entitled to a treatment we consider fair. We are prone to believe that God must deal out his rewards in proportion to the length or quality of our service.
We are prone to look around at one another and ask God, “why do they get that?” Each of us in our hearts is not far from the mindset of the toddler ready to fall kicking to the floor because a sibling was given something they were not.
We define justice as “that which gives no one else an advantage; it is defined from a self-centered perspective.”
How do we respond when feel tempted to begrudge God’s grace in others’ lives?
Sinclair Ferguson points out 3 qualities revealed about God in this parable. These three qualities help shift our perspective from our self righteous perspectives to the gracious viewpoint of God.
- God always acts with complete integrity.
- God always acts with absolute sovereignty.
- God always acts with wonderful mercy.
If we are those workers, God is the Master. And He feels no obligation to submit himself to our demands. As the Master of the House, He is entitled to do as He chooses and we can expect Him to dole out His generosity as He sees fit.
And isn’t that good news?
Isn’t it good news that those of us at the back of the line, those of us who have missed the boat in life or blown our opportunities, are not left to ourselves?
Isn’t it good news that there is a kingdom in which the cold calculations of justice are met with the wonderful mercy of a gracious Master?
The next time you start looking around and comparing yourself to others, the next time you are tempted to ask “what about me, God?”, remember that you don’t want to live in a world in which you get what you deserve. Remember that God is the Master of the House and that everything you have is a wonderful mercy.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown