If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 20 . We've been looking at Matthew for a long time now, and we've been in particular thinking about lessons that we learned all the way back in the story of the rich young ruler for two or three weeks now. In the rich young ruler we learn many things, but one thing that came through very clearly was this: either Christ separates us from the wolves, or the wolves separate us from Christ. Ultimately thatyoung man, though he was moral, spiritual, spiritually interested, upright, upstanding in his community, ultimately that man's possessions came between him and a relationship with the living God, as he went away sorrowing. And when he went away sorrowing, Jesus said several things to the disciples, and really got the disciples thinking. In fact, they were a little bit upset about what Jesus had said to them in response to the rich young ruler's reaction to Christ. And, among the things that Jesus told them was that it was a hard thing for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And that thought stuck with them, and combined with His statement about these things which were impossible with men, but they are possible with God, they began to ask questions. And finally Peter asked a specific question. He said, “Lord, we,” meaning the disciples, “we have left everything and followed You. Will there be a reward for us?” In other words, what can we expect, I mean, we did what the rich young man didn't do, what can we expect? And the Lord Jesus answered him in chapter 19 verses 27-30, and He ended that section; I’d like you to cast your eyes on it, in verse 30, saying, “but many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Now it is that tantalizing statement that this parable is designed to elucidate. That really is a challenge for the disciples. You remember in Matthew 19 verses 27, 28, and 29, Jesus says to the disciples, “Yes, God will bless you, He will reward you in the here and the hereafter as His disciples. For everything you lose, you will receive many times over in this life and in the life to come.” But then He gave him this warning:” the last will be first, and the first last.” What did He mean by this? That statement clearly concerned the disciples as well, and so, He gives this parable as an explanation. Let's prepare then, to hear God's word in Matthew 20:
Our Father, we do thank You for your word, and we ask that we would not only understand the truth of this passage, but that we would understand it pointedly for ourselves. Search us out, help us even as we look at ourselves, as we examine ourselves in light of this truth, then make us willing hearers and doers of your word. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
The disciples had asked the question to the Lord Jesus, which indicated a misunderstanding on their part about the rewards that God had promised them in the kingdom. Yet, Jesus assured them in Matthew 19 verse 27-29 that God would reward them richly for all that they gave up for him, but, He did not say to them that God was going to give to them in accordance with their deeds. In other words, He did not say, if you will do this, then God will do that. He did not say, your deeds of service in His kingdom will earn you these blessing that He will give. And apparently the disciples were confused about the nature of these kingdom blessings, which Jesus saw as a very serious spiritual problem. The blessings, you see, of our service, in the life of the kingdom, are personal blessings, the personal satisfaction that we get from serving in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our whole outlook on life, are both directly related to our view of God. If we think that God has to be coaxed into blessing us, and that we have to earn His favor and His love and His attention for us, then we will become bitter and suspicious people. If we think that God, instead of being generous, benevolent, just, and kind and merciful, if we think that God is begrudging in the way He blesses us, that He is frugal in the way He cares for us or gives us His love, then we will eventually become bitter and angry people. It will affect our relationships not only with one another, it will directly affect our relationship with God. And Jesus saw the potential for just that kind of problem in the disciples. And so He told this parable to explain His statement, the first will be last, and the last first. Now I want you to see two or three things in this passage today.
I. God’s rewards are just and generous.
First, if you look at the first two verses, and then look down to verse fifteen where we see the landowner giving his example in this parable, I want you to see that Jesus immediately wants the disciples to be aware of the danger of a spiritual quid pro quo sort of view of our relationship with God. Jesus does not want the disciples to think that their relationship to God, and the blessings in particular that He gives to us, are based upon their particular deeds and performance. He does not want them to think that God's showering of generous blessings is directly related to the fact that they had done this, and therefore God had done that. Or otherwise, when God gives to some things that He doesn't give to them, they will begin to think, ‘God has done me wrong;God has withheld from me something that He owes me.’ In other words, they will have a mercenary spirit in their relationship with God. And Jesus wants us to understand, in the first two verses, and then especially in the response of the landowner in verse fifteen, that God's rewards to us are both just and generous. He is not a God who desires to withhold blessings from His people, in fact He showers undeserved blessing on His people, and it is so important for the disciples to understand that.
His first words are “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for His vineyard.” What He is saying there is that what happens on judgment day when God pours out His final blessings, is kind of like what happens when payday comes, or when pay time comes at the end of the day. That is when God's blessings are showered out at that point in time. That is the picture here. God is a householder, He is an estate owner, He is a landowner, who has a great vineyard, and He goes out, and He seeks out employees to do work in the field. And at the end of the day, they receive their remuneration for the work that they have done. Now, an agreement is made with the first set of workers, then landowner goes out early in the morning, about 6 a.m., and He finds some workers and He agrees with them that they will work for a denarius. A denarius was a typical day's wage for a soldier or a day laborer in the time of the Lord Jesus. It was a silver coin that was a very standard wage that was agreed upon here, for these laborers. But during the day the landowner went out three more times; he went out at 9 o'clock in the morning, he went out at 3 in the afternoon, and finally he went out at 5 in the afternoon. And he found unemployed men who were standing in the marketplace, and he said, ‘You come on, come on into my vineyards, and you labor here too.’ But to them he said, ‘Look, I’ll give you what is fair. You just trust me and I will pay you a fair wage.’ To the first group he had said, ‘I will give you a day's wage, I will give you a denarius.’
And when pay time comes at the end of the day, something very strange happens, in fact, two things very strange happen. First, he orders those who came last to be paid first. Now that is not only so that those who began working first can see what it was that they would be paid, because that is very important for Jesus to make the point of the story, but it is also important because even in that patterns we see what, a reversal of what your expectations would be. From an earthly, human perspective you might expect those blessings to be handed out, those wages to be handed out from first to last. So, Jesus gives us hints that the way God gives blessings, is different from the way we give blessings and wages, by the very fact that He has those who go out last, paid first.
Secondly, the second strange thing that we see is that all the men are paid the same thing. Those who had worked nine hours, are paid the same as those who had worked twelve hours. Those who had worked three hours are paid the same as those who worked twelve hours. Those who had worked one hour were paid the same as those who had worked twelve hours. This is an exceedingly strange thing. If you were a labor lawyer, you would be bringing suit at this time, no doubt. And the Lord Jesus, of course, is not trying to teach labor practice in this passage, He is trying to make a specific point about the difference in the way God's blessings work, from the way that we handle remuneration in our lives.
Now this provokes some angry reactions from this group of laborers that had been working all twelve hours. Immediately we are told in verse eleven that they grumbled. And then they come to the landowner and they say, if you'll look at verse 12 you'll see it. ‘These last men,’ they say, ‘these last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden in the scorching heat of the day.’ Now it is that protest, lifted up by the laborers who had worked twelve hours, that Jesus uses to make His point. He wants you to focusin on their attitude, and understand by a negative example, what kind of an attitude He doesn't want you to have towards the heavenly Father. And I want you to see three particular sins in their attitude.
First of all, they were going about their duties with a mercenary spirit. I do not think that it is a mistake that of the four different groups of day laborers, the only group where it says they came to an agreement, or he agreed to pay them a denarius, is the first group. Notice, in each of the other cases, the phrase is repeated, ‘I will pay you whatever is right.’ The other laborers simply had to trust that he would do them right. But this first group already had certain expectations that the landowner had to live up with, and they labored in that light. They did not labor in their vocation with gladness, as unto the Lord, they labored with a very strictly mercenary spirit. And so, Jesus is using that to represent a person who relates to God, suspicious that He might short-change them. And there are people like that, there are people who are suspicious that somehow God is going to short-change them on some of the blessings that He owes them.
The second sin that they committed was that they did not recognize the sovereign rights of the owner. You see, he had not broken contract with them. He gave them exactly what he told them he would give by contract, and he simply decides to be generous with the other men, and yet, they did not recognize his rights to do that. They said, ‘you can't do that, they haven't worked as long as we worked.’ And his response is, of course, ‘look, if I want to be generous, it belongs to me in the first place. Who are you to tell me that I can't be generous.’ So they did not recognize his sovereign rights. They again wanted to be the arbiters of what was fair and what was right and wrong.
And finally, of course, they were envious of their other workers. You know, their attitude isnot unlike the attitude of the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. Do you remember when the gather generously, graciously, with open arms embraces that prodigal come home? Do you remember the attitude of the older brother? It is first of all an attitude which is envious of his brother: you never did that for me, father, you never slaughtered the fattened calf, you never put the ring on my finger, you never did that for me. It is envy, but it is also bitterness towards the father. You see, there is a feeling there that somehow the father had slighted him, somehow the father had withheld from him something that he deserved. And this pagan, this profligate youth who had gone off and squandered the wealth of the family, he had been given something that he didn't deserve. God had short-changed him.
Now that is precisely the kind of attitude that Jesus doesn't want the disciples to have towards the heavenly Father, and yet, Christians are often tempted to think that God has shortchanged us, has dealt with us harshly, has been unfair to us, has discounted His gifts to us. And Jesus is saying that we must avoid that kind of work-for-wages mentality of our relationship with the heavenly Father. We should not relate to the Father in some sort of a this for that, quid pro quo relationship. And let me say that that can happen in a couple of way. You might be saying right now, well, I don't think that, I don't think that I am earning God's blessings to me, but you know there are some ways that this can sneak up on you without you realizing it. And there are two ways in particular.
First, we can try to earn His favor by being good. Now that is very different from a sincere, holy spiritual desire to please the Lord. A desire to please the Lord is good, and it is refreshing, because the Lord rewards it. But a desire that says, ‘I have to earn the Father's blessing and favor,’ is warped. It bespeaks a suspicion that God wants to try and withhold something from you, if He possibly can. To think that we have to go out and do this in order for God to do that, reflects the fact that we think that God is stingy with His blessings.
But how often do you hear people say something, you know, a friend will say to you, if God will only do this for me, then I’ll do that. I've heard it said. It's interesting. I received a fax just on Friday from a group in Washington that was telling the story of Abraham Lincoln. Did you know that before the battle of Antietam, he said, “Lord, if you will give my army victory at Antietam, then I’ll sign the emancipation proclamation.” This for that; if you do this, I’ll do that. That is precisely not how the Father wants us to relate to Him. “Lord, I’ll do this, and if I do this, then I have earned the right for you to do that. But Christians make those kinds of arguments all the time: “Lord, I’ll do this, but please let my kids turn out ok.” And then, when they don't turn out, well, “It's God's fault. I did my part, I did my duty, I earned this favor.” Jesus is saying to the disciples, ‘that is not the way to relate to the Lord, this work for wages view of relating to God is a non-starter.’
But there is another way that we can slip into this attitude. We can be bitter about the things that God gives to others, but withholds from us. We look at someone who is less educated than we are, and they receive some accolade or some position that we might have wanted to have. We look at someone who is less talented than we are and they receive some honor that we want, and we begin to feel bitter: “Lord, I deserve that more than they deserve it.”
Or maybe you've been in the context of Christian minister, and just let me say, ministers are terrible about this. “Lord, I deserve that church more than He did, I would be a much better minister in that church than He would.” We are jealous of one another. Someone attains to some situation of prominence that we immediately begin comparing ourselves to them, and thinking how much better job we would do in that situation and how much wiser it would have been if God had putus there rather than them. That kind of temptation is not just something that happens in public life, it happens in private life. We may desire more than anything in the world to be a parent, to have our own child, for the Lord to give us a child to rear and nurture in the admonition of the Lord and we may be faced with childlessness. And then we hear that our next-door neighbor's sixteen-year-old daughter has conceived a child out of wedlock, and we're bitter with God. And we say, “Lord, how can it be that I have an earnest desire to rear a child in a godly home, and cannot have a child, and you allow this person who is not even married, and not even taking care of a child, to have a child. It is not fair!” And we bring a charge against God, that He short-changed us. He hasn't given us what He owes us. And Jesus is saying to us: ‘Oh, no, you're not. Don't relate to the heavenly Father that way, because ultimately He owes you nothing. And those things that He promises to you and thereby owes to you, you have not earned. He's given you everything, even though He owes you nothing, and you relate to Him as if the things that He has given to you are things that you have earned, you will have completely broken your relationship with the heavenly Father.’ Do you think that God owes you? Do you find that spirit welling up from within? Then this passage is a call to you to re-examine your relationship with him. And recognize that every gift that He gives is of grace.
II. God’s rewards to us for faithful service are of grace.
And that is really the second thing that I’d like you to see today. If you look down at verses 13 though 15, you'll see the answer that the Lord Jesus gives them as to how the landowner responds to the charge of verse 12 from the day laborers who had worked all day. In this passage it is stressed that God is sovereign and He is just and He is generous and that His rewards to us are rewards of grace. In other words, God's rewards to us are not things that we have strictly earned. Even those things that God says, ‘Look, I promise that I will give this to you.’ Things such as we can say to the Lord in prayer, ‘Lord, you have promised me in Your word, and I claim that promise.’ Even those promises are not promises which we have merited. They are promises which overflow from His bountiful grace; they are things that He wants to give His children. They are not things that we have coaxed out of him by our obedience. After all, when we have done all our duty, the Lord Jesus says we need to say, we are but humble slaves and we have only done our duty. Every good gift from the heavenly Father is a gift of grace. Now I want you to see three things that the householder says to these men in response to the charge that He has been unfair.
First of, in verse 13, He says, look, I have been completely fair in my dealings with you. Did I not give you exactly what I told you I would give? I gave you a day's wage, now is that what I told you? Yes. Is that what I did? Yes. What are you complaining about? I gave you exactly what I promised. I did not deal unjustly or unfairly with you, so He takes away their argument that He has been unjust.
Then, in verse 15, notice that He says this, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” In other words, He says, look, I have honored my contract with you, but what is mine belongs to me, and you can't determine whether I decide to give generously to someone else. That's not part of your contract. You may not like it if I decide to be generous to others, but how in the world can you tell me how to do with what is my own? I own this vineyard; I have my treasury, it belongs to me. And if I decide to be generous, what do you have to say about that.
And then thirdly, notice He says this, that their only ground of complaint against him is that He has been too generous to other people. He said, you know, you could accuse me of one thing, and that is being too generous to these men who have worked less than you. You can't accuse me of injustice, you can't accuse me of doing something with money that doesn't belong to me, you can't accuse me of giving blessings that I don't have control over, you can only accuse me of being too generous. And that last point of the argument is precisely what Jesus is trying to remind us in this parable. That all the rewards of the kingdom are rewards of grace; they are a reward of God's generosity, they are not ours by right. We must recognize God's sovereignty in blessing, His justice, His grace in dealing with us, or we will become envious. We'll think that He is giving things to other people that they don't deserve, that they haven't earned, and we'll think that He is being unfair to us. Because salvation is entirely a matter of God's grace, God is free to do what He will with His own. That is an important message of this passage. Can you imagine someone, one of the disciples, standing before the foot of the cross, and hearing the final conversation between the repentant thief and the Lord Jesus, and hearing Jesus' words, “This day, you will be with Me in paradise.” And the disciple saying, ‘Well that's not fair. I've been with You through thick and thin for over three years, and this guy, You've only known him for a few hours, and you're telling him he's going to be with You today in paradise? That's not fair!’ Well, you're right, it's not fair, it's grace. But God in His goodness and love decides to bestow it!
Can you see the disciples when Paul, the persecutor of Christianity is called into service as the Apostle of the Gentiles, and the other apostles are saying, ‘It's not fair, we walked with You. This man tried to pursue us to death, and now You're giving him the position of the Apostle of the Gentiles. It's not fair!’ No, it's more than fair, it's grace! God has not violated His blessings upon the other disciples; He has simply decided to give to a disciple something that is particularly undeserved.
But that picture of what God does for the thief and for Paul is actually a picture of what He has done for us! Because no matter how much we think we've earned, we haven't! Everything that He has given us is of grace! And if we think we've earned it, we've become bitter, shriveled up people. Mad at the world, mad at God. But if we'll realize that everything we deserve is punishment, and everything we receive is a gift of grace. We never get what we deserve in this life, because if we got what we deserved as believers, it would be eternal separation from God, because that is the only thing that we've earned. And everything that we're given has come from His love and His grace. And Jesus says that shift in attitude, that shift in outlook, is fundamental to being a disciple, becauseif we're suspicious that God is not going to give you generously, He is not going to love you and care for you, then your whole life will be wrecked upon the rock of your own bitterness and envy.
III. God’s rewards are not according to human measure and perception.
And finally in verse 16, Jesus reiterates what He has said in Matthew 19 verse 30. He reminds us there again that we need to see God as benevolent, or else envy will take control of us. There again we are reminded that God's rewards are not according to human measure and perception, “The last shall be first, the first last.” Jesus is saying, ‘You see, in this way, in the way that I have illustrated in this story, I mean that the last shall be first and the first last.’ Those who by human measure, by human perception, might be the people that you would think that would get the most honor, and glory, and blessing from God, turn out not to. And those who are often overlooked and least noticed, and yet faithful in His service, those who are last, turn out to be first. Because God's blessings are not according to human measurement. They are not according to our perceptions.
There may be many in our community like the rich young ruler who look spiritual and blessed, who are in fact going to be last in God's measure. And there may be many who do not look particularly blessed of the Lord, and yet they are faithful and they love Him, and God has determined to shower on them blessings that they do not deserve. All of us are apt to think that the things that are withheld from us and given to others are far more deserved by us than they are by the others who receive them. And Jesus knew that the disciples had that same basic struggle that we have, and so He warned them and us to remember that the God who owes you nothing, is the God who has given you everything by grace. And that makes all the difference as a follower of Jesus Christ. May we take that in today. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, our attitude about You, who You are in Your generosity changes everything. It helps us to be able to sing things like, whatever my God ordains is right. Only a person who loves and serves a generous God can sing a song like that in dark times. Lord, we can't just generate this attitude on our own. We need the work of the Spirit. So we ask that by the grace of the Spirit you would change us, change our attitude that we would be thankful and content and satisfied, and that daily we would revel in the lavish love of God. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.