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“Life is not fair! Praise God!” (Matthew 20:1-16)

These are the words of an older gentleman who trusted Christ a few days before he died from cancer.

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 He went out about nine o’clock in the morning and saw others standing in the marketplace without work. 4 And he said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’ 8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. 10 And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. 11 When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ 13 And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 15 Aren’t I permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:1-16).

As the conflict between Jesus and His adversaries began to intensify, and as the time for our Lord’s sacrificial death drew near, He said some very shocking things. Some of these are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, just before the words of our text – which were also shocking. When some parents sought to bring their little children to Jesus, so that He could bless them, the disciples rebuked them for doing so. Jesus was too busy and too important to be interrupted by children. Jesus corrected His disciples, instructing them to allow the children to come to Him, because, He said, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). The scribes and Pharisees didn’t see it that way. They thought that heaven belonged to them, because of their religious efforts, and because of their positions.

Then, Jesus was approached by a man we know as “the rich young ruler” (Matthew 19:16-22). This man wanted to know what it was that he must do to inherit eternal life. Since this man felt that he had fully kept the law from his youth, Jesus had to show him how far he came from measuring up to God’s standards. Jesus told this “rich young ruler” to sell all that he owned and to give the proceeds to the poor. That was too high a price to pay, and so the rich young ruler went away sorrowful.

Jesus then turned to his disciples and pointed out how hard it is for the rich to enter heaven. Their love and their trust is in their wealth. When Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven” (Matthew 19:24), the disciples were shocked. In that day, many assumed that the rich all went to heaven, while the poor went to hell. They believed that wealth was God’s reward for being righteous, while poverty was God’s punishment for sin. Jesus told His disciples that the gospel turned the religion of that day upside-down. He said, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30).

Jesus then went on to tell the parable that is our text for this funeral service. It is clear that it was meant to explain our Lord’s words, “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” because these same words are repeated at the end of the parable, in verse 16. The parable went like this. A landowner needed to hire day laborers to work in his fields, and so he went to the labor pool and hired a number of workers. He agreed to pay these workers the standard wage – a denarius a day. Needing more help, he made several more trips to the labor pool, hiring additional workers. But to these workers, he gave no specific commitment. He did not tell them what he would pay, only that he would do “whatever is right.” The last group of workers was hired one hour before the workday ended. The landowner made no specific commitment to them about how much they were to receive.

In those days, the workers were paid for their labors at the end of the workday. When it came time to pay, the landowner began with those workers who had labored for only an hour. Everyone was amazed when they saw that these workers were given a full day’s pay, for only one hour’s work. You can imagine how the rest of the workers began to reason to themselves. The ones who worked two hours must be getting paid twice the daily rate, and the ones who worked all day must be getting eight denarai.

The parable deals only with the “first” and the “last” groups, for rather obvious reasons (“the last will be first, and the first will be last”). It is those who are hired first who protest when they are paid their normal wage, even though this was the payment upon which they had agreed. It is not so much that they had been cheated, by being paid less than the rate agreed upon; it is that the last group of workers were paid more than they deserved. I think Joe would smile to hear me say, “Life isn’t fair.”

But by these words, I do not mean to suggest that this landowner has cheated anyone. He was “fair” with those who worked the entire day because he paid them the usual wage, and this was also the amount for which they had agreed to work. No one was cheated here. The protest had to do with the generosity of the landowner towards the late-comers, who worked a mere hour. They hardly broke a sweat, but they were paid a full day’s wage. The thing that angered the early workers was not the landowner’s greed, but his grace. They were angry that while they worked hard for what they got, the late workers received the same reward, but for very little labor.

Here is the point. Angry workers represented the legalists, who thought that salvation came to those who worked the hardest. Earlier in his life, Joe found a certain comfort in the fact that he was better than a lot of folks; he had worked harder than many. But when it comes to getting into heaven, the Bible makes it clear that no one can work hard enough or long enough to earn eternal life. The Apostle Paul wrote,

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20, NKJV).

In this same chapter of Romans, Paul makes it very clear that all men are sinners, unworthy of heaven, and deserving of God’s eternal wrath:

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. 10 As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one." 13 "Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit"; "The poison of asps is under their lips"; 14 "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness." 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways; 17 And the way of peace they have not known." 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:9-18, NKJV).

It is only by grace that men can be saved, and this grace is available only in the sacrifice which Jesus Christ made on the cross of Calvary, where He took the sin, the guilt, and the punishment for lost sinners.

21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:21-23, NKJV).

Eternal life is not fair; it is a gift of God’s grace. If eternal life were “fair” (that is, a payment to men, based upon the quality and quantity of their good works), no one would ever see heaven. Eternal life cannot be earned, but it can be received as a gift. That is what this parable was meant to convey.

It is not the “righteous” – that is, those who do the most good deeds – who get to heaven; it is sinners, who know that they deserve nothing but God’s wrath, but who gladly receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is not “the first” who get to heaven, but “the last” who get there, by grace through faith.

How blessed Joe is today. Joe was one of “the last,” in the sense that he came to faith literally in the last hours of his life. If salvation were the result of works, there would be a lot of very angry people in heaven, wondering why they worked so hard for so long to get there, when Joe arrived in his last hours. God did not save Joe so that He could benefit from years of service. God saved Joe by grace, through the work that Jesus Christ accomplished at Calvary. We can rejoice, with him, that eternal life is not fair, and that it is, instead, by grace.

What an encouraging truth, that God has made salvation and eternal life available to men, apart from works -- and by grace alone -- through faith. What a joy it is to celebrate Joe’s life, and death, in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But I must issue a final word of warning. It is an offer that is available only before death. Joe was graciously saved hours before his departure from this life. If you are one of those who has wrongly supposed that salvation is something you earn, something that God gives you in payment for your good deeds, let me urge you to recognize that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not work this way. No one will get to heaven because they tried to live a good life, or even because they seemingly lived a better life than others. The only people who will see heaven are those who realize that their works can only condemn them, and that it is the work of Christ alone that saves. I urge you to trust in Him, in what may be our final hours, so that you can rejoice forever in the grace of God.

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