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18. The Laborers in the Vineyard

The Passage
Matt 20:1-16










    18:Pharisee and Publican

    Children brought

    Children brought

    Rich Ruler

    Rich Ruler

    Peter’s Question

    Peter’s Question

    20:Laborers in the Vineyard

    Promise of rewards

    Rank in the Kingdom

    Teaching about Jesus’ death

    Healing of two blind men

    Healing of two blind men

    21:Triumphal Entry

    19:Triumphal Entry

The Parameters:

Jesus meets the Rich Young Ruler who says, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” What did we just learn in the last parable? (Pharisee and Publican) It is not what you do or do not do that justifies you in Gods eyes. The young ruler thought he had kept the law all his life. He thought he could get to heaven by his own works. Jesus ignores that question because the man cant get saved until he knows he is lost. So Jesus tells him that he must sell everything he has. The purpose of the demand was to point the man to his sinfulness and inability to earn eternal life so that he could then receive the free gift of eternal life from Jesus. The man cant bring himself to do that and leaves.

When the man leaves, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.” The disciples ask “then who can be saved?” because they are still flirting with the theology of their day which says rich guys are rich because they are righteous and so the rich have an advantage.

So, after hearing Jesus’ discussion with the rich man about giving away all his property, Peter says, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” The disciples have a mercenary ministry. They want to know what their reward will be. After all, Jesus had said there would be treasure in heaven (Mat 19:21). What does Jesus say? “Peter, shhhh, don’t ask that question.” No, Jesus tells them that they would be rewarded. They would sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

But Jesus also warns them that the first would be last and the last would be first and begins the parable. And the phrase, The last shall be first and the first, last. concludes the parable.

The Problem:

What does it mean that the last will be first and vice versa? What will be the reward for those who give up everything and follow Jesus? Can I trust God to be fair in the distribution of rewards? If you are asking the question, then you really don’t trust your employer.

The Progression:

Chronological - The parable emphasizes the times that the laborers were hired. Mark Bailey calls this parable, “A day on the job in the kingdom of God.” (because the work takes place throughout the day and the payroll is at the end of the day.)

The Landowner hired laborers early in the morning (6:00) and made an agreement with them to pay them a denarius for the day’s work. It says the owner agreed which makes me think the workers asked for the denarius and he agreed to it.

The Landowner went out again at 9:00, 12:00, 3:00 and 5:00 and asked others if they would like to come to work without indicating what they would earn, only that he would be fair (vs. 4). If the first guy is going to get 1 denarius for 12 hours work, what do you expect the 2nd group to get? 3/4, then 1/2 then 1/4 and then 1/12th respectively.

At the end of the day, the Landowner went to pay them and started with the last group. He gave them each 1 denarius. What do you expect the next group to get? Three denarii. The next group six, and the next nine and the first group that was hired expects to get 12 denarii. But he gave everyone the same amount - one denarius - regardless of whether they had worked one hour or twelve hours.

Those hired first complained and accused the owner of being unfair.

But the owner justifies his actions:

  • on the basis of agreement - they agreed to work for a denarius. The owner calls him “friend” which in Matt is not a term of endearment.
  • on the basis of ownership - can I do what I want with what is mine?
  • on the basis of generosity - can I be gracious to whom I want to be gracious?

How much did those hired in the middle of the day or at the end of the day agree to work for?

None of those hired late made a deal concerning how much they would be paid. And all of them got more than they expected or deserved. But the ones who contracted for a denarius got exactly what they bargained for.

What should we conclude? If you want more than you contracted for, don’t contract. It is the same old issue of legalism versus grace. We think we want legalism or justice, but grace is so much better.

Jesus ends with the proverb - “the last shall be first and the first last.” Which means, if you are striving to be first, you won’t make it.

Perhaps the parable in Luke 17:7 is applicable here too. In that parable, the slave was expected to work and not worry about thanks or payment. Here too, the lesson seems to be to just work and not worry about rewards or payment.

The Point:

We are to serve God faithfully and let him worry about the reward.

The Program Of God:

Whether you come in early or late, you can still enter and enjoy the benefits of the kingdom of God. One’s faithfulness will determine one’s function in the future.

I think this parable also relates to the issue of Jews and Gentiles in the kingdom. The Jews had been working for God for over 2000 years already and it did not seem right that God would let these Gentiles in at such a late hour and give them all the blessings of the kingdom. The attitude of the Jews, was that they had earned all the blessings of the kingdom by keeping the law all those years.

The Principles:

The landowner represents God and thus we learn about God’s character.

Three characteristics of the consummate CEO:

  • We see that God is just - He treats everyone fairly. We can trust God to be fair. But God is more than just.
  • God is sovereign - He can do what He wants. He didn’t need to go to that intersection to get those workers. He could have gone elsewhere. God chose Jacob over Esau while still in the womb. If we understand who owns everything and that he could have chosen others, that should bring appreciation for the opportunity to serve. It should also eliminate comparison and pride - it was grace that I was chosen.
  • God is generous. That should eliminate pride. If one person has more than another, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they deserve it.

How would you like to work for someone who was always fair, always in control and generous to boot? Guess what - We do!

Principles for the Payroll:

  • We need to be faithful since merit is taken into account at the judgment. 1Co 3: says there will be rewards. We can’t throw out rewards just because we have one parable in which all received equal amounts. This doesn’t teach that there are no rewards, it teaches the grace and generosity of God.
    I’ve been a Christian about 30 years and have gone to seminary, taught Sunday school, and seminary classes, preached, been and elder, etc. But if someone comes to Christ today and one week from now, Jesus returns, and that person was faithful 100% of the time, he could receive more rewards than me. God will treat me fairly and I won’t be able to say, “You didn’t give me enough.” He can be gracious to a latecomer, give them an hour of opportunity and reward them for 100% faithfulness and that is fair.
    Why would I want that to be true even when I’m 33 years old and have been a Christian for 30 years? If I die tomorrow, am I at a disadvantage to those that lived to be 100 and were Christians 95 years? No. It is not length of service that is important. It is one’s attitude and motivation. 1Cor 4:5
  • This doesn’t just apply to time, it can also apply to ability. Jesus said some will produce 30,60 and 100 fold in Matt 13. If I don’t have the brains nor skill of someone like Chuck Swindoll, but I’m faithful, I could receive as many or more rewards.
  • There will be grace and I need to be thankful. We should serve and let God worry about the rewards.
  • We should not despise those who are saved at the end because they are valuable too.
  • I think too often we have the attitude that we obligate God by our actions - by our obedience - by our service, but we don’t, and I think God’s distribution of rewards will undoubtedly reverse many expectations.

At the beginning of the parable, Peter wanted to strike a bargain with Christ to find out what he would get. He wanted to know up front. “What’s in it for us?” Jesus is telling him “You don’t want to know” because if Peter had made a deal with Jesus, it wouldn’t have been as much as if he had just served faithfully.

Do you think that the disciples understood what Jesus was teaching with this parable? Did they learn their lesson? Not at all. In the very next scene in Matt 20, The sons of Zebedee (James and John) came to Jesus with their mother to ask if they could sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in the kingdom. What are they asking? If they can be first in the kingdom.

I think we can apply the principles from this parable to more than just length of service. It also applies to types of service - our spiritual gifts. 15 minutes in the nursery from 12:00 to 12:15 may earn more rewards than preaching for 50 minutes. Endurance earns more than eloquence.

Related Topics: Sanctification