vineyard workers

The combination of these two things – that God has the right to do as he pleases, and also that he is generous and good – should call us to trust him. We can’t control him, we often can’t understand him, but he is trustworthy.


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Matthew #70. Matthew 20:1-16

For those of you who have followed this blog in “real time” you know that we have had a substantial break since the last sermon I posted on the book of Matthew. My health is much improved, though I sometimes still have “bad days,” when I am in a certain amount of pain. The doctors believe they have stopped the cause of the kidney stones which damaged one kidney, and the nerves of the other. Overall, I am feeling much better, and I am back to a completely normal life. I thank you very much for your prayers.

As always, I want to ask you to continue to pray for us and for this ministry. We want the Lord to be at work in and through these messages. Pray for continued healing, for the Lord’s working through me as I continue to preach, for our encouragement, and also for our finances. If you feel led to contribute financially, use the “donate” tab at the top of the page, and you’ll find a few different options. Regardless of whether or not you give financially, we deeply, deeply appreciate your prayers.

We are going to continue where we left off in Matthew, but I want to remind us of the context.

In Matthew 19:16-30, Jesus began speaking with his disciples about rewards. They encountered a rich young man who wasn’t willing to give up what he had in this life in order to follow Jesus. That sparked a discussion about wealth, money and giving up things to be a disciple of Jesus. In the last installment (Matthew #69) we considered the kinds of non-material rewards that Jesus promised in this life and the next.

Jesus continued the discussion with a parable. Christians sometimes call it the Parable of the Vineyard Workers.

1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the workers on one denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine in the morning, he saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4To those men he said, ‘You also go to my vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is right.’

So off they went. 5About noon and at three, he went out again and did the same thing. 6Then about five he went and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing? ’

7“ ‘Because no one hired us,’ they said to him. “ ‘You also go to my vineyard,’ he told them. 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, starting with the last and ending with the first.’

9“When those who were hired about five came, they each received one denarius. 10So when the first ones came, they assumed they would get more, but they also received a denarius each. 11When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner: 12‘These last men put in one hour, and you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat! ’

13“He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? 14Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my business? Are you jealous because I’m generous? ’

16“So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:1-16, HCSB)

Just before this, Jesus promised rewards to his disciples for their labors, and for the sacrifices they have made. He was speaking, in a sense, of their rights and privileges as his followers. But now, in this parable, he speaking of the rights and privileges of God to do as he pleases. Bible commenter William Kelly puts it like this:

Peter said,’, We have left all, and followed Thee,” and the Lord assures him that it would not be forgotten; but He immediately adds the parable of the householder. Here we find, not the principle of rewards. or righteous recognition of the service done by His people, but God’s own rights, His own sovereignty. Hence there are no differences here – no one specially remembered because he had won souls to Christ, or left all for Christ. The principle is, that while God will infallibly own every service and loss for the sake of Christ, yet He maintains His own title to do as He will.

The idea is this: “Look, you’ve been promised that what you have given up is not for nothing. Your sacrifice will be remembered and even rewarded. At the same time, your sacrifice and your reward should be no basis for boasting, or setting yourself up as better. And there is no room for jealousy if you should feel that God has been particularly generous with someone else. He has also done for you what he promised.

The first generation of Christians to read Matthew’s Gospel would have been immediately reminded of the situation between Jews and Gentile Christians. The Jews were God’s people before any other. The Gentiles were not called until almost two-thousand years after Abraham. But God promises to bless and save both Gentiles and Jews through the Messiah, Jesus Christ, even though the Gentiles are relative late-comers. There is no advantage in being a Jew – all are saved by the same Messiah, as promised originally. This parable would have helped the Gentile believers to realize God’s wonderful kindness and grace to them, and it would have been a warning to the Jewish believers not to resent the Gentiles, or think of themselves as better.

The Jewish-Gentile thing isn’t much of an issue for us anymore, but let’s consider a few ways in which this parable can apply to us.

Let me make this practical in my own life, in the hopes that it might help you see how it applies in yours. I think, over the years of my life and ministry, I have often given things up to follow Jesus. I have given up jobs that would have paid better, or that were more secure. I’ve devoted almost my entire adult life to following Jesus and serving him. I am sometimes like Peter: “Lord, what do I get in return for all that?” I shared a little about some of my experiences in Matthew part #69. But I also sometimes struggle with another feeling: jealousy.

I’m not normally jealous of people who have more money than me (though I’m not immune to that). But I struggle with being jealous of those whom God treats differently than he does me. I have friends and family members who have a different experience of following Jesus than I do. For me, I have often had to struggle through a lot of work and prayer and confusion during transitions in life. But for several people I know, things just always seems to fall into place almost effortlessly. They need a new a job, and the perfect one is offered to them the very day that they realize they need it. That sort of thing has never really happened for me, and I sometimes get jealous of how God treats them.

But this parable tells me that the Lord has the right to do as he pleases with his servants. If he wants me to struggle while he wants to grant others easy transitions, that his business, not mine.

Perhaps for you it’s something different. Maybe someone you know seems to have terrific and easy friendships, while for you, friendship is always a struggle. Or perhaps you look around and everyone seems to be doing better financially than you are. You’ve been faithful with your money, you’ve given generously to God’s work, but still you struggle, while others around you seem able to waste more than you make in a week.

Now, I don’t mean that we never have any part in making our own lives more difficult. You may struggle with friendships because you are self-absorbed or unkind. You may struggle with finances because you have a shopping addiction. These are things we should consider and pray about. But sometimes, it seems like it is just God’s sovereign choice – the Master doing what he chooses to do. If it is, we could stand to remember that he has the right to do those things. This parable certainly encourages us not to engage in envy.

I think there is another important reminder to us. In our Christian culture today, there is a strong movement that seems to think if we speak a certain way, or have enough faith, or do the right things, then God owes us. Some people seem to think of it almost like a law of physics: “If we do these things, then God must reward us in this way.” This parable reminds us that God does not owe us. He doesn’t owe us an explanation, or anything else. He is the Master, we are not. It is His vineyard, to do with as he pleases, not ours.

At the same time, there is another message worth hearing: the Master is very generous. There is no question that the workers who came late did not deserve what they were paid, but the Master chose to bless them with generosity anyway. It was not because of their work, it was because of his generous nature. So, though although God does not owe us, we should trust that he is generous and good.

The combination of these two things – that God has the right to do as he pleases, and also that he is generous and good – should call us to trust him. We can’t control him, we often can’t understand him, but he is trustworthy.