141012 Matthew 20:1-16

Last Updated on Monday, 13 October 2014 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Theme: I Will Give You What Is Right

"A man reaps what he sows." I don't know if Paul coined the phrase, but he did quote it in his letter to the Galatians (6:7). "A man reaps what he sows" can be used positively or negatively. Stated positively, it means that a person is rewarded on the basis of what he/she does.

This way of thinking appeals to the sense of fairness in us. If you perform meaningful labor, you deserve to be compensated for your efforts. If you work less, you have less coming to you. And if you do nothing, you probably don't deserve anything.

This logic doesn't sound quite as good when we apply it to our relationship with God. If God allowed us to reap what we sow, if our future depended on what we do in the present, if God treated us as our deeds deserve, the harvest wouldn't be pretty.

This is why it is so comforting to know that God doesn't think like you or me. This is why it is so important to remember that God's ways are higher than our ways. He isn't bound by our narrow human reason. He doesn't give us what we deserve. Instead he gives us a promise. In the parable set before us this morning God promises...


I. We might think we know better
II. God always knows what is best

Jesus shared this parable with his disciples near the end of his earthly ministry. Even though the Twelve had been with Jesus for a few years, even though they had listened to his parables and witnessed his miracles, they still had their moments. And Jesus told them the parable of the workers in the vineyard at one of those moments.

In the verses that come right before our text, Peter said to Jesus: We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us" (Matthew 19:27)? In other words, Peter wanted to know how Jesus planned to reward the disciples for being such faithful followers.

Jesus could have thrown up his hands in frustration, but he didn't. He didn't get angry with the disciples. He didn't give up on them. He didn't send them away. Instead, Jesus told them a story, in which he introduces us to a man who went to the marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. Back then it was not all that unusual to hire workers for the day. What is a bit odd is that this wealthy landowner went out to hire the workers. He could have ordered one of his servants to take care of the hiring, but he chose to do the work himself.

The people who were hired early in the morning showed their true colors right away: "He (the landowner) agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard" (2). The workers didn't trust the word of the landowner so they insisted on setting a price before they lifted a finger. This spirit sets them apart from the workers who were hired later in the day.

Now fast-forward about twelve hours. After a long, hard day in the field, evening finally came. Sunset was the normal time to pay workers according to Old Testament Law (Deuteronomy. 24:15), but the method of payment was anything but normal. The workers who had been hired last were paid first. And on top of that, "each received a denarius" (9). Even the men who had been working in the fields for only one hour received a full day's pay.

When the early workers (the ones who had been working since 6:00 am) saw this, they got a little greedy. They were the ones who had negotiated their wage. They were the ones who had insisted on a fair price. But now they wanted more. After all, they had worked harder and longer than everyone else. And they were convinced that they deserved a bonus.

"So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius" (10). The employer had held up his end of the deal. The workers couldn't file a grievance with the union. So they did the only thing they could do. They complained.

They said to the landowner: "These men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day" (12). But no matter how hard they tried to convince the boss to give them more, he didn't budge. "Take your pay and go," (14) the landowner said. He gave them what they had coming, and not a penny more. And then he sent them away.

Did the early morning workers do anything terribly wrong? Not really. Was it wrong for them to set a wage before they went to work? No. Was it unrealistic for them to expect a little extra when they saw how generous the landowner had been with everyone else? Maybe, maybe not.

So what was the real problem? Why did the landowner send them packing? It had less to do with their actions and more to do with their attitude, the same kind of self-righteous, self-serving attitude that occasionally found a home in the hearts of Jesus' disciples, the same sinful attitude that all too often finds a home right in here.

On a personal level: "I go to church. I am taking the Lord's Supper this morning. I even went to Bible class. I'm three for three today. God should be happy to have someone like me on his side."

On a synodical level: Ten years ago our church had no mission connections in places like Nepal and Tibet. Today our contacts number in the tens of thousands. Earlier this year the Board for Home Missions authorized half a million dollars in funding to start five new missions, with the goal of starting eight more new missions every calendar year. God's Great Commission is being fulfilled before our very eyes, thanks to our efforts, thanks to us. Come to think of it, maybe God should be thanking us.

Gathering around God's Word is a great blessing. Sharing God's Word with thousands of people thousands of miles away is too. But personal piety and statistical success mean absolutely nothing to God if our hearts aren't in the right place. If we serve the Lord to serve ourselves, then our good works aren't any good at all. In fact, the more we try to earn God's favor, the more we try to prove our own worthiness, the wider the gap between us and our heavenly Father becomes. And instead of reaping any rewards we earn God's wrath.

We don't know better than God. We don't know how to determine what "fair" is. We don't know anything... except that we fall short of God's perfect standard, except that we deserve to be condemned for our sins.

God knows us too. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what is going on inside our heads and our hearts. He knows how to expose our sin. He knows how to remove our sin. He knows how to be both merciful and just. No matter what the situation is God always knows what is best.

So far we have focused our attention on the first group of workers, but they weren't the only ones working out in the vineyard. The landowner returned to the marketplace and hired workers four more times. He came back at nine in the morning and said, "You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right" (4). Notice that the owner didn't tell these workers how much they would get paid. He only promised to be fair. And the workers went to work, no questions asked. This pattern repeated itself at noon and three and again at five in the afternoon.

Not long after the last workers were hired the sun began to set, and the landowner decided to pay the last group first. The parable tells us what happened, but it doesn't tell us what the last workers hired expected to receive for working one hour. Maybe a few bucks, maybe enough to buy dinner.

Imagine their shock and surprise when a shiny denarius was placed in their hand. They hadn't earned it. They didn't deserve it. But every worker received a full day's pay. And when the workers who had been hired first tried to complain, the master's response showed them just how foolish they were: "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous" (15)?

This parable isn't about stewardship or money. The purpose of this parable isn't to help us determine what is fair and what isn't. Jesus didn't tell this parable to instill in his disciples a good work ethic. All of these things are included in the parable, but at the center of it all is the landowner's generosity. And as we seek to identify the heavenly meaning of this earthly story, we see a clear parallel between the generosity of the landowner and the grace of God.

By definition, grace is God's undeserved love for undeserving sinners. Just as the landowner gave his employees more than they deserved, the God of heaven and earth has showered us with more blessings than we could ever imagine. He has given us clothing and shoes, food and drink, property and home, family and possessions. He has given us everything we need for body and life, but none of these blessings from God captures the essence of God's grace.

God's grace is seen most clearly not in the giving of some thing, but in the gift of someone. God loved us so much that he gave us his Son. Jesus is the greatest gift of God's grace. Jesus is our priceless treasure. He became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. He gave up his life so that we might have eternal life. We didn't earn it. We don't deserve it. But by the grace of God it is ours.

A proper understanding of grace is essential for a proper understanding of this parable. Grace is also the key that unlocks the meaning of the statement that brings this story to a close: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (16).

There is a warning for us in Jesus' words. If we forget what we are (helpers sinners), if we forget what God has done for us (rescued us from our sins), if we take God's grace for granted, if we act like we don't need it, there is a real danger that we will lose it. This is how the first become last. Unbelievers finish last, and their reward is everlasting condemnation.

But there is hope in these words as well. Jesus wants us to know that we have an extremely generous God. We have a God who made us his top priority. We have a God who spared no expense to save us.

By his grace we are first in the kingdom of heaven. By grace alone we know that we have a place waiting for us in heaven. And by faith we take God at his word when he says to us: "I will give you what is right." Amen.

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