This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Sermon prepared by Rev. Martin Dam, York , Ontario
A few years ago a young man, let’s call him Tom, had an after-school and summer job making greenhouse parts out of metal. It wasn’t the cleanest job, nor the easiest, but he enjoyed it. He generally liked the people he worked with, and the work he did, and his boss. He got the job early in high school, and all through high school and into his time studying at a community college, he worked Saturdays and summers and on the odd days off he had. He’d been working there for 5 or 6 years, and in that time he’d learned a lot. He could operate a forklift safely, unload a trailer of steel and stack the bundles of beams so they wouldn’t fall over. He learned how to use all the various machines, from the big press that cut the metal sheets into smaller plates to the other press that bent those plates into braces. He learned how to run the machine that bends the metal into those arches that run along the tops of the greenhouse, and how to fix them if they bent too far. He knew how to run the storeroom and fill out orders of small parts. He even learned enough about welding that he could fill in if somebody came up sick. So Tom enjoyed his job, and I’m sure if you asked him, he would have said without a doubt that he loved his job, and that he was paid fairly for it. He had no idea whether he could have made more somewhere else, because he’d never had another job since he liked this one so much.
Then one summer, after he had been working there for about 5 or 6 years, another young guy was hired, about the same age Tom was when he started and the same situation, working summers while home from college. He knew nothing about steel, nothing about any of the machines, and very little about greenhouses. And in their first month together, it was Tom that was tasked with continually showing the new guy the ropes. So he taught him how to work all the different machines, how to sharpen a drill bit, how to stay safe and still be productive. And Tom didn’t even mind that. The two actually got along fairly well.
That changed one Friday afternoon. You see, Friday was payday, and about 6 weeks after the new guy started, they were sitting outside against the building, and the foreman handed out the paychecks. The new guy opened his paycheck, glanced at the amount, and went on with his lunch. Tom happened to see his paycheck, and he realized that the new guy was making the same amount of money he was, even though he had just started.
At that moment, Tom’s whole attitude towards his job changed. He started resenting his boss and his co-workers and he started hating how dirty he got doing the job. He started showing up late and bolting out the door as soon as the final bell rang. A couple weeks after that, he quit.
Now maybe as you hear that story, you’re thinking “I don’t blame him. I’d quit too.” After all, he was valuable to the shop. He had more experience, so he was probably more productive. But think about it for a second. What changed? Before he knew what his co-worker got paid, he was happy with his job and with his wage. The job didn’t change. He was doing the same things he did before. And the wage didn’t change. He was making as much as he made before. So what changed? Just his attitude. His sense of fairness was upended, and everything went downhill from there.
Now the question is this: does that same mentality play out in our understanding of the way the Kingdom of God works? Do we ever get the sense that things within God’s kingdom aren’t quite fair? There are some people in the church who work hard, who have always been willing to put the church first, to make time for the things that have to be done. They serve as elders and deacons, they teach Sunday school, they decorate the church for special services, and they do it all gladly. They don’t just take the title of Christian, but they put their time in. They work hard. But every now and then, I suspect it’s fair for them to wonder, “How come everybody else isn’t working as hard as I am?” If others just float on by and claim they’re saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, why can’t those who do all the work? And when they see others who go their own way most of their lives and then come back to the Lord later on in life, they wonder “Did we miss out on something? Did we do all this work for nothing, when we could have been having fun like they were, and then come back to the Lord at the end of our lives?”
If you can understand these feelings, you might understand why the disciples sometimes acted the way they did, and why they sometimes ask the questions that they ask. When we look at the context around this parable, we quickly get the sense that the disciples, at least, were fascinated about how they would rank once they got to heaven. They were Jesus’ first followers, they’d been serving him longer than anybody else. And at the end of Matthew 19, after Jesus has his interaction with the rich young ruler, Peter asks Jesus this question: “We have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?”
Jesus replies: “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel . And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
When we read that passage, there’s no doubt that the reward for following Christ will be great. The reward for all who sacrifice for the cause of the gospel will be wonderful. But notice the last line: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” What does that mean? That’s the line Jesus is seeking to explain when he tells the Parable of the workers in the Vineyard.
The parable is simple enough. There’s a man who hires day laborers to work in his field. At the beginning of the day, around 6 AM , he hires some and he promises to pay them a denarius, which is a fair day’s wage. As the day goes on, he goes back to the town numerous times and each time hires more workers and sends them out to the field, saying to them each time, “I will pay you whatever is right.” He does this at about 10 AM , about noon , and again at 3PM . And then, at the end of the day, an hour before quitting time, he goes out once more, and he sees the workers that nobody has hired, and he sends them too out into his field for that last hour.
So when the time comes to pay the workers, he starts with the ones who were hired last, and he pays them a denarius, the same as the workers who worked the whole day. And this, of course, angers those who sweated through the hot sun and the long day, who accomplished far more than the others did. They begin to grumble, and when he hears of their complaint, the master says this: ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
And when we look at the master’s response, we can see 3 principles for how the kingdom of heaven works. And the first one is this: In the kingdom of heaven, nobody is shortchanged. In the kingdom of heaven, nobody is shortchanged. We’re talking about eternal life here. An eternity with God in heaven, where there is no more sin or sadness or crying or tears. That’s the greatest gift anybody could possibly receive. And the idea that such a great gift is cheapened because others receive the same gift with less service-time is absurd. The point of the parable, of course, is not that eternal life is something some people earn with a life-time of hard work while others find it out of the generosity of the owner. Scripture is clear in dozens of places that salvation is a free gift, something we can never earn. Ephesians says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not by works, so that no one can boast.”
But the thought that goes through our minds sometimes is that by committing to the Lord earlier in life, we’re missing out on something. Do you ever feel that way? We know in our heads that it’s a wonderful gift to know the Lord as soon as possible. But there’s still times when we begrudge the things we’re called to do. We don’t get to sleep in on Sunday mornings. We’re constantly running off to committee meetings. We’re saving money for Christian education while others are buying bigger houses. And at times it may appear like we’re missing out on something. But trust me, we’re not. God has been generous to all of us, regardless of when we give our lives over to him. The sacrifice can seem hard at times, but that’s only because we’ve started looking around at other people instead of focusing on our Lord above. Comparison shopping is dangerous. No matter what our situation is, God has been good to us.
Second, God is Extra Generous With Some. The second truth we gain from the Master’s response to his grumbling workers is that while nobody is short-changed in the kingdom of God , God is extra generous with some. All are given a gift we don’t deserve, but some deserve it less than others. That’s simply the economics of the kingdom of God . Salvation is God’s gift, and he gives it away to whomever he chooses, no matter when they come to him.
Maybe it’s helpful to get away from the analogy of workers for a minute and think about it like this: imagine somebody told you that if you dug a hole for 8 hours, you’d find a treasure worth millions of dollars. I think most of us, in that situation, would get busy digging that hole. That’s a great reward for a day’s worth of digging.
Now imagine towards the end of the day, somebody else started digging another hole further down the beach, and at the same time you found your treasure at the bottom of the big hole, they found one at the bottom of a shallow hole. You dug a whole day, for a million dollars. Does the fact that somebody else dug only an hour and found the same treasure cheapen yours? Does it make yours any less of a deal? Does it make the person who told you about your treasure any less generous? Of course not. What’s a day’s digging compared to that reward?
Now take that into our understanding of salvation. What’s a lifetime of work compared to an eternity in heaven? Think of it like a fraction. What’s the difference between 80 years over infinity compared to 1 year over infinity? It’s nothing. So God might be extra generous to some, but he’s generous to all.
And while we’re at it, also remember this: living a large part of your life without the saving knowledge of Jesus in your life is not “getting away with something.” Hollywood likes to imagine that Christians have no fun and the rest of the world is a ball, but in the real world that’s not how it usually plays out. Think about the parable. Think about the workers who were hired at the end of the day. What was it like for them out there from 6 in the morning until around 4 or 5 in the evening, when they were offered an hour’s work? Were they giving each other high 5’s for getting out of work for the day? Of course not. They were wondering what was going to happen to them when they got home, with nothing to show for their day. How were they going to feed their kids? How were they going to explain to their wives that nobody would hire them, yet again? Now, when they got their pay, no doubt they were overjoyed. They received a great gift at the end of the day, but the bulk of their day was spent in anxiety and fear, not knowing what would happen to them when night came.
And for the lost in our world, it’s much the same. Going through life without the comfort of knowing that you’re safe in the hands of a God who loves us is no prize. Steering your lives toward one empty prize after another, always trying to find peace and fulfillment, in beauty, or in money, or in jobs, or in a luxury lifestyle, and finding out at the end of the day that none of those things produced the happiness they promised, not in a lasting way, is no prize.
Talk to anybody who finds the Lord late in life and then looks back on the lifetime spent apart from him and most such people will look back on their past with disappointment and regret, knowing that if they knew then what they know now, their life might have gone a whole lot differently, and that difference would almost certainly have been better. Their marriages might have been stronger. Their children might have done better in life. Their children would be more likely to know the Lord as well.
This is true because there’s a reason God calls us to live the way we live, and it’s because it’s the best way to live in this world. All of the things God calls us to avoid are avoided for a reason. And when we live as God calls us to live, we’re putting ourselves in the best position to have happy, peaceful, purposeful lives. When people have lived part of their lives without that purpose, and then they find it, they don’t look back on the “pre-hiring” period of their lives with fondness.
Thirdly, there is no rank in heaven. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus is telling us that the whole concept of rank does not seem to exist in heaven. Jesus says at the end of Matthew 19 that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and he says that again at the end of the parable, that the first shall be last and the last first.
Now he’s not saying here that there really will be a line in heaven, with the first people last and the last people first. He’s saying that in heaven, there will be no difference between those who came to know the Lord first and those who did not. He’s saying that in heaven, whether you’re first or last, it’s not going to make any different, because, again, everybody is the same in the kingdom. That’s just the way things work in the kingdom.
So what do we take from all of this? Most importantly, what we take from this parable is a conviction that when it comes to the Kingdom of God , there are more important things than what’s “fair” in our eyes. Now fairness and justice are important to God, so important that Jesus Christ had to pay the penalty for our sin so that God’s justness and fairness would be satisfied. But when it comes to salvation, it’s about something bigger than fair. It’s about grace. Grace that invites all who find the Lord, at any stage of life, into God’s eternal house.
Another thing we have to remember is that in order to enjoy that gift, we have to keep our focus on the prize, and off of each other. This whole parable started with a question the disciples asked Jesus about how they would rank in heaven. Later on in the Gospels, (John 21) after Jesus rises from the dead and reinstates Peter as a disciple, when Peter asks Jesus about the fate of John, his fellow disciple, Jesus says “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” And that’s the call to all of us. What God chooses to do in somebody else’s life does not directly concern you and me. Rather, we must follow God now, because the invitation has come to us now.
And when we do that, and focus on that, it seems to go well. God’s offered us a relationship with him, and if we’ve taken him up on that, and we focus on that, most of the time we’ll be happy and content. But when our eyes start to wander, when we look at others, it can work like a poison within us, distorting this good gift, so that we start complaining about things that, in comparison to the prize, mean nothing at all. The first will be last, and the last will be first, and none of the things we worry about here are going to mean anything there.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS HIS PEOPLE
*Song of Praise Ps.H #291 “May the Mind of Christ My Savior”
Call to Worship
Song of Worship #502 “The Church’s One Foundation”
Response “Hear our Prayer, O Lord”
*Song of Celebration #430 “We Sing the Mighty Power of God”
OUR NEW LIFE IN CHRIST
Call To Confession: 1 John 1:5-9
Song of Confession #231"How Great Is the Love of the Father"
Assurance of Pardon
God’s Will for Our Lives: 1 John 2:1-7
GOD SPEAKS HIS WORD TO US
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading Matthew 20:1-16
Message: Kingdom Economics
Song of Response #577 “Beams of Heaven”
WE RESPOND IN GRATITUDE
*Song of Thanksgiving #611 “As Stewards of a Vineyard”
*Prayer for Blessing
GOD SENDS OUT HIS PEOPLE
*Doxology #620 “By the Sea of Crystal ”