“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:1-16)
This parable was another gut check for the disciples. Jesus had been chipping away at their vision of His kingdom ever since one of them asked Him: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1) The disciples evidently thought that by personal ambition, dedication and hard work the cream would rise to the top. If that is how discipleship worked in the schools of the Pharisees, why would it not work for Jesus’ followers?
But when if the cream falls to the bottom in Christ’s kingdom? When if men must become like little children? When if the last are first, and the first are last? If that is the case, then Jesus must extinguish the disciples’ ambition and dreams of achieving greatness, rewards and status, so they can persevere, and He can work through them.
“So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16)
Two weeks ago I described the Christian life as being a blessed beggar before God. Jesus himself gave that blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matt 5:3). But that nullifies our personal spiritual and holiness aspirations. Jesus humbles the exalted, and exalts the humbled (Matt 23:12)
As disciples of Jesus, we want to follow Him; we want to please Him. But because of our experience in the world, we do not know what pleases Him. We wonder: “Lord, how am I doing?” “Lord, am I growing?” “Lord, am I making it?”
Some of us are overachievers. We want to know: “Who is the greatest…?” (Matt 18:1) or “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matt 20:21)
Some of us just want a passing grade. We want to know: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (Matt 18:21a) or “What do I still lack?” (Matt 19:20b)
How often do we look around to compare ourselves with our brothers and sisters? We want to know why: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Matt 20:11) or “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ ” (John 21:21)
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3-4)
To the chagrin of the disciples, Jesus says that entering the kingdom of heaven and being His disciple is not our project. It is not a class. We are not graded. We do not progress from one year to the next. Discipleship is actually God’s work of (1) extinguishing our personal zeal for glory, status, rewards and honor and (2) giving us child-like faith in Christ.
Little children are not self-conscious about status. You never hear a toddler ask his mother: Do you love me? What must I do to be your son? Did you spend more money on my sister’s Christmas present than you did on mine? On the other hand, toddlers look solely to their parents for all their needs. Toddlers are completely dependent on the largess of their parents. Toddlers trust that their parents will feed, shelter, clothe and protect them.
“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ ” (Matt 20:6-7)
After 11 hours of a 12 hour shift, what was left to do that day in the vineyard? Probably not much, but those men who no one else hired still had to eat and probably had families to feed. So out of sheer mercy the master sent them into his vineyard. There was nothing special about that last group, other than they were men in need who happened to bump into a gracious master who would not pass them by.
But the folks who worked a full day became livid when they found out that these last ones received the same pay. They remind us of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. They are more fixated on how the master is merciful to someone else than thankful for the grace the master has shown them. So they grumble.
“Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ ” (Matt 19:25-26)
So, who are we in the Parable of the Vineyard? As Christians we oscillate between the first group and the last group. Sometimes we are the first group, puffed up at our holiness, envious of our brother, or ticked off that our hard work and pious living are not showing results. To the first group Jesus says: Repent! The first will be last.
But when His Law has humbled us and brought us down, then His Gospel raises us up: “You go into the vineyard too.” Now we are the last group, called into His kingdom by His grace and mercy, like little children who live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). The last will be first. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) Amen.