As you know, when I originally preached through the gospel of Matthew, it took eight years and several hundred messages. And when I went back and wrote the commentary on Matthew, it took four volumes and nearly 2,000 pages to cover this gospel.
In fact, when I was down in San Paulo a pastor there said, “Did you ever finish Matthew?”
And I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Did you ever finish the commentaries?”
I said, “Yes.”
And he said, “I only have volume one. Could you send me the rest?”
And I said I would.
And it’s been hard for me to reduce this wonderful gospel to 12 messages. So, in a sense, I welcome the opportunity to reach into Matthew and pull out another one, another passage preached many years ago. And most of the time, you know, I realize that when I go through a book, it’ll be once in my lifetime and once in yours, and we’ll never go back there again. And so, I relish the opportunity to go back. And I want to go back to chapter 20 – Matthew chapter 20.
One of the great faithful prophets of the Old Testament was Ezekiel. And Ezekiel spoke to the people of God who were in Babylonian exile. And one of his emphases was to remind them – to remind them of the sins of Judah which brought about that exile. And among those sins which caused that 70 years of exile in Babylonian – among those sins was one which he points out in his prophecy, chapter 18, where twice in that chapter he says this, “You say the way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel, is not My way equal? Are not your ways unequal?”
Israel had accused God of being unfair, unequal. And Ezekiel said, “That’s one of your sins. You’ve said God is not fair.” That sin has since been committed many times by many people, who when things in their life don’t go the way they think they ought to go, or the way they would like them to go, accuse God of being unfair.
When somebody else appears to prosper, and they suffer, they may look to God and consider Him inequitable. So, it certainly wasn’t the first, nor was it the last time God has been accused of being unfair or unequal in His treatment of His people. It is that very issue which is the theme of this chapter. And it may be well to say, at the very start, that God defends Himself against this accusation a number of times in scripture, and a number of times in the New Testament. And at least half a dozen times in the New Testament, He defends Himself against this accusation by saying He is no respecter of persons. That is to say He treats all people equally.
Certainly when it comes to His own children, and when it comes to applying the benefits of salvation, there is absolutely no inequality. It is sin for believers to accuse God of being inequitable in His treatment of His own. It is that marvelous truth that is illustrated in the parable in the beginning of chapter 20.
Let’s begin in chapter 19, the last verse, which should be the first verse of chapter 20, “But many who are first will be last; and the last first.” Here’s why that’s true. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to those he said ‘You, too, go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.
“Again he went out, about the sixth and ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour, he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’
“They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“He said to them, ‘You, too, go into the vineyard.’
“And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.
“And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you’ve made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
“But he answered and said to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last shall be first, and the first last.”
So, you see, this parable is bracketed by the same statement. Verse 30 of chapter 19, verse 16 of chapter 20 say the very same thing, ‘The last shall be first; the first last.” That set of brackets defines what the parable in the middle is about. It’s all about being last and being first.
Now, in examining this passage, I want to point to four things: the proverb itself, the parable which illustrates it, the point of it, and then some principles.
Let’s look at the proverb. It is a proverb or a maxim; it is a truism. A short, pithy, popular saying of ancient and unknown origin expressing wisdom – that’s a proverb. And the Lord apparently coined this proverb and likely used it very frequently. Compare Luke 13:30 for another use of it. And here it is obviously the point of the parable.
Now, the parable is a riddle, in a sense, and so is the proverb. When you read the proverb, you say to yourself, “What does that mean?” And this proverb has baffled some Bible students through the years. And I think that’s unnecessary. I think reading the parable explains the riddle with just some basic things to understand.
Now, I’ve been in some races in my youth; I’m not in any races anymore. But when I was young, I used to run track. I used to run races. I ran in my high school years. I ran the sprint events; I ran everything up to one foolish afternoon, when I ran 800 meters or 880 as it was known then. I ran the 400 meters. I one time had to run a distance race – or one or two times – when I was involved in a decathlon meet. But I used to run. I used to run races. And to figure out what is meant here, I just sort of look back to my athletic background. The last first and the first last.
Now, the only way for the last to be first and the first to be last would be if they all cross the finish line in a dead heat. Right? I mean if you’re last; you’re last. But if you’re last and first, and if you’re first and last, that means you end in a dead heat. The only way to be first and last at the same time is to cross the finish line all together. If there are ten people in a race, and they’re all first, and they’re all last, it’s a dead heat. The first are last, and the last are first because everybody finishes the same. Very simple.
In fact, I remember driving to church the week I was preparing the sermon, many years ago, and I had my son Mark, who was just young at that time. And I was discussing this parable with him, and I said, “What do you think it means?”
And he responded to me, “That’s easy, Dad. It means everybody finishes the same.”
And I hadn’t even explained the profound meaning. It was so obvious. And that is the intent of the parable. It is to demonstrate one simple point that everyone will finish equally, that God is no respecter of His own, that God treats all of His own equally. The proverb is very simple and very straightforward. The illustration is graphic and, frankly, unforgettable.
Let’s move, then, to the parable. From the principle to the parable, it is a fascinating picture. Verse 1, “For the kingdom of heaven” – now remember again this is the sphere of salvation – “the kingdom of heaven is the spiritual realm where those who are the children of God exist. The realm of salvation, the sphere of salvation, the sphere where God rules over the redeemed, where God rules through the grace of salvation.
So, He is illustrating how it is among the saved, among the redeemed, among God’s people in His kingdom. It’s like this: “It’s like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” It’s like a man who is an oikodespotēs, a house ruler in the Greek, a manager of a house. Likely, in this case, a man who owns this estate. Because down in verse 15, he says, “I can do with my own whatever I want.”
So, here is a man who owns an estate. He owns the land, and the land includes a vineyard. The scene is not imaginary; it is very real to the Jewish listeners. In fact, in the fertile plain areas like Esdraelon and the Sharon Valley and the Jordan valleys, the grain field was the major enterprise.
But on the mountain slopes which dominate the land of Israel, the vineyard was the most valuable property and, frankly, required the greatest amount of labor. The steepness of the slopes on which the vines grew best greatly increased the toil. And you had to take out the rocks, and you had to build a flat surface terrace, and there was just a lot of work. They were terraced; hand-laid stone walls were there. Even the fertilizer and the additional soil had to be carried on men’s shoulders up these slopes.
In spring they prepared the soil. In summer they pruned and tied the branches. And in September the grape harvest came. And in many cases, in Israel, it was still going on. Close on the heels of the harvest came the rain. And if the harvest is not gathered quickly, the rain comes and destroys everything.
So, harvesting grapes in Israel was a hasty enterprise. And you really never had enough manpower to do that in terms of a permanent staff. So, you needed very quick part-time labor. Every available man had to be hired to get him into the harvest, to get that harvest in before the rains came.
Now, a Jewish workday started at 6:00 AM and ended at 6:00 PM. They had a 12-hour workday, and they did it 6 days. So, at the start of the long workday, the owner went to find laborers for his harvest. Obviously, as I said, he wouldn’t have enough in his normal workforce to do this kind of intense labor that had to be gathered so rapidly. This is an important historical note, by the way. Hired laborers in ancient Israel were the lowest people on the social ladder, the lowest class of workers. Hey were basically unskilled. They were untrained, and they were unemployed except for a day at a time. They were day laborers. Life for them, frankly, was somewhat desperate and precarious, because they had to work in order to eat. If they didn’t work, they didn’t eat, and neither did their families.
Slaves and servants had steady jobs. And even though they might have been somewhat pour, they could share in family benefits. But day laborers were never certain and even had to provide their own place to live because the pay was low, they lived at a bare subsistence level.
God Himself, by the way, was very much aware that there would be people at that level of the social ladder, and He was very much concerned about how such poor people in the land were treated so that the Old Testament gave very specific laws for the care of day laborers. In Leviticus 19:13, it says, “The wages of the hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” In other words, the day he worked, he had to be paid because that was the only way he could feed his family. You couldn’t carry his wages over till the next day. And in fact, in Deuteronomy 24:15, it says, “You shall give him his hire on the day he earns it before the sun goes down, for he is poor” – I love this – “and sets his heart on it, lest he cry against you to the Lord and it be sin in you.” It was an iniquity not to pay that man at the end of the day in which he did his work.
So, this parable is a vivid story that could happen in any Jewish town, on any day during the harvest. Hired laborers would do this: they would congregate at some point in the marketplace, around the marketplace, and they would wait there for someone to come along and hire them. That sets the stage.
This man went out early in the morning, before 6:00, to hire laborers for his vineyard. And he would go to the marketplace of the town nearby. And verse 2 says, “When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
Now, a denarius as not normal day worker pay. It was better than that. It was a very fair wage. In fact, it was a very fair wage. In fact, it was a very generous wage. It was standard pay for a skilled employee. It was standard pay for a Roman soldier. It was generally accepted as fair wages, not low. Very generous. And both owners and workers agreed on this wage.
Now, early they may have had some choice. In other words, they may have said, “Well, you know, there’s some other men coming to hire men. And maybe we ought to wait and find out if somebody’s going to give us a better price, a better wage.” But this was good, and they immediately signed up. And the wage as attractive. And so, he sent them into the vineyard at 6:00 AM to get to work.
And then verse 3 says, “He went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace.” It’s now 9:00 AM, and he realizes by now that it’s going to take more men than he’s got. So, he returns because he needs more help. “And he finds some men” – notice this – “standing idle in the marketplace.” This doesn’t mean they’re willfully idle. If they were willfully idle, they’d be in their bed. They’re idle because nobody has hired them; they’re just unemployed. “And to those” - verse 4 – “he said, ‘You, too, go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And they went.”
This is no time to be negotiating. They’re just glad he needs more. Oh, they knew what he had paid those earlier ones, if they had been there from the beginning. The word would have circulated that these men were going to work for a denarius a day, a very generous wage. They’re not going to negotiate; they’re willing to take whatever this very generous man would give them. The day is going by fast, and they need to earn as much as they can. And with no discussion of price, the day being partly gone, their options are limited. They can’t afford to do anything but take what is given, and off they go to work. They’re filled with satisfaction just to be able to earn something.
Well, it gets to be noon, and the man is in need of more. So, verse 5 says, “Again he went out, and about the sixth hour” – that would be noon – “and then the ninth hour” – that’s 3:00 in the afternoon – “and he did the same thing.” The process is repeated, and you can be sure that these men were really glad this late in the day to have this kind of opportunity to earn something, the day fast passing them by.
And then most notably of all, verse 6, “And about the eleventh hour, he went out” – this would be 5:00 in the afternoon – “and found others standing and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’
“They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“He said to them, ‘You, too, go into the vineyard.’” He’s a gracious man. And when he finds out that the reason they’re there is simply because no one wanted them and no one hired them, though they were willing to work, he hires them for one hour. They had waited all day. They stayed there all day. They didn’t give up hope. They’re now desperate, feeling no opportunity would come at all, but hoping against hope, they stay in the marketplace. And he says, “Just go, and whatever’s right I’ll give you.” And they’ll take anything they can get.
And then verse 8, “And when evening had come” – it’s not 6:00 – “the owner of the vineyard said to his foremen, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages” – now stop there for a moment. This man is going to follow the prescription of the Old Testament: Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 24. The day has ended. He calls the steward. That steward would be the foreman, the one who manages the labor force. He says, “‘Get them in line, in accord with the Mosaic law, and we’re going to pay them” - but here’s the key that unlocks the whole parable, verse 8 - “beginning with the last and then moving to the first.’” Line them up, start with the ones who worked an hour, and then move to the ones who worked 12 hours. And, obviously, we’re getting to the proverb and its meaning.
The first go to the last part of the lines, and the last come to the first. Here is where proverb and parable touch. And then he pays those who began at 3:00; and then those who worked six hours, having begun at noon; and then those who worked nine hours, having begun at 9:00; and the last batch, who started at 6:00, are last. The more normal rule, which we like to live by, “First come, first serve,” won’t do.
In fact, the whole thing becomes shocking in verse 9, “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.” Whoa. I mean a denarius a day is incredible; but a denarius an hour, that’s mind boggling. A whole day’s wage for one hour? And we can assume that he paid the ones who started at 3:00 the same thing, and the ones who started at noon the same, and the ones who started at 9:00 the same. The generosity is wonderful.
Now, the all-day gang are starting to get excited. “What are we going to get?” And their curiosity kind of runs away with them, and they begin to imagine that they’re going to get more. And verse 10, “When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received, each one, a denarius.” They had cherished, by the way – all through this process, they had cherished the silent expectation that when their turn came, they would receive more. More because they’d worked longer. And when that didn’t happen, they could not contain their disappointment.
So, verse 11 says, “When they received it, they” – a Greek word engonguzō-ed. They “egungugu.” It’s an onomatopoetic word. It means they “mu-mu-mu-mu.” Mumbled, grumbled. “And they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’” Literally, in the Greek, the burner of the day. “I mean this was a scorcher, and we’ve been out there 12 hours.” By the way, burner is often applied to the hot east wind that scorches the flesh, parches the lips and the throat. And if you’ve ever been in the land of Israel in the summer, you felt it. And the evenings cooled down. It’s much like California. And on hour of work from 5:00 to 6:00 is a lark, absolutely insignificant compared to 12 hours through the burner of the day and the scorching, drying, irritating wind. How could they be equally paid?
The reply is absolutely marvelous. But he answered, verse 13, and said to one of them, “Friend” – hetairos. Frankly, it’s usually a rebuking term. Today we might say it this way, “Fella – listen, fella, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Didn’t we agree on this? Wasn’t I faithful to what I promised you?” Well, the answer, of course, is yes, back to verse 2. He had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day.
Verse 14, “‘Take what is yours and go your way. But I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.” Now, the only issue here was competitive jealousy, envy. They were still standing there, holding the coin in their hand, too stunned to leave, and hoping that their pleading would get them more, that their murmuring would get them more. When Jesus says, “Take what is yours and leave. Nothing’s going to change.”
And verse 15, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” It’s not illegal is it? It’s not unjust. It’s not unfair, is it? Of course not. They received what was promised. They were paid in full by the one who had a right to give what he wanted and did give it. They hadn’t worked all day. But listen to this, they hadn’t all worked all day, but they all had the same need. So, he met that same need with his generosity. And he says to them, “Is your eye envious because I’m generous?” Are you just envious? Are you just jealous? Does my compassionate kindness to others irritate you? What an indictment.
And then the Lord reiterates the proverb, “The last shall be first, and the first last.” Well, you can see how he illustrated it. Everybody finished the same. Everybody got the same pay. Everybody got the same denarius. So, you understand the proverb, and you understand how the parable illustrates it. Now let’s move to the point.
What’s the point? What’s the spiritual message here? What is this saying of spiritual significance? What’s it teaching us? Well, what it’s saying is that the last shall be first in the sense that those who came into the vineyard last to work and those who came in first to work will all receive the same reward. What is it talking about? It’s not a teaching on economics. It’s not a teaching on wages and employee benefits. It’s a parable about the kingdom; it’s a parable about the spiritual dimension. It is not an allegory; it is a simple illustration made to make one spiritual point. And what is that one spiritual point? Follow me and I’ll show you.
The householder is God. The vineyard is the kingdom. The laborers are believers in the kingdom. The day of work is time. The evening is eternity, when we receive our reward. The wage is eternal life. The steward is Jesus Christ who is given the task of rewarding his own. And all of that comes together to mean this: all who come into Christ’s kingdom to serve him, no matter how long, no matter how short, no matter how hard, no matter how easy the circumstance, will in the end equally receive the same full reward. What is that reward? Eternal life, eternal glory, eternal Christlikeness. Those who come first to God will receive no more than those who come last. Those who come last will receive no less than those who come first.
Jesus is saying that the eternal benefits of the kingdom of God are the same for all who are subject to the rule of the king whenever and however may be their place or time of service. It’s a tremendously encouraging thing. Life may be inequitable, but God isn’t, and eternity won’t be either. Every believer, no matter when converted or what manner of service or for how long, will receive the crown which is eternal life spoken of in James 1:12, will receive the crown which is righteousness spoken of in 2 Timothy 4. How wonderful it is to realize that the same glorious, eternal life will be given to the penitent thief as was given to the faithful apostles. The same eternal life will be given to that sinner who near death turns from a life of wickedness to embrace Christ as is given to that missionary who spent 50 years in a jungle in deprivation and difficult labor. The person who receives Christ on a deathbed after a life of wickedness will receive the same glorious eternity as one who all his life served Christ and died a martyr. It’s a tremendous truth.
Beloved, God is not unequal. We’re all going to enter into the same eternal life. Some of us came early. Look at the apostles. This parable really, in some ways, was for them. Do you remember that after Jesus - just prior to this, in chapter 19 – had confronted the rich young ruler in this context? And he told the rich young ruler that the way to eternal life, of course, was to recognize his sin and to be willing to obey Christ. And he turned away and wouldn’t do that.
Do you remember that after that Peter spoke back in verse 27 of chapter 19? “And Peter said to Him, ‘Behold, we’ve left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?’” These greedy guys. “Hey, we left everything for you, and we’ve left everything to follow you. Surely the implication is there’s something more for us than these other folks that you’re evangelizing.”
And Jesus responded to that by showing Peter and the rest of them that no matter whether they had left everything and followed Him for a long time, or whether they came to Him at the very end of life, they would all receive the same eternal reward. I suppose those disciples, in some ways, are like the people who came at 6:00. At the very beginning, He called them, and they came. And they knew that the reward then was eternal life. They knew that; that’s what He told them. They knew it was a kingdom.
Certainly they loved Jesus and believed in Him and continued to follow Him, but they were still pretty shallow and very selfish. I mean look at the text after the parable. Look at verse 17, “As Jesus was about to go u to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, ‘Behold, we’re going to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to chief priests and scribes, and they’ll condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He’ll be raised up.’” And Jesus told them about His death and His resurrection.
“And the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’
“And she said to Him, ‘Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.’” That’s ugly, isn’t it? Isn’t that ugly? It’s ugly enough to wish that, but to con your mother into asking for it? Come on, guys. James and John. Do you know what they were saying? “We’ve endured the burden in the heat of the day here. And when this kingdom comes, we’d like to – we’d like to have the chief seats if we may, please. We want our wages to exceed the others.” That’s pretty stern teaching in that context, isn’t it? I mean He’s telling them what they need to hear, and they’re so blockheaded that immediately after that they do this.
And they’re saying, “We’ve already left everything, and we’ve endured three years of deprivation in the hard work of harvest, and we’ve been out there in the hot wind, and we’ve felt the persecution and the hostility.” And it’s true, they had. “And surely when the kingdom comes, we who have been most intimate with You and borne most should get the most. We’ve given the most.” Surely they’d get something better than the guy at the end of chapter 20. “They were going out from Jericho” - headed to Jerusalem – “and two blind men stood by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ And the multitude sternly told them to be quiet” – shut up, you beggars – “they cried out all the more, saying, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’
“And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’
“They said to Him, ‘Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.’ And moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.”
They were saved, and the disciples probably thought, “Well, those beggars, jumping on the bandwagon at the last moment here. Surely we should get more than they.” It was precisely this kind of selfish, envious, confused perception that our Lord is dealing with here.
Later on, admittedly, here’s a footnote. The epistles deal with rewards for our service. But this is not about that. It’s not about the character of heavenly service. This is about the reality of eternal life. Rewards are discussed later, but they’re not on the basis of the time of service, and they’re not on the basis of the difficulty of service; they’re on the basis of the motive.
“How do you know that?”
First Corinthians 4, “God will reward every man according to God’s knowledge of the secret motives of his heart.” Now, our Lord had answered Peter so graciously back in chapter 19. “He said” - verse 28 – “‘Truly I say to you, you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you’ll also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And surely everyone who has left houses or brothers or sister or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake shall receive many times as much and inherit eternal life.’”
But you’ll notice he says, “You’ll inherit eternal life.” I mean there isn’t anything more you can get; you’re going to get eternal life. But be careful you don’t get envious of somebody else, and that you don’t think you deserve more, because the last are going to be first, and the first are going to be last, which means you who came in first aren’t going to be, in the end, receiving anything more than those who came in last. With God it’s absolute equality. Absolute equality. We all receive eternal life.
Tax gatherers and harlots which come in at the end of their life are going to stand with missionaries and martyrs who gave their all. All believers will be equally given the blessedness of glory. We’ll all live in the Father’s house. Nobody’s going to be down the street eight blocks and four blocks to the right. We’ll all be part of the bride adorned for the Bridegroom. We’ll all inherit the whole inheritance. We’ll all become like Christ. We’ll all live forever in the celestial city. We’ll all manifest the glory of God. We’ll all take on the image of the Savior. It’s a wonderful thing.
Now, to close, let me pull some principles together that come out of this tremendous truth. And this ties it right down to where we live and says so much about this whole matter of God’s goodness to us. Number one, God initiates salvation sovereignly. You see that in the whole parable. He came into the marketplace of man and selected those He wanted to come and serve in His kingdom. Jesus said that to the apostles in John 15. “You have not chosen Me, but” – what? – “I’ve chosen you.” He picks who He wants.
Secondly, God establishes the terms. He set the terms, and they agreed, quite unlike the rich young ruler. He set the terms. They came on His terms. The terms of the gospel have been established. Jesus set them; God set them. You come on those terms.
Another principle that arises out of this, God is continually calling people into his kingdom. There was a beginning, during the day. And the day, remember, is time. There was a beginning when He started doing this, and there will be an end. And the work is continuous. The work of redemption goes on and on and on and on. And Jesus said that, “I work, and My Father works.” It goes on. He’s continually doing, going into the marketplace of humanity and selecting those He wants to come and work.
A fourth truth comes out of this. God redeems those who are willing. And that’s the other side of His sovereign choice. They were there. They were available. They were willing. They knew they were dependent. They knew they had nothing apart from this. They were not the rich. They were not the self-sufficient. They were not the satisfied. They were the poor and the meek and the beggars and those without resources who would take whatever the Master would give.
Another principle rises out of that is this; God is particularly compassionate to those who have no resources. When you think about the fact that there are not many noble and not many mighty, God could have sovereignly done anything He wanted. Why them? Well, God has this unusual compassion for those in deep need.
And I have to admit that I – as I read that parable, one thought lingers in my mind, and it is this thought: does this guy who owns this place not know how many people it takes to harvest? Why does he have to keep coming back? Surely you could say, you know, “There’s X number of pieces of land, and it takes so many people working so many hours to pick so many grapes. I mean why does he keep coming back?” The only answer to that is that he represents God, and he’s coming back not because he needs more workers, but because he has such compassion.
A sixth point that comes out of this is that all who came into the vineyard worked. There were no deadbeats. No freeloaders. There weren’t two people working and four supervising. And what is the work? Evangelism. That’s what it is. Harvest, harvest, harvest. I mean that’s the work, isn’t it? That’s the only work we do here, really, that we couldn’t do in heaven. I mean we could praise in heaven, and we could worship in heaven, and we could live those holy lives in heaven, and we could fellowship. Oh, won’t we fellowship like crazy in heaven, when we’re all perfect? And we won’t have to confront anything; we’ll just enjoy everything.
But the work is evangelism; it’s harvest. And everybody does it. Everybody is called to work. We don’t all work as well as we should, but the work is there. And if we are in the kingdom, we’re at the work.
Another principle that comes out of this is overwhelming, and that is this. God gives all of us more than we deserve. God gives all of us more than we deserve. You know the truth? The people who worked 12 hours didn’t deserve a denarius; it was very generous. The rest didn’t deserve it either; so, everybody’s really I the same boat. Nobody deserved it. The people that worked one hour didn’t deserve it, and neither did the people that worked 12. There’s really no argument here about the generosity of this landowner. God gives us more than we deserve.
If you gave the Lord 60 years of service, would you deserve heaven? You wouldn’t deserve it any more than the man who gave Him 15 minutes of service. And then there’s that one sort of overwhelming lesson that humility and a sense of unworthiness is the only right attitude. Humility and a sense of unworthiness is the only right attitude; there’s no place for envy. There’s no place for jealousy.
I mean it is absolutely ludicrous to say, “I hope when I get to heaven I’m going to get more than you.” But that’s what the disciples were doing. No place for that. No room for us to act the part of the older brother in the story of the prodigal in Luke 15. His brother comes home from a live of sin, repents. The father throws a feast. And what is the older brother’s attitude. He is what? He’s angry. He’s jealous.
You say, “Well, what right did he have to be jealous?”
None, because the truth of the matter is everything the father gave to the prodigal the other brother already had. I mean he just gave one feast to the prodigal. The other brother ate like that every day. There’s no place for jealousy; there’s no place for envy. There’s only a place for humility that recognizes our absolute unworthiness.
And then the last point, and the main point, all eternal reward is by grace. Length of service, difficulty of service – no factor. Works are irrelevant in the matter of eternal life.
And I can feel that some of you are saying, “Oh, what about my crowns? I want my crowns.”
Well, you’ll get a crown which is life. You’ll get a crown which is righteousness. You’ll get a crown which is incorruptible. We’ll all get them.
“Well, what about my rewards? What about my rewards?”
Well, when you’ve gotten them all, if we understand the 24 elders right, you’re just going take them and throw them at the feet of Jesus. Right? And you’ll be back to a dead heat. Oh what grace. We should still be down in the marketplace. We are unskilled, incompetent, the lowest on the social ladder. And God, in His mercy, comes into the marketplace and gives us all what we don’t deserve. And someday when we all get the glory, we’ll all be made like Christ; we’ll all inherit eternal life; we’ll all receive the same wonderful, generous gift. God’s ways are equal.
Listen, equally gracious. Right? We don’t deserve any of it. We should just be humble and thankful for that kind of grace. And the truth is, in the end, it puts God’s great grace on display. He is glorified by His generosity. We are the recipients of divine, sovereign, grace that treats all sinners equally and undeservedly gracious.
Father, we thank You that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us; that when we were ungodly and deserved nothing, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. It must have grieved the heart of Jesus to see the ugly competition among the disciples, and certainly it would grieve You ever to see that in our lives, to think we deserved more than somebody else. It’s all grace. And if You hadn’t come into the marketplace and found us in our misery, we’d still be there.
Thank You for taking us and giving us such undeserved blessing, such immense privilege as to be a part of your kingdom and receive the eternal life. Thank You for letting us labor in Your kingdom. When nobody deserves anything anyway, and no human work makes any contribution, surely it is all equal – equal grace. We are humbled by this kind of treatment. Your ways are equal – equally gracious, and we praise You for that.
Lord, help us to realize how undeserving we are of anything, let alone eternal life, and receive the gift with humility and be willing to take the humblest place in Your kingdom, for we know what You said, “The least in Your kingdom is in fact the greatest.”
May you be pleased, Lord, with our humility in the face of such kindness, and we ask these things in our Savior’s name, Amen.
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