Matthew 19:30-20:16 Introduction Three weeks ago, now, we looked at the story of the rich young ruler who wanted to know what good thing he must do in order to inherit eternal life. In the end, this is what Jesus told Him: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (19:21). But the rich young ruler was not able to hear the glorious beauty of the Gospel in Jesus’ words (“follow me”), and so he went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions. After the rich man had gone away, Peter then asked his own question: “Then Peter said in reply, ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’” (19:27) Last week, we made the assumption that Peter’s question came at least partly from a genuine concern. If it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, then Peter wonders where he and the rest of the disciples really stand. But Peter’s question also betrays the fact that he’s still thinking too much like the rich man. He’s still tempted to think of what he and the rest of the disciples have done as hopefully deserving something from God – or at least putting them in His better graces. What Peter needs, then, is some comfort and also some correction. Last week, we were strengthened by Jesus’ words of comfort. This morning, let’s humbly submit ourselves to His words of correction. I. Matthew 19:30 — But many who are first will be last, and the last first. Jesus has just promised His disciples that when He sits down on His glorious throne, they who have left everything and followed Him will also sit enthroned, and with Him they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Not only this, but one day all that they have ever left for Christ’s sake will be heaped back upon them a hundred fold, and they will inherit eternal life. In that day, “mankind will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth’” (Psalm 58:11). Brothers and sisters, we must cling by faith to these words of comfort and hope! “What then will we have?” Peter asked. And Jesus would have us know the answer to this question! One day we will sit enthroned with Christ, and with Him we will judge the world. One day all that we have ever “sacrificed” for Christ’s sake will be heaped back upon us a hundred fold, and we will inherit eternal life. This is all true, Jesus says (“Truly I say to you”), but lest Peter and the rest of the disciples get the wrong idea, they should know that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Now if the part about rewards made perfect sense to us, this part – maybe not so much. To us, the rewards part might have seemed logical. But the first last, and last first part seems to contradict everything we just heard. What does this mean? How does this fit with rewards? What is it, now, that Jesus wants us to hear, and understand, and take hold of by faith? II. Matthew 20:1-2 — 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.
Grapes were a very familiar, staple crop in Israel. That’s why in the Old Testament, it was very convenient for God to picture the nation of Israel as a vineyard – His own, special vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7; 3:14; 27:2-6; Jer. 12:10). But now Jesus takes this same imagery of the vineyard and applies it to the kingdom of heaven. Now even without living in the time and culture of Jesus, the details of this parable are easy enough to imagine. And yet we have to be careful how we interpret the details. Jesus Himself offers us no interpretation of the details and emphasizes only one main point (v. 16). So far we can assume that the owner of the vineyard represents God (based on the Old Testament background) and that those who labor in the vineyard represent all who are disciples of Jesus (based on the context in Matthew). But past this we have to be careful, or we’ll end up either very confused or very heretical! Are we “hired hands”? Are we working for pay? Have we struck a deal with God? Can some people earn eternal life? J.C. Ryle writes: “In expounding [parables], we need not inquire closely into the meaning of [every detail]. Such inquiries often darken counsel by words without knowledge… Chrysostom… says, ‘It is not right to search curiously, and word by word, into all things in a parable, but when we have learned the object for which it was composed, to reap this, and not to busy ourselves about anything further’” Ryle, and Chrysostom before him, are both absolutely right. So for right now let’s just be patient, take the story as it comes, and see what happens. The owner of the vineyard goes out to the marketplace (v. 3) early in the morning (around 6:00 in the morning) to hire laborers for his vineyard (probably for the busier time of harvest). After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day (the going wage of that day), he sent them into his vineyard. Thus far nothing strange; nothing unexpected; everything seems in order. III. Matthew 20:3–5 — 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. Most of our translations say that there were people standing around “idle,” but “idle” implies “lazy,” and there’s no reason to assume these people were being lazy! The reason they were standing “idle” is because they were more literally “without work.” A day-laborer was in most cases a day-laborer without food. These people lived day to day, hand to mouth. They didn’t have a stocked freezer at home or an emergency savings account at the bank. So once again, we have to be careful about reading all sorts of hidden lessons into the details of the parable. On the one hand, this is not a rebuke to lazy Christians. On the other hand, we can’t assume from this parable that there are times in the Christian life when there is no kingdom work to be done. And finally, going to work is not necessarily a picture of conversion or salvation. Remember, there is only one main lesson to be learned from this parable. So once again, let’s just be patient, and see what happens. And this is what happens: The normal twelve hour workday was divided into four periods of three hours each; so every three hours (at 9:00, at 12:00; and then again at 3:00), the owner of the vineyard went back out to the marketplace and hired more laborers. That seems simple enough, but it’s also just a little suspicious. Is the owner of the vineyard really so desperate for more laborers? If so, then he
apparently underestimated his need at the beginning of the day, and then he underestimated again at 9:00, and then he underestimated again at 12:00, because at each of these times there had been other workers available for hire! In other words, each time he hired more workers, he was only hiring someone that he had passed over the last time (cf. 6)! It hardly seems possible that an experienced landowner could miscalculate three times in a row! So then how are we to explain why he keeps going back out to the market place? All of a sudden, this very simple and very familiar story has taken a turn that seems very strange and out of place. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing without work in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” Now look carefully! Why does the owner of the vineyard hire these people? It’s because “he saw” that they were “without work.” Why, then, did the owner of the vineyard keep going out to the market place? Not because he needed workers, but because there were people who still needed work! And because there were people who still needed work, therefore he said to them, “you go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So we can assume three-quarters of a denarius for the workers who began at 9:00, half a denarius for those who began at 12:00, and a quarter of a denarius for the workers who were hired on at 3:00. Now a quarter of a denarius is not much for someone who needs to eat and maybe feed a family, but it’s perfectly fair – and it’s certainly better than nothing. And after all, the owner of the vineyard didn’t necessarily need these workers in the first place. Once again, the point is not that God needs some of His workers and doesn’t need others – or that He hires some out of necessity, and others out of mere generosity. This would be to read too much into the details of the parable! So once again, let’s just be patient, take the story as it comes, and see what happens next. This is what happens next: IV. Matthew 20:6–7 — And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “[Why are you standing here all day and not working; France]?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.” This is not even one of the traditional “third,” “sixth,” or “ninth” hours! It’s the eleventh hour!!! The day is nearly over – and still, the owner of the vineyard is hiring new workers! Now we know that no owner of any vineyard can be so incompetent as to miscalculate four times in a row! This man is not in any desperate need of workers for the last hour of the day. He simply hires because these people who were standing there at 6:00, 9:00, 12:00, and 3:00 have still not been hired by anyone else, and it’s now 5:00! This certainly doesn’t seem like good “business sense.” And yet it’s what the owner of the vineyard does. This landowner is by far and away unlike any other – and you can take that however you want! With each new development in what began as a very typical story, things have become more and more “untypical,” so that now it’s just strange. But let’s just be patient and see what happens next, right? Maybe there will still be a logical and reasonable explanation. This is what happens next: V. Matthew 20:8 — 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.”
For just a brief moment, we get something that looks normal again. It was normal for an employer to pay his workers at the end of each day (cf. Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15). But then we hear the words, “beginning with the last, up to the first.” Not that it makes that much difference; but who would we have expected to be paid first? Well, the ones who started work first! But then again, if it doesn’t make that much difference, why is the owner of the vineyard making such a big deal about things? This is truly the most unusual, and unrealistic, and unlikely landowner that the world has ever seen! Where is this story going? And if we didn’t already know the answer, there’s no way we’d ever guess – for more reasons than one. VI. Matthew 20:9 — And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. No big deal, right? Everything sounds so casual and normal. “When those hired at the beginning of the day came, each of them received a denarius.” Yes, that’s right. But no, that’s not what it says. “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” But that’s what the landowner promised to those who began the day at six! That’s twelve hours pay for only one hour worked. That’s a full day’s wage for a tiny pittance of work at the very end of the day! So now maybe for the first time, we can actually predict what will happen next – even though it still seems impossibly extraordinary. What do we automatically assume will happen next? Well, the ones who came to work earlier will get paid – and the ones who came at 6:00 are going to make out really, really good! If you didn’t already know the ending to the story, would you have said anything different? You see, we’re adaptable aren’t we? It’s still a very strange and unusual story, but now at least we can start to make sense of it logically. What we’re dealing with here is a very generous landowner who likes to surprise his workers with a daily wage that’s twelve times higher than anyone else’s. Who can argue with generosity? Who can argue with really good pay? Who would want to? So now that we’ve made sense of the story by predicting what will happen next, here’s what actually happens: VII. Matthew 20:10–12 — Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more [of course they did!], 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.” Even now, perhaps even as a solid and mature Christian, can you genuinely say that this makes sense to you? If we’re really honest, who is it that we really identify with? Who do our hearts go out to? Our hearts go out to those who have become the “victims” of this unpredictable landowner. Let’s just admit it! Everything they’ve said makes perfect sense. To pay those who’ve worked only one hour at the cooler end of the day an entire denarius, and than to pay those who have worked twelve times as long under the scorching heat the same amount seems like a cruel joke. It’s hurtful; it’s an insult; it’s a slap in the face. It’s not right. It’s not reasonable. It’s not fair. Which one of us would not have grumbled? Really? “They don’t
deserve to be paid the same amount as me!” But even as we find ourselves identifying with the injured feelings of these laborers, don’t you have a feeling that we’re not supposed to be? Don’t you have a feeling that Jesus has us just where He wants us? – And we’re about to be convicted of sin. VIII. Matthew 20:13–15a — 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?” The logic of the landowner is airtight. Who can argue with this? The agreement was for a denarius, and the landowner has been faithful to his word. There is no injustice here! And when it comes to equal pay for unequal work, the fact is that the landowner is free to do with his own money whatever he wants to do! For that matter, in a day when there were no labor unions, he never had to agree to a denarius in the first place! Surely, there would have been other people willing to work for less – maybe even some of these very same workers. And on top of all this, the landowner was free to hire whomsoever he chose! He could have left all those grumbling employees without any work at all if he had wanted. So even the “going rate” of a denarius a day could be thought of as a gracious gift. As the landowner puts it: “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.” OK, so at this point we’re being beaten into submission by simple logic. But logic doesn’t necessarily satisfy, does it? Sometimes we may admit defeat, but only grudgingly. So the landowner hasn’t technically done anything wrong – but it still doesn’t feel right. It’s something else. It’s something that can’t be answered by logic and airtight arguments. But Jesus knows what that “something else” is – so much better than we do. And so the landowner concludes: IX. Matthew 20:15 — Or do you begrudge my generosity? Literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (NKJV; YLT) An “evil eye” referred to those who were stingy with what they owned, and jealous of what others had. So the NIV translates: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (cf. NET; NRSV; HCSB; NASB) What’s really going on here? What’s this really about? But that’s not fair! That’s not at all what we meant! … And yet it’s our own words that betray us. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…” In other words, “you have been as generous to them as if they had been as deserving as us.” “But they don’t deserve to be paid as much as me!” And so what are we saying? – That even grace must be proportionate. Even grace must be fairly calculated. Even grace should make sense to me! We may not want to admit it, but all our grumbling says is that even grace must be earned. The workers did not grumble because they were paid only a denarius. They knew that had been the agreement. They grumbled because the less “deserving” had been made equal to them. And so their eyes were evil because the landowner was good. They were envious because the landowner was generous. That’s not logic. It’s not an airtight argument. It’s just the convicting power of the truth.
Conclusion Remember Peter’s question: “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Somehow, Peter was still thinking of his relationship with God in terms of hire and wages (that’s why Jesus told a parable about hiring and wages). But I don’t believe that Peter saw this, or would have been willing to admit it. Just like every single one of us, Peter believed in grace. Peter would certainly have given a whole-hearted lip service to grace (same as all of us)! The problem was that Peter’s understanding of grace was deficient. Peter assumed that even grace would be proportionate. Peter assumed that even grace would be fairly calculated. Peter assumed, therefore, that even grace would be earned! As Christians, have we ever made the same assumptions? Jesus promised His disciples that when He takes His seat on His glorious throne, they who have left everything and followed Him will also sit enthroned, and with Him they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Not only this, but one day all that they have ever left for Christ’s sake will be heaped back upon them a hundred fold, and they will inherit eternal life. But Peter, you must not begin calculating your “hundredfold” in comparison to someone else’s “hundredfold.” Because all is of grace, and grace is not fair. Grace is never fair. Grace is free! Peter, you must not begin measuring your authority in “that day” with the authority that will be given to others. Because all is of grace, and grace does not make sense. Grace never makes sense. Grace is free! Peter, would it bother you to know that there are many who are far less “worthy” than you, who will receive a reward equal to yours? (cf. Hagner) Jesus concludes (as He began; 19:30): Matthew 20:16 — So the last will be first, and the first last.” That’s grace. The question is: are we “alright” with that? – Or is our eye evil because God is good? To what extent have we turned God’s grace into something that we can purchase or increase with our own “do good” efforts? But then grace is no longer grace (cf. Rom. 11:6). To what extent have we turned the biblical doctrine of rewards into nothing more than an excuse for “boasting” and “pride” in the kingdom of heaven? Do we begrudge it when Jesus tells us that someone less “worthy” will receive a reward equal to ours? Or are we content to be the “first” who are last? – Knowing that even the first who are last will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life – no different from the last who are first. That’s grace! Grace is not fair. Grace never makes sense. Grace is never proportionate, or calculated, or reasonable. Grace is free to all, from beginning to end. And you know what that means? That means that we can be free to work, free to labor, free to “sacrifice” for the kingdom of heaven, knowing not only what we will have, but why. Grace! Grace is the reason why. Everything is of grace.