Date: August 26, 2018
Speaker: Erik Raymond
Category: Biblical Exposition
Scripture: Matthew 20:1–20:16
“It’s not fair.”
Can you remember a time when you said these words? I’m sure most of us have examples that pop into our minds. What’s interesting about this is how it reveals our expectations at the time. We want something to go a certain way, and indeed we believe it should. We have expectations. And, when it doesn’t, we often say that it isn’t fair.
Now I am not here to question whether or not an experience you have encountered was, in fact, fair or not. Instead, I want you to consider this morning whether or not you are projecting natural expectations upon God. See, it is natural for us to say that something is not fair when someone treats us unjustly or someone gains an advantage even thought they have not played according to the rules. But, with God, it doesn’t work like this.
Unlike people, God is, at his core just. He is also good, holy, and unchanging. This means that he never does anything wrong, is always good, perfectly moral, and will never change. By definition, God will always be fair. At the same time, he is gracious. He gives people what they don’t deserve. Life itself is a gift. Salvation from sin is because of his grace. When we are thinking biblically we can never say God is not fair.
But we have.
Sometimes we as Christians might think that we deserve certain things because of what we have done or because of what we haven’t done.
For example, we might be tempted to question God’s fairness when, after doing our best to obey and honor God we find ourselves enduring seasons of intense hardship and difficulty.
A parent may wonder why a child is wayward after they have worked hard at parenting, teaching them the things of God, and attempting to keep them from worldly influences.
A single person might begin to question God’s fairness when they look around and see their friends getting married and having children while they remain single, despite their obedience to God and persistent prayer to be married.
A faithful servant of Christ might question the fairness of God after a serious medical diagnosis.
A believer might question why their unbelieving neighbor or coworker seems to enjoy more apparent blessings from God then they do.
A faithful pastor might look at another church and wonder why God seems to be blessing them with growth while his church remains stagnant.
Another might wonder about how fair it is for them to endure long trials of what seems like pointless and painful struggles. Like Job, we might be tempted to question the fairness of God.
It is natural for us to think like this. But I want us to expand our thinking this morning. I want us to include something key in our expectation and evaluation of things. I want us to think about grace. Grace means gift. We must think in terms of God’s unmerited, gracious gifts when we think about our life.
This morning we want to frame up our thinking—our expectations and evaluation of life—based upon God’s grace. And, rather than compartmentalizing our lives with religious over here, profession here, and personal over there; we need to think from the center outward. And this means we are thinking in light of the kingdom of God.
I want you to see this morning that, your standing in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what you’ve done or could do, but is solely because of his grace. I want to try to convince you to see everything in light of God’s grace, so you don’t question his fairness to you but rejoice in his generosity to you.
In our passage this morning we are jumping into an ongoing conversation. At the end of chapter 19, Jesus is talking with his disciples right after a surprising exchange with a rich, outwardly moral, religious man. This conversation was punctuated by Jesus telling him that he was imperfect, and if he wanted eternal life then he needed to part with his stuff and follow Jesus. The man went away sad and discouraged. He loved his money and could not part with it. And yet, his soul remained unhealed.
After listening to this conversation, Peter asked a question that revealed his integration of what he just witness with what he was experiencing. He says to Jesus in verse 27, “Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Peter is saying, Okay, Jesus—we’ve done what you told this guy to do. We’ve left it all to follow you. Now, what do we get? Peter is wondering when they will receive their due for the great sacrifices they have made. They have left it all to follow Jesus—just like he told the rich young ruler to do. So, what do they get? And, when?
Now we need to admit, this is an honest question. Perhaps even one that you have wondered to yourself or discussed with others. Following Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice. When do we begin to see something for our hard work and sacrifice? Have you asked these questions?
These types of questions are not wrong but they do need some nuancing when answering. And, this is what Jesus does.
Right away in verses 28-29 of chapter 19, Jesus answers Peter’s question by telling him that in the world to come there is most certainly going to be blessings for them. But, this is largely focused on the age to come, and it is not limited to just them. Notice verse 29, Jesus says that everyone who has left behind these things will receive back and inherit eternal life. These blessings were not going to be limited to the twelve there before him.
And it’s here that we see Jesus nuance his answer even further. Perhaps sensing deeper issues with his disciples, he drills down on the nature of grace. He tells a story, a parable, to make a singular point. This bottom line point is, your standing in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what you’ve done or could do, but is solely because of God’s grace.
Jesus is putting his finger on something under Peter’s question. It is the notion of what he deserves because of what he has done. And Jesus makes it clear, grace is not about giving us what we deserve but rather, what we don’t deserve. God is no man’s debtor. His gifts and blessings are mediated through his grace.
Jesus tells a parable that would have had very familiar details. It’s so familiar that people could have likely finished his sentences. It would be like talking about waking up in the morning, grabbing a coffee, and then getting going on the commute to work. It was very familiar.
He tells the story of a man who was in charge of his vineyard and needed workers. This would’ve been common in that day when there was a bumper crop; the owner would solicit the help of day laborers.
Early in the morning, likely about 5 am, the man went to where the workers were congregating and after agreeing with them for a wage, he turned them loose in his vineyard to work. He then does the same thing at 9, 12, and three in the afternoon. (The Jewish day went from 6 am to 6 pm with each hour after 6 am listed as the 2nd, third, and fourth hour.) Then we read in verses 6-7, “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.’
As Jesus tells the story, we see what happens, there are a lot of laborers needed to work in the vineyard. By the end of the day, he has men who have worked different hours and have expended more and less energy.
When the day is over, the master calls the foreman over to settle up with the workers and send them home for the night. But, as we’ll see, there is a surprising instruction that he gives, however. Look at verse 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.’
What’s he doing? He is going to get the workers together but then pay them in reverse order. He is going to start with the one who has worked the least amount. In this case, only one hour.
They come forward and he gives each of them a denarius. But, here’s the surprise: when they got to those who were hired first, that is, those who worked the longest in the field, have gave them the same amount—one denarius. Just to make sure it’s clear: those who worked 1 hour in the vineyard got paid the same amount as those who worked a full day or 12 hours.
How does this go over? Look at verses 12-13:
“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.’”(Matthew 20:11–12)
They’re upset! They grumbled at the master. This word describes the expression of an internal reaction to something. It’s also translated “muttering”. It’s a word often used of the Pharisees as they react to Jesus teaching and decisions. It’s used by Paul to describe the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness as they bemoaned God’s provision. And so here, Jesus is showing the workers hired first and who worked the longest are really quite upset with the one who hired them. They reveal the logic of their complaint by saying, hey we worked more hours and we worked harder; we have been in the scorching heat all day. And these guys just show up and get paid the same as us?
What’s the implication here? It’s not fair!
And, in one sense, we might be tempted to agree with them. They did work more hours. Presumably, they did work harder. It’s not fair for them to get paid the same as those who worked so much less.
But we learn something by the way Jesus tells the story. Look at verse 13-15,
“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?’” (Matthew 20:13–15)
First, it’s a disarming statement, Friend. But it’s also a statement that defends himself. He says that there was no wrong committed because he paid them exactly the wage he agreed to pay them. He is not unjust or unfair.
Furthermore, he notes that he is free, as the one who is in charge, to be generous with others.
Finally, he challenges them for despising his generosity.
Now we understand here that Jesus point is not primarily to teach us about acceptable agricultural business practices in the First Century. Instead, he is teaching us about who God is and how he chooses to dispense his blessings to his people. And, it prepares us as to how to respond to what we see and experience with God and others.
What we want to understand here about this parable is, that our standing in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what we’ve done or could do, but is solely because of his grace.
To this end, let’s consider four clarifying conclusions about God’s grace
In the story we find the master of the house coming to hire laborers. This would not have been a normal practice for the owner to do. They would often send a trusted employee to recruit more hands for the work. But, this master comes himself to the meeting spot, early in the morning, and at multiple points throughout the day, to pursue people to come and work in his vineyard.
He also reveals his heart in his dialog with the other laborers by saying, in verse 15, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
This was his motive; he intended to provide a generous wage to the worker. Let me say a little bit more about this. If the master would have found the workers at the end of the day waiting around for work that would likely mean that they did not get any money for the day. They would not be able to buy food at the end of the day to eat or to feed their family. By paying them a denarius—which was a generous wage for an entire day’s work—the master is seen to be exceedingly generous.
Now Jesus helps us to understand this with his first seven words in the chapter. “For the kingdom of heaven is like”. Jesus is teaching us about his kingdom.
It’s obvious that the master of the house is God. The laborers are the disciples of Jesus. And the vineyard is the church. The Scripture frequently deploys vineyard language for the people of God in the Old Testament. One example is in Isaiah 5.
When we put on these lenses we can begin to perceive the contours of grace. God sees our great need. Like the Israelites who were helpless and hurting, God hears our wailing. He sees our plight. Left unto ourselves we spend money on the spiritual food that does not satisfy us. We cannot fill the void. We lived amid the unseating spiritual hunger, the groaning for satisfaction, and the unwavering cloud of despair.
But, he comes near to us. He draws near through Christ. He doesn’t send an angel or even simply speak from a distance. No, God enters into the scrum. He comes and pursues the hungry and hurting people like us. Jesus takes the initiative and comes to us.
And then what does he do? He lavishes exceedingly abundant blessings upon us. We get far more than we would ever deserve. He surprises us with grace. He gives us a gift. See, what is due is eternal hell and separation from God. This is what sin earns. The wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23). But, we don’t get that. Instead, we are lavished with the generosity of God. The overflowing grace of Christ in the gospel. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.
Let’s remember Peter’s original question. “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27)
So, what do we get?
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”(Ephesians 2:1–10)
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” (Romans 4:4–5)
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.””(Mark 10:45)
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,”(1 Corinthians 1:30)
“he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,”(Ephesians 1:5)
“And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”” (Luke 18:29–30)
God has been exceedingly generous with those who do not deserve it. We must see that this has nothing to do with what we’ve done or could do, but is solely because of his grace.
So our first clarifying conclusion about God’s grace, God is exceedingly generous to those in need
Now, second, God is free to dispense his blessings as he sees fit
In the parable the master answers the grumbling from the servants by declaring himself innocent of any injustice while also declaring his own freedom to do what he wants with his money. If he wants to give away money to bless others, what’s that to them? They got something too.
This is where we need to think carefully about the lesson that Jesus is teaching us here. We want to make sure we are not imposing unbiblical expectations upon God.
There is a mystery involved in providence. There are purposes we don’t understand.
In God’s providence we might endure seasons of intense difficulty, personal dryness, and heavy persecution. God may seem to withhold his blessings from us at times. Why? Is this pointless?
Some people seem to be overwhelmingly blessed with abundance, ease, comfort, and other gifting.
Is it right to covet what others have?
Is it right to feel a sense of entitlement?
Is it right to believe that God owes you?
Is it right to grumble against God?
Is it right to think that God is not fair?
It is not. We understand an all-wise God is behind everything.
Do you remember the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15? He wandered off from home seeking to find salvation in the enjoyment of created things. He spent all of his inheritance and came limping home to his father willing to be a slave in his house. But to our surprise, the father greets him with honor and a loving embrace. He throws a party and spends lavishly upon him. But there was the older brother who never left. He saw his brother getting a party and thought, I never got a party. He became embittered against this dad. He forgot about the blessed joy of the relationship with him. He lost sight of the blessing of unimpeded fellowship.
This must be the bottom line for us. We have been given infinite blessings in Christ. This reality—knowing Christ Jesus—must subordinate all other blessings. Knowing Christ becomes the framework to see and encounter everything in life.
The workers in the story were grumbling because they believed they should have received more. But, this overstates the fact that they got what they agreed to, or what they deserved.
As Christians, we must remember what we deserve. This is to inform how we understand and appreciate what we get.
Friends, we must never forget what we truly deserve, apart from Christ. We deserve hell. The wages of sin is death. There is no getting around this. But God says, No, you shall not perish, you shall live. And even more, he says,you shall sit with me at my table. Each week we sit together in our pews and are served the bread and the cup. We are reminded that God welcomes us to the table of our Lord to be reminded of our salvation. But, this is in anticipation of a greater meal to come. It anticipates our coming feast when we shall recline in the kingdom of God and feast with joy in the coming eternal day. Brothers and sisters, it is as if God has kicked out the chair and said, Come and sit with me. Right here next to me. Eat of my best. Drink of my best.
““Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1–2)
There is no place for grumbling before God. He has given us grace! Anything less than hell should be dancing time for Christians!
You ultimate problem has been taken care of. Everything else should be subordinated to this one, ultimate truth: Jesus Christ died for my sins.
When we truly grapple with the reality of what we received in light of what we deserve, then it is very hard to grumble. It is common to forget.
The Israelites in the wilderness. The Galatian church in the NT. The factions in the Corinthian church.
But when his praise is in your mouth, when gratitude is on your lips, then grumbling is hard to come by.
Jesus ends the parable by showing the last will be first and the first last. In the previous section it was flipped, the first will be last and the last first. Why the change?
In the previous scenario, Jesus was showing how those who are seen as first today, namely the rich young ruler who seemed to have it all together, would actually be last. And those who seemed to be from much more humble stature, like the children, will be first. It is a surprising reversal of standings. This is what we’ve come to expect from this upside-down kingdom Jesus is proclaiming.
Now, he shifts to say the last shall be first and the first last. Why the shift? Well, in this story we have those who have worked different amounts of time. And the surprising result is they all receive the same payment. The point is the landowner can, if he so chooses, to treat everyone the same—regardless of time served. And he does. It doesn’t matter what time they arrived, or how long they worked, they are treated the same in his eyes.
What’s this mean for us? It means that in God’s eyes, every one of his disciples are equal. He doesn’t play favorites.
This has implications for us in terms of expectations and then also for our relationship together.
In terms of expectation, we must understand that this is how God works. He gave the thief on the cross who confessed his name instant access to paradise. This is what he gives a super apostle like Paul or Peter. He does not play favorites. God may use people differently—he may choose to gift people in different ways—but he does not love any one of us any differently. He loves his children infinitely because they are all his children, and united to Christ by faith.
I remember when Christie was expecting our second child, Luke. She had a very real concern about how she could love him as much as Bryce, our first child. This was because she loved Bryce so much that she could not imagine that overflowing to another baby. Older parents assured her that she would. And sure enough, when Luke came sprinting into the world, she was overwhelmed with love for him too. Loving another child a lot doesn’t mean you love your other children any less. As any parent can attest, you love your children equally. In some ways, I think this projects on God’s love for his children. He doesn’t love number two or number two million and two any less. He loves his children infinitely.
There are also implications for us and our life together.
One of the burdens that I think this passage anticipates is the burden for Christ and the gospel to be the basis of our unity together. Listen, through the gospel, God demonstrates his powerful grace by uniting all different types of people together with a common and ultimate bond.
And this would be more difficult than it sounds. In the early church, you had a context where the beginning of gospel work took place in Israel. It began in Jerusalem and Judea. God brought conversion there and the church grew. But eventually, as we read in the book of Acts, Christianity began to spread to surrounding countries. It expanded across the Roman Empire with footprints in Greece, Rome, Spain, and Northern Africa. And as you might imagine this brought a fair amount of tension with it. There needed to be some adjustments.
What we find when we read the New Testament is, the Apostles were working to teach people to salute the flag that is higher than the others. The gospel flag towers above the national flag. This is what serves as our basis for unity. And it is what is to be our basis for our unity.
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27–28)
“and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:10–11)
In other words, Christians treat one another as those who have been justified in Christ. We treat each other as equals—regardless of our backgrounds or how long we have been walking with Jesus. We are just glad to be working in the field for the Master together. Our standing in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what we’ve done or could do but is solely because of his grace. And this is how we need to see one another; we are declared righteous in Christ. We stand because of Christ. We are together because of Christ. This is to be treasured and valued.
Now let's think about how this plays out at RFC.
These questions get easier to answer when we remember that our standing in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what we’ve done or could do, but is solely because of his grace.
We are to rejoice in the fact that the king shows grace to them and that we can enjoy the blessings of the gospel together. It’s never a competition to see who is the best; it’s a culture of grace that reveals we are all people who were equally separated from God and equally justified—declared righteous in God’s sight.
Therefore, we are to treat one another like God treats them.
When you and I consider the most important reality in our lives we see it our relationship with God. He has dealt with our most pressing problem and concern in Christ. Our sins have been graciously removed. We are forgiven in Christ.
We see that our standing in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what we’ve done or could do, but is solely because of his grace.
Therefore, we work out from this to relate to God according to the economy of grace. It informs our expectation and evaluation of life. We live with humble gratitude to God.
And, it shapes how we view others. We have been shown such grace. We have a gracious master. Therefore, we treat us with the humility that befits one who has been given everything yet deserves nothing.