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Stories | The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
August 15, 2009
Sixth message in our series entitled Stories

We’re smack in the middle of our summer series of messages called Stories. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting my world rocked in this series. Every story in this series came straight from the mouth of Jesus, so it’s no surprise that these stories would rock us. Jesus always shakes things up. Jesus always messes with our preconceived ideas. Every time you think you’ve got everything all figured out, Jesus will come along and show you just how much you don’t know. Every time you think you’ve arrived, Jesus will show you how much further you have to go.

And that is exactly what our story today is all about. We’re in Matthew 20 today. Our story is called The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

This parable is going to have a radical effect on everybody here today. I absolutely believe it. If you aren’t a Christian…if you haven’t turned your life over to Jesus yet…this is an awesome story for you. You’re going to get a glimpse of how gloriously unfair God is. How much He loves you. How much He has tipped the scales in your favor.

But if you’re already a Christ-follower…especially if you have been for a while…if you have some preconceived ideas of how this whole thing works…this story has the power to mess you up. It might even offend you. Jesus likes to do that.

It’s going to be some good stuff today. Jesus is ready to tell the story. Let’s get our hearts ready to hear it.

Let’s go. Matthew 20, beginning in the first verse. This parable is a little big longer than some of the others, but it’s good. Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.

He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'

" 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.

He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,

'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'

The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius.

So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.

'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'

But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.

Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:1-16, NIV)

This story is pretty involved, so let’s go back and make sure we get the full impact of what Jesus wants to tell us…because it’s huge.

The story centers around a landowner who is hiring some workers to work in his vineyard. Grapes were among the most important crops in Israel, and no time was more important than harvest time.

The landowner went to the marketplace in search of workers for his vineyard. Most people in this culture live at subsistence level. If you work today, your family can eat today. If you don’t work today, your family will go hungry. That was the economic reality that most people lived in.

These workers would gather in the marketplace and wait on someone to hire them for the day. The typical wage for a day’s work was a denarius, which is what was promised to the workers hired at the beginning of the day.

The workday in this culture lasted from 6:00 am – 6:00 pm. This particular landowner didn’t find enough workers at 6:00 am, so he returned to the marketplace at 9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm. Each time he went to the marketplace, he found more workers who hadn’t been hired for the day. Each time, he tells them to come and work in his vineyard. He promised to pay them “whatever is right.” Obviously they expected to receive less than a denarius since they wouldn’t be working the full day.

Then Jesus tells us that at the eleventh hour, which would have been 5:00 pm, with only one hour left in the workday, the landowner returned to the marketplace and he still found workers who hadn’t been hired.

At this point, most people would have given up looking for work. Even if they would be hired, they wouldn’t receive much money since they would only be working for one hour. But these workers must have been truly desperate. Why else would they hang around the marketplace for 11 hours without getting hired?

And not only were they desperate, but they were probably the workers that nobody else wanted. These were the ones that other employers rejected as unworthy and unwanted.

But this landowner was willing to look past all of that and he hired them to work the final hour of the day in his vineyard.

At 6:00 pm, the workday ended and the landowner makes arrangements to pay everyone he had hired that day. He begins the payment with those who were hired last, and worked backwards, making the last payments to those who were hired first.

The men who were hired at 5:00 pm were paid a denarius. They were given a full day’s pay for only an hour of work!

News of this filtered back through the workers who were lined up to receive their paychecks. The dudes at the back of the line were getting pretty pumped up! If he paid a denarius for one hour’s work…and they worked a full 12 hours…then they should get 12 denarii! 12 day’s wages for one day’s work! We’re stopping at the store to pick up some filet mignon for dinner tonight, baby!

But the men who were hired at 6:00 am received a denarius. The same pay as the men who were hired at 5:00 pm. Anybody in their right mind knows that this isn’t fair.

And these workers made sure the landowner understood that this wasn’t fair. They said, “These men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” (Matthew 20:12, NIV) Translation: “That’s not fair!”

The landowner reminds the spokesman for the disgruntled workers that he had been completely fair. They agreed to work for a denarius…he paid them a denarius. It was perfectly fair.

In verse 15, the landowner lists two reasons why these workers had no right to complain.

1. It was his money, and he could do whatever he wanted with it.

2. Instead of being unfair, he had simply decided to be generous. But these workers were envious of the others. Instead of being grateful for what they were given, they were jealous of what other people had been given. The question “are you envious?” can be literally translated, “is your eye evil?” Jealousy blinds our eyes from seeing our own blessings. All we can see is what other people have been given.

Jesus wraps up his parable with a paradoxical statement that the last will be first and the first will be last.

This statement, and this entire story, goes against one of the most fundamental beliefs that we have…life should be fair.

This starts early on. When we were kids, our “fair radar” was constantly on, searching out even the smallest thing that we thought was unfair. How many parents heard the phrase, “That’s not fair!” from one of your kids this week? We are conditioned at a very young age to fight for what we believe is our fair share.

The point of this parable is to teach us that this is a very human way of thinking. But it is not a godly way of thinking. You can’t apply human standards of fairness to God.

In Isaiah 55, God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV)

God is not governed by human standards. He is not held captive by what we believe is right and fair. His ways, his thoughts far eclipse ours.

Ultimately, this parable is a story that Jesus uses to illustrate how things work in God’s kingdom. The story opens up with Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” That opening phrase is really important because it tells us that Jesus is getting ready to tell us what life in the Kingdom is like. This story gives us some really important truths that every follower of Christ needs to understand and live out.

In this parable, the landowner chose generosity over fairness. And Jesus’ whole point is that this is exactly what God does. God chooses generosity…He chooses love…He chooses grace instead of choosing to be fair.

Recently, we baptized a 75 year old man named Charlie and a 10 year old boy named Zack in the same week here at ACC. And according to God’s grace, they’re going to receive the same reward. Obviously Charlie came to Christ very late in the game, while Zack has his entire life to serve Jesus. Every standard of human fairness would say that they don’t deserve the same reward.

But God says that they do.

Look again at verse 15. The landowner reminded the workers that, first of all, it was his money. They had no right to tell him how to use it.

God is the owner of His blessings, His love, and His grace. Who do we think we are if we try to tell Him how he should use them? That is incredibly arrogant.

And second, the landowner told the workers that, instead of appreciating their reward, they were jealous about what someone else received.

If you are truly in love with Jesus, then you are so overcome by gratitude over what he has given you that you don’t have time to worry about what he has given me. If fact, you are so in love with God’s grace that you want everyone to experience it. Doesn’t matter who they are. Doesn’t matter when they come to Christ. 10 years old or 75 years old, you are ecstatic when someone meets Jesus.

But some of you still think you deserve more because you’re so religious. Because you’ve followed Jesus most of your life. Because you’ve memorized a lot of Bible. Because you tithe your money. Because you never miss a Sunday at church.

Get over yourself. You are not even half as mature as you think you are. We do these things because we love God…not because we believe it will earn us brownie points with God.

And by the way, for those who don’t think this is fair…do you really want God to be fair? I don’t think you do, because a fair God would send you to hell.

The Bible reminds us that, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:8-10, NIV)

Do you really want God to be fair? I don’t. I don’t want a fair God. I want a gracious, loving, generous God. And that is exactly who our God is.

And most Christians that I know totally get this. Most Christians are totally fine with the fact that a new believer will receive the same reward as them…in eternity. But a lot of them are not ok with that when it comes to the church here and now.

A lot of people believe that, in the church, the human standards of fairness still apply. If you’ve been in the church for a long time, you have more say than a new member. Your years of service in the church have earned you the right to get your way. All the money you have given over the years is your golden ticket to make sure that you are always comfortable…never offended…never challenged. It was all a down payment so that now, it can be all about you. You expect us to cater to you.

I’ve got news for you…this story from Jesus says differently. Not only are you not more important than a new believer in eternity, you’re not more important than a new believer now. Don’t tell me about your seniority. Don’t tell me about your years of service. And definitely don’t tell me about all the money you’ve given. You do those things because you love Jesus. If you ever do them because you think it earns you some special privilege in the church, you need to take it somewhere else. This church belongs to Jesus Christ. You can’t manipulate Him, and you won’t manipulate us.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “That’s not fair,” you’re right. It’s not. But God isn’t concerned about what you or I think is fair. He chooses grace over fairness. Thank God, He chooses grace over fairness.

Now, something else that we need to see in this parable. And it’s so obvious that I almost missed it.

This story is about workers! It’s The Parable of the WORKERS in the Vineyard! I know that some of you are sitting there thinking, “Ummm…yeah.” But I’m telling you, when this overly obvious truth came into focus for me this week, it rocked me.

Here’s why…the story is all about guys who joined the landowners team to WORK in his vineyard. The landowner went to the marketplace five different times, and each time he hired more WORKERS.

Now, keep in mind that Jesus told us right upfront that this story is an illustration of the Kingdom of God. This is all about our lives as we follow Christ.

Did you notice that the landowner didn’t hire any spectators? Seriously. He hired workers. He rewarded workers. Now, they didn’t all do the same amount of work. Some worked for one hour, some worked for 12 hours…but they all worked!

He didn’t hire anybody to come to his field, set up a lounge chair, and park their rear there all day. He didn’t reward anybody who watched other people work. Who sat and CRITICIZED the work others were doing, while they never got off their butt to do a thing to help.

For some of you, this should shake you up. Because the landowner in this story represents God. The workers in this story represent people who are faithfully serving and working for the cause of Christ. They are the ones who were rewarded. But spectators didn’t even make it into the story.

And yet the church is full of them. The church is full of people who won’t lift a finger to serve…who won’t do anything to help…who sit and criticize the work of others while they don’t do a dang thing…and yet they expect Jesus to reward them. Not according to this story. The workers receive a reward. The spectators don’t even get a mention.

If you’re a spiritual spectator…if you’re not doing jack squat in this church…I hope you’re really, really uncomfortable right now. If you walk through those doors, take up a seat for an hour, and leave feeling like you’ve done your thing for a week…this story should mess you up. Because Jesus never even mentions giving a reward to spectators.

If you claim to follow Christ, then you need to understand that Jesus automatically assumes that you’ll be one of His workers. I’m not saying you work to earn your salvation. That’s by grace alone. But what I am saying is that Jesus never even opens the possibility that there can be workers and spectators. You don’t serve to be saved. You serve because you’re saved.

For some of you, it’s time for you to drop your excuses and get in the game. For example, you know what is the #1 excuse for people not serving in our children’s ministry? “I don’t want to miss church.” Honestly, that’s pathetic. You’re asking to be rewarded for being a spectator instead of a worker.

And that’s just one example. The point is that the workers received the reward. And if you’re not a worker, I don’t know where this story leaves you. Jesus doesn’t say. But I’ll tell you this…I wouldn’t want to be you.

Jesus faithfully and graciously rewards His workers. Now, it doesn’t matter when they come to the field. Some will come early, some will come late. They’ll get the same reward. And they don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to always get it right. But they’re in the field, working their tail off. And Jesus loves them and rewards them.

Maybe you don’t feel worthy to serve God. Maybe you feel like you don’t deserve the forgiveness and the grace of God. You’re right…you don’t! And neither do I. And neither does anyone else in this room. You are looking at this through human eyes instead of through God’s eyes.

All you are seeing is all the evil you have done. All the sins you have committed. There is no way God could forgive you. He could never accept you because of what you have done. He certainly could never use you to accomplish His purposes. It would be completely fair for God to reject you. But instead of fairness, God opts for grace.

When God looks at you, He sees a child who has wandered away from Him. A child that He desperately loves. A child that He is dying to forgive. A child that can have a second chance at life. A child that can be with God for all eternity.

You don’t have to deserve it. In fact, you can’t do anything to deserve it. But it’s not about what you deserve. It’s not about what’s fair for you. It’s about the goodness and grace of God, who wants to give you everything that you do not deserve.

Maybe you’re a little late to the game. You’ve spent a lot of your life fighting against God instead of serving God. Here’s the most beautiful part of our story today…it doesn’t matter.

The guys that the landowner hired at 5:00 pm were the ones that no one else wanted. Maybe they had a bad reputation. Maybe other employers thought they couldn’t be trusted. Maybe they were outcasts and rejects in everyone else’s eyes. But the landowner in our story hired them to work in his vineyard. And even though they only worked for a little while, he rewarded them as if they had been there all along.

This is the beautiful, illogical, inconceivable grace of God. It doesn’t matter when you get to the field. It doesn’t matter what you did before you came to the field. You will be rewarded like you’ve always been there.

So are you ready? Are you ready grace? Are you ready to stop serving the things of our world and start serving the living God? Are you ready to commit your life to working for things that will matter for all eternity instead of things that will matter for a moment?

Don’t get hung up on your past. That doesn’t matter. We’re talking about your future. Grace erases your past. It’s like your past never even happened. And instead of living in the regret of the past, grace lets you live in a future that has been redeemed.

That’s the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus took the punishment for your sin. All your sin. Past, present, and future…Jesus took it all on Himself when He was nailed to the cross.

We’ve been talking all morning about how God doesn’t concern Himself with what is fair. The cross is the pinnacle of God’s unfairness. It’s not fair that Jesus died when He did nothing wrong. It’s not fair that He was beaten and crucified for us. It’s not fair that He was punished for our sin.

And it’s not fair that, in return, we receive complete forgiveness. Grace that erases our sin completely. When we give our lives to Christ, God no longer sees us as sinful, broken people. He looks at us and He sees the perfection of Christ.

Jesus takes our sin. We receive His sinless perfection. That’s the most unfair trade in history. Thank God that He is so ridiculously unfair.

Mike Edmisten

Tags: fairness, generosity, grace, Matthew 20, Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, parables, service, Stories

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