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Living Truth: Humility

Sharing God's Word, Living His Love
Living Truth

Matthew 20:1-16

September 24, 2023

One of the many truths we learned during the pandemic was that life is not fair. Every home, every family, and every person was affected. Weddings, funerals, graduations, and other special events were postponed or cancelled. It just didn’t seem fair. But it didn’t take a pandemic for us to discover that life is unfair. It’s actually a truth we learn at a very young age.

Little brothers and sisters always seem to get special privileges. I have a younger sister, so that was my view growing up. Older workers can easily resent younger workers who come into the workplace and force the older workers out of their jobs. Veteran athletes sometimes despise rookies, who get multi-million dollar contracts before they ever play in a game, while some veterans have been playing at lower salaries for many years.

But regardless of who we are, what we do for a living, or where we live, sometimes life is just not fair – which is one aspect of our Gospel lesson from Matthew 20 for today. In this text a landowner went out early in the morning to hire some people to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them one denarius for the day. About 3 hours later the landowner returned to the marketplace and saw some other men standing around. He told them, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” And they agreed and went to work in his vineyard.

At noon he repeated this same ritual; and then about 3:00pm he did the same thing. At about 5:00pm he went back to the marketplace and still found people 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 landowner said to his foreman, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”

The workers who were hired at 5:00 in the afternoon picked up their pay and each of them received a denarius. So when those who were hired first came for their money, they expected to receive more. After all, they did the same job, but worked much longer hours. However, each of them also received one denarius. When they received the same amount as everyone else they were confused, hurt, and angry. They thought they deserved more, and so 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 worked the entire day.” But the landowner reminded them that they had agreed to work for one denarius. In fact, they were the only group that had agreed to work for a specific wage. So the owner said, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”

It’s important for us to note that Jesus told this parable in response to a question that His disciple, Peter, had asked Him leading up to this text. “Look,” said Peter, “we have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27) Peter was pointing out to Jesus all that he and the other disciples had given up in order to become His followers. They had given up their homes, their families, and their jobs to follow Jesus. Peter had given up his whole life for Jesus, and now he wondered what he would receive in return. In response to his question, Jesus told him this parable, indicating that Peter would receive eternal life in His heavenly kingdom, and, Jesus says, so will everyone else who believes in Him.

Now as modern day followers of Jesus, let me ask you, how does Jesus’ response to Peter make you feel? How does it make you feel when Jesus says that every Christian, no matter how hard they’ve worked for Him, how long they have believed in Him, or how much they have given to Jesus in their lifetime, will receive the same wage – eternal life in heaven? How does it make you feel to know that some people, who have wasted their lives and not until the last hour before their death confess that they believe in Jesus as their Savior, will receive the same wage as you eternal life with God? It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair. Won’t we receive something more than the others for giving far more than one hour of our life to Jesus? And the answer is no.

The men who began working at the first hour of the day certainly picked more grapes than those who began working in the last hour. Yet, they all received an entire day’s salary. Can you imagine if this were to happen today? Right now the United Auto Workers, along with the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild are all on strike, demanding better wages and benefits.

I’m sure if any of those unions saw something like this they would be in an uproar. Those who work for only one hour should not receive a whole day’s wage. It is only right that the reward for our labor should be consistent with the time we put in. Can you imagine a candidate running for an office on this kind of platform – equal pay for all, no matter how many hours you work?

But this parable has nothing to do with fair labor laws or how employers should treat their employees. Instead it is a description of how God works in the kingdom of heaven. In our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” God’s goodness is absolutely incomprehensible to us. We will never fully understand it, especially since we are taught all our lives to work hard if we want to get ahead. In fact, by putting ourselves in the place of the workers who started at sunrise, midmorning, or even early afternoon, we miss the point of the parable. As sinners, it doesn’t matter how hard or how long we work, we still do not qualify for the wage or benefits of heaven. Only Jesus has earned eternal life in heaven; and yet, God gives to each of us the full wage, not because He owes us something, but because Jesus did all of the work for us, including suffering and dying on a cross for our sins.

The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death,” and that’s what we have earned as sinners, but God gives us life; He gives to us what Jesus earned through His perfect life. Does that make sense? No, and yet, we have been given this incredible gift of eternal life with God, regardless of the sins we have committed. Plus, like the landowner, it is God comes to us and recruits all of us. Some of us were recruited early, as we were baptized as infants and became one of God’s children. For others, it took God coming to us a little later in life to believe. And for others it will take God until the 11th hour to bring them to faith. So if you have been a believer in Jesus for 70 years or 70 minutes, He loves you just the same, we are all equal in God’s eyes.

Let me suggest an alternative ending to this parable. It goes like this: “So 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.’ Those who were hired at 5:00pm were paid first, and they each received a denarius. And when every worker saw that they would all be given an equal amount for their work, they all cheered, thanking the landowner for his generosity. Each worker went home smiling, happy for one another and praising God.”

Unlikely ending? Maybe. Impossible? No. In fact, let me try to make this story a little more personal for us. Today we have a young man in our worship service, who we want to publicly thank for his work in designing and building our altar and pulpit for our outdoor chapel. Now when we do that it may be tempting for some of us to think, “That’s not fair, I have supported this church with my time, money, and efforts for years, and no one has ever thanked me. I’ve fixed things on the playground, I’ve made meals for people, and I have cared for children in our nursery, but I’ve not received any recognition.”

During those moments, we must remember that if God had that attitude, if God were fair, none of us would be able to have eternal life in heaven, because we have all failed God. But thank God He doesn’t give us what we have earned or deserve. God’s reward system is not based on personal accomplishments or hard work, it is based on His love and it comes to us as a free gift by His grace. Life in this world may not always be fair, but when we are focused on Jesus, when we are giving thanks for our own blessings, instead of complaining to God about what others get, God’s generosity and love still may not look fair, but knowing what we deserve, they sure look great.

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