The Parables of Jesus | The Workers in the Vineyard | Matthew 20:1-16

A sermon delivered August 8, 2021 at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Part of our continuing series on the Parables of Jesus.

Pop Quiz

Okay, pop quiz hot shot. Can you tell a Bible phrase from a Bible fake? The Radical Book for Kids (available today for rent or purchase in our church library!) tells me that a recent survey found that 88% of participants owned a Bible, but that only 19% regularly read it. Not surprisingly then, many people mistake Bible fakes for Bible phrases. Can you tell the difference?

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” – Fake, Benjamin Franklin

“A fly in the ointment.” – Ecclesiastes 10:1

“By the skin of your teeth.” – Job 19:20

“To thine own self be true.” – Fake, William Shakespeare

“God helps those who help themselves.” – Fake, probably from Aesop.

“The last shall be first, and the first last.” – From our passage today, Matthew 20:16

You see, when the Scriptures are diligently read, we may be surprised, some even angered, by what we find inside. Today’s parable is an excellent example of that. Can you imagine if your boss, in front of everyone, started handing out bonuses, giving the guy who just started with company a bonus equal to that of you, a veteran. You would be livid!

Jesus pulls no punches here. He wants us to understand and embrace how salvation works in the kingdom of God, even if he must pull the rug out from under us! Let’s dig into our parable today.

The Kingdom & the Master (Vs. 1, 4, 8)

Let’s look first at the Kingdom & the Master. This is a parable that shows us what God’s kingdom is like in Jesus. That is to say, it teaches us about what life is like where God reigns.

First, if I can say this without sounding sacrilegious, it shows us that God is a horrible businessman. This goes back to what we noted about the parables at the start – they are not meant to teach us practical tips and advice. Something if always off. Someone is always off their rocker! If a businessman acted like Jesus does here, he’d soon be bankrupt, wouldn’t he? In coming into our world, Jesus is not out for his profit but our salvation. Because, as the Creed tells us, “For us and for our salvation he came down…” God does not need profit from us – that is not his motivation. As our psalm today reminds us, He knows all the birds of the air, and the wild beasts of the field are in his sight. If he were hungry, he would not tell us, for the whole world is his, and all that is there in.” (Psalm 50:11-12)

Second, he is not out to simply give what is just. The Master goes out four times after the start of the workday (twelve hours, by the way!), and when he comes in the morning to those who haven’t yet been hired, he says, “Get to work, and I will give you what is right!” (v.4) What does he then proceed to do? Give them more than what is right! That is an expression of the heart of Father shown in Christ. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

Friends, when Jesus comes again, there will perfect and everlasting justice in our world. Justice so perfect and right that no one will be able raise even a finger in opposition! But this parable shows that he is not out for justice, but mercy. Lamentations 3:32-33 tells us that “though [The Lord] cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; … he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” The Lord declares in Ezekiel 18:23, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked… and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”

Yes, our God will judge evil, but his heart is one of all-surpassing compassion and mercy.

The Laborers: The Last (vs. 6-9)

These are the laborers that come into the vineyard a mere hour before close of the workday. I believe these last are dear to the heart of God and that every Christian is to strive to think of ourselves as in their company, even if we have labored long and hard in the Kingdom of God. For we are to hide our works from ourselves, not allowing our left hand to know what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). When we have done all, and finished our labor here in on earth, we are to say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)

Here, it is almost as if it is better to make a death-bed confession or to be the good thief on cross next to Jesus, making that last moment turn to Christ. Now, we don’t want to say that that’s actually the case – we should want NO ONE to waste their lives outside the Kingdom. A life spent serving God is life well-lived. But I think this is designed to show us a couple things.

Firstly, it shows the beauty of the Gospel. As Tim Keller puts it, it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance. (The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness) These workers have absolutely no claim to what they’ve been given. Many, many people have their relationship to God upside-down and inside-out. They have the fruit and the roots mixed up. The roots of our relationship with God is our perfect standing with him in Jesus Christ through his shed blood and glorious resurrection. All that we do for the Lord is but the fruit of a good seed planted in us. We cannot help but bear good fruit, nor do we relentlessly inspect that fruit to give assurance in the Christian life. Let me ask you this: how would your living, praying, thinking this week change if you consistently recalled that everything that needs to be done is done. With what kind of fervor and joy would you then serve God?

Secondly, that we would always learn to think of ourselves in this way. That we would always stay close to the level ground of the Cross. What’s clear about these last is that they do not relate to the Master of the House on the basis of their work. They are considered more than laborers. Just, so we are sons and daughters, not merely servants.

The Laborers: The First (vs. 11-15)

Next, we look at those hired first. There are several lessons here for us.

Firstly, this group is deeply offended by the graciousness of the Master. Yes, they agreed on a fair day’s wage, but they have done the work! Why should such an undeserved payment be given to others? The gospel offends, especially offends, those who believe they are already good.

Let me ask you this: perhaps you hear that an acquaintance is dying. Someone who has lived a notoriously sinful life and seemed to always come out on top. Do you think to yourself, they are getting what they deserve or do you pray for them to receive the mercy of God, even as you have? If not, you don’t yet get the gospel.

Secondly, the longer we persevere in the Christian life, the greater danger we have of sliding toward this group. One of the last temptations faced by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim was the temptation to believe that his life as a Christian was really all to his credit. As James Boice writes, this parable teaches us that, “God is no man’s debtor. …We can never place God under obligation to do something for us because we have done something for him. There is nothing you or I or anyone else can possibly do that will place God in a debt relationship to us. God owes us nothing except eternal punishment for our sins. So if we do not experience that punishment, that and everything we do experience is pure grace.” (The Parables of Jesus)

R.A. Torrey speaks of the temptation of beginning to “praying in our own name.” Of holding up to God, not Christ’s Name and his finished work, but rather our accomplishments in the Christian life, so demanding what he must do for us in return.

Thirdly, when we look around at our fellow brothers and sisters in the Body, we have to ask ourselves the question, Who do we want to be like? God, or those hired first?

Here, God is letting all sorts of people into his vineyard, his Kingdom! Those who arrived early on the scene, at the mid-point of the day, and those are late to the game. How do we choose to relate to each other in the church? Do we judge others who appear late to the vineyard? Or are we just as happy to see others exercising their gifts and ministry in the Body as we would be to be doing it ourselves? Keller writes, “Wouldn’t you like to be the [ice] skater who sins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did? To love it the way you love a sunrise? Just to love the fact that it was done? For it not to matter whether it was their success or your success? Not to care if they did it or you did it.” (The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness) There is a gospel self-forgetfulness prescribed for every church and every Christian in this passage.

The Reversal (v. 16)

Lastly, there is the reversal. Like so many of these parables, this one contains a shocking twist at the end: the last are first, and the first last. Those left in the marketplace near the end of the day would certainly not have made the first or second or even third round of picks for a game of basketball. They were among the weak and deficient – not the strong. That this parable is given after Jesus’ conversation with the Rich Young Ruler who went away sad is surely telling.

In the words of the old hymn, may we all be content to be debtors to mercy alone. For the last shall be first, and the first last. All glory and honor be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.