“A Gift of His Grace”

Matthew 20:1-16

Today’s parable is a continuation of the answer Jesus provided for Peter’s question from last week, chapter 19, verse 27, where Peter asked, 

“We left everything and followed you. 

What do we get out of it?”

Jesus began His answer last week by explaining how the disciples would rule the twelve tribes of Israel. He also stated that anyone who followed Him would receive a hundred times over what they had left behind, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life. Then Jesus made this statement, in verse 30, 

“This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

Today’s Scripture continues with Jesus explaining what He meant by the Great Reversal, by telling a parable. Now mind you, Peter was asking what were the disciples going to get for all they had given up to follow Jesus. 

Fair question, however, presumptuous. 

Notice the stages Jesus takes to guide the disciples into information that He knows will be difficult for them to swallow.

  • First, Jesus tells them about the rewards they will receive
  • Next, Jesus warns them that God’s procedure for handing out rewards is not necessarily the same as it is for humans
  • Finally, a parable to demonstrate just how different God’s manner of giving rewards is in comparison with humans’ practice of giving rewards. 

The parable begins with a landowner going to the marketplace, literally at dawn, around 6am in the morning. In Los Angeles, you would drive to a local Home Depot parking lot and there would be lots of men standing around with their tools waiting to be hired. You could drive your truck up, stand in the back of the truck and describe your job, how many people you wanted to hire and how much you would pay. Those who were interested would raise their hand and you would choose the number of workers you needed. They would jump in the back of the truck and off you go. 

In Jesus’ story, the men agreed to work for a denarius a day. This was a common daily wage for a working man in Jesus’ day and a normal arrangement. 

But this landowner didn’t stop hiring workers. He went back to the marketplace at 9am and hired more workers. He went back at noon and hired more. He even went back around 5pm and discovered workers who were standing around not working and asked them why. They said it was because no one had hired them. So he told them they could have a job in his vineyard. This may sound crazy but the landowner needed to harvest his crop before the rains came, so all hands were needed, even if it was for only an hour’s worth of work. 

Also note the financial agreement the landowner made with those he hired after 9am. He said he would give them a fair wage. Everyone listening to this story, up to this point, was probably shaking their head in agreement. This would have been a description of a normal scene at harvest time in their experience. The landowner had an exhaustible amount of work and was surprised to see men standing around idle when he had been diligently seeking workers all day. 

An hour later, they came to the end of the day. These men were day laborers so they would be paid their wages at the end of the day. The landowner directs his steward to begin by paying those whom he had hired last and so on up to those who were first hired. The steward was to pay all workers, one denarius. You can imagine the guys who had only worked one hour were delighted to be given a full day’s pay. You can also imagine the thoughts of those who had worked all day thinking they would obviously receive more than one denarius and how dejected they felt when they didn’t. 

The order in which they were paid was significant. Those who had worked all day watched all of the other workers being paid the amount they had agreed upon. Surely they would receive more? That was only fair. 

Their time was spent evaluating their own importance in comparison to all the other workers. 

Notice their response. They made a complaint against the landowner. He was obviously there watching the steward hand out the money. They expressed their offense of having worked all day in the hot sun only to receive the same pay as those who had spent one or two hours. We can certainly empathize with them. It certainly doesn’t seem fair. 

Define, “fair.” 

From the landowner’s point of view, he reminded them, he had done nothing wrong. He had been fair. They had agreed upon a payment amount and he had honored that agreement. 

The landowner then went on to explain that if he “wished” to be generous with his money, that was his prerogative. This was a matter with his wishes only and had nothing to do with the ones who received it. 

The landowner then proceeded to rebuke the workers for their envy and resentment of the landowner’s generosity towards others. He had a right to do what he wanted with what was his. 

The Hebrew word for envy or jealousy is better translated in the King James Version as, “evil eye.” This was an Old Testament idiom used to refer to jealousy in both Deuteronomy 15:9

“Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” 

so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.”

And in 1 Samuel 18:9,  “And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.”

“An evil eye” was a phrase used by the ancient Jews to describe envy or covetousness of a neighbor’s prosperity. The person with the “evil eye,” loved their own money so much that they would do nothing in the way of charity for God’s sake.  

Here we read that statement again, verse 16,

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

By this time you would think the disciples would begin to comprehend that God’s Kingdom was upside-down from what humans think or do. Peter and the disciples had chosen to give up a great deal to follow Jesus. Peter wanted to know what they would get in return. Jesus assures Peter, through this parable, that he will indeed be rewarded. 

But to watch out, be prepared! 

God is not in the habit of rewarding the same way humans reward. 

Be prepared for some surprises. 

There are a couple of ways this parable has been understood. Some think this parable is speaking of the way people come to God at different stages of their life. They come at the beginning of their life, or in their youth, or adulthood, in old age or at the very end. Regardless of when we come we are promised eternal life. 

Others have interpreted this to demonstrate how the gospel first was given to John the Baptist, then the preaching of Jesus, then the preaching at Pentecost, then to the Jews, and finally to the Gentiles. 

Yes, but, 

I think the best way to understand this parable is for what it is, a parable about grace and reward. 

Jesus was warning the disciples that yes, they should expect to be rewarded; but they should not be surprised when the rewards are distributed. God will reward according to His wishes. Which Jesus describes as “unexpected.” 

Or is it? 

Jesus has been clearly stating all along, the last will be first, and the first last. 

This isn’t anything new. 

It’s just inconceivable. 

It’s not how things have been working down here on earth. You see, we reward based on merit, what has been earned. 

God uses “grace” when He rewards. 

God doesn’t look at what we do and match it with a reward. God rewards according to “His will and pleasure.” It could or could not be connected to what we deserve. 

When you really think about it, hopefully our reward is not connected to what we really deserve.  

We, however, live under a system of law that makes it easier to figure out; you get what you deserve. The system of grace seems foreign to us. God chooses to deal with us according to who HE is, not according to who WE are. 

Go back to the parable. There wasn’t one person in that story who was treated “unfairly.” God was certainly more generous to some than to others. 

But our human thinking puts fairness above generosity. 

In the world’s point of view, the landowner should have been “generous” to all of the laborers, not just the ones He hired later. 

God will never be unfair, He values both fairness and generosity. However, Jesus was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, 

generosity trumps fairness. 

God may choose to provide a greater blessing on someone else who may seem less deserving to us. 

Jesus was warning the disciples of worldly thinking. 

In God’s world, generosity always comes before fairness. 

The point isn’t that all have the same reward – although, all God’s people do go to the same heaven. The point is God rewards on the principle of grace and because of that, we should be prepared for surprises. 

We should understand this:

God will never be LESS than fair, but

He reserves the right to be MORE than fair

As pleases Him. 

God is righteous and His grace always operates in that manner. 

This concept of grace is a difficult one to explain. This parable is not a perfect illustration, because it has the principle of working and deserving. 

God’s grace does not give us MORE blessing than we deserve. 

That wasn’t the point. 

God’s grace gives a blessing to us COMPLETELY APART from what we deserve. 

Once we come to God complaining, 

“Don’t I deserve better than this?” 

God’s response will be, “Oh, do you really want me to give you what you deserve?”

Romans 3:23

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”

Paul had to explain this to the Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 8 & 9,

​​”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

As Christians we should have the mindset of 

“I’m taken care of, God’s got my back, no matter what.” Therefore everything I do is service to Him. 

Therefore our service should be of grace, not work. 

  • All that I have or do is already a gift of His Grace
  • The very ability to serve God is a gift of His Grace
  • The call to serve God is a gift of His Grace
  • The opportunity to serve God is a gift of His Grace
  • It is by a gift of His Grace, I am

Does it really matter where we are in the line? 

Whether we are first or we are last? 

To even be in the line we have had to recognize our need for a Savior. 

Without Christ we are nothing. 

With Christ we are part of the body and when one part of the body is honored, all of the body is honored. Think about it, if my hand holds something does my leg say, I don’t have it? No, because in essence the body holds it. 

The world tells us to look out for number one. God says He is number one and there is not one of us that will make eternal life without Him. 

I wonder if we think that by having more people in line we are going to miss out on something. That’s how it is in our world. There are only so many big screen TV’s on sale so people line up at midnight to make sure they are able to get one. Like God doesn’t have enough grace to give everyone so I need to make sure I get my share. 

Jesus was correct. 

God’s Kingdom is upside-down from how we do things here on earth. 

To that I say, “Thank God!” 

If it’s fairness we want to argue, I rarely see it in our world today. I believe Jesus wants to turn our world right way around so we can see the truth and beauty of God’s Kingdom. Unfortunately, in order for that to happen it will require pain and hardship. Exactly what Jesus will explain in the second half of this chapter which we will read next week. 

Let’s pray.