Friday, September 16, 2011

Matthew 20:1–16

Matthew 20:1–16 (ESV): Laborers in the Vineyard

Synopsis

This passage continues on from the previous one (see below). Jesus tells a parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to a guy who wants to hire labourers for his vineyard. He goes out first thing in the morning (which would be around 6 A.M., if it matters) to hire some, and agrees to pay them a day’s wage (a denarius). He goes out again at 9 A.M. and sees some more labourers there, and hires them to join the first labourers in his vineyard. He goes out yet again at noon, at 3 P.M., and finally at 5 P.M., each time finding more labourers and hiring them to go work in his vineyard.

Then when evening comes he instructs his foreman to pay each labourer his wages, starting with the last ones hired and going up to the first. So he does, and when the people who were hired at the end of the day come forward they’re paid a denarius, which leads the people who were hired at the beginning of the day to expect that they’ll be paid more, since they’ve been there all day, but to their surprise they also receive a denarius.

They don’t take this well, and they start grumbling against the vineyard’s owner; some people had only worked an hour, whereas they worked all day long in the heat of the sun, and yet the ones who were hired last were paid the same wages. The owner, however, defends his actions:

“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?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (verses 13–16 (ESV))

Thoughts

There’s a very important word at the beginning of this passage: “For.”

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” (verse 1 (ESV))
That means that this passage not only continues on from the previous one, but explains part of it. We should look at it in more context:

… And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. … (verses 19:23–20:1 (ESV))
Why will many who are first become last, and many who are last become first? Because the kingdom of heaven is like a man who hired some labourers to work in his vineyard, and paid them all the same wage regardless of how much work they had done to “earn” it. (I put the word “earn” in quotes for a particular reason, which I’ll get to next.) That’s what the word “for” indicates at the beginning of verse 1. Both of these passages can teach lessons on their own, but only when you read them together will you get Jesus’ full meaning.

Obviously in this passage Jesus is talking about salvation. This is why I put the word “earn” in quotes; in real life, when a labourer agrees on a wage with his boss and then does the agreed upon work the payment of that wage is earned. It’s exactly that: a “wage,” not a “gift.” If the boss didn’t pay the wage he’d be doing something wrong; when the wage is paid, it’s not out of the goodness of the boss’ heart it’s simply what’s owed. But Jesus is using this metaphor to talk about salvation, and that’s when the whole wage concept falls apart: Salvation is not earned, it’s a gift from God. And since we haven’t earned it, but He has simply granted it to us out of the goodness of His own heart, out of His generosity and Grace and love, we don’t exactly have a right to question Him on how He grants it—to us or anyone else.

It’s why the workers in the parable were so perplexed, and it’s why the parable doesn’t make a lot of sense financially speaking—the guy who owned the vineyard would have been smarter to pay the labourers less and less as the day went on:
  • 6 A.M.: a denarius
  • 9 A.M.: 75% of a denarius
  • Noon: half a denarius
  • 3 P.M.: 25% of a denarius
  • 5 P.M.: 8% of a denarius
And I think that’s why Jesus chose a parable concerning wages to make his point: so that we’d be specifically comparing salvation with wages, and seeing explicitly how they’re not the same. Does it make sense for God to reward people more when He saves them earlier in life, and reward people less when He saves them later in life?

So what if a person comes to Christ at at a young age, spends their whole life living up to His standard as best they can, tries to please Him throughout their whole life, and their neighbour “lives like the devil” his whole life, repenting on his deathbed and coming to Christ a second before he dies… do they both get the same salvation? Enter the same kingdom of heaven? Yes. Is this fair? No—but not for the reasons you might be thinking. It’s not “fair” that either of them are granted salvation. Neither of them earned it; they both deserve to go to Hell. That’s what everyone deserves. But God, in His mercy, sent his Son to die on their behalf, so that even though they earned Hell they are given salvation as a gift. As it says in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 (ESV), emphasis added)
Is it somehow “more fair” for the person who lived a good life their whole life to be saved than for the “live like the devil” guy? Actually… no. Even the person who lived a good life their whole life only did so as a result of God’s Grace, and through His strength, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. That person still hasn’t “earned” anything; it is all a gift from God. Not just the initial salvation, as outlined in Ephesians 2:1–10 (ESV), but all of the good works done after that are also a result of His work.

In fact, this passage offers a great ray of hope for people who are not saved, regardless of the life they’ve lived and how long they’ve been living it: There’s still hope. As long as they’re still able to make a decision, they could make the right one and choose to accept the gift God is offering them. We never know when Jesus might ask them (quoting verses 6–7 (ESV)), “’Why do you stand here idle all day?”, and have them answer, “Because no one has hired us”—but now we’re ready to do your “work.”
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