The parable of the workers in the

by LA UBF   05/24/2005     0 reads




Matthew 20:1-16

Key verse 20:16

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

Today’s passage teaches us the mystery of one of Jesus’ favorite expressions: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Most of all, we learn that the key to enjoying life in the kingdom of God is to be thankful to God without comparing ourselves to others.  May God give us ears to hear what he is saying. 

Part 1.  Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?  

In the previous passage, Jesus promised his disciples that they would be rewarded greatly for all they sacrifice for the kingdom of God.  Yet, Jesus finished by giving them a strange-sounding warning: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”  Of course, this last statement really confused the disciples, so Jesus taught them what he meant through a parable.  In the parable, we see a landowner who goes out early in the morning and hires some men to work in his vineyard.  He agrees to pay them a denarius for the day, and so they started working early in the morning—probably around 6:00 a.m.  We can guess two things about these workers: first, before the landowner hired them, they were unemployed.  They must have been very thankful to God for granting them a job early in the morning when there were so many other men out there who remained unemployed.  Also, it felt good to get out early in the morning and do some labor while the air was still cool. They probably whistled while they worked.  

After about three hours, around 9:00 a.m., the landowner went out to the marketplace.  Maybe he came there to buy some supplies.  While he was there, he saw some men standing around in the marketplace doing nothing. The landowner had compassion on them and said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”  So they also started working in the vineyard.  When the workers who were hired first saw these new workers coming, I think that they were happy—now there were workers to share the burden, and the work began to go faster.  

After another three hours had passed, the landowner went to the market once again.  Since it was now about lunch time, he was probably there to buy some sandwiches and Gatorades for his workers.  But while he was there, he saw some more men standing around doing nothing.  Maybe the landowner tried to ignore them at first.  But they just kept standing around, drawing pictures in the dirt with their feet until the landowner couldn’t take it any more.  He hated to see them wasting their lives away, so he hired them also.  By this time, the sun was high and it was hot.  The workers who were hired earlier probably were relived to see the fresh new workers coming in—these new guys could share the burden of the work in the heat of the day.  So everyone was happy.  

After another three hours, the landowner went to the marketplace once again.  By this time, I don’t think he needed to buy anything—I think that he was going back to see if there were any more men standing around, wasting the day away.  Indeed, there were.  The landowner found them and sent them to work in the vineyard also.    Finally, at around 5:00 p.m., with only one hour left in the work day, the landowner went out and found a few more men standing around.  The landowner was a little annoyed with them, so he asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”  They answered him, “Because no one has hired us.”  They looked totally pathetic, so he said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”  And with one hour left in the day, these men also started working.  

What do we learn from this parable so far about man’s life here on earth?  Man’s life here on earth is short—like a twelve hour work day.  And during this short life, there are two options: to work or not to work.  To work is to work for God’s glory; to not work is to work hard for something else.  Actually, there are many people who seem to be working hard—and they are.  But the problem is that all the work people do outside of the Lord’s vineyard amounts to doing “nothing,” no matter how impressive that work may seem.  If you want to get a good idea of what I am talking about, read Ecclesiastes.  The key point of this book is the meaninglessness of all our labor outside of the Lord’s vineyard.  The book begins with the words: “ ‘Meaningless!  Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.’  What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?”  

And the real distinction here is not between so-called “secular” work and “ministry” work.  Even secular work has meaning when it is done in the context of serving the Lord.  Thus, in our ministry, most people are “lay” shepherds, working at secular jobs to support themselves—not for the purpose of simply living on this earth, but for the sake of obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples.  And it is also true that many people who seem to be actively involved in “ministry” are not truly working for the Lord, but for praise and recognition from man. Such work also amounts to doing “nothing.”  

We must remember that this world and everything in it will pass away.  We cannot take anything with us from this world.  Therefore, it is only the labor in the Lord that has any meaning or value.  

This parable shows us that all Christians are called to be workers—not just a few special people, such as pastors or missionaries—but all Christians are workers in Jesus’ spiritual vineyard.  Thus, working for God is good.  Working for God is blessed.  If we have been hired by God, this is a huge thanks topic: Thank you, Jesus, for hiring me.  Thank you, Jesus, for giving me mission.  

We must not forget that there are many other people who have not experienced this mercy yet.  College campuses are like the marketplace in the parable. Every time you go to a college campus, you find students standing around doing nothing.  Of course, you see many students who are very busy and seem to be doing many things, but until they meet Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they are working for nothing.  They are basically doing nothing.  We must have compassion and mercy upon them like the landowner.  When we see them standing around doing nothing, we should not just ignore them. We should mercifully invite them to accept employment in Jesus’ vineyard.  Don’t be shy about this.  At first, it seems that people would rather just stand around all day doing nothing than spend their day working hard, but the reality is that most people do not want to waste their lives.  Many college students are unemployed, but they will eagerly accept employment in Jesus’ vineyard if only we will go and invite them.  May God help us to be merciful on the spiritually unemployed, just as God has been merciful to us.  

Part 2.  The last will be first and the first will be last

Finally, the workday came to a close, and the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman to call the workers and give them their pay, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.  So all the workers lined up in order based on how long they had been working.  Then something surprising happened: the foreman gave those who came last a denarius—an entire day’s wages!  The others who were hired first were at first surprised, and then they began to anticipate.  If the landowner paid those who worked only one hour one denarius, then naturally he will pay those who worked twelve hours twelve denari!  That’s twelve day’s pay for the price of one.  They excitedly began thinking about how they would spend all that money.  But, then, something strange began happening. Those who worked three hours still received only one denarius; then those who worked six hours received only one denarius, and even those who worked for nine hours received only one denarius.  Finally, those who were hired first came to get their pay—they had worked for twelve long hours.  To their shock and dismay, the foreman gave them only one denarius!  Immediately, they began to grumble against the landowner, saying, “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.”  

Those who were hired first saw what the boss did as unfair because the boss made everyone the same by paying everyone the same amount.  Thus, the boss seemed to disregard all of the hard work of those who worked twelve hours.  He treated those who did almost all the work the same as those who did almost no work.  The more they thought about it, they more unfair it seemed.  They probably thought to themselves, “I could have just laid around all day doing nothing, then worked for one hour, and still have gotten the same pay.”  As these thoughts came to them, bitterness and resentment toward the landowner arose in their hearts, as well as envy and hatred toward those who worked less than them.  Thus, even though these men had once been thankful to be hired, they were no longer thankful. Even though they had once been happy to have coworkers to share the burden with them, they now were envious and hatful toward their coworkers.  And even though they had once been thankful for the graciousness of their boss, they were now bitter toward him.  Thus, those who experienced the landowner’s grace first now became last in terms of happiness—they were positively unhappy.  On the other hand, those who were hired last were full of thanks and gratitude toward the landowner, and they became first in terms of happiness.  And so we learn what Jesus meant when he said: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”  

Let’s see how the landowner responded to their complaint.  The landowner answered one of the grumbling men: “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?”  

The landowner pointed out very clearly the mistake of those who were grumbling.  The reality was that the landowner had paid them exactly what they had agreed to work for.  Why, then, did they grumble?  It is because of envy.  They were envious of the grace shown to other people.  They were complaining: “It’s not fair that you are so kind and generous to those people!”   This shows us the sin of envy.  Envy is the sin that makes us unhappy when we think someone else has something better than us.  When envy is in our heart, all of our joy and thankfulness is replaced by bitterness and complaints.  Envy leads us to feel comforted when we see others suffering or failure; and envy makes us unsatisfied with our lives when we see others doing better than us.  Because of envy, people think that God is fair when they see other people suffering like them; and they think God is unfair when he shows more grace to someone else.  This is the double-standard: When God shows us special grace, we say: “Thank you, Lord, for you mercy and grace.”  But when we see other people receiving more grace than us, we say, “Lord, why don’t you bless me like that?”  Indeed, whenever we measure our worth by comparing ourselves to others, we are bound to end up either proud or envious, or both.  When we are doing better than others, we are proud; when others are doing better than us, we are envious.  The effect of this way of thought is to take away all of our joy and happiness in the Lord.  

How, then, can we overcome the sin of envy and keep our joy in the Lord continually?  First, we must continually remember God’s grace upon our lives.  Remember where you were before Jesus called you, and imagine where you would be today if he did not call you to serve him.  God has had so much grace upon your life.  Be eternally thankful to God for his mercy and love to you through Jesus Christ.

Second, remember God’s sovereignty.  Just as you have the right to do what you want with your money, so also God has the right to do what he wants with his grace.  If he wants to show extra grace to your neighbor, who are you to complain.  Instead of complaining because of God’s kindness, you should praise God for his boundless kindness.  

Most of all, the secret we learn from this passage is always to remember that we are last. If we think of ourselves as those who were hired early in the morning, then it is so easy for us to think that we deserve what we receive from God and that we deserve more than other people—and we will be unhappy when we don’t receive what we think we deserve. The reality that we must remember, however, is that we are actually those who were hired at the eleventh hour.  All of our labor in the Lord—no matter how hard we work—cannot even begin to equal the grace we have received.  We deserve God’s wrath because we sin all the time, but God pours out his love.  He even promises us great rewards in his kingdom—not only eternal life, but also a hundred times whatever we give up in this life for God’s kingdom purpose.  Thus, if we remember that we are the last and the least worthy of God’s mercy, we will continually be first in terms of joy and happiness in the Lord.  We will be full of thanksgiving and praise. Then, no matter how hard we labor in the Lord, we will be full of praise and thanksgiving.  

Personally, I thank God for this passage because it reminds me of God’s great mercy upon my life.  Before I met Jesus personally and received his calling, I just wasted my life away doing nothing.  I had no direction and no desire.  But by God’s mercy and grace Jesus called me out of that worthless life and into the exciting life of serving God.  Lately, I easily became burdened about everything I had to do.  I felt that my life was only full of crosses to pick up and bear.  Everywhere I looked, I only saw hard work and difficult toil, so I was unsatisfied and rebellious in my heart.  I did not want to do anything, and, really, I did almost nothing.  I became more and more like those men standing around doing nothing all day.  But Jesus says to me, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?  You also go and work in my vineyard.”  Through this passage, I could remember how blessed it is to live as a servant of God.  It is good to be in the vineyard, getting my hands in the dirt, sweating, harvesting.  When I live as a servant of God, I have deep joy, peace, and satisfaction in the Lord.  But when I do nothing, I feel unhappy and frustrated.  I repent of my ungratefulness to God for calling me to serve him.  The truth is that I am the last and least servant of God, and it is God’s amazing grace that he calls me his servant.  It is God’s amazing grace that I have not been fired.  Thank God for his mercy upon my life.  I pray that I may go back to the vineyard with a new attitude of thanks and praise.  I pray that I may not compare myself to others, but continually hold onto God’s grace to me.  I pray that I may also be used to bring many more workers into the kingdom of God.    

Praise God for his abundant mercy upon our lives. Praise God for saving us from a worthless and meaningless way of life and for blessing us far beyond what we deserve.  Thank God for making us first by his grace even though we deserve to be last.

One word: The first will be last and the last will be first.