Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our text for this morning is the Gospel Reading from Matthew 20—Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The message of this parable is simple yet profound: God treats all those who are laborers in the kingdom of heaven the same. Because of God’s grace, there is no distinction on the Last Day. This is the simple message of Jesus’ parable concerning the Laborers in the Vineyard. However, this simple message is also quite profound because God’s grace can affect people in one of two ways. So, there is both a positive and a negative aspect to this parable’s message of equality in the kingdom of heaven. One of those aspects which we hear in this parable is words reiterating Scripture’s greatest promise: Salvation by grace alone. The other aspect which we hear at the same time is words reiterating Scripture’s greatest warning: how the pride of those who begrudge the Lord’s generosity can lead to eternal separation from Jesus. This parable can be seen in light of either one of these two realities.
2. First, let’s look at the application of the negative aspect, which can be seen through the laborers who were hired first. These men are honest and fair. They’re not afraid to work hard and break a sweat so that they can provide for themselves and their family. These men are the epitome of virtue and dedication. And so, early in the morning, before the sun even rose, they would get out of bed to be ready for work at sunrise. They were at the marketplace by 6 a.m. so that they could be hired by a vineyard owner who was in need of laborers for his vineyard. This day was no different than any other, except that it was a house master they didn’t know who came up to hire them to work in his vineyard. The negotiations over pay were really nothing more than a formality. Everyone knows the unspoken law: one denarius for a full twelve hour day of work. And so the agreement was made: one denarius for a full day’s work. The laborers got to work, but after a few hours of work, their attention began to shift. Rather than being single-mindedly focused on their work, they started to notice something strange: more workers were showing up. These men had missed the first several hours of the workday, yet here they were working. Maybe it was their laziness which prevented them from arriving at the marketplace in time to be hired for work at the beginning of the day or maybe they weren’t proactive enough to get noticed by any of the vineyard owners. But either way, it was good to have the security of a full day’s work and wage, unlike those men. As the hours went on, more and more men began to show up. What a strange vineyard owner this man must be to continue recruiting more men to work after the best workers were clearly already hired out. As the sun began to set, even more workers showed up. Why even bother at this point? They were going to get paid hardly anything for only an hour’s work. Finally, sundown arrived and it was time to get paid. The workers were ready to collect their pay and go home for the night. But strangely, the lord of the vineyard called those who had only worked an hour to receive their pay first. And, amazingly, he gave them a full denarius! “What in the world is wrong with this vineyard owner? Why would you pay someone a full day’s wage for one hour’s work? If he’s going to do that, then he better have something more in store for those of us who worked all day!” When the time came for those who had worked all day to receive their pay, they also received a denarius! They had slaved away in the hot sun for twelve hours for this man, and the way that he thanked them was to pay them the same as those who only worked one hour! What outrage! And so, when the vineyard owner said to these men, “Take what belongs to you and go” (Matthew 20:14), they were more than happy to leave this outrageous vineyard and find a more fair place to work the next day.
3. As we reflect on the experience of these laborers who were hired first, we see how pride and a begrudging attitude can completely take over a person. We see how an attitude of self-entitlement and reliance on the law leads to entirely missing out on the benefits of grace. In this parable we see a warning of what can happen to someone who allows this attitude to overwhelm them. As Jesus says in the introduction to this parable, this is a parable which teaches what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like a man who is a master of a house looking for laborers to work in his vineyard. If this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then to be in the kingdom of heaven means to work in Jesus’ vineyard. That understanding of the parable puts an extremely serious meaning on the words of the vineyard owner in verse 14 when he says: “Take what belongs to you and go.” I can hardly imagine more terrifying words to hear from the mouth of Jesus than: “Take what belongs to you and go.” But on the last day, when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, these are the words he will speak to those who have rejected his grace in favor of what they think is fair and right. My friends, we are constantly bombarded with temptation to think in this way. The world teaches us to think about what we deserve and what is right and fair. The world teaches us that when we are treated unfairly or when someone we care about is wronged, we need to avenge that wrong. We need to be warriors of justice and defenders of righteousness because no one else is as qualified as are we to serve in such roles. Now, while there might be places to defend righteousness and justice, before the throne of God is no such place. We should never stand before our Lord and tell him what is right and wrong and how he should police his world. It is not our place to tell God how he ought to act. God is God; you are not. This parable teaches us, first of all, that if we let our pride cause us to begrudge the Lord’s generosity, we can very quickly be led down the path of eternal separation from Jesus. May our Lord prevent us by his grace from going down this dangerous path.
4. The second aspect of this parable’s message of equality in the kingdom of heaven teaches us how to avoid this dangerous path. We see the application of this positive aspect of the parable’s message through the laborers who were hired at the eleventh hour. Jesus doesn’t give us many hints about the kind of people these men were, except in their brief exchange with the vineyard owner when they were still in the marketplace. The vineyard owner asks them: “Why do you stand here idle all day?” (Matthew 20:6). That word, “idle”, has a negative connotation in Greek and is often used to describe someone who is lazy. So, whether these men were truly lazy or whether there was some legitimate reason for them to be standing idle in the marketplace, we don’t know. The point is, they were glad to receive the offer of the vineyard owner to go work in his vineyard. Notice what he says to them at the end of verse 7: “You go into the vineyard too.” Notice how there is no promise of compensation for these men. For those hired at dawn, the promised compensation was a denarius. For those hired in the middle of the day, the vineyard owner told them: “Whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4). Yet these men hired at the eleventh hour receive no promise of compensation of any kind. And still, they went to work in the vineyard, even if only for an hour. Those hired at dawn trusted in the lawful agreement they had made regarding their pay. Those hired in the middle of the day trusted in the promise of the vineyard owner’s word to pay them “whatever is right.” Those hired at the end of the day had nothing to place their trust in except the inherent goodness of the lord of the vineyard. And because of their work and trust, they were rewarded with more than a full day’s pay after only an hour of work. What I mean is this—they were also rewarded with the implicit invitation to remain in this man’s vineyard. Those who begrudged the generosity of the vineyard owner were sent away. Those who trusted in this man’s grace alone and gladly accepted his generosity received even more.
5. As we reflect on the experience of these laborers who were hired at the eleventh hour, we see the greatest promise of Scripture being illustrated: Salvation by grace alone. We see how an attitude of humility and reliance on the gospel leads to reception of grace in full measure. In this parable we see the ideal posture of a Christian: humble trust in the inherent goodness of Jesus. My friends, you and I are these men hired at the eleventh hour. We are people who have been invited into the kingdom of heaven not because of our own goodness, but because of the goodness of Christ. Just like in the parable, Christ seeks us out and finds us wherever we are to bring us into his kingdom. He doesn’t just stand there with an open invitation waiting for us to make the move to come into his kingdom. Although the invitation into his kingdom is certainly open to all, the way Christ works is that he personally seeks out and finds each one of us so that he can offer us his grace in his own way. He finds some of us at the font when we were too young to remember. He finds some of us later in life after some years of wandering. He finds others of us at the eleventh hour shortly before out time on this earth has expired. But regardless of where Jesus has found you, the gift of eternal life in his kingdom is the same and it comes to you freely—by grace alone.
6. As we go through this life, it’s important that we remember who we are. We are those laborers hired at the eleventh hour. We don’t deserve anything that we have. It has all been given to us by grace alone. As is illustrated by the parable, we have each been given work to do in the kingdom of heaven. Whether it’s work as a father, mother, son, or daughter, whether it’s work as a student, a worker, or a homemaker, whatever vocation it might be, we all have work to do in the kingdom of heaven. The problem is, it’s so easy to become like those workers hired at the beginning of the day and to lose focus on what we have been given to do. It’s so easy to shift our focus from what Christ has given us and to focus on others and what they have been given. The problem is, when we start focusing on what others have been given, we start making comparisons and judgements about what we think is fair. But in the kingdom of heaven, our standard of “fair” doesn’t matter. In the kingdom of heaven, the last will be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16). There is no greater example of this great reversal than when our Lord Jesus, who is first in the kingdom of heaven, chose to reverse what is right and fair by taking the punishment that we deserve upon himself on the cross so that you and I might become first in the kingdom of heaven by grace alone. May our Lord Jesus grant us grace to we live our lives in this kingdom in humility and contentment as we rely on his grace alone.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.