Matthew 19:30-20:16: Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It happens at the office. One guy is always the first to show up. He’s there well before the sun rises, is the first to put on a pot of coffee, and he sends out a number of emails to his colleagues, silently adding the nudge, “I’m here working, where are you?”
An hour later the next person arrives. She’s still there before they open, so she has time to check her email and facebook before she anyone can catch her chuckling through her breakfast of online videos.
Then it’s nine o’clock and most of the others show up right on time. They spend the first hour of the day getting their coffee, going to the bathroom, and reading the news.
And then there’s that guy. He comes in after lunch with no explanation, puts in a few hours of work, and then says, “Boy, I’m bushed. Who’s ready for the weekend?”
Whenever he’s not around, which is quite often, his co-workers gripe: “I don’t know why he hasn’t been fired yet.” “I can’t believe how much extra work we have to do to cover for him.” The griping continues, but so does the man’s employment.
Finally, one day, the lady in payroll whispers a sentence that spreads through the office like a hurricane, “You know, he is paid the same as everyone else.” It’s only moments before the boss has an angry mob outside his office demanding a raise. After all, they work much more than him. It’s not fair.
It happens at the stadium. One player is always the first there for practice. He ignores his friends, his fans, and his phone, as he rushes from class to practice, changes, and gets on the field. He puts in extra running, extra reps, extra everything so he can be his best.
Half an hour later everyone else turns up. They start practicing too.
And then, finally, he shows up. The guy who’s always last, always unprepared, always late — never an excuse.
And yet when it’s game time, guess who gets just as much play time as anyone else — the one who was always late. The players grumble, the parents petition, the fans complain, but the coach keeps him in the game. It’s not fair.
It happens at churches. Some new members turn up from God only knows where. All of sudden, they are getting the pastors’ attention too. All of a sudden, they are getting their pictures in the newsletter. All of a sudden, they are invited to volunteer in church leadership.
You can hear the old timers, “I don’t even know everyone anymore.” “I don’t know their families.” “I can’t spell their last name.”
And yet here they are, getting the same treatment as those whose grandparents founded the church. It’s not fair.
It happens with Jesus. He’s talking to foreigners as well as citizens. He’s talking to women as well as men. He’s talking to the poor more than the wealthy. He’s talking to the blue collar more than the white. He’s talking to God-hating sinners more than saved believers. This annoys people. They begin to ask, “What’s he doing? Doesn’t he know how it works? Why doesn’t he spend more time with the in-group? those who’ve been faithful all along? those who are at least trying to be faithful? It’s not fair.”
In response, Jesus them this morning’s parable. I’m sure you can repeat it as well as I can. The boss hires some at 6, some at 9, some at noon, some at 3, some at 5, and when 6 o’clock rolls around he pays them all the same, beginning with those who started last. Those who had been working all day had to wait for the tardy to get paid first. Those who’ve been there all day naturally complain, “It’s not fair.”
It seems like a reasonable complaint, but Jesus makes it plain: It’s the wrong response. It’s just plain wrong. Their response should have been, “What an amazing boss we have! What a generous boss we have! Can you believe how kind our boss is?”
If you like things to be fair, you’ll hate Jesus.
If you like people to get only what they deserve, you’ll hate Jesus.
If you like everyone to be rewarded on the merit of their actions, you’ll hate Jesus.
Would you like to be rewarded based on your work? Really?
The Bible is clear, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
Since we were made to love God and each other, if you’ve ever sinned, you are defective and deserve eternal death, not heaven.
If you’ve ever put someone or something before God, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever misused the name of God, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever worked on the sabbath, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever dishonored your parents, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever killed someone, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever committed adultery, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever stolen anything, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever lied, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever wanted your neighbor’s house instead of yours, you deserve death.
If you’ve ever wanted anything you don’t have, you deserve death. [Exodus 20:1-17]
I won’t ask you to raise hands, but I’m pretty sure everyone here deserves death.
No who wants to be rewarded based on their work?
Now who likes everyone to be rewarded on the merit of their actions?
Now who likes people only to get what they deserve?
Now who likes things to be fair?
If things are fair, and we all get what we deserve, then we all spend an eternity far from God and his blessings.
If there is anyone who struggled to understand Jesus, but who finally got it, it was Peter. It was Peter, who — having denied even knowing Jesus — was still forgiven and accepted and treated like one of the gang. So it was Peter who spoke the clearest summary of the faith, when he finally got up to preach and started his sermon, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) “God shows no partiality?” Are you disappointed? or excited?
Thank God he shows no partiality, otherwise you’re in hell.
“God shows no partiality, but in every nation…”
“But what about people in other nations?” “God shows no partiality.”
“But what about non-Christian nations?” “God shows no partiality.”
“But what about nations we’re currently busy blowing up?” “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Anyone who fears him? Yes, “God shows no partiality.”
Even those who don’t come to church that often? “God shows no partiality.”
Even those who don’t dress conservatively? “God shows no partiality.”
Even those have hurt others deeply,
even those who had some really wild years,
even those who only came to faith drug in by their wife or when they were diagnosed terminal,
certainly they won’t be treated the same as us, will they?
“God shows no partiality.”
If you’ve always thought you’ll get into heaven because you’re a decent person who has lived a reasonably Christian life, you are wrong, and you probably hate the fact that God shows no partiality, but will welcome with open arms all who place their faith in his Son — even in their last hour.
There is not a thing any of us can do to deserve entry into heaven. Church attendance will not get us there. Holiness will not get us there. Charity will not get us there. The only hope any of us have is that fact that we have a generous boss, who is kind to us even when we don’t deserve it.
Jesus makes it clear that our response is not to complain that others are not getting what we think they deserve, but to thank God we didn’t get what we deserve, and to celebrate the fact that there are even more people at the party.
When we hear the parable, instead of thinking of ourselves as the early workers who naturally scoff at those coming late and getting paid the same, we need to understand it correctly: Not a one of us was on time. Not a one of us did what we were told. Not a one of us deserves to be paid. And when we show up to work at 5, we find it was Jesus and Jesus alone who was there all along, doing all our work on our behalf.
He does the work. We get the reward. Praise the Lord that “It’s not fair.”