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Economics in the Kingdom of God

Date: Jul. 24, 2016

Author: Bob Henkins

Matthew 20:1-16

Key Verse: Matthew 20:15

“‘Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

During the summer of 81, I had two part-time jobs. One was at Evergreen Aqua Pool and the other was at The Gap clothing store. According to the Department of Labor, the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour, but for some reason I remember getting paid about $2.50. That summer I would work at the pool from 9am to 4pm, cleaning out the underground filter, shoveling wet sand-like grime into five gallon buckets where we would pull them up by rope and dump them into one of those huge dumpsters. Then I would grab something to eat probably from the hotdog place where my friend worked and then I would go to The Gap and work from 6pm to 9pm, folding clothes making sure the displays look nice. Now-a-days, I can’t believe that I did that kind of work for such a little amount. What does this have to do with the passage today you ask, nothing except that I know what it’s like to work for a days wage and I was happy to get my pay and I probably complained about not getting enough. However, the story in this passage is not really about working and getting paid, but really about the grace of God.

Many people want to know what heaven is going to be like. There have been books, movies, songs and poems made to give us a picture. Likewise, in this passage Jesus is using a story to show us what God’s heavenly kingdom is going to be. Take a look at verses 1-2. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.” Usually when we think of heaven, we think of a beautiful city in the sky with mansions and streets of gold, pearly gates, abundant food and angels with harps flying around. But much to our surprise Jesus says heaven is like a vineyard owner searching for employees. That’s not what we’d expect at all. The picture Jesus paints may have been a typical day in the life a person from the middle east. Back in Jesus’ time if people needed work, they knew that they could go to the market place, in the center of the city, and they would wait around for a foreman, who needed laborers for the day, to come and pick them up. Apparently this kind of thing is still going on today, David told me that at Home Depot, where he works, people gather there and wait for contractors coming to pick up supplies and they try to get a job with them for the day. And apparently it goes on in Chinatown too, where people gather and they are picked up around 10am and they’re taken to suburban Chinese restaurants to work for the day. I find it interesting how far the world has progresses and yet some things don’t change very much. The workers in the story were unskilled tradesmen at the bottom of society. Many of them probably lived a hand to mouth existence moving from job to job with no guarantee of work other than what they had at the moment. I imagine that it was pretty stressful living with this kind of uncertainty trying to survive.

In this parable, the landowner represents God and through it Jesus teaches us about God’s character. The first thing we notice is that the landowner, AKA God, takes the initiative to go out and search for workers. And this is pretty much how God has worked throughout history since he created mankind. It started in the Garden of Eden, before man’s fall the relationship between God and man was good, they had friendship and co-worked together, but after the fall when sin entered into the world that relationship was broken and mankind hid from God because of their guilt and self-condemnation that comes from sin. God went into the garden calling out, “Where are you?” and ever since God has taken the initiative to search for mankind. It was God who went out and called Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Then there was Samuel, David, Elijah and Elisha. And there was James, John, Peter, Andrew and Matthew, who wrote the book were studying. Even up to our time today, I believe that God was the one who reached out to each one of us, either through his word or one of his workers and called us to him. This is God’s character; he’s always reaching out to people. How amazing, faithful and diligent is God.

Another thing that we notice about this landowner, AKA God, is that He is looking for those who were willing to work with him. He didn’t interview them to find out their history, or have them take a test to see if they were qualified, or fill out an application, or look to see if they met his diversity requirements. The only requirement he had was if they were willing and they were there. That’s all.

Another thing that we notice about the landowner is that he gave those whom he called a sense of purpose. Before the landowner called these people, they were aimless, wandering and kind of out of place. But when he called them, he gave them a sense of purpose, we call it mission. Often times when a person loses their purpose in life, their mission, they fall into despair, hopelessness, meaninglessness, overcome with depression. But when we have a mission accomplish our spirits are invigorated and we have direction, purpose and meaning to our lives no matter how big or small that mission is. Even if that mission is hard, you can enjoy that work if it has a sense of meaning to you. Working in a vineyard wasn’t easy. At harvest time, the grapes had to be picked, often in temperatures of 100 degrees or more. But when you have purpose, even that work can become enjoyable.

Another thing that we notice about the landowner is his generosity. These first workers were promised the pay of a denarius. This was the daily wage of a Roman soldier. While this might not mean much to you and I, it meant a great deal to those listening. Being a Roman soldier was not the most glorious or prestigious job but it was higher up the economic ladder than the common laborer. As such, the promise of a denarius to these workers would have been quite generous. Maybe it’s like comparing minimum wage, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently raised to $10.50 an hour ($84 a day), to the median household income $29.61 an hour ($237 a day). As you might imagine, they eagerly agreed to this pay rate.

I imagine that harvesting the vineyard was unpredictable and largely dependent upon the weather. So sometimes the grapes had to be picked quickly before the bad weather sets in that could destroy the crops or maybe they had to pick them quickly while they were ripe. Also maybe this landowner’s property was large and so he needed more workers to get the job done. So he needed more people. Take a look at verses 3-7. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’”

When the landowner said, “I will pay you whatever is right” in verse 4, these workers took him as a man of his word and trusted him even though he didn’t promise them a particular wage. Also the phrase in verse 6, “found still others standing around” isn’t trying to point out laziness, but rather, unemployment because that’s what someone did until they could get hired. The landowners hiring pattern continued like this for the whole day as he went out at the third, sixth, and eleventh hours. The Jewish workday began at 6:00 AM. This was called the first hour. The third hour began at 9:00 AM, the sixth hour began at noon, the ninth hour began at 3:00 PM, and the eleventh hour at 5:00 PM. And according to Mosaic Law, a worker had to be paid his wages at sunset, which was the twelfth hour 6:00 PM (Lev 19:13; Dt 24:15).

It’s hard not to notice how many times the landowner went back to the market place to look for workers. It’s understandable that he went out first thing in the morning and then again at 9 AM and even at noon. But to go back out at 3 & 5 PM seems inefficient and even a bit wasteful. How much work could they get done since most of the day is gone? Maybe he really need to get the work done, ok maybe 3 PM would be ok at least you’d get 3 hours of work but 5 PM just doesn’t make sense. But through his actions we learn something else about the landowner. At that point I don’t believe that he was thinking about the work that needed to be done. I think that he was concerned for the workers. He even asks them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” By the eleventh hour, the work on most vineyards would have been winding down. The people still waiting for work in the market place at this time probably would have lost hope. They might not have even had anything to bring home for dinner that night. Yet on this particular day it was different. It’s clear that landowner isn’t interested only in his vineyard but also in the people. This reveals his compassion for the workers. This reveals God’s heart that he doesn’t want to miss anyone, so he goes out again and again. Saint Paul confirms this when wrote to Timothy saying, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2) This is why God continues to reach out to people again and again and again throughout history.

So at the close of the day, we see that there are two groups of workers: those hired early who went to work after negotiating a wage; and those hired later who went to work without a contract, choosing to trust the goodness of the master.

God’s vineyard has been opened widely for anyone and everyone to go and work for him. However, in the parable, the workday comes to an end at six p.m. We live in a time when the vineyard is still open. But closing time will come. After that, the chance to work in the vineyard will be gone. Then comes the time to settle accounts. Take a look at verse 8, “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” The typical mode of payment would have been “first come first served,” but surprisingly Jesus turns it around to, “last come first served.” I imagine those who worked all day long were wondering, “What’s going on?”

The workers who were hired at five in the evening came and each were paid a denarius. Legally, the landowner a twelfth of a denarius because that’s all they worked. They never expected to get a full day’s pay, let alone a denarius. But the landowner, out of his generosity, gave them a full denarius. He didn’t pay them according to how much work they did, but he paid them according to his generosity. His generous gift met their needs. I imagine when those workers saw their pay check they were overjoyed, cheering and high-fiving each other.

After the 5 PM workers got paid, with all the cheering going on, the remaining workers got their hopes up too. Take a look at verses 9-10, “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.” Because of human nature, we can imagine how the workers who worked all day long felt as all the workers got paid one denarius. The natural thought would have been, “If the owner gave them a day’s pay for working one hour, those of us who have worked twelve hours stand to gain a bundle!” However, their hopes were dashed when they received the same pay.

In verses 11-12, we see that the attitudes of the first workers begin to head south. “11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’” Working in a vineyard was hard work. One summer I worked in Michigan picking strawberries, it was hard, being bent over, kneeling down with the hot sun beating down on your neck. On human level, we can sympathize with these workers and understand their complaint. Their grumbling seems reasonable. From their point of view, they worked harder and suffered more and deserved a more pay. Their joy turned to anger as they realized that they received the same pay as those who had worked for only one hour. Imagine if the person in your office came in only worked for one hour a day. How would that make you feel?

However, the first workers had forgotten that it was a privilege to work in the vineyard and that they were being paid at a better pay rate than other field workers. When they forgot the owner’s grace and became self-centered, they also became self-righteous. If they had seen this from the landowners’ point of view, or from the other workers’ point of view, they could have found reason to be happy and thankful. But in their self-centeredness, they only complained and grumbled against the landowner. Such people do not know God’s heart or care about others. Jesus’ parable anticipates the complaint of the Jews as they saw Gentiles enter God’s kingdom by grace alone.

Let’s take a look at the landowner’s response in verses 13-15. “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” Objectively speaking, the landowner wasn’t being unfair. He honored his original agreement with them and each of them got paid a denarius. When the landowner called them “friend” is wasn’t a term for a close friend, but rather stand off-ish. Since the landowner only addresses one person the implication is that this “friend” was probably the spokesman of the group. It’s interesting that at 6AM a denarius was great but at 6 PM they were complaining even though both side had lived up to their end of the bargain.

What the landowner did with his own money was up to him and what he paid each person was his own business. It shouldn’t matter what anyone gets paid, but because of our sinful nature it does. I remember one time at work, someone left an offer letter on the office printer. So everyone in the company came to know what the new salesman was getting paid (and it was a lot of money – more than I was getting paid) And so right away, even before the person got there, there was a negative view of that new person. But that’s not right. Yet still it was my sinful nature because I always compared their amount of work to mine and I always thought that I did more work than them. But it’s none of my business what anyone gets paid at work. If the boss wants to be more generous to someone else what concern of that is mine. Each of us agrees to work for a certain amount, if we don’t like we can always quit and look for another job.

However, Jesus is not really talking about a job in this story. The denarius refers to salvation and eternal life. God gives salvation and eternal life to sinners by his grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 tell us, “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.” God carries out his salvation work based on his covenant grace. God’s covenant promises flow through the Bible from the beginning to the end. God made covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Israel, David and Jesus. The covenants with Adam and Moses and Israel were conditional. They are marked by the words, If you obey me....” (Ex 19:5). Man’s obedience was required for these covenants to be honored. The covenants with Abraham, David and Jesus concern God’s promise of salvation and are unconditional. They are marked by God’s words, “I will....” (Gn 12:2; 2 Sa 7:12). This is the covenant of grace. According to this covenant of grace, God sent his one and only Son Jesus Christ to save mankind from their sins. God did everything for our salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even though he did everything for us, God does not force us to accept his covenant. He asks for our agreement, which is trusting in him and having faith in his promise. God wants us to make a decision of faith to accept his generous offer. Based on this covenant agreement, God gives us eternal life. Anyone who receives this grace receives eternal life as a gift. The same gift is given equally to all who believe. It doesn’t depend upon any work that we do, but only upon God’s grace. So we shouldn’t compare our works with others. None of us can boast. The only thing we can do is be thankful.

However, we are such sinful people and this parable can also be applied to our life span. When we first experience God’s love, we are overjoyed, just like the 5PM workers, but over time we become more like the first workers with higher expectations. And so the question has to be asked, do we serve God willingly and gladly simply because we love our Lord and Master, do we delight in the service itself or do we work only for our reward seeking to be acknowledged or given a wage? Because if we are only working for a wage, we know that the wages of sin is death and that’s the wage we will be given, but the gift of God is eternal life.

Then Jesus brings the parable to its appropriate end in verse 16. It says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” In the kingdom of God, our perceived position makes no difference because God shows no partiality. The words, “The first shall be last,” are intended to remove all presumption, and to prevent us from exalting ourselves above others; while the words, “The last shall be first,” is directed against despair. The great question on the last day will be, not “How much have you done?” but “What’s your relationship with Jesus & does he know you?” But the reality is, what you have done will greatly affect what you are, since actions form habits and habits establish a character. So just as a dog barks and a cow moo’s a Christian should do what Christ did. In next week’s passage, Jesus will show us how to serve – by giving his life as a ransom for many.

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