By Pastor Glenn Pease
A professor at the University of Chicago was asked to teach an advanced seminar on astrophysics. There were a lot of reasons not to do it. He was doing research in Wisconsin, and it would be a hundred mile round trip twice a week. The course was scheduled for winter months, and so it could be dangerous driving. Registration for the course fell far below expectations. Only two students signed up for the class. The negatives were so conspicuous that people expected him to cancel, but he didn't do it. He made that trip all winter for those two students. Ten years later in 1957 two students by the name of Chen Ning Wang and Tsung-Dao Lee both won the Nobel Prize for physics. Dr. Chandrasekhar, the professor, won it in 1983. Many success stories are based on the willingness of someone to make a big commitment to what seems like a small project.
The majority of Christians in this world serve small groups of people. Sunday School classes of one to five, or youth groups from one to fifteen, and Bible studies of two to seven are typical, and they need to be reminded of this fact. Studies show that the majority of pastors, missionaries, professors, and professional Christian servants of all kinds come out of small churches where someone was willing to work with small groups to change a life or two for the glory of God. This has never been easy, and few can do it without frustration and doubt. Is it worth it? What good am I doing? How can I ever be successful with so few to touch? These are common questions.
The result is that working for the Lord is not all that different than secular work. It leads to a lot of anxiety, frustration, and what is popularly called burn out. If you study the world of work, you discover a high percentage of people do not like their job. A fire drill in a four story factory revealed that workers could vacate the building in three minutes and eleven seconds. But further observation showed that when the quitting buzzer sounded they could be out in two minutes flat. People love to escape from their place of labor, and they love to complain about it. You would think that if God was your employer, and Jesus was your boss, and the kingdom of God was your company, everything would be different. But the New Testament reveals that Christian workers need constant encouragement to wake up and press on in their labor for the Lord.
After Paul gives a long and elaborate description of the ultimate rewards for the Christian laborer, he concludes with I Cor. 15:58, "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." They needed the stimulus of reward to keep them from sliding into apathy. This is a major problem with the church today. Volunteerism has been dying for the past two decades. They only way to get people to do anything is to hire them. Christian people have become passive and want to leave everything to the professional.
Tony Complo in his latest book Carpe Diem, which means seize the day, paints a frightening picture of our secular and spiritual culture. He travels all over the country and speaks to high school assemblies. The kids are so apathetic that they no longer throw paper airplanes at him, and act up to give him a hard time like they use to. They just sit and stare until he is done, so they can get going nowhere. They don't come for help or advice or wisdom about life. Churches are the same. Christians have no dreams or goals, and you can't get them enthused about anything. There is an absent of energy which represents a quenching of the Spirit. He says it would be less threatening to face the firing squad today than to face a group of Christian teens and try to elicit any enthusiasm.
He may be exaggerating to make his point, but here is a man who sees the Christian world first hand, and what he sees is that people hate labor for the Lord just like they hate their secular jobs. It is not a new problem. It is just worse right now. You see it in the New Testament, however. It is a shock that Paul had to write to the Galatian church in say things like he does in 6:9, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Can you imagine Christian people just getting sick and tired of being good people, and doing good things? Can you conceive of them going on strike against the Lord, and saying that they will no longer be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?
We demand more wages for the stress and strain for trying to be good Christians. It is just too hard, and we do not see that it pays off adequately. If there is not more in it for me, I am giving up. This may sound to radical to be real, but it brings us to the context of Matt. 20 where we see Jesus teaching the parable that deals with the issue of labor and management. He is dealing with the kingdom of God, and what we see is that Christians have some of the same problems working for the Lord as they do in working for anyone else. This parable is one of the hardest to understand, and just about everyone agrees it is impossible to grasp what Jesus is getting at without seeing the total context in which He speaks this parable.
For example, we need to look back at chapter 19 where Peter asks Jesus in v. 27, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" In other words, what does this job pay? This is the bottom line in any job-what is in it for me? I don't work for my health even if it is proven that work is healthy exercise. I want to get paid for what I do, and Peter is asking Jesus to get to this bottom line and tell him about the wage package for being a disciple. Then if we go to the other side of the parable and look at verse 20 and following, we read the story of the mother of James and John coming to Jesus and asking that her two boys be allowed to sit at His right and left hand in His kingdom. She has high ambitions for her sons, and nothing less than the top of the heap will satisfy her.
So what we have here is the three top Apostles that Jesus chose for His inner circle all concerned about what is in it for them. What will they get for their labor for the Lord? Is this a good job, or will I do better if I stick to fishing for a living? It is in this context of economic concerns that Jesus tells this parable. It is a parable that is both disturbing and comforting. It is a good news-bad news lesson that Jesus is teaching. We will look at the bad news first, and then end on the good news note. So first-
I. THE BAD NEWS.
The bad news is that the good news rubs us the wrong way. The amazing grace of God is also the appalling grace of God when it makes those inferior to us equal to us because of God's generosity. In this parable the men who are hired to work for just the last hour of the day are paid the same wage as those who labored all day long in the heat of the sun. When they saw those late comers getting a denarius, they figured they would receive a lot more, but they didn't. They got the same denarius for their full day.
They began to grumble against the land owner. They made a verbal protest against what they felt was a unjust action. This is the word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe the constant murmuring of the people delivered from Egypt. They grumbled at Moses, Aaron, and they grumbled at God. They wanted to go back to Egypt and get a decent meal for a change with some garlic and leeks. Nothing was right and all was wrong, and they were highly critical. They just did not like God's plan at all. It was a pain, and they griped all the way to the Promised Land.
God's ways do not always please even godly people. We come to the New Testament and this word is used to describe the complaint of the Pharisees against Jesus for His dealings with publicans and sinners. Here is the Son of God doing His thing. He is loving the unlovely, and showing grace to sinners, and what does He get but grumbling? I don't know about you, but I have always been disgusted with the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament Pharisees for their complaints against God and Jesus. But here is the bad news-this parable of Jesus catches us all and almost forces us to be as guilty as those we are disgusted with.
I can't help but feel the same as the grumbling workers who labor all day and get no more than those who work one hour. It is just not fair, and I cannot be so pious as to say that if I was one of those all day workers I would not be a part of the protest group doing the grumbling. The land owner has a point when he argues that it is his money and that he has a right to do with it as he pleases, but the fact is, it just does not seem fair, and that is the bad news about God's amazing grace. It just does not set right with fallen human nature. It goes against the grain of our value system, and thus it is also God's appalling grace.
The parable has many applications to life. The major historical application is to the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews labor for God for centuries, and they bore the heat of persecution and exile for God's kingdom. Now Jesus comes and says the Gentiles can become equal to them, and receive the same reward as they receive. It is not fair they complain. Why should one with a pagan history and loyalty to idols be welcome into the kingdom of God on an equal level with those of us who have been loyal to the one true God all these decades? This was the biggest battle that Jewish Christians had to face when the Gentiles began to pour into the church that was previously Jewish.
Jewish Christians did everything they could think of to preserve inequality so that Jews would have a status above the Gentiles, but the grace of God would not permit it. Gentiles who labored only one hour were given the same reward because of God's generosity. In verse 16 the land owner asked, "Are you envious because I am generous?" And the answer is implied-yes! Yes, we are envious, and that is why we are grumbling and complaining that it isn't fair.
We love grace when it makes us equal to our superiors, and we are given the same favor and status as those above us. But we hate it when it does the same for our inferiors. When those who do not deserve it are treated equal to us it does not seem fair, and we feel mistreated. That is the appalling side of God's amazing grace. The proof that grace caused the gripes is, if the land owner would have paid the last workers one third of a denarius that was still above what they were worth, but the murmuring would have been slight. They would be content that they got more than these late workers. The issue is not the amount of the wages at all. The issue is equality. They hated it that others were treated equally who did not deserve it. They would have gone away happy in their days labor had the land owner just not made these late comers equal.
Human nature does not like the grace of God when it is universal. Favor us, favor our family, favor our race, and I will praise you Lord, but favor and make others whom I feel are unworthy equal to me and I will protest that it is unfair. The bottom line is, none of us are much better than the Old Testament grippers, or the New Testament Pharisees if the situation is right. We just cannot tolerate God's appalling grace. The closer it gets to home the more we feel it. I doubt if anyone feels bad that the thief on the cross got to go to paradise with Jesus that very day. He never went to church, was not baptized, never tithed a penny, never sand in the choir, or taught Sunday School, or did any service for the kingdom of God, and yet he received eternal life. We can deal with the amazing grace of God here. But bring it closer to home and get in a situation with the elder brother of the Prodigal and see how easy it is.
Your brother goes off to live in sin and waste his inheritance. He is a major fool, but he repents and is taken back into the family and treated with honor and respect. You have been faithful all your life, and conservative in your use of resources, and now this scoundrel is your equal as a son of the Father. It is just not fair, and you find yourself filled with envy and with complaint. Someone in your life is always getting a better deal than you. They are not as faithful and generous. They don't put in the hours of effort that you do to serve the Lord, and yet by the grace of God they receive the same love and generosity as you. One thing we are not going to like about judgment day is seeing people not nearly as good and spiritual as us receiving an equal welcome into heaven.
So why bother to be a good worker and spend your life in labor for the Lord when it makes you look like a sap in the end? The last hour worker gets equal pay, so why not lay back on your behind and let some other sucker bear the heat of the day? This is the kind of thinking that can cause Christian workers to give up, and many do. They get weary in well doing, and they do not see that it pays off. God's grace is appalling to them, for those who do practically nothing become their equal, and so they feel like quitting. They join the grumbles who go away from the land owner saying, "We will never work for this guy again." Now let's look at-
II. THE GOOD NEWS.
The good news is the amazing grace of God. This land owner had compassion on these men who could not get hired. They had families to feed, bills to pay, and if they did not work and get paid that day their children could go hungry. The day was nearly over and they had to be in despair, for nobody would hire them now. But this land owner comes and puts them to work for one hour, and then he gives them a full days wage. These guys had to be singing for joy all the way home, and what a story to tell the wife and kids as they ate their evening meal.
They knew they did not deserve a full days wage. It was an unbelievable break for them, and they could rejoice in such amazing grace. From their perspective this land owner was the best guy to work for in all the land. He was their hero, and they would gladly work for him anytime, and put in extra time to help him meet any goals he had to achieve. They would be the first to praise him, and the first to serve him in any capacity he called for, for they were awed by his generosity.
Jesus ends this parable by saying that the last will be first and the first will be last. This is something of a mystery and a challenge to figure out, but one thing is clear, these last workers who were the recipients of amazing grace who would be the first to jump on any bandwagon that would please this land owner. In other words, those who experience God's grace as amazing, rather than as appalling, are the best workers, and those lease likely to grumble and give up. They will be first in service because they were last in worthiness, but they were made equal by the grace of God.
The implication is that the best Christian workers will be those who most feel the grace of God in their lives. If they feel they are unworthy and are among the last to be selected for God's service, they will be grateful people who become the best laborers for the Lord. But if they feel they are superior and worthy of special benefits for their labor they are the most likely to end up complaining, and becoming those who are weary in well doing. If God's grace is amazing to you, you will be one of the last who become first. If God's grace is appalling to you, you will be among the first to become last. How you view the grace of God will determine your labor and your reward.
The good news of God's grace is that there is no unemployment in His kingdom. If you come to Christ at age 80 and have little time or energy to give labor for the kingdom, you are still hired. And you will receive the same eternal life and joy of heaven as those who labored all their life for the Lord. This is not to say there is no difference in living all your life for Him, and living one hour for Him. Degrees of rewards are clearly taught in Scripture. Back in chapter 19 in the final paragraph Jesus tells the disciples that those who have left family and fields for His sake will receive a hundred fold as well as eternal life. This parable is not contradicting the clear message of the Bible that will be special rewards for special service. It is simply teaching that there will be equality of grace, and those least deserving will be equally saved.
G. Campbell Morgan, the great Bible expositor, said, "This parable is intended to teach one simple truth, that a man's reward will be, not according to the length of his service, not according to the notoriety of his service, but according to his fidelity to the opportunity which is given him." Those who had one hour did what they could in that hour, and the land owner was generous and rewarded them equally with those who labored all day. God is equally generous to all who will serve Him according to their opportunity. Some are severely limited like the thief on the cross. He did what he could by confessing his belief in Christ, and he was the last to do so before Christ died, and he was the first to join Christ in paradise. The Gentiles came into the kingdom last, but they were faithful to serve the Lord, and they became the first to be used of God to make His kingdom truly universal for all men. The Jews who were first, but who resisted making the kingdom universal, ended up last.
I do not pretend to grasp all that Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in this context, but the evidence seems quite clear that Jesus knew His disciples, and Christians all through history, would struggle with the issue of God's appalling or amazing grace. He knew they would be concerned about their rewards for their labor, and what was in it for them. He knew some would feel that God's grace was unfair to them by making those less committed to become equal. Let me close with an illustration of what I think this parable is all about.
F. O. Nillson was a preacher who was banished from Sweden. He came to America to work among the Swedes here. He was very successful and started many churches. He labored sacrificially and traveled around the hard roads of the mid 1800's in Minnesota. He slept outside often, and met in old school houses where he had to be the janitor. He had to pay for the wood to heat it out of his own pocket. It was hard to be first and be a pioneer preacher. It called for great dedication and sacrifice. His success led to other preachers being called to serve the churches he started. These younger preachers did not have to sacrifice as he did, for they came into a work already established. They also got higher wages than he ever did, and often were given honors and praise that he never received. This led him to become bitter and angry because it was not fair. He was first, and yet he was not getting greater reward than these newcomers. The amazing grace of God became appalling to him, and he became a grumbler.
This happens to many of God's servants because they see the last becoming first, and the first, namely themselves, becoming last. This is one of the risks of being a servant of God, and the only way to avoid it is to see and appreciate the amazing grace of God, for if we fail to do so, His grace will sometimes seem appalling, and we will miss out on the joy that can be ours in entering into the pleasure of God in blessing those who are unworthy. Can you be happy for those who are last and unworthy, but who still enjoy the same marvelous grace of God that you do? This is God's will for all of us, so that we never see His grace as appalling, but always as amazing.