In Matthew 20:1-16 there is a story about some workers in a vineyard. The story is about a boss who hires workers and he decides to pay those who have only worked a few hours the same as those who have been working all day. As you can imagine it created some conflict. Some have stated that the difference between the first and the last is simply a matter of jealousy and greed.
If it is greed it is an emotion that arises in all of us from time to time when we begin to think that we are being treated unfairly in money matters. if it jealousy it is an emotion that surfaces when we see somebody else getting more salary or compensation than we think they deserve.
But it really isn’t as simple as all that, as with most things it goes deeper than that. The first group had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a specific amount a day. They believed this to be a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor. The other laborers, however, had no such agreement or contract. They didn’t insist upon definite terms. Rather, the landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.”
I wonder if you or I would work for him on that basis, “Whatever is right.” I think it all depends on what kind of person you think the landowner to be; is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad? It depends on whether or not you trust him. If you didn’t trust the landowner, you probably wouldn’t go into his vineyard and work for him and if you did, you would.
I think this is ultimately the real difference between the first and the last in this parable. The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness. The first had a deal with him on what they deemed to be fair. The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right.
Now, obviously the owner of the vineyard in this parable is God the Father. By His Word and Spirit He calls out to us to come and work in His vineyard. Some came into the church early in life and have remained faithful their entire lives. Others are converted later in life, while some aren’t brought to faith in Christ until their lives are almost over; some are full of good works, others are full of weakness and failure.
God gives everyone the same thing at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven. He does this not because He is unfair, but rather, because He is generous and loving and merciful. He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly. For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
A problem arises in many churches when some in the vineyard begin to think that their length of time and their service deserves some special reward, they want God to work on the merit system. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people. Love has nothing to do with what is owed or deserved. Real love is a freely given gift with no strings attached. As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end a business relationship–you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. To treat God like that is not to love Him but to use Him.
The second problem is if we want God to deal with us on the basis of what’s fair, what we deserve, we’re putting ourselves in grave danger. Those who want the merit system with God have no clue what they’re asking for. If you want fair wages, then here’s what the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death.” Those who go to hell are really only getting what they asked for, namely, the just payment for their faithless works.
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you? Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds? Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)? If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable.
Stop ranking yourself above others, turn away from your reliance on your own works, and turn to the works of Christ. Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father. Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.
That’s the difference between the first and the last, between unbelief and faith. There are those who seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they don’t like Him. There are others who seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him. They know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there.
Martin Luther had this to say on today’s Gospel, “When God declares that ‘the first will be last,’ He takes away all your presumptions and forbids you to exalt yourself, even above a whore, even if you were Abraham, David, Peter, or Paul. But when He says, ‘the last will be first,’ He bids you cast off despair and not to regard yourself unfavorably even in comparison with the saints, even though you were Pilate, Herod, Sodom and Gomorrah. For just as we have no reason at all for presumption and boasting, so also we have no reason for despair. In this way then, all merits are set aside and God’s goodness alone is praised. . . We are all the same in our sin and death, and so we all receive the same grace. Always the kingdom comes by grace to whomever God desires to give it.”
“The last will be first, and the first last.” For this is the way of Christ. He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross. He was treated unfairly so that you would be treated graciously.