Matthew 20:1-16: Workers in the Vineyard
February 22, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Picking up on an apparently fairly enigmatic phrase at the end of the last section (“first, last; last, first,” 19:30), Jesus expounds more on that principle by telling a story to illustrate his meaning. By 20:16 he has explained what it is that he is saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The story itself, typically for Jesus, is absolutely brilliant and compelling. What a master Storyteller and Teacher! This story is to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is “like” (20:1). That is, we should not think that every detail of the story is analogous to some other detail in the kingdom of heaven, but that the story itself is a comparison with what life is like in the kingdom of heaven. We are to lay our understanding of the kingdom of heaven next to this story and compare the two so that we can grow in our understanding of the kingdom.
The story is about a master of a house who goes out to hire laborers. He has a vineyard that needs work, and so he goes and finds workers to do the work. So far, so standard, so normal. He agrees with the workers on a normal day’s wage, and they begin their work. As the day continues, he apparently has need for more workers, so he goes to hire some more. And then the same rehire of more workers happens twice more.
When the evening has arrived and it is time for him to pay his hired laborers, he starts with those who were hired at the “eleventh hour,” or last in the day, and he pays them the one denarius that he agreed with those he had hired first in the day. When he finally comes to settle up with those he had hired first in the day, they expect that they will be paid proportionately more than those he had hired last—after all, they had worked longer! But the master of the house reminds them that he is paying them exactly what they agreed to be paid for their work. He is only being generous to those who worked fewer hours.
In this way, Jesus says, the last will be first, and the first will be last—this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
In other words, the kingdom of heaven is not a merit-based operation. Our reward is not based upon the amount of work we do. We think of our relationship to God very often in contractual terms. We have worked so many hours, and therefore we deserve to receive so much reward. Or we have not worked very hard or very long and therefore we only deserve to receive very little. But that is not at all how the kingdom works. The kingdom is all by grace, God’s gift, the Master’s generosity. For those God calls into his kingdom, by his grace, there is a reward: eternal life with Christ and joy with him. But that reward is all by grace, and true for all whom God calls, and is not impacted at all by the amount of work we do for him. Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of heaven is a grace operation (not a legalistic works operation).
How freeing this is! How glorious it is! How it humbles us, and lifts us up at the same time!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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