THE ONLY REWARD THAT MATTERS
(Psalm 16; Matthew 20:1-16)
Dear Father, we come once more to hear your word. Have mercy on us, we pray. Awaken us to your voice, illumine us by your Holy Spirit, and kindle in us the fire of your love. In the name of your dear Son we pray. Amen
As you listened to our gospel reading this morning from Matthew 20, I suspect that some of you might have had a mixed reaction to the parable. Our American sense of fair-play seems somehow violated by it. Americans per capita work more hours each week than any other country in the world. We value work, and we have a strong sense that a fair day’s labor deserves a fair day’s pay. This parable seems to say that the guy who shows up on the job with just an hour to go gets paid as much as the guy who has toughed it out all day. And that last verse, in particular—“the last will be first and the first will be last”—that sounds a bit odd too, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really saying that it really doesn’t matter in the end how hard we work in “God’s vineyard?” If that’s the case, then what’s the incentive to work at all?
As is so often the case, the key to understanding today’s text lies in the context. Notice that the first verse of our passage begins with the conjunction “for,” which is referring back to what immediately precedes the parable at the end of Chapter 19. And what is interesting is that the last verse of chapter 19 repeats that strange thought—“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” In other words, today’s text is actually meant to explain what was said in chapter 19 and unless we listen in on that conversation we won’t understand the parable.
In chapter 19 we have that well-known story of the rich young ruler who wants to find eternal life. It is very evident that this young man is essentially a decent person who leads an exemplary life. Yet his conscience is troubled, and for good reason. He recognizes the importance of God in his life, and yet he also knows that deep down inside something is wrong, something is standing between he and God. Jesus quickly diagnoses the problem; what is holding him back is that he does not fully trust God. He cannot fully let go of something that looms even bigger than God in his life—namely, his wealth. When Jesus makes it clear to him that he trusts his money more than God, the young man goes away sad, because it’s true.
Jesus then turns to his disciples and declares how hard it is for wealthy people to enter God’s kingdom. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, he says. And what made this statement especially disturbing to the disciples was that wealth back then was universally seen as a sign of righteousness and God’s blessing. It brought status and admiration. Listen to how wealth is extoled in the book of Proverbs:
10:22 The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it.
13:21 Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.
14:24 The wealth of the wise is their crown.
All of which explains the disciple’s shocked response to Jesus statement on how hard it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom in verse 25:
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
In other words, if the wealthy were going to have a hard time getting into the kingdom, than what chance do the rest of us have? Listen to Jesus’ answer:
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus looked straight at them and said that humanly speaking it’s impossible for any of us to be saved, for any of us to escape our own unbelief and willfulness. The magnitude of our sin is so immense, our self-absorption is so deep, and our inability to trust God is so entrenched. We are all like the rich young ruler; we all have a hard time of letting go of our own security and fully entrusting ourselves to God’s care. However, the good news is that nothing is impossible with God. What we cannot do for ourselves, God can make happen. God has, through the cross of Christ, saved us from sin and death, and through the Holy Spirit begun his mysterious work in and through our own faltering efforts to trust him.
Now you would think that Jesus’ reply would have put the disciples at rest, but it actually creates another problem for them. If we cannot save ourselves, if it’s actually a work of God’s grace, then what value does our effort to follow Christ really have? I mean, let’s be honest here. A serious effort follow Jesus is no bed of roses. The scriptures are quick to remind us (as well as every Christian exemplar who ever walked this earth) that following Christ is an arduous battle. To use the words of the apostle John, it’s a fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. It’s a struggle against our own egos and agendas and passions. It’s taking on the yoke of Christ and undergoing the discipline that yoke implies. Or to use another metaphor of Jesus, it’s “taking up our own cross daily.” Surely our struggle to obey means something to God. And so we shouldn’t be too surprised by Peter’s response:
Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for
Now on the surface, Peter’s question seems a bit crass and self-serving. It would have sounded so much more heroic and spiritual if he had said, “Well, don’t worry about us, Lord. Even though we have left everything to follow you, that’s okay. We’re in this for no other reason than to please God. We don’t expect anything in return. We’re glad to suffer for the kingdom.” Such an answer might sound very pious, but it’s also very false. But by answering the way he did, Peter is actually being honest and human in a good way, in the way God wants us to be, which is why Jesus doesn’t rebuke him.
For there is a logic to Peter’s question. Different from the rich young ruler who could not let go of his wealth, these disciples had made sacrifices—jobs, homes, families—in order to devote their full attention to following the Lord. They had observed by now that Jesus wasn’t into money, status, health, or power. They knew from personal experience that following him was definitely hard in many respects, but as Peter had said on another occasion, Jesus spoke to them the words of eternal life, and so implicit in following Jesus was this expectation that it was worth it all, that something better would follow. And so his question is perfectly legitimate—what is the payoff for following Christ? Listen to the Lord’s answer:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
Mark’s gospel expands on that last sentence by having Jesus say that those who sacrifice anything for him will receive “a hundred times in this life,” as well as eternal life in the world to come. In saying this Jesus is confirming two things. First, following him is hard. It does involve denial and sacrifice. But second, there is a payoff, both now and in the life to come. To the disciples he tells them specifically that they will have a place of honor in the resurrection as they sit in judgment over the twelve tribes of Israel. This isn’t a reference to the final judgment, for only God can administer that responsibility. Rather this appears to refer to some kind of ongoing responsibility. But the specifics aren’t important. What’s important is that nothing is lost with God. No sacrifice goes unnoticed or unrewarded. As Jesus said elsewhere, “even a cup of cold water given in my name shall not lose its reward.” And with that, Jesus’ main point would seem to be clearly established and the matter finally settled.
But it’s not. For he quickly follows those comforting words about rewards with this one strange caveat: “But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.”
And to explain what he means by this, he gives the disciples the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Chapter 20. Much like harvesting grapes today, the window of opportunity for ancient winemakers to harvest was very narrow, and so this vineyard owner needed to muster as much help as he could get, and so at different hours of the day he goes out to the town square looking for additional workers to send into his vineyard. At the end of the day, he settles up with all of them. Let me read you a portion of the parable again:
The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of work and the heat of the day.”
Now what is important to remember here is that the owner of the vineyard had originally offered the first group hired a denarius, which in first century Palestine was the actual going rate for a day’s labor. They were paid precisely what they had agreed on, which was a fair wage. On the other hand, those who labored only an hour—who had hardly worked up a sweat—they had been told by the owner, “I’ll pay you what is fair,” with no guarantee what that amount would be. They were told to do what they could to help with the harvest. In the end, to their surprise I am sure, they get the same as the others. Which leads those who had worked all day to grumble. And what is Jesus’ response?
But he answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Ultimately, the owner of the vineyard had violated no agreements with the first group, and yet his immense generosity to the second group somehow made it all seem unfair. And part of me can understand this. If the master is so generous with the one-hour group, why isn’t he even more generous with the all-day group? But it’s the first group’s attitude that is the point of the parable, and it’s an attitude that is all wrong. They earned a full day’s pay. They should be grateful to have work at all. How the owner chose to treat another group is of no concern to them. In essence this parable is a lot like the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal son is like the group that only worked an hour but was still fully accepted back into the family with all the rights and privileges. The elder brother, like those who had faithfully worked all day in the vineyard, was miffed by his father’s generosity, even though the elder son already possessed everything his father owned.
By giving this parable, Jesus is making it very clear that although God delights in rewarding us for any sacrifice we might make in following him, in the end there is really on one reward that matters, and that reward is given out of the sheer grace and mercy of God to anyone and everyone who comes to God like the prodigal son, in repentance and faith. That basic reward is what the rich young ruler ultimately sought when he said to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The young man already had everything this material world could provide, but his life was still vapid and empty. What he lacked was God himself. As Jesus himself put it so succinctly, “This is eternal life, to know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In this world we may never be wealthy or healthy or famous or live lives of great adventure and excitement. But by allowing Christ himself to invade our lives, we come into contact with that which we most long for and most need—forgiveness, renewal, unconditional love, a calling, and a home. In other words, by letting go of everything we find everything. We find ourselves taken into the life of God himself. And we begin this journey right now, however slowly at first.
This same reality was expressed by the apostle Paul when he wrote, “having nothing, yet we possess all things.” Paul, who suffered poverty, beatings, and deprivations of all kinds, knew what made for deep, lasting fulfillment. So yes, there are such things as rewards on earth as well as in heaven. And they can take specific, tangible forms, such as the disciples having the honor of judging the twelve tribes of Israel in the resurrection. Jesus talks about rewards a lot, as do all the apostolic writings. But what the disciples needed to learn is that the ultimate payoff is actually Jesus himself. Knowing him, being with him, now and forever is payoff enough. Eventually all the disciples would discover what the apostle Paul wrote when he said to the church at Philippi: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.”
And so what do we learn from all this? First, God’s sense of what is fair is vastly different from ours. For starters, God does not distribute his rewards solely based on what we deserve, for if he did, none of us would get into the Kingdom of God. None of us. But fortunately, he is full of grace and does the impossible in making salvation available at all.
Second, that expression “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” is a reminder that there is no pecking order in God’s kingdom—no A-list, no spiritual elite. Whether you’ve labored here at Valley Covenant for 30 years or whether you have just arrived, we are all on the same footing—so blessed to even be part of his family.
Third, this morning’s parable teaches us not to judge another person’s work or the seeming lack of it. Yes, Christ sends all of us into his vineyard to work. And yet it’s obvious that some people seem called upon to bear the brunt of the labor and the heat of the day. Others may be ready to work, but for whatever reason, known only to God, it sometimes seems as though they have been left in the town square waiting. As John the Baptist put it, “A man can only receive what is given him from heaven.” But even those in the town square can be prayerful and attentive. We are still called to work whenever and however we can. In the meantime, let us not judge one another, but remember that famous line from Milton’s sonnet—“they also serve who only stand and wait.”
Fourth, all our work here on earth will be rewarded by the only person who can truly measure it—namely, God. I am convinced that we are all in for a great deal of surprise when God’s measuring stick is applied. People we thought very great and productive here on earth may prove to be very insignificant in God’s eyes, and many nameless, faceless people will be very great to God. Billy Graham once said that he would not be surprised at all when he arrives in heaven to discover that some unknown, inner-city worker had done far more to advance the kingdom of God than all his evangelistic campaigns combined. I think this is very likely true.
Finally, rather than get wrapped up in comparing our service to God, we should all be concerned about the motive behind our own service—the reason we personally labor at all. It is perfectly right and healthy to labor for a reward, but make sure you understand what that reward is, that it’s ultimately Christ himself. And once that becomes clear, then it does not matter who worked the hardest or suffered the most. It’s a miracle any of us get to spend eternity with Christ. It’s a gift beyond what we can imagine.
Just a few verses after this parable in Matthew, the two disciples James and John privately came to Jesus in order to lobby for the privilege of sitting at his right and left in his kingdom. When the other ten disciples heard about it they were naturally very upset. The Lord used the occasion to teach them that the greatest among them is actually the person who least cares about greatness at all, but who is more concerned about serving the needs of others, a notion we all have a hard time learning, and I am not sure whether on that side of the cross the disciples ever understood what he was talking about. It takes the cross to level all our false expectations about rewards and to teach us just who God really is and what he values.
And in the resurrection, when we are with him face to face, whoever Jesus picks to sit at his right hand will seem perfectly appropriate to the rest of us. In fact, I sometimes imagine that the person sitting in that chair may turn out to be the thief on the cross, who turned to Christ just a few hours before he died. Wouldn’t that be a great example indeed that the last will be first! Amen