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Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Main Point: God is sovereign over grace.
Do you know the phrase, “with strings attached”? When a friend or neighbor does something for you that thing can come with strings attached or that thing can come with no strings attached. If your friend does something for you with no strings attached that means your friend does not expect anything in return. The deed is freely done and freely given. But if your friend does something with strings attached that means you will be expected to do something in return. Though the deed may look like a generous and free gift it’s actually a way to bring you into debt.
This can be something as simple as a neighbor feeding your pet. Your neighbor can choose to freely feed your pet while you are gone expecting nothing in return. If you choose to buy a souvenir to say thank you, well so be it, but payment was not expected. Your neighbor can also choose to feed your pet expecting payment in return. He may drop hints about his t-shirt size, love for salt water taffy, or fascinating collection of souvenir spoons. Suddenly you are aware of strings. He’ll do it saying it’s free but he expects something in return. Should we treat God that way? Should we say we’ll do what he says because we love him but honestly do it for personal gain?
Last week we looked at the parable of the minas. There in Luke 19 we saw a nobleman pour out undeserved rewards. The question before us now is should we seek the rewards? Should we do family, work, school, and church in order to gain rewards from God? Should we obey God with strings attached? Let’s read our next parable in Matthew 20:1-16.
I. Understand the parable
A. The workday
Harvest time was hard work time. Starting at 6 in the morning the landowner hires workers and sends them into his vineyard. They will work a 12 hour day and it will be hot and nasty. Seeking more workers the landowner returns to the market at nine, noon, three, and five. Each time finding more workers he sends them into his vineyard to do the work.
What we need to notice are the agreements between the workers and the owner. In verse 2 we see the workers agree to work the day for one denarius. Their agreement is upfront and clear, no hidden clauses or loop holes. Do this work. Earn this pay. Agreed? Agreed.
The other workers don’t receive the same treatment. What is their pay scale? Verse 4, the owner agrees to pay them whatever is right. They agree and go. It appears this “whatever is right” agreement is worked out with the noon, three, and five o’clock shifts.” They all agree. They all go. It’s the work day. Then comes
More specifically it’s the hour for pay. Verse 8, “when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” It has been noted this is an odd way to pay. Typically payment would begin with those who started first and end with those who came last. But as you know, parables twist the expected to teach a lesson. Our lesson revolves around those who began early in the morning.
So the workers line up with the 11th hour workers first. They receive one denarius which is far more than hoped for or expected. Then the 9th hour, 6th hour, and third hour all receive one denarius. This is crazy good news for them. They all can’t believe it. Going home they would have been on cloud nine. Then comes the first hour workers. Look at verse 10, “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
Pause right here and go back to Matthew 19:27, “Peter said in reply, ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’” The Apostles are first hour workers. While Jesus promises great blessings he also wants them to understand that obeying God with strings attached is not the way to go. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s look at
C. The landowner
The landowner is just, sovereign, and generous. Look at verse 13. In reply to the first hour workers he says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” God always keeps his promises. While giving some more than they deserve, God never gives less than what is deserved. They agreed on a denarius. He gave them a denarius. He is just.
God is also sovereign. Verse 15, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” This is God’s world. We’re just living in it. We don’t know why God chooses to do one thing with one person and another thing with another person. But we know this. God is just, sovereign, and generous.
Again, can you imagine being one of those 11th hour workers? How awesome would it be to be that guy? When it comes to salvation we are all 11th hour workers. But we don’t even put in a good hour’s work. We show up on the jobsite and tear everything up but God graciously forgives, justifies, and gives us an inheritance with the saints in glory. In the forgiveness of sins and the giving of eternal life we are all equals. At the foot of the cross everyone stands on level ground.
The idea that some really special folks get more of God is absolutely foreign to the Bible. The Father’s house has many rooms and Christian, come early or come late, you get a room in that house. This is the generosity of God. But what about
D. The laborers
All of the laborers work throughout the day, some less and some more, but each of them received a denarius. So I guess Jesus is a communist after all! Equal pay of unequal work. That would be the case if we didn’t pay attention to context. Remember, Jesus is not addressing pay scales or the merits of labor unions. Jesus is addressing Peter’s question, “What about us? What do we get?”
Even broader, what about those people who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (19:12)? Don’t they get something special?
The first hour workers get one denarius like the rest. Some believe the denarius represents eternal life, justification, or salvation in general. But it doesn’t seem likely there will be many complaining on judgment day that they were saved like the rest of God’s people. It is more likely Jesus is talking about the work people put in and the product that comes out. Think in terms of sowing and reaping.
One person initiates conversations with ease and in no time the gospel is presented clearly and a man repents, believes, and begins to grow as a disciple. That’s an 11th hour worker. Still others build relationships of love and service. Year in year out the gospel is offered and again and again it is refused. Working tirelessly for decades this person sees one repent, believe, and begin to grow as a disciple. Where is the fairness in that God?
Look at verse 12, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
John MacArthur helps us here, “The problem was not injustice on the part of the landowner…but jealousy on the part of the workers. Is your eye envious because I am generous?” the owner asks the angry spokesman. As he had just reminded the group, he completely lived up to their mutual agreement, and that should have been their only concern. But jealousy and envy are not based on reason but on selfishness. The charge of unfairness was not grounded in a love for justice but in the selfish assumption that the extra pay they wanted was the pay they deserved”. (MacArthur, 213).
Ladies are you jealous of others, maybe even mad at God for the way your life has turned out? Men are you jealous of others you have better jobs or more successful ministries? As you think about what you don’t have or how badly you have it does your envy and jealousy of others turn into anger toward God? Do you come to God like a child (19:14) or do you come with strings attached? Now we’re on to something. Let’s
II. Apply the parable
In his book Prodigal God Tim Keller tells this story which helps us understand the point of Jesus’ parable.
Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My Lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as [the gardener] turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot—what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”
Here is our first take home
A. Make God your reward
Don’t make rewards your rewards. If you are loving, staying, serving, praying, and reading your bible because you think if you do God will give you what you want then you are in for a big shock.
Look back with me at Matthew 19:28-30 (read it).
What is the reason houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or lands are left, for the sake of what? Those who leave this or that for Jesus’ name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. If you do what you do in order to receive a hundredfold or if you do what you do in order to gain eternal life then you are giving yourself those things. But if you give them because you want to be with Jesus and make Jesus known then you are giving him those things. At that point you are doing them for Jesus’ name.
It is very easy to say “Make God your reward” or “Treasure Christ above all else.” The question is how do we do it? How do we avoid doing life in order to gain the rule of 5 cities or 10 cities? How do we do life out of a love and appreciation for God?
B. Don’t focus on your duty
The rich young ruler in chapter 19 isn’t promised riches he is told to give away his riches in order to follow Christ. If you focus on what you must give up you’ll never follow. We need to see the worthiness of Christ.
It is one thing to say, “I have to do this because it’s the right thing to do.” It is quite another thing to say, “I will do this because this is where God is.” The first is obedience out of a desire to gain some reward or avoid some punishment. The second is obedience out of a desire to be with Jesus.
A person can stay married to a troll for a spouse because it’s the right thing to do, year after year enduring sin and selfishness, taking it on the chin. Or a person can love, forgive, serve, and confront the troll year after year because that is where Jesus is. What I’m saying is there is a big difference between focusing on your duty and focusing on Jesus.
The person who focuses on his/her duty does so in order to gain something from God like a better spouse, better job, better kids, better health, better ministry, or a better pay check. God owes you because you did the right thing. When pay day comes and you end up receiving from God the very same thing your troll spouse receives you will be jealous, envious, bitter, and empty.
You want a better spouse, better job, better kids, better health, or better pay. Other people have them so should you, right? So you do the right thing. You work hard all day. You endure the blistering heat at home, at work, or in some ministry so you deserve the thing you want. But then when payday comes you don’t get it. In self-righteousness you condemn God of all manner of evil unjust actions. It’s just not fair after all you have done.
The way to guard against self-righteousness is to understand how a person is tempted to become self-righteous. If you know the root you can cut it out before there is fruit.
Arno Gaebelein, in his commentary on this passage, makes a profound statement. He wrote, “The danger is that the believer may forget that he is a debtor to grace and to grace alone, that all he has, he is and he ever will be in all eternity is the result of grace. He may become preoccupied with this service, his sacrifice and expecting rewards, lose sight of grace and become thoroughly self-righteous” (411).
We focus on our service. This is what I must do. Then we begin to think about how costly it is and how hard it is and how there are few others willing to do what we are doing. We then expect to be rewarded. God owes us. At this point we have lost sight of grace and are angry and self-righteous. This is dangerous.
Instead of focusing on your duty
C. Focus on grace
You can love your spouse, raise your kids, go to work, and do ministry because you have to or you can love your spouse, raise your kids, go to work, and do ministry depending absolutely on God to make it work. I want to challenge you to stop looking at the people around you saying “I have to love you” and start saying “God will give me the grace to love you.” Don’t sit around waiting on grace. God has already given you grace (2 Pt 1:3). Act upon grace. Focus on grace not on duty and
D. Trust the sovereign, just, and generous God
Here we see the big difference between being a servant and a son. The servants working in the field cared nothing for the landowner they only cared about making a pay check. A son, however, has a relationship with the Father, which changes the way he looks at work.
You and I must go to work but not on our own for our own. Go to work with the Father for the Father. Do so knowing the Father is sovereign. He’s in charge of who works, where they work, and how much they receive for the work. God is in control of you, your marriage, your family, your work, and your health. He is sovereign and he is just.
God always does the right thing according to his person and purposes. God is not bound to do what we want according to our person and purposes. That would make us sovereign over him! Praise God. He is not bound to obey the whim of every tiny tyrant on this globe. Trust God. He is not bound to grant every desire of my tyrannical heart. God is sovereign which means he is free to do the right thing. God is just which means he will always do the right thing and God is generous which means he will be kind to you.
We must strive in our minds and for the good of our hearts to allow God to be sovereign over the just and generous distribution of his grace. You can choose to be bitter about God’s sovereign choices or you can choose to trust his generous heart.
So go and do your duty. Do the right thing. But you must do it for the right reason. If you obey for you then you are simply giving a gift to yourself in Jesus’ name. But if you do marriage, family, work, church, and life for Jesus’ sake then you are giving a gift to him. Striving to be with him you will gain him. God is just. He is sovereign and therefore can be trusted. God is generous. He will provide everything you need.
All these strings you try to attach to God are only shackles which bind you to your own selfish desires. Let’s pray for one another. Pray that we are a church that loves Jesus because he is lovely. Pray that we obey Jesus because his way is best. Pray that we are able in the good times and in the bad times to trust the sovereign, just, and generous God.
Invitation hymn- All I have is Christ