Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Matthew 20:1-16

 “That’s not right!  That’s not fair!  I’d be mad, too!  Equal pay for equal work.”

 This parable offends our notions of rightness and fairness.  And it should!  But this is not a parable about fairness.  One of the hallmarks of the parable form of teaching is that a parable has one main point, and you can’t make it apply to every situation.  And actually we should be glad that it’s not a parable about fairness.  If God repaid each of us according to what we deserved, we’d all be in trouble because we all deserve death and eternal punishment.  This is a parable about grace, not fairness.  Let’s have a look:

 It begins with a landowner.  As is often the case, the master/landowner/king best represents God.  

 This landowner is hiring day laborers for the harvest, specifically the grape harvest.  The harvest is a time of urgency. The farmer has to bring in the harvest as quickly as possible.  If it is delayed, all kinds of things could go wrong.  In this case, grapes would spoil on the vines and be worthless for making wine.  Or they could be eaten by birds or wild animals.  They could even be stolen by people.  

 But there is also a kingdom meaning to the harvest.  The harvest represents the ingathering of human beings into the Kingdom of God.  To labor for God is to take part in the proclamation of God’s good news and gracious offer of salvation.  And the Kingdom meaning of “harvest” is very important in this parable.

 As was the custom, the landowner goes to the town market at first light, about 6 AM, to hire his day laborers.  Each one is hired for one denarius.  The denarius was the daily wage of unskilled laborers.  And it barely represented a livable wage.  These men who were hired as day laborers represented the most vulnerable of society.  Either they had no land of their own to farm or they were subsistence farmers, men who had only enough land to grow food for their own use, and nothing to grow for profit.  As such, they were very vulnerable.  If they failed to find work for even a few days, they could be reduced to starvation.  In many ways, they were worse off than slaves because slaves, while they were treated as property, at least had the security of a master who would not allow them to starve.  They were too valuable to be allowed to starve, but day laborers, well, there were always more of them.

 The normal work day was 6 AM to 6 PM.  These men hired first were promised the normal day’s wage for their 12 hours of labor.  But the master decided he needed more men for the harvest.  So he went back to the market four more times throughout the day and hired more men.  Those hired later were only promised that they would receive “what was right,” which they would expect to be less than a denarius.  

 Evening was pay time.  These men had to be paid at the end of the day since they depended on it for their supper.  The master brought in the last hired first and gave each of them a full day’s wage.  No doubt they were ecstatic at the master’s generosity.  But those hired first received the same; and they expected more when they saw those who only worked an hour receiving the denarius.  

 But the point of the parable is about grace.  The master is being generous with his own money.  He is doing what he wants to do with what is his to do with as he pleases.  It’s not fair, but he is within his rights to do so.  

 The point of the parable, which is primarily directed at Jesus’ disciples, is that God is gracious and accepts all who come to him, seeking his Kingdom.  Even those who come in the 11th hour are accepted and even counted as equals to those who came earlier.  As long as we live in this world, as long as there is still “daylight” in our lives, the door is open for us to come to God through Jesus Christ.  And God, in his great love for us, holds each one of us as dear and precious to him, regardless of how or when we come to him.  

 God is able to do this because entrance into his Kingdom is based entirely on grace.  God accepts the least and the lowest on an equal footing with the first and the highest.  The prostitute, the drug dealer, the child abuser can all be welcomed into God’s kingdom by grace.  Those who come to Christ on their death bed at 80 years old, after living a godless life, are counted as being just as precious to God as the child who comes to faith at 10 years old and strives for 70 years or more to be faithful.  

 This is only possible because of grace.  If it were all based on merit, of course, it would be very different.  If it were based on merit, none of us would be able to enter into the kingdom.

 How do we feel about that?  I mean, we all affirm the idea of salvation by grace in principle, but how do we really feel about it in practice?  Do we truly welcome the long lost as God does?  Or are we afflicted with a sense of “spiritual pride?”  Are we filled

with pride because of the longevity of our faith or the sincerity of our faith or the life we’ve lived by faith?  Are we filled with pride at the position we have in the Kingdom of God:  Pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, church patriarch or matriarch?  

 I think the mere fact that Jesus had to tell us this story tells us all we need to know.  Whether or not we’d like to admit it, we all feel a certain measure of pride for our faith and the difference it’s made in our lives.  And we’re all tempted to look down on those who don’t quite match up to our godly life.  

 By the standards of the world, which operates, at least primarily, on the grounds of “fairness,” we have every right to be proud.  But by the standards of God, we have no grounds for pride.  We are all, at the end of the day, sinners saved only by grace.  And that’s the principle of the kingdom: grace, not fairness.  And so we should seek the heart of God by each turning aside from pride and giving thanks to God for all who come to Christ, even if it is late in the game.  

 Does that mean that there is no reason for us to turn to Christ early?  

 Some years ago I saw an episode of the television show, The Simpsons.  In this episode, a traveling preacher came to town with a tent revival.  At one point, the preacher says to Bart, the 10 year old son of the Simpson family, who is a perennial troublemaker, “Aren’t you worried about your eternal soul?”  And Bart replies, “Well, sure, but I plan on living a life of sin followed by a deathbed conversion.”  And the evangelist is dumbfounded, “Wow, kid, that’s a pretty good angle.”  

 Is it?  I don’t think so.  But I think it may just be the approach a lot of people in this world are counting on. I think a lot of people want to have a place for God in their lives, just not right now.  Right now they’re busy with other things.  Maybe they’re too busy making money to worry about God.  Or they’re too busy with everything to bother going to church.  Maybe they plan to give up sin at some point, but not right now because right now, they’re enjoying it!  Well, let me give you a few good arguments for not putting it off:

 The first one comes from a t-shirt I saw years ago.  I know, not many good sermon points come from t-shirts, but this one did.  The shirt said:  Some people who are planning to turn to Christ at the 11th hour will be surprised when they die at 10:30.  In other words, we have no assurance of more time.  We have no assurance that we will have a chance at some point down the road to take care of our relationship with God. 

Today is the only day we are sure we have, so let’s not miss the chance we have to be right with God today.

 Second, the first chapter of Romans tells us that one of the effects of sin is that it dulls our senses to God.  The longer we live in sin, the stronger the hold it has over us.  I think some people who plan to have a “good time” now and straighten up later never do because their hearts become so weighed down by sin.

 Third, do we really love God?  If we really love God, we would not want to grieve his heart by continuing to rebel against him.  If we truly love God, we would want to have a right relationship with him today, not to put it off for later.

 And finally, Scripture does make it clear that God rewards those serve him faithfully. In this parable, everyone is treated equally.  But this parable is about entrance into the Kingdom being equally available to all.  Other passages speak about God rewarding those who serve him faithfully.  God is also concerned about the things we do as his people in the body of Christ.

 In fact, the verses that come immediately before these speak about that.  Matthew 19:28-30 says, “When the world is made new, you who have been my followers will sit on twelve thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has given up houses or family or property for my sake, will receive 100 times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.”  

 Another passage about that reality is Revelation 20:12, which is part of the final judgment of God:  “I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne.  And the books were opened, including the Book of Life.  And the dead were judged according to what they’d done, as recorded in the books.”  

 In other words, God is very concerned about the things we do as his people, and not all who belong to Christ will receive an equal reward in eternity.  But for what this parable is about, we are all counted as equal in God’s eyes.  We are all given entry into the Kingdom of God based only on grace, not based at all on our own merits.  So we should not look down our noses on anyone else, thinking that we deserve Christ and they do not.

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