Receiving Jesus’ Reward: Matthew 20:1-16

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As we come closer to the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion in Matthew’s gospel, we come to a parable Jesus shares about a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. Like many of Jesus’ other parables, this one is attributed to the kingdom of heaven.

However, as I have read this parable, I have always been amazed at the implications and things I learn from the details in this parable, and I’m sure that this time will be no exception. Let’s read what Jesus shared and then unpack some things we can learn from this teaching. Our parable and passage are found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 20, and we will be reading from the New International Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 1, Jesus tells those present:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Whenever I read this parable, one portion of the parable bothers me when we compare it with how this parable is framed. At the start of this parable, Jesus frames this parable as being about the kingdom of heaven, and at the end of the parable, we find people who are being rewarded by this landowner who are grumbling against the landowner because they don’t feel they have been treated fairly.

This detail comparison strikes me as odd because regardless of what represents the kingdom of heaven in this parable, I find it challenging to picture people complaining about the unfairness this parable presents.

Don’t misunderstand me though. Looking around at people here on earth, including those in the church and those out of the church, I can easily picture a group of people accusing God of being unfair. However, it is harder for me to picture this happening in heaven.

However, while God, who I believe is represented by this landowner, is being accused of being unfair, is there anything actually unfair happening in this parable?

If we judge this parable through our human standards, we might be able to make a case that what the landowner does is unfair. After all, those who worked for fewer hours should receive less than those who worked for more hours, especially with all other variables being the same. If someone who came later in the day worked harder and produced more than someone who was present but not all that diligent, then a case could be made for paying the one who performed better for a shorter period of time the same, or worse for that matter, as someone who worked longer but who wasn’t as productive.

However, the details of this parable remove the accusation of the landowner being unfair. Those who began first thing in the morning agreed to being paid a fair day’s wage. After the day’s worth of work, they seem to have forgotten what they had agreed to. However, forgetting the details of an agreement doesn’t make the agreement any less binding and it doesn’t make what was agreed upon any less fair.

Those who worked a full day were paid what was fair for a full day’s worth of work. In contrast, those who started later get more than they deserved for their work. Those who started later get to experience generosity because they receive more than they would have normally earned for the time they spent working.

It is interesting when we take this idea and extend it into the spiritual realm. If we ignore for a moment that those who worked the longest complained, we can see an amazing spiritual parallel in what Jesus did for us.

Let’s take the day of work in the vineyard in this parable and translate it into a lifetime of service. When we look at our lifetime service record, the only one in history with a spotless record is Jesus. Jesus began way before we even knew anything about God and Jesus will continue long after memory of us has faded from those alive on this planet.

If anyone has served for a long time, it is Jesus. Anyone and everyone who serves God is someone who started after the start of the workday because when we were born, regardless of how smart we were or what family we were born into, we had no understanding of serving God.

This also means that when God pays us for our lifetime of service, He gives us more than we deserve. Instead of limiting the reward He has planned to give us and basing it on how well we served, God decides to reward us as though we served Him like Jesus served. We are given the rewards of perfect service when our service record is anything but perfect.

And the amazing thing about this understanding of this parable is in the last phrase Jesus shared in this parable. In verse 16, Jesus tells those present, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Jesus deserved to be rewarded for His life of service, but Jesus chose to be last and to place us first. Jesus is the only one with a spotless record of service, but instead of leaning on His perfect record, He decides to trade it with our imperfect record and take the punishment for our sins. I can understand those who are skeptical of a selfless God like this, but would a God of love act any other way?

Looking at the details of this parable, and how the landowner continues to seek out people to help in his vineyard, we can conclude that God is always looking for more people to help in His vineyard. While the workday is still in progress, it is never too late to accept God’s invitation to work with and for Him.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always open the challenges by saying, intentionally seek God first and place Him first in your life. Choose to accept Jesus’ gift of His service record in place of your own. Choose to accept God’s invitation to serve in His vineyard and discover what life is like with God.

Also, continue praying and studying the Bible for yourself to intentionally grow closer to God each day. Through prayer and Bible study, we are able to open our hearts to God and we are able to let Him enter our lives. Prayer and Bible study help us serve others better and these habits help us live the life God has called us to live.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or abandon where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in Matthew – Episode 36: In the parable of the vineyard workers, discover how God is extraordinarily generous with us and how we ultimately are rewarded with more than we deserve.

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