There is an old saying that goes something like this: “Working for God may not pay much, but the rewards are out of this world.”
The Bible speaks quite a lot about the reality of eternal rewards and the blessings of God that accrue to people who live faithful lives. In Colossians, Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
As discussed yesterday, our parable of study for this week – The Workers in the Vineyard – was in part set up by a question that Peter had pondered after the sad description of the rich young man, questioning out loud to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Peter was not far from the whole truth when he said they had given up a lot … pretty much everything. And Jesus assured him of a high reward, but there was a troubling tone in the fisherman’s question – an element of serving only for what can be gotten, rather than for the love of the one who made the career of fishing for men possible.
Here again is the parable from Matthew 20 …
20:1 — “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 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?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “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.’
9 “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.”
At first glance, especially to the American mind that is steeped in labor practice fairness with phrases like “equal pay for equal work,” it seems terribly unfair and unjust.
Let me give you four summary statements about what can be taken from his parable – three things to not do, followed by one big thing to do. So today, here is the first “don’t.”
Don’t look toward rewards for serving God.
To frame it as a question, “What is the true nature of your motivation for following Christ and serving God?
We are troubled by people who only ever appear to be involved in an activity simply because of how much they can personally gain from it. To many of us who are professional sports fans, it drives us a bit crazy to see some of our favorite players take free agent contracts somewhere else because of dollars – when in one year they make more than any of us will make in a lifetime. There is no purist love for the game or the team. It is only about the reward.
So why do you serve God? Do you serve God? Why do you attend church? What motivates you at the core of your being for serving in a church or para-church ministry? Why do you give money for Christian causes? Is there any chance you do so because you believe this will obligate God to pay you back eventually?
There is a whole branch of the Christian religion out there that preaches this – often called the prosperity gospel. It talks about giving, serving and doing as seeds that you plant so that you can get a rich harvest – certainly over there, but probably over here too (so you can send more money to the organization or preacher).
There is basic truth in the notion that God rewards faithfulness for genuine service and giving and trusting him, though those rewards, I believe, will be more ultimately over there rather than here and now. And they are never to be THE REASON for what we give away.
On the other hand … scripture says something about those who come to God believing that God can reward those who earnestly seek him.
Faith in God requires a sense that he is just. And though I agree we don’t usually think much about the reward, it might sometimes be necessary to think about the reward when we are facing incredibly hard circumstances, maybe circumstances beyond what you and I typically go through. For example, Christians throughout history have been greatly abused at times and having a hope of eternal reward is very helpful in keeping us faithful in such times of trial.
So yeah, being motivated by greed rather than love is problematic. But when it comes down to it … “we love because he loved us first”. For us to treat other people fairly requires that we have a sense of fairness. That sense comes from God. So when God treats us fairly or kindly or with grace, it allows us to recognize and internalize the value of that.
So I think we need to recognize God’s generosity in order to be generous ourselves. If we have a view of God as being unjust, it might effect how we treat other people. Any servant who is properly trained will be like his master. Jesus said something like that.
May God allow us to see the “height and depth and width of the love of God.”