The Dark Corner of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

It was a dark time in my life at a certain point in the past. A time when pastoral ministry did not seem to be going well by certain commonly-used measurable standards. A parishioner visited with me to explain exactly how I was a loser and that I should please, please quit and go away. Even if I did not agree with the premise of the argument, it seemed like good advice; and I was glad to do it if only I had any conviction that God wanted me to go pick grapes somewhere else in the vineyard.

That same evening a very distant acquaintance emailed me with an invite to get together later that week, as he was passing through the area. Since he was a seminary prof, our breakfast talk turned to ministry and how it was going at the church. I told him of my recent meeting and said I was thinking maybe I should consider quitting … to which he simply replied, “Have you read my book?”

I did not know he had written a book, but he gave me a copy of it. The big idea metaphor was to talk about spiritually being on the “night shift.” The verbal picture was upon the graveyard shift that exists in many industries. Few people know or care that someone is there at that time, but it is important to the well-being of the organization. There is no glory or praise for those working it.

I worked the night shift in college for several evenings a week. My college was in downtown Philadelphia and I was a security guard who had to man the desk from 12:00 to 6:00 a.m., also making rounds every other hour throughout the building. I could go the entire evening, perhaps only ever seeing one other human being … like a homeless drunk who might be sleeping in the dumpster. I would have to rouse him and force him to move, out of fear the garage truck would pick him up and literally eat him. It was not a glorious job, but it had to be done by someone. The pay at that time was $1.80 per hour.

The premise of the book was to talk about how sometimes in ministry and life we get assigned to the night shift when serving the Lord. We are at corners of the vineyard that are largely unknown and underappreciated. And so are we when we work there. But if the master sends us to such a place, we must go and serve joyfully for the glory of the greater cause.

The past two days I have written about three things not to do when serving God: look at the rewards, be impressed with yourself, and compare yourself with other people and places. So positively today, here is the thing to do: Do look at Christ when serving God. Jesus is our model for serving others.

We should follow the model of Philippians 2, and not just see the great theology that is there, but rather to put the application of the context into practice …

make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Jesus was the ultimate servant who could justly feel despised and rejected. It was in a garden that he felt alone – on the night shift – and cried out to the Father. But he obeyed and humbled himself – to human form, death, the cross. The result was that God therefore God highly exalted him in due time.

So be quick to do anything, anywhere in service for the Lord. We should simply be glad we have been called to be a sheep (and sometimes shepherd) of the Lord’s pasture and a worker in his vineyard. Our first thought, even at down times, is to rejoice that we have been found and employed by the master of masters … thankful that he has called us to serve Him where He has chosen to place us – be it in the pressure-packed public arena of dealing with snipping and snapping sheep, or in a remote corner of the vineyard picking grapes where none see you and few know exists.

We can trust God with the ultimate rewards and recognition. This is the economy of grace.

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Extra Pay for Me; Equal Pay for Others (Matthew 20:1-16)

Has there ever been a culture so oriented to counting hours and worrying about pay scales as is our own? Prior to the industrial age and the time clock, this was not particularly the focus as it is today. I know my dad did not count the hours he worked on pappy’s farm, nor did pappy with his father and so on, all the way back to the ancestors in Switzerland. But we are interested in working wages, equal pay, the length of the workday, minimum wages, etc.

I had to laugh at a report I heard last week about the debate circulating on the issue of raising minimum pay for fast food workers, and perhaps my political bias comes through with this. But, the push for raising the pay to something like $15 per hour is that the current lower pay is deemed insufficient to sustain a family. However, the early returns on the research related to tracking this kind of change where it has been made is that those who are now receiving the higher pay are, in some cases, now asking to have their hours cut back. Since they are making more money, they no longer qualify for certain assistance programs and find themselves further behind.

Yes, Americans think a lot about what is fair.

Rather than reprint the passage yet again, recall the main elements of the parable – that workers were hired at various times throughout a 12-hour day, and when the time came to be paid, the latter workers were given the same salary as the early workers negotiated. And when the all-day laborers did not get more, they were offended. They were then chided by the owner who asked why they felt any right to be offended about his use of his own money and his generosity.

Yesterday, we made the application point that we should not look toward rewards for serving God. And today, let us add two more negatives: Don’t look at yourself when serving God, and don’t look at comparing yourself with others when serving God.

Being impressed with oneself and one’s own work is what the Pharisees and the religious leaders did. And though this was not in the immediate context preceding the parable, that background was always nearby and around Christ and the disciples.

The Pharisees and religious leaders just knew they were in really good shape with God – they had to be. They worked really, really hard at it, constantly sizing themselves up, taking the commands of Scripture and writing volumes of legalistic applications of what that looked like, etc. And then with great public fanfare, they lived out those details to the extreme.

We forget that these people were held in high regard by the masses. We see the name “Pharisee” as a bad title – but not so in that day. So they had reasons to believe – both from the mirror and from the riffraff masses of sinners around them, that they were in good standing with God.

In the parable, the morning workers believed themselves to be in a good position also. Seeing the payment of the shorter-termed laborers, they just KNEW they were in for an exceptional payday. After all, they were the ones chosen at the beginning – probably because they were the most gifted and desired workers in the market.

How might we be like this?  We might look back at how long we’ve been in the faith and in church, counting how many years we have tithed and been faithful to serve. Those who are gifted to serve in prominent and powerful ways may believe they are able to do that because of their own smarts and abilities and work. They just know that in all the measurable ways that mark faithfulness in a local church in America, they’ve really done it well and worked at a high level. But don’t look at yourself too highly, as Paul said in Romans 12:3 – For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

And additionally, don’t spend a lot of effort looking around at others in the vineyard. The workers in the parable vineyard did a lot of looking around. There was a lot of work to be done. The owner had to keep getting more workers – perhaps because the first guys were too often too distracted about what others were doing (or not doing) around them!

The first set of laborers were thinking, “I’m 2x better than the guys at noon, 4x better than the guys at 3:00, and 12x better than the guys at 5:00 ….. so my compensation is justly going to be just that much better!”

God, in his wisdom and grace, and on his own schedule and time, calls and places each of us at different places in His vineyard

I confess it is difficult to not look around the vineyard where I work – near and far – and not be affected by seeing what appears to be fruitful harvesting being done by workers who are not truthful about who they are and what they really believe … or others who are applauded by men for their work and verbal skill, when I know it has all been stolen from some other place without attribution. And all along while fussing in my mind about this, I should just be thankful that so much fruit is being harvested for the Kingdom. It is difficult, as it also was with the Apostle Paul, to say, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

We all have our unique calling – the place in the Lord’s vineyard that God has uniquely put us to labor faithfully. We have very different gifts as well. It is not about being prominent or successful in obvious ways; it is about being faithful to God in ways that He alone sees and that He alone rewards in His own way and time.

Questions for thought and discussion groups: Do you find yourself comparing your work for the Lord with others around you?  Does it ever seem to you that you are not getting appropriate credit for what you are doing when seeking to serve God?  Have you ever felt overlooked in serving?  Are there other Scriptures that come to mind about God’s promise to be faithful to remember our service for him?

What’s In It For Me? (Matthew 20:1-16)

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.

The Upside-Down Nature of God’s Economy (Matthew 20:1-16)

The window was closing on the extent of the earthly ministry of Christ. Certainly the disciples had little idea as to what was soon to come, though they certainly sensed difficulties ahead. They were travelling to a place where their master was hated and reviled by the religious leadership of their own people. Conflict and change was thick in the air.

Along the way, a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus spoke of keeping the commandments, which the man was able to say he had consistently done.

But then Jesus upped the price, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Some of the disciples surely noted the moisture in the eyes of Christ as he reflected on the man who was unwilling to give up earthy, temporal gain for eternal, spiritual riches.

After an awkward silence, the silence-breaking disciple – the one who surely had loud and impertinent ancestors from the state of New Jersey – involuntarily found himself once again verbally up-chucking his logical thought process. On some of the hard days of trudging around the Judean and Galilean countryside, he found himself reminiscing back to the Sea of Galilee – to his boat – to his love of the water and challenging business of catching fish.

Practically without thinking, Peter said, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus answered that “… everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

He basically said that you can trust me on thisit might look like you are at the back of the line now, but lots of faithful people who feel that way are, in the end, going to find themselves at the front of the line.

This statement is going to come back again at the end of our parable we study today – serving as bookends for it.

When we speak of financial economies, we might speak of something called “market value.” The price of a used car depends on what consumers are willing to pay for—which in turn is mitigated by supply-and-demand and competition.

When we speak of spiritual economies, we might see ourselves through a similar lens. In short, we prefer to “balance the books.”  Hard work, moral behavior—these should give us an advantage against those we view beneath us. This is the way the Pharisees viewed the world around them.

The parable Jesus tells is devoted to seeing God’s grace as built on something other than performance. Jesus is saying that if we view our relationship as a contract, this leads to at least one of two things:

(1) We feel entitled to blessing because of our hard work, and/or

(2) We feel angered when others receive the blessings we feel they don’t deserve.

By contrast, Jesus declares that the “economy” of God’s Kingdom won’t be ruled by contracts and obligations, but by love and grace.

And the ultimate application of this passage will be that the truly “unfair” thing about grace is that any of us should receive salvation at all. This leads us not toward frustration like the servants of the parable, but gratitude for what we receive.

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.”

The Economy of Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

As I write this devotional, there has been a good bit of discussion around our house this week about economics. My college kid is writing a required essay for a scholarship that is centered upon the writings of Milton Friedman, the famous free market economist. Therefore our conversations have naturally also included the nature of Keynesian Economics as an opposing philosophy.

The Great Depression – causes and remedies – is a central illustration in all of this discussion as well. It may surprise some of you that I can’t personally remember that event, but my father was a young man with a young family of my three older sisters when that happened. It totally colored his whole life and outlook upon finance, and he talked about it and his experiences a great deal. The big crash happened just weeks after he was married.

He always told me that the one good thing that happened to him throughout that troubled time was that he had a job for the duration of it. It paid a rather horrible salary, especially given his commitments to providing for children and even his in-laws living with him. But compared to those who had no work, he was in good shape.

God’s economy looks very differently than mankind’s financial systems. Though diligence and faithful work in God’s kingdom is rewarded, ultimately even having membership in the kingdom and being a servant of the Lord God is in itself all of grace. The concept of grace is central to the way we should view God’s kingdom.

So, in preparation for Sunday, I encourage you to read through one of my favorite parables in Matthew 20:1-16. And as you do, ask yourself what is fair and just, versus what is unfair and unjust … but remember to use God’s economy as your guide.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

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.”