February 7, 2011 David Balzer

Matthew 20:1-16: A fair day’s pay

“Well there’s a little boy waiting at the counter of the corner shop.

He’s been waiting down there, waiting half the day,
they never ever see him from the top.
He gets pushed around, knocked to the ground.
He gets to his feet and he says…”

(Who knows what comes next?)

“What about me? It isn’t fair! I’ve had enough, and I want my share.”

 

Shannon Noll sang it recently. And it was the band Moving Pictures before that. But the reality is it’s a song that ALL OF US are pretty familiar with singing.

 

Perhaps it’s like that little boy. You’re waiting in line to buy a train ticket, or pay for some groceries. Or waiting for a car parking space. And someone pushes in front of you. And you want to get even. To stand up for your rights. To make things FAIR. After all, you DESERVE it. It’s ONLY FAIR.

 

Or perhaps you’re working on a group project at school or Uni or work. And there’s always ONE PERSON who’s A SLACKER. Who doesn’t pull their weight. And expects everyone else to do the work. And yet, it always seems to be THAT PERSON who gets the best mark. Or who the boss gives a special commendation to. It’s not FAIR! He didn’t deserve it! I want my share!

 

Or like the older brother, Robert, on Everyone Loves Raymond. Always disappointed that it’s RAYMOND who gets all the attention, the promotions, the lucky breaks. And his classic quote, whenever Raymond gets ANOTHER lucky break? “Of COURSE he did. It’s always about Raymond!”

 

What about me? It ISN’T fair! I want my share!

 

It’s the way the world works. It’s the natural human reaction. We ALL react when things don’t seem just and fair. Especially when it happens to US. Those who DESERVE it should get the reward. And those who DON’T should MISS OUT.

 

It’s the way THE WORLD works. But it’s not the way GOD’S KINGDOM works. The reality is that, in God’s kingdom, we DON’T get what we deserve. We DON’T get what’s FAIR. Which is just as well. Because that would be TERRIBLE. The GOOD NEWS is we get something BETTER.

 

In today’s story, the point is that the kingdom is NOT ABOUT FAIRNESS TO THOSE WHO DESERVE IT. IT’S ABOUT GENEROSITY TO THOSE WHO DON’T! The kingdom ISN’T about FAIRNESS to those who DESERVE it. It’s about GENEROSITY to those who DON’T!

 

But let’s set the scene first. Remember back to last week? Ch 19 v13. Little children coming to Jesus. The disciples want to shoo them away. Perhaps they decide they don’t deserve of Jesus’ attention. Haven’t earned their place. And they need to get to the back of the queue. Perhaps the disciples think they DO belong at the front. Perhaps even that they’re JEALOUS of the children?

 

But rather than send them to the back of the line, Jesus says the kingdom belongs to people just like them. To unimportant and undeserving people.

 

And then (v16 of ch 19) there’s the rich young man who wants to EARN his way into the kingdom But Jesus says that’s IMPOSSIBLE. And only GOD can bring someone into the kingdom. People can’t do it on their own.

 

At which point Peter pipes up and wonders what reward God’s got in store for the disciples. They’ve given up everything to follow Jesus. He wants to know what sort of RETURN they’ve got coming on their INVESTMENT.

 

And there in v28, Jesus’ answer is that God’s no man’s debtor. He’ll repay A HUNDRED FOLD whatever we’ve given up for his sake. That’s how GENEROUS God will be! He WON’T give what’s fair. He’ll give lavishly WAY MORE than we deserve. Way beyond what we’ve EARNED.

 

And the chapter finishes with the summary for how things are ordered in God’s kingdom (there in v30). Many who are FIRST will be LAST, and many who are LAST will be FIRST.

 

Undeserving, un-noticed children will end up being FIRST. And rich, upright pillars of society will end up being LAST. Those who recognise they’re EMPTY will receive AN ABUNDANCE. But those who think they deserve EVERYTHING, receive NOTHING.

 

And then Jesus tells a story TO PROVE HIS POINT. Which is where we pick it up THIS WEEK. We get a clue that the two bits tie together because ch 20 begins with “for”. Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. FOR (or BECAUSE)… the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.

 

THE PARABLE IS JESUS’ ANSWER TO PETER.

 

So let’s look at the story to see what it has to say to Peter. And to us. It’s a story about hiring, receiving, complaining and correcting. First up, HIRING.

 

Hiring (1-7)

A landowner owns a vineyard. And he needs workers. So he heads out to the local labour contractor first thing in the morning. He hires a bunch, and they both agree on payment of one denarius for the day’s work. The going rate. Fair and reasonable. And so they head off to work in the vineyard.

 

But then 3 hours later, the owner heads back to the marketplace for MORE workers. This time there’s no explicit agreement on wages (there in v4). Only his promise to pay them whatever’s right. They TRUST the owner, and so THEY TOO head off to the vineyard.

 

Three hours later – same thing happens. And again, three hours after that.

 

Finally, v6, 11 hours into the day, nearly quittin’ time. And the owner heads back to the market place ONE LAST TIME. There’s STILL people waiting to be hired for the day. Probably the dregs of the labour force. Maybe the old or the weak. V7. Still there because no one wants to hire them.

 

But even THESE GUYS the owner sends off to work in the vineyard. And notice they head off immediately – no mention of wages. They TRUST the master. By THIS stage, they’ll take whatever they can get.

 

Receiving

That’s the HIRING. Next we come to RECEIVING. The day’s over, and it’s time to settle accounts. The owner starts with the LAST ONES hired, and the foreman gives them a denarius each. That’s TWELVE TIMES the going rate! They worked an hour, and get a full day’s pay!

 

We’re not told THEIR reaction, but we ARE told how the FIRST ONES HIRED felt (v10). They quickly do their sums, and they’re rubbing their hands together in expectation. They reckon, to be FAIR, they should receive TWELVE TIMES AS MUCH. After all, they’ve worked TWELVE TIMES AS LONG.

 

But they’ve forgotten what they agreed to at the start of the day. What’s FAIR is they get paid the going rate for a day’s work. One denarius. Which is what they GET.

 

Complaining (11-12),

But it doesn’t SEEM fair. And so they move from RECEIVING to COMPLAINING (v11).

11 When they RECEIVED it, they began to GRUMBLE against the landowner. 12’These men 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.’

 

What about ME? It isn’t FAIR! I’ve had enough, and I want my share!

 

Correcting (13-16)

The WHOLE GROUP grumbles, but the owner turns to ONLY ONE of them, and CORRECTS him. V13.

‘Friend, I’m not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?’

 

He makes two points. First, You’re so busy looking at OTHERS, you’ve forgotten how YOU’VE been treated – which is PERFECTLY fairly. Exactly what you deserve. A day’s pay for a day’s work. Nothing fairer than that! Your REAL problem is that someone else has got something they DIDN’T deserve. Something BETTER.

 

Second: That’s MY problem. I can pay OTHER people whatever I want. What business is it of YOURS to tell me who I can be generous to?

 

And Jesus finishes the story almost the same way he finished talking to the disciples at the end of ch 19. The same way he’d STARTED this story. “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

Which ties the parable into the question PETER had asked at the end of Ch 19.

 

And perhaps that’s why there’s ONE COMPLAINER in Jesus’ story. One person singled out for the owner to answer. Because it’s PETER who’s spoken up for the disciples about what reward they’re all going to get.

 

And Jesus’ point is that his emphasis is all wrong. He’s too focussed on HIMSELF. Too concerned with what’s fair FOR HIM. And not enough on THE REST of the people in God’s kingdom.

 

Peter’s the early vineyard worker in God’s vineyard. He thinks he’s EARNED a huge payday from God. But the reality is thinking like THAT is “LAST PLACE” thinking. Thinking about how you deserve to be in first place. How you deserve to be paid more. Only leads to coming LAST. Which means missing out on God’s kingdom all together.

 

“FIRST PLACE” thinking means seeing yourself as the eleventh hour workers. The undeserving ones.

 

Some people have a hard time accepting the doctrine of ELECTION. That God CHOOSES people. They say it’s not FAIR that God chooses SOME to be Christians, and doesn’t choose OTHERS. They think that CAN’T be the way God works, because that wouldn’t be FAIR. MUST be that WE choose GOD. Surely, that would be FAIRER!

 

But I’m glad God’s not FAIR. The reality is  if God was fair with EVERYONE, NO ONE would receive eternal life. We’d ALL receive JUDGMENT. That’s what we DESERVE. That’s a FAIR days pay for a day’s work.

 

The reality is we don’t really WANT God to be fair. We’re all rebels who deserve DEATH. Much better that he’s LOVING and GRACIOUS.

 

Which is the message of the gospel. That while SOME people GET what they deserve. Fair and just JUDGMENT. OTHERS get what they DON’T deserve- GRACE. Eternal life. Forgiveness. Reward. A hundred times what they’ve give up. That’s GOOD NEWS!

 

Grace ISN’T fair. It’s BETTER than fair.

 

And while lots of people COMPLAIN about God’s unfairness. For those of us who understand it, we should CELEBRATE God’s UNSETTLING GENEROSITY. How INCREDIBLE that he chose us, opened our eyes to his riches, and gave us the faith to respond!

 

Rather than putting ourselves in the shoes of the EARLY WORKERS who’ve EARNED their pay. Who’ve done God a favour. Much better to put ourselves in the shoes of the ELEVENTH HOUR workers. Who come in at the last minute. Hardly work at all. And, undeserving, receive the full payment!

 

That’s LAST PLACE THINKING. That’s thinking that works itself out in lives of thanksgiving.

 

The reality is JESUS is the one who’s earned the pay. He’s the one who’s worked all day in our place. Who’s born the heat of the day. Who’s endured his Father’s anger – his justice. So that we didn’t HAVE to. So that we might come in at the last minute, and receive the rewards that Jesus has worked for.

 

At the end of this story Matthew describes how Jesus continues on his way to Jerusalem. V18. And Jesus tells them how he’s going to bear the burden of the work and the heat of the day. How he’s going to be betrayed, condemned to death. How he’ll be flogged and crucified. And that he’ll be raised to life. How he’ll receive what WE deserve, so that we might receive MUCH MORE than we deserve.

 

We’ve got to learn to walk in the shoes of the LAST HOUR workers, and not FIRST hour workers. Jesus has already DONE that. Worked all day. Earned a just wage. And we can’t do it again.

 

When you put yourself in the right shoes, it affects how you think about YOURSELF. It affects your MOTIVATION for WHY you do things. Doing them out of GRATITUDE, rather than because your trying to earn a wage.

 

And it affects how you think about the things that happen to you in life. Plenty of people give up on God when something BAD happens in their life. A business goes bust, or a child goes wild, or a marriage breaks down. And they blame God. “How could you let this happen to me? After all I’ve done for you! I don’t DESERVE to be treated like this. I deserve BETTER!”

 

I DESERVE a better job, or a new lounge, or good health, or great air-conditioning, or an expensive holiday.

 

But DO we?

 

What we DESERVE from God is JUDGMENT. But he shows us GRACE. And then, like EVERY loving Father, he DISCIPLINES us for our GOOD. Bringing TRIALS our way. Suffering. To make us more like Jesus (That’s Hebrews 12). Working all things for good for those who LOVE him and have been called according to his purpose (That’s Romans 8). And so we can REJOICE in suffering (that’s Romans 5)

 

That’s LAST PLACE thinking. Eleventh hour thinking. It affects the way you think about YOURSELF and your circumstances.

 

And it affects the way you think about EVANGELISM. If you think you’ve EARNED your place in the kingdom, then you’re CONTENT. God’s pretty lucky to have you. You can sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy your place in the sun.

 

But if you’ve worked an hour, and received 12 times the wages you’ve deserved, wouldn’t you back up for more the next day? And wouldn’t you bring all of your friends to a job like THAT?

 

It’s too good NOT to share!

 

And LAST PLACE thinking – eleventh hour thinking. It affects how you think about OTHER PEOPLE – how you treat them, and respond to them. It affects how you FORGIVE them. How you JUDGE them. Because you recognise YOU’RE nothing special, so how can you put someone else BENEATH you, or BEHIND you.

 

Some of you know Tim Wilson. He’s a Pressie minister who’s a prison chaplain at Parklea and Parramatta prisons. And part of his job is to find churches for ex-prisoners who’ve become Christians. But it’s not an easy thing to do. He struggles to find churches who’ll genuinely accept these people.

 

Sometimes there are real, practical difficulties to deal with. But often it’s just the judgmentalism and lack of grace on the part of people in these churches.

 

And it shouldn’t BE like that. If we UNDERSTAND where we deserve to be before God, it should affect how we treat OTHERS.

 

But more than that. It should show itself in our whole attitude to LIFE. If we really worked that attitude out in all of life. It would make us a lot more CONTENTED, and less judgmental. A lot more THANKFUL, and less NEEDY and GRASPING.

 

It would make us less inclined to stand up for our rights. For what we DESERVE. To get worked up about the person who pushes in, or grabs our parking spot.

 

What do we really deserve? Do we deserve top marks, or recognition, or a speedy parking space, or to be served first? No, we deserve God’s judgment. But he showed us GRACE!

 

If we’ve really UNDERSTOOD that. We should LIVE it.

How well are YOU living it?

 

We were at Avoca Beach a couple of weeks ago, and we saw a local radio publicity van giving away free stuff in the carpark. So the kids and I went up to van as the radio staff were handing out beach balls. We were standing a short distance away, waiting while they organised themselves. And a teenaged girl walked up next to me, and then inched across in front of me, leaning in closer and closer to get her free stuff FIRST.

 

And my FIRST reaction was to tell her to get to back of the line. To wait her turn. I DIDN’T. Unfortunately, more because I DIDN’T WANT TO CREATE A SCENE than because I was being particularly PATIENT.

 

(Within about 30 seconds, she’d asked for a ball and walked off. We got ours a few seconds AFTER her. And we’re still enjoying it in the pool.)

 

But why did I react like that? Because I felt I’d DESERVED justice. I’d EARNED it…

 

But hang on! It was a FREE beach ball. And I’d done NOTHING for it. We didn’t pay for it, and we’re still enjoying it. That’s the right attitude to have. Whether it’s to free beach balls, or to the free grace God’s shown us in Jesus.

 

If we’ve really understood it, we should be LIVING it. How well are YOU living it?

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