[Matthew 20:1-16] Jesus said: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” [ESV]
What God Gave Last Is Best
What the master in the parable gave last is best. What the master was giving, indeed to all, was not what the first workers thought it was. But in the eleventh-hour workers it becomes known. And the first workers don’t like it – “You have made these last workers equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” Like the Israelites in the wilderness, the first workers grumbled.
So it was in the early days of the Church. Jew and Gentile. Israelites and Greeks. For millennia, salvation was for Israel. The descendants of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob, received the promises and the prophets and the promised land. To them belonged the promise of the long-awaited Messiah. And they bore the heat and the burden – for many centuries.
Now the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus had come. Many of the Israelites believe and are baptized. They become the Church. Yet, after not long, Gentiles – non-Israelites, Greeks, Romans, uncircumcised – begin to be added to the Church. Certainly these Gentiles, who weren’t even seeking God, can’t be added so immediately as equals to us Israelites who have followed God for so long?
When the Apostles taught that Gentiles too were to be added to the Church – even without adopting Jewish customs and traditions – the Israelites once again, now in this New Testament era, grumbled.
But what was the truth? What has proven to be the truth? “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Those added last have surpassed those who, for so long, were first.
But it’s more than that. At the core of the grumbling wasn’t an ethnic dispute but a theological error. It was an error in belief. Those who so long were first began to think that they merited – that they deserved – that they even earned, like a wage earner, the salvation God was giving them. But those who came last understood God’s salvation to be a matter entirely of generosity – a gift.
In our Lord’s parable, those who worked the whole burden of the day receive a denarius – just as they had been told. The workers who come second and third enter into the vineyard, however, only trusting a promise - “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” And those entering last – at the eleventh hour – as the workday is already wrapping up – they can by no means believe they have earned anything. They can only believe in the master’s goodness and generosity.
At the end of the day – at the final reckoning, the day of judgment – this Master doesn’t give out a wage but a gift. They all get that full denarius. Even when the first workers grumble, the Master doesn’t respond, “Hey, you worker”, but He says, “Friend” – “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go – what He gives is not a matter of wage-earning but of generosity – I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? – Is not God, God who is free to give what He wills to whom He wills? – Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
“Or do you begrudge my generosity?” It says there in the Greek, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” Do you begrudge God – do you look at Him with an evil eye – because of His goodness and generosity toward those who didn’t earn it? If so, then take your eternal lot with the hypocrites – because you didn’t earn it either, brothers and sisters.
“But we bore the burden of the day!” Nonsense. The Israelites grumbled against God and failed in faith and worshiped false gods all through the burdens of those centuries. “But we’re not like this new generation!” Nonsense. God sees in the sins of the new generation only the fruit of trees from which they came. For both you and them, for old and new, salvation is always a matter of the Master’s generosity.
But what about in a congregation? Is it unfair, perhaps, that brand new families or individuals are so immediately made equal to those whose parents and grandparents may have founded that congregation? It’s not unfair. The Holy Spirit is the founder of each person’s faith in Jesus, whether old or new, first or last. This makes the Church different than the world. In the Church there is no seniority. Instead, even the last might be first. It’s up to God.
You have all been called into the Lord’s vineyard. Those called at the eleventh hour, when asked, “Why have you stood here idle all day”, answered, “Because no one has hired us.” The Master called into His vineyard those whom no one else would hire – the unworthy. That’s all of us.
At midday, at midlife, in old age, after idleness and waste, and at last moments and in last breaths, the Master stands at bedsides and calls so many into His vineyard who will receive the full wage of the day – precisely because it is not a wage but generosity. It is the Lord’s gift which He desires to give to all:
God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” [2 Peter 3:9]. “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [1 Timothy 2:3-4]. We don’t know the last breath or last thought of any person, but we know God’s generous eleventh-hour will for them. So, we have a peaceful hope.
What the Master gave to those who entered the vineyard last is best because it proves that salvation is and has always been a gift.
In regards to those Israelites and Gentiles in those early days of the Church – and for you today – it works like this: “What shall we say, then?” This: “That GENTILES who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that ISRAEL who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.”
Those who sought their own righteousness by their works like earning a wage from God, they did not find the true righteousness. But those who could sing, as we will in our closing hymn, “nothing in my hands I bring, but simply to His cross I cling”, these receive a righteousness that is by faith in which sinners are reckoned righteous to God by trust in what Jesus has done for them on the Cross – that His death has atoned for the sin of each person.
Brothers and sisters, do not fall into the temptation of grumbling against others because you feel that you’ve earned something. Instead, play by the rules: The rule is God’s generosity, that He gives of His own mercy as He so chooses, and we’ve all earned nothing. In these last days, He chose to give His Son – a generous gift which saves in the eleventh hour. This mercy has come upon us now, in our age, making these last times the best. Amen.