Monday, May 6, 2013

Laborers in the Vineyard - Matthew 20:1-16

The Scripture
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
2 "When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 "And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place;
4 and to those he said, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.'  And so they went.
5 "Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.
6 "And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?'
7 "They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.'  He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.'
8 "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.'
9 "When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.
10 "When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.
11 "When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner,
12 saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.'
13 "But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?
14 'Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.
15 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?  Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'
16 "So the last shall be first, and the first last."

Last time we were in Matthew, the disciples asked Jesus how they would be rewarded for all they were giving up for Him.  He did not rebuke them, as their question was justified at that early stage when the Gospel had not yet fully come to light, and he promised them that because of their faith, they would receive salvation - eternal life.
In today's passage, Jesus continues teaching on that theme, this time explaining a dangerous extreme we can arrive at if we fall into the trap of thinking of heaven as a "reward" for works.
Let's start by identifying the symbols in this parable before dissecting meaning.
The landowner: Christ
Hired laborers: Christians
Laborers not yet hired: The unsaved
The market place: The world
The vineyard: More of a concept than a geographical location - the "missions field" - the world from the perspective of a Christian sharing the Gospel and living his/her life for God
The work: Sharing the Gospel, living our lives for God, etc.
The wages: Salvation
The hours: Different times in our life - e.g. when we're a child, young adult, and right before we die
Evening: The final judgment
First off, I think it's important to clarify something: The laborers hired at later hours are not Christians who decided to wait to get serious about their faith until later in their lives; those laborers are people who did not get saved until later in their lives.  This is important because, while we can never earn salvation through good works, the fact still remains that genuine faith in Christ will "yield fruit" (meaning there will be positive change as the Holy Spirit living in us makes us more like Christ).  I encourage you to read John 15:1-11 on this topic.
Now, that doesn't mean that a person cannot be genuinely saved but only called to "visible" work for the kingdom (like missions or ministry work) at a later point in their lives after they are more mature.  My point is simply that this passage is talking about people getting saved at different stages in their lives! :-)
Second, we also need to be aware that the "wages" talked about here is salvation itself.  We have talked last time and before about special designations like heavenly "crowns" that honor martyrs, for example - that's not what's going on here.  Besides, those extra designations are still completely, utterly undeserved in light of how sinful we are, so we'd have no right to complain about who God handed those out to even if that were the case.
Rather, the point is that none of us, even the hardest "workers" for God (recognized saints, martyrs, etc.) deserve salvation, so we have absolutely no right to complain when someone receives salvation and does less work for the kingdom - because even our own work is not nearly enough to deserve it!
I'm sure you are familiar with Romans 6:23, "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Eternal death (hell) is true wages - it is earned.  But eternal life (salvation) is not true wages - it cannot be earned.  It is absolutely, positively, only a gift from God that we do nothing to deserve, so we cannot think of others as "less deserving."  A serial killer doesn't deserve heaven, but neither do you and I!
If you have not yet received Christ's free gift of salvation from your sins, I offer you to opportunity to do so right now by clicking here.
In Our Lives
So far, we've stayed more in the realm of theology.  Let's expand this to include how we act in our daily lives.
First, we need to be ever conscious of how we treat others.  Any person we look down on for any reason (level of intelligence, appearance, personality, behavior, social class, nationality, whatever), whether Christian or non-Christian, is no more undeserving of Christ's forgiveness than we ourselves are.  Even if we "know" this in our minds, we also need to know it in our hearts - by putting it into action.  Look at Paul's example.
Second, also keep in mind that another believer may be called to a different type of "labor" than you, and that does not make them any less of a worker!  You may be called to do something flashy like leading worship at your church or smuggling Bibles into China, but if God is calling another believer to make cupcakes for people in the hospital, that makes them just as much a "laborer of the month" as you - they deserve respect for doing what God has asked them to do, instead of seeking something more in the public eye.  Unequal labor does not mean unequal laborers. 
Deathbed Conversions?
One final note - this passage brings up the topic of deathbed conversions.  A question people sometimes ask is, "If someone asks Christ's forgiveness right before they die, is it real?"  Well, it can be.
In today's passage, verse 6 tells us that someone hired at "the eleventh hour" (5 o'clock p.m. - at the end of the workday) is saved.  And the man on the cross next to Jesus came to faith as he was dying, and was promised salvation.
So, if a person isn't just doing a last-ditch effort thing on their deathbed, but genuinely regrets how they've lived and honestly wants Christ's forgiveness, yes, they can be saved.
Questions for You
What stage of life were you in when you came to Christ? 
And how has this impacted your view of others when you find out they believed when they were younger or older than you were?
Anything else you'd like to add to our discussion?  Or ask?
Image Citation
"Laborer in bib overalls digging the fire pit" by David Goehring.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.

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