As you’re being seated, please turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew; you’ll find it on page 825 if you’re using a pew Bible. We’ll be studying Matthew chapter 20 and verses 1 through 16. Once again, if you’re visiting, good to have you with us; good to see you here tonight. We are glad you are with us! Before we read God’s Word together, let us pray.
Father, we meditate on what we’ve heard sung and what we’ve just sung, “God and sinner reconciled. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved wretches like us.” Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, that grace once again from Your Word by the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of the King of love and grace, Jesus. We pray in His mighty name, amen.
Matthew 20 beginning in verse 1. This is God’s Word:
“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. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 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.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. 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? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.
For me, it’s when you’re in traffic and you see those dreaded signs, “Lane Closed Ahead – 2500 feet,” and you’re looking for that one really, really nice person, especially in morning traffic, especially where we moved from in Raleigh where it started backing up about 5:30 in the morning. And that one person may let you in, and then you’d see sixteen, twenty other cars go right by you and sneak in at the very end. And inside, at least for me, there’s that little twinge going, “That’s just not fair! I waited. I waited my turn. They went racing by me!” What is it for you? What are those trivial things in life that remind you it’s just not fair? We start that with our kids early, don’t we? That’s a lot said around our house. “Don’t worry, sweetie. Life’s not fair!” But maybe it’s something deeper for you tonight? Maybe you tried really hard to get on that sports team and the person who got on the team is not nearly as talented as you, maybe cheated to get there. Maybe you’re in the middle of your life going, “Where’s it going? What’s the point of life? It just doesn’t feel fair.” Maybe you’re toward the end and you’ve seen so much injustice? You feel like life has been nothing but unfair to you the entirety of your days.
See, the Gospel changes all of this! Let me give you a quote that summarizes this parable. I came across it in my study this week. This author wrote, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” The ground is level at the foot of the cross! And that sentence captures what Jesus is teaching us here tonight. See, life as we know is not fair, but God’s grace is scandalous precisely because it puts every one of us on that same level. The ground is level at the foot of the cross because all of us are saved exactly the same way – by grace and by grace alone. That’s what Jesus is teaching here tonight.
Let me just quickly set the context for you! Matthew has done three things setting us up for this parable. First, he’s shown us three misunderstandings of the Gospel beginning back right in chapter 19. The disciples turn away little children because you see, they weren’t allowed to talk to the rabbis of this time. The rabbis were above teaching women and little children. Jesus says, “You’ve completely misunderstood Me! Bring them to Me!” Then we see another misunderstanding of the Gospel when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and says, “I’ve kept all these commandments from my youth.” And He says, “No, you haven’t even gotten past the first one,” and he turns away sad. And then Peter. Every time I read this gospel or any of the gospels I am so thankful the Lord made Peter because he misunderstands Jesus and His mission almost without fail, even to the very end, and I find a lot of sympathy with Him there. Peter, what does he say? “Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed You! What are we going to get?” There’s the heart of a humble servant, right?
And Jesus ends chapter 19 and verse 30 with this. He illustrates to Peter answering his questions saying, “Many who are first will be last and the last first.” And that’s how He closes this parable in verse 16 of chapter 20. So He bookends this parable with this phrase, “The first will be last and the last will be first,” and that’s the key to interpreting this parable! This parable illustrates that, and really what Jesus is up to is He is correcting our misunderstanding of God’s character by an astonishing portrait of His Gospel grace. And I want to show that to you under two headings tonight. First of all, misunderstanding grace. First heading, misunderstanding grace. Second, scandalous grace. Misunderstanding grace and scandalous grace.
I. Misunderstanding grace
Peter starts in chapter 19 and asks, “What are we going to get?” He wants to know if life is fair. “Jesus, will You reward us? We’ve left everything.” Peter had a family, remember! Jesus goes into his mother-in-law’s house. Only people with families have in-laws. So He goes there. Peter’s left that all behind. “What are we going to get?” Peter’s question reveals the tension in this story and it’s a tension that marks out our lives, the lives of those who’ve come before us, and the lives of those who will come after us. It’s a question about God. “How can God be just and gracious? How is that possible? How can He be both totally just and totally gracious?” And for most of us we err on either side of that. We either have justice without grace. That’s our view of God. We try to live for Him, we do our best, we try to live up to what we think He is all about. And what does that result in for most of us? We think of Him as harsh, disappointed in us. We’ve said before we tend to think God loves us, but doesn’t really like us. That’s what this view of God will do to you. It results in joyless living, forced service. Almost like servitude rather than joy and serving the living God. That’s one err. Or, we have grace without justice. This is a prevalent view today as well. You live as you please, very little thought to God or His ways. It’s kind of like God is so gracious He doesn’t care what I do or how I live. And what this view ironically does is it cheapens grace because it gives you costless grace. My friends, if one thing is true about grace, it’s never costless. It always costs as we’ll see. And this view results in enslavement to lesser gods – pleasure, wealth, whatever it is, seeking your own happiness. “I’m going to do whatever I please. I don’t care what God thinks about me.” And then you’re going to end up worshiping something else.
David Foster Wallace who was one of the great writers of the past century, a tortured soul, wrote an incredible novel called, Infinite Jest. Right towards the end of his life he was giving a graduation speech. He’s an atheist, raised by a philosophy professor, died an atheist unfortunately. He stood up before these graduates and said, “Never forget you’re going to worship something every day of your life. Nobody does not worship.” So that’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to be either one of these extremes! Grace without justice or justice without grace. These views were prevalent, these errors, rather were prevalent in Jesus’ day as Peter’s question reveals. Every religion and worldview is trying to answer, “Is God just and gracious? Is He both?” And only, only my friends hear me, only the Gospel can give you the answer!
Two Kinds of Laborers.
Now Jesus does that. He gives us the answer by showing us two kinds of workers in this parable. Notice what happens there. In verse 3, or verse 2 rather, he says, “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day he sent them out into the vineyard.” So he says, “Here, I want you to work for this one denarius.” That was a common wage for that time. It would roughly equal about a hundred dollars a day in modern money. Then in verse 3, notice the landowner changes. “Going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace and said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too and whatever is right I will give you.’” So there’s an expectation of fairness here, whatever’s right. So they thought, “Okay, it’s later on in the day; we probably won’t get as much as a normal working person will get during a day.” We anticipate each worker receiving what is fair, and then things take a surprising turn. Notice what happens! Jesus tells us the landowner goes out about the sixth hour, the ninth hour. The work day started about 6:30am, 6:00am, and went to about 6:00pm and this landowner hires people at 9:00am, at noon, at 3:00 and at 5:00pm. Right up until the very end.
And then to illustrate the principle He wants all of the disciples and us to grasp He says, “Now gather the workers together and pay the last first.” And here’s what He’s doing! Here’s what He’s telling us! If you are a Christian, you fit into one of these two categories of workers. You’re either one of these two categories. You’re either one of the ones who came last or you’re one of the ones who was hired first. That’s what He’s trying to do to drive His point home. Now the workers hired first in this parable illustrate the apostles. Here’s the answer to your question, Peter. But it also more broadly illustrates for us those who have followed Jesus, maybe your whole lives, maybe since you were born, maybe your testimony tonight, and I hope and pray this not only for my own children but for you as well, that you’ve never known a day where you haven’t known Christ as your Lord and Savior. That’s who Jesus is talking about here. And in His day, of course, many of the Jews believed that you merited the favor of God by doing extreme acts of sacrifice or giving up so much like the apostles had done for Jesus.
Those who Grumble Against Grace.
And that same kind of attitude populates our churches today, doesn’t it? We tend to think, “The more I give up, the harder I work, the more God will accept me.” Does this describe you? Maybe you work tirelessly and you’ve tried really hard to make yourself acceptable to God. You have a list of rules you have followed your entire life, and what happens when you do that and you fail? Despair sets in, or maybe not even despair, just a low level dissatisfaction. You find yourself constantly asking, “Surely there’s more to this Christian thing than what I’m experiencing.” That comes from this attitude of these kinds of first worker people here. They get to the end, they start grumbling. What are they grumbling against? They’re grumbling against, as the landowner points out, his generosity. “That’s not fair!” is what they’re saying. “We don’t like the fact you’re generous!” And so many times in our Christian lives we can end up in precisely this spot. And here’s the question to find out if you land in this group. Do you obey God because you are secure in His love? In other words, you’re trying to serve Jesus because you know He loves you. There’s not a shadow of a doubt in your mind! The reason you want to go share the Gospel with people, the reason you want to follow hard after Christ, is not because you believe that’s going to get God to love you, but because you’re so secure in the fact that you are His beloved child. Or, or, do you serve Him because you’re so insecure about losing that love? Which one is it? If it’s that latter group, if you’re serving simply because you wonder, “If I don’t do enough, God won’t accept me,” that’s how these first workers behaved towards the landowner.
The Joy of the Recipients of Grace.
Then you’ve got this group that’s hired last. Can you imagine what it was like when they got paid? When Callie and I were dating, I spent a summer working for one of her uncles on a horse farm. And her uncle worked under the maxim, as all good horse farm owners do, that “The horse doesn’t know when it’s Christmas, when it’s Easter, when it’s night, when it’s day, so we’re going to show up and work whenever we need to show up and work,” which resulted in work days that looked a whole like what you were reading about here in the Scriptures tonight. And I’ll never forget at the end of that first week working for him, about fourteen to fifteen hours a day, looking forward to that paycheck, never have I wanted a check so bad, and never have I wanted to get back to Columbia, South Carolina and make straight A’s as I finished the University of South Carolina! So think about these workers. Imagine how excited they were when they received the same thing that they thought that only the people who came in first would receive – overjoyed!
And they represent the people who maybe are saved towards the ends of their lives or maybe have lived in gross sin before they came to know Christ – a lot of baggage, a lot of history. That describes a lot of us, doesn’t it? Some of you came to Christ later in life. There’s a history there that comes up against you every day of your life. It brings shame, it brings regret, and you wonder, “Is God for me?” And this parable says, “Yes!” And it says something to that first group of workers as well. Here’s the question for us! I’m going to put it in maybe, I hope, not too shocking terms, but terms that I hope arrest us and try to get at the heart of what Jesus is saying here. Here’s the question for us if we want to avoid that spirit that led to this parable. Are we okay with somebody, who maybe has been a child abuser his entire life, receiving the same salvation as a covenant child who is raised at a place like First Pres., follows Jesus his whole life, never strays? Are we okay with a God who allows grace to both people at the end of the day? Are we okay, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, with the Ted Bundys of the world who repent on their deathbed and, as far as we can tell was sincere about it, going to heaven the same way people who have followed faithfully their entire lives?
That’s what Jesus is saying here. That’s the scandal of Gospel grace. And the attitude of these first workers here reveals our default view of God. Again, it’s “God will accept me if I work and try really hard. That’s when He’ll love me. That’s when I know He’ll be for me.” And Jesus says the exact opposite is the case. And don’t miss this! Please do not miss this! I don’t care if it’s Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, any world religion or philosophy, make no mistake, every one of them has a doctrine of salvation, “How do we put what’s wrong with the world, right?” and without exception, apart from the Gospel, apart from what you read here in the Scriptures, all of them say this, without exception – “You work, God rewards. You do your best, God rewards.” Only the Gospel says, “Jesus works, you get the reward!” Only the Gospel says that! Nothing else has anything remotely like that and that’s what Jesus is getting at here tonight. He’s saying, “Let me challenge, recalibrate, readjust your view of what God is like. It’s so much better than you ever imagined.” It’s greater! His grace is more amazing that you’ve ever dreamed possible.
II. Scandalous Grace
And that leads us to our second point – scandalous grace. Notice a couple of things about this landowner who represents to us Jesus. Notice he goes out and hires the workers each time. That was not a common practice. Normally he’d send the foreman he mentions later in the parable to go hire the workers. He goes out and seeks the sinners! He goes out into the marketplace. Jesus loves to tell us that, doesn’t He? He’s the one who goes after them! Second, notice how gently this landowner deals with these grumbling workers. In this culture it would have been nothing for him to make sure they never got hired again. This guy’s obviously very wealthy! If he’s got a harvest that needs this many workers, he probably knew a lot of people around the town and he’s got these grumbling workers. He could have easily gone down to the marketplace and said, “There’s a group you don’t want t hire!” He doesn’t do that! He says, “Friend.” Then he asks him a few questions. He says to him, “Don’t I get to do what I want with what’s mine?” or “Do you begrudge my generosity?” And the answer to both those questions is, “Yes!” They do begrudge his generosity, and yes it’s totally right for him to do whatever he pleases with what is his!
And what Jesus is doing is exposing our hearts. And when we look at our own hearts, isn’t this the case? Whether we’re in traffic, whether we’re experiencing disappointment in our lives, we want God to be fair with everybody else except us; then we want grace. We want fairness for everybody but us! And this is the scandalous thing about grace. Manifestly, manifestly, grace is unfair! It’s not fair! That’s what makes it beautiful. That’s what makes it good news! Grace is not fair at all. Fair is everything besides the Gospel. That’s the last thing we should want is what’s fair. Fair is God’s hammer stroke of justice falling upon sinners like us. Unfair – Jesus getting that hammer stroke of justice instead of us. Grace is manifestly unfair. And if we respond, if we respond when somebody who may have been a disaster of a human being and maybe still is, gets saved, and if we respond with anything other than joy, we’ve fallen into this attitude of these first worker types. Are we thrilled when somebody’s saved, regardless of their background, regardless of their pedigree, regardless of where they are after they get saved? I am thrilled most of the people I preach to did not know me twelve years ago when I was saved! That’s because we have to grow in grace. Do we have room for that in our view of the Gospel?
The Exciting Nature of Grace.
Let’s go a little bit deeper. Jesus is telling us here what God is really like. It’s wonderful! He’s telling us a few things. He’s saying God’s grace is far more exciting, it’s far more exciting and yet it’s far more dangerous than what we imagined. It’s far more exciting than any kind of “religious teaching” you’ve encountered. We’ve talked about that just a moment ago because everything else gives you this merit based system to relate to God, and the Gospel is far more electrifying and exciting than that. Jesus tells us your performance secures nothing before God. It’s all about Him! It’s not about what you do; it’s about what He does in your place. Grace is unique and therefore exciting! And you may not know this, but you may know it if you walk around and talk to people who aren’t believers, because we’re in the middle of another spiritual awakening in this country my friends, and in the West more generally. But it’s not the kind that’s led by Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards. It’s a revival of pagan spirituality where people say, “I want to be spiritual but not religious.” And only the Gospel has the resources really to speak to somebody like that because every other spirituality has nothing dangerous about it, nothing! Nothing unique, nothing electrifying, nothing dangerous! Every other spirituality boils down to – Do! Christianity alone says, “Look to Christ.”
The Danger of grace.
So it’s more exciting but it’s also dangerous. Why is it dangerous? Because all ground is level at the foot of the cross. It’s dangerous because the Gospel tells you, you have to give up your old way of life. And you see, the Gospel is not a leap of faith into the dark. You try to reason as much as you can and then you just say, “You know what, I can’t do it anymore. I’m just going to jump and hope Jesus catches me.” That’s not the Gospel! It’s not a blind leap in the dark. It’s a renunciation of doing life according to your own way. That’s what the Gospel is. It’s not a blind leap. Grace says to you, “You and I are so fallen, so far away from God that nothing less than the death of the Son of God can save us, and that alone is what makes us acceptable before God – His life, His death in our place.” That threatens how we do life. We want to look to our accomplishments. We want to look to what’s comfortable. We want to look to our own selves. That’s what we trust in, isn’t it?
Jesus Fulfills our Deepest Need.
Let me ask you this. Are you miserable because you are trying so hard to find meaning in something besides Jesus – what you earn, what people think of you, where you live, how your children perform, whether or not you’ll have a spouse one day? What is it? And there’s good news if that’s where you find yourself tonight because Christ does two things for us here. He fulfills our deepest need. That’s what Jesus does. He fulfills our deepest need, which is a righteousness we cannot earn, a righteousness we cannot earn. You see that tension we noticed at the beginning – is God gracious? Is He just? That’s only resolved at the cross. Jesus’ perfect, everyday obedience to the law of God in thought, in word, in deed culminates at the cross. That’s the climax, that’s the apex, that’s the goal, that’s where He sets His face to go from day one! That’s where He is going to end up. He, therefore, is truly the worker who’s borne the heat of the day. He’s the only one who can say that! None of us can say, “We’ve really worked hard for You, God.” What else does He tell us in Luke’s gospel? He says, “When you’ve done everything you’re commanded to do,” and who of us here wants to raise our hand and say, “That’s me”? He says, “When you’ve done everything you’ve been commanded to do say, ‘I am an unprofitable servant.’” He’s the only one who’s been the faithful worker in God’s vineyard, every day. And my friends, you have to come back to this. The reason He did that, day in and day out, is He looked ahead and saw you and me and everybody else He would live and die for, precisely because He knows that we never could. Never, never if we had all the years and all the eons trying our best to keep our thoughts pure and do everything God’s law tells us to do. Never! Only Jesus does it! So He fulfills our deepest need for righteousness we cannot earn.
Jesus Fulfills our Greatest Longing.
But then He also gives us and fulfills our greatest longing. Whether you know it or not, whether I know it or not, this is what we’re longing for. It’s rest! Rest from working for what is freely given. See, Christ fulfills this greatest longing because all of us, every day, we’re trying to measure up to some standard, aren’t we? Think about your own private thoughts, by yourself, maybe late at night, maybe as the day starts – what are you trying to measure up to? You’ve got an assessment. I’ve got an assessment of myself. And we have got this bar set somewhere and we constantly fail to measure up to it. And it starts early. Watch elementary school students come in here in the Day School when kids are walking in, and watch them start comparing stuff. And doesn’t your heart break a little bit as an adult when you watch that because you know that’s going to continue right through high school, right through college – did you get the right bid? Did you live in the right place? Did you go to the right college? And then it goes right to the carpool line, doesn’t it? Do I have the right car? Does my spouse look a certain way? Do my kids have the right clothes? Comparison, standard – do I meet it? Every day of our lives we are working towards that. And that’s what leaves us empty, irritable, unfulfilled, feeling distant from God. Why? Because we are working for something, an identity, that is only and ever found in Jesus. That’s why!
The high Cost of Grace.
That’s why life is so hard for us so much of the time, because we are expressing a longing for rest from this hectic, performance driven lifestyle. And the only way, the only way we can find rest is to come to the One who worked for us, who worked in our place! The only way to find rest is to come to the One who truly was treated unfairly. Don’t miss that. Grace always costs! It cost the landowner in the parable when he gave the same amount to workers who did not work a full day. Grace costs us nothing; it cost Him everything. He’s the innocent one. He never sinned. That cross was the greatest, most heinous crime ever perpetrated by our race against another human being when the sinless Son of God was laid bare on Calvary’s tree! The innocent dying for the guilty like us! That magnificent celestial courtroom scene is set and there all of us are coming before the bar of that Judge who does no wrong, before whom there is no injustice, in whom resides nothing but total and complete fairness and the verdict against each one of us is “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” And at the cross, all ground is level because the One who was never guilty, the One who was holy, harmless, and undefiled, who His entire life had walked with perfect obedience before His Father comes to that cross and the innocent became guilty for us. And He who had worked His entire life physically, a working man, Jesus’ hands had calluses! A homebuilder, a blue collar worker that was His work. And then He worked spiritually every day because when you and I fail, the only hope we have is that He worked perfectly. The only way for true rest from everything that hinders us from having rest, from all vain seeking after other identities and other ways to make yourself acceptable to an audience that won’t care fifty years from now, the only way is through faith and simple faith in Him who worked perfectly, every day, that we might rest.
Don’t you want rest? Don’t you want to rest from all that’s keeping you from realizing that full, Gospel, beautiful, wonderful feeling of knowing that you’re His and feeling that peace and then walking with Him? Jesus says, “I am the only One who can bring you rest.” This principle in this parable is illustrated wonderfully in a short story by Flannery O’Conner. She wrote a story called, Revelation, towards the end of her life, and if you read her at all, towards the end of her life this was one of the last three stories she wrote, the theme of grace becomes so prominent. And this story is about a woman who is self-righteous. She sits in a doctor’s office for most of the story and she’s completely eaten up with self-righteousness. She looks down on white trash; she looks down on black people. She calls them white trash. Black people, people who are from the north, whatever. Then at the end of the story, it takes this dramatic turn and she’s out feeding hogs at her farm. And she thinks she’s so much better than everybody else and then she sees a vision after she cries out to God. “What are You doing?” That’s what she says to God. “What are You doing? Who do You think You are?” Here’s how O’Conner describes it:
“She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it, a vast hoard of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it well.”
“The first will be last and the last will be first.” Because of the scandalous grace of God. Because all ground is level at the foot of the cross. Let us pray!
Father, we’re about to stand up and sing that, ‘When we’ve been there for ten thousand years, we’ve no less days to sing Your praise than when we first begun.’ We really want that to be true tomorrow morning when the alarm clock rings and life begins afresh and disappointments and sorrows and heartaches mark out our lives. Would You show us this kind of grace? Would we really work it into our bones, as it were, and would it spill out from our lives that Jesus might be made more beautiful and believable by all of us? We pray in His mighty name, amen.