Real grace - Matthew 20:1-16
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Those of you who have had any dealings with children will know that they have an inbuilt sense of injustice. So if you happen to give little Johnny one dolly mixture more than to little Billy, you will immediately be confronted with the cry ‘That’s not fair.’ And before you know it, you have a minor diplomatic crisis on you hands which require all the skills of a negotiator from the United Nations. Well, in the parable that Jesus once told which we are looking at together this morning ,the child in each one of us rises up to shout ‘Its not fair’, because on the face of it that seems to be the case. Those in the story who have worked a whole day receive exactly the same amount as those who have only put in a couple of hours graft, and you can almost imagine them sending off an aggrieved email to the European Court of Human Rights.
Now if that’s our reaction as we read this parable, then it is precisely to people like us that the parable is directed, because Jesus wants to teach us a very valuable lesson about the way God deals with people when it comes to the issue of salvation, becoming members of his kingdom. So nothing less than our eternal destiny is at stake, therefore it is important that we get this right if nothing else. So if you have not done so already, do turn with me to Matthew 20.
Now as you may know, these graphic little stories called parables, were told by Jesus to make at least one major spiritual point and as we read in v1 the point here has something to do with the ‘kingdom of heaven’, that is the sphere of eternal life which we enter into when we submit to the loving rule of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And Jesus is telling this story in response to something which had happened a little earlier on in the previous chapter. There we have the well known story of the rich young ruler. He wanted to know how he could receive eternal life and the answer Jesus gave proved too unpalatable, namely, that he had to let go of everything and put Jesus first and he simply wasn't willing to do that. In fact he was already following another god, although he wouldn’t have seen it like that- the god called-money. So he walked away gutted. And as usual, not wanting missing an opportunity to put in his two-penneth, the apostle Peter pipes up, ‘We have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?’(v27). What cheek! Not even a hint of embarrassment or apology, nothing but a crude grasping ‘what is in it for me’ mentality. Well, Jesus does go on to explain that it is certainly more than worthwhile following him and that the rewards are literally out of this world, but- then comes the puzzle of v30 ‘Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.’ Now what could that possibly mean?
Well, it is a saying which takes the form of a riddle, a little like those we learn as children: ‘When is a door not a door?’ The answer: when it’s a jar.’ So when are the last first and the first last? The answer, of course, is when there is a tie. Think of a race when all three contestants cross the finishing line at the same time-the first is last and the last is first. No one is ahead and no one is behind. Do you see? And when it comes to entering God’s kingdom, embracing his saving rule, that is the principle which applies to every single one of us. We are either in or out, no one has an advantage over anyone else-no one is more ‘in’ than someone else. This means that with regards to whether you are saved or not, you don’t have superior Christians and inferior Christians, you simply have Christians. And it is this principle which the parable illustrates so powerfully and so provocatively. Did you notice the punch line is more or less the same as that with which the episode began -v16, ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last?’ In other words it is a parable which is told to counter the ‘me first attitude’ of Peter, that is why Jesus begins by saying ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like’-making a logical connection with what has just gone before. Let me out it like this: Peter’s attitude reflects greed - ‘What can I get?’ the owner of the vineyard’s attitude reflects grace- ‘What can I give?’ And therein lays a world of difference, the difference between the way we look at things and the way God looks at things. What are those? Well, we tend to operate according to the principle of deserts; God operates according to the principle of grace. The first way is illustrated by the grumblers in the story and the second way by the vineyard owner.
Now let me explain a little of the background to the story. You see, it was common practice at the time of Jesus for workers in an agrarian culture to gather in the local market place and wait around in the hope that they would be picked by a foreman to work for a wealthy landowner. In fact something very similar used to happen in this country. As many of you know I come from a long line of coalminers. And I gather that before nationalization, some miners would go to the pit yard and the pit manager would come along before a shift and choose men to work for that day. Well, something like that is happening here. The owner arrived at 6am and agreed on a set wage-a denarius which was quiet generous, and off they set to work. Then four more times during the day -at 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm the owner returns and hires more men, and here no fixed amount is agreed, except that it would be ‘whatever is right’ i.e. a words they expected a fair days pay for a fair days work-or an amount proportionate to the work they had done. When the end of the working day came, he paid them all the agreed amount, and that is when the grumbling started: v 11 ‘When they received it, they began to grumble’ Who was that? Well, those who had been hired first. What was their gripe? They said, ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heart of the day.’
So through this parable what is it that Jesus has to say about our natural insistence that when it comes to the things of God he should operate on the principle of deserts, with us getting what we think are ours by rights?
Well, first of all, Jesus tells us that such an attitude is wrong. Just think about it: what had these men who are bellyaching been doing? Well, obviously they had been looking over their shoulders at the other workers who had come along later. You can imagine it can’t you? There they are slogging away in the field, pleased that they at least had a job, not like many of their mates who were still kicking their heels back at the job centre in the market place. What is more, they had a good deal going for them-a denarius-top wack. Then in dribs and drabs these other men turn up onto the scene. So what do you think was going through their minds when that happened? Wouldn’t it have been this? ‘They won’t get as much as us. We are on top wages; these poor souls will only get a fraction of what we are getting. Aren't we the lucky ones?’ In other words, they started to act like book keepers. Not content to look to their own good fortune, they were also noting others misfortune and feeling good about it. And this comes out at the end of the day when they are clearly incensed when the others are treated so generously. Why, had they known that they would have preferred to have slipped in just before clocking- off time. In other words they are seething with resentment.
But not only is their attitude wrong, their understanding is wrong. They were accusing the owner of not being fair -v13. But nothing could have been further from the truth and the owner tells them so: ‘Friend,’ (he says) I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am so generous?’ Had he not paid them what he agreed that would have been unjust, but he hadn't done that. But not only had they failed to appreciate the generosity of the owner to the others, they failed to see his generosity towards them. I think it is significant that it was the owner himself who went to the market place to pick the men, when the standard practice was to send the foreman. Why didn't he send a foreman? After all he has one for he is there in verse 8. Well, surely, it is because this is a man who cares. He wants to give people a job; he takes a delight in doing so. That is why he keeps going back time and time again to see if there are still others who hadn’t got a job. Now, the fact is, he needn't have hired these particular men at all, it was out of shear generosity on his part they had a job in the first place, so they should have been grateful to him, not resentful.
Now friends, this is a perfect picture of the Christian life. Throughout the Bible, the vineyard represents God’s people, his special sphere of activity-his kingdom. And so the owner represents what God is like, namely that he is a generous God, that he is a caring God, that he is a God who has our personal wellbeing close to his heart. He is the one who takes the initiative to call us to become his fellow workers, to be Christians, through the gospel. He seeks us out long before we seek him-that is the kind of God he is- the God who so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son.’ And he does so not because we deserve anything good, quite the opposite in fact. And so do you see that in so many ways before we met Christ we were like these men in the market place-living empty, futile lives without any real purpose or meaning, stripped of our dignity and lost in our sin. Then through hearing the Christian message of God’s saving love in Christ, he calls a seventeen year old Melvin Tinker to stop living for himself and start living for him. Now why he should have chosen me and not say, as yet, my brother, I simply don’t know. What I do know is that it was not because there was anything in me which commended me to God, that somehow I was brighter or more moral or had more potential than anyone else, nothing could be further from the truth. Like this owner, God was so generous to me. And despite me having kept on pushing him away, he just kept coming on back. So the question: ‘Why doesn't God save everyone?’ is not really the right question to ask. The really perplexing question, given the way we treat God and each other, is ‘Why does God save anyone? Why does he bother?’ Well, here is the answer, he bothers because he is so generous, or to use the biblical word- gracious.
So what about this begrudging, carping attitude of the first group? Well, it is sad to say it is something we can all slip into if we don’t get our thinking right about grace. Just think about this: there you are working away in the church, and you glance around and you notice that some don’t seem to be as active as yourself. It is no excuse, for yes, we do need folk to help on those working parties in the churchyard and we do need more children’s leaders and so on. What’s more you feel that your efforts are perhaps not being noticed and you may even feel that you are being taken for granted. So what happens? Well, one of two things. It could be that resentment begins to eat away at you like the men in the parable. So not only do you start grumbling against other members in the church, but you begin to harbour bitterness towards God. And I am sad to say I have seen that happen, until eventually those who were active within the church are now nowhere to be seen. Either that happens or pride takes over and you begin to think how better you are than some others and isn't God fortunate to have someone like me around? So what is the answer?
First, let us give up being book keepers, let’s stop getting overly self- conscious about what we are doing and certainly don’t get too fraught by what others are doing or not doing, as the case may be. Leave it to God, for unlike us he will get the books just right. But secondly, why not instead focus on the generosity of God, his overwhelming kindness to you and hold on to the thought that it is wonderful that he should ever have looked upon you in the first place and called you to be his child whom he loves with an intensity which burns a million times brighter than the sun. Isn’t it gloriously humbling that he calls you to be part of his redeemed family, the church, in order to serve him and encouraging his people on, helping out in whatever way you can whenever you can, using the gifts that God has especially endowed you with?
And when you think about it, do we really want God to deal with us according to what we deserve? As you bring those needs to God in prayer-concerns about your family, your work, the desire to see others saved- on what basis would you like him to answer your prayers- on the basis of how good you are or how gracious he is? The answer is obvious isn’t it?
So this leads us to ask: how does God operate? How does he relate to men and women like you and me? The answer is by grace and it has to be said only by grace-sheer, overwhelming undeserved generosity at personal cost to himself, so that ‘the first will be last and the last will be first.’
Have you ever wondered who the first man was to enter into heaven after Jesus died on Calvary? Well it wasn’t the apostle Paul who had evangelised most of Europe -there was a worker if ever there was one. It wasn’t Martha or Mary who were always there for Jesus, supplying his practical needs like food and shelter and staying close by him at the cross when everyone else had deserted him. No. The first person to walk into the splendour of heaven was a murderer and a thief. It was someone who had hung there with Jesus on a cross. He had spent the good part of his last hours on earth swearing at Jesus not serving him and yet...and yet, he came to the point where he recognised Jesus for who he was -the King of glory, and humbly begged him- begged him mind you- to remember him when he came in his kingdom. And soaked in sweat and bathed in blood, the tortured victim Jesus turned to him and said: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. The very last person to become a disciple of Jesus while he was on earth was the very first person to enter Jesus kingdom in heaven- the last was first. It is the same eternal life that Jesus offers and which we shall all experience and it all flows from a heart of grace. And if only we could have the same heart, wouldn’t it be wonderful? No jealousy of other Christians, no resentment towards God, just the wonder and amazement that he loves us at all and keeps on loving us with heaven in store.
If you are a Christian here this morning, remember it is not because you are better than anyone else. If you are not a Christian remember you are no better than those who are-the only difference between you, is that the Christian knows they don’t deserve God’s forgiveness and have received it, you are still stuck back in the market place. But you needn’t remain there. It is not too late to become Christ’s follower, so why not received his kind invitation this morning? Let us pray.
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