A truth about the Kingdom of Heaven

EQUALLY DESERVING

Matthew 20:1—16

This parable, found only in Matthew, is another one of Matthew’s “kingdom parables,” introduced by the familiar phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” However, there is a difference; the use of “for” shows that this parable is meant to expand on something Jesus taught earlier—

But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:30)

Thanks to this parable, we come to understand how “the last” person is able to become “first,” namely through free grace. Jesus’ point in this teaching is not that those who work just an hour do as much as those who work all day, nor that the willingness of those latecomers matches that of those who worked all day. In spite of what some commentators think, the latecomers are not Gentiles, nor are they reckoned equal to the all-day workers, nor is their work viewed of equal value. No, this parable in no way teaches that all kingdom work is equal or that all kingdom workers are equal.

This wonderful parable is only designed to cleverly lead Jesus’ listeners to the conclusion that God is gracious, and if God were really a wealthy landowner, He would be different from any landowner that has ever lived. The parable is not about the workers; it is all about the wealthy landowner.

1. The landowner and his vineyard, 20:1—7

Jesus wants to teach us something about the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, but in order to understand that truth; we must first understand something about the One in charge of it. Obviously God is over His Kingdom, just as the “landowner” is master of his home and property. The characteristics of the landowner in the parable parallel those of God.

  • The landowner is pictured as being wealthy;
  • His estate consists of a homestead and a large vineyard;
  • The vineyard is the object of his special care and attention and he needs many workers to tend it.

In parabolic form, then, we encounter God in the form of this wealthy landowner. There is no denying the fact of the wealth of God. Remember Psalm 50? In particular, God speaking says these things about Himself—

[F]or every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. (Psalm 50:10—12)

As the One who owns it all, God is sovereign in His rule, and He has the right to govern His Kingdom as He sees fit, just as the landowner is able to set his own rules over all that work for him, including wages.

He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. (Matthew 20:2)

The landowner began his day early, maybe at sunrise, and went to find workers. In large cities, it was not uncommon to find men gathered early in the morning looking for work, especially during harvest time. In the case of a vineyard, when the grapes were ripe, they would need to be picked immediately; time was of the essence.

While it is not stated in explicitly, the way verse 2 is written seems to indicate that there was some discussion about the wages. The landowner “agreed,” suggesting that despite his position of authority, he came to an agreement with all the workers as to how much to pay them. The workers, for their part, entered into this agreement fully aware of what their work and time were worth. The landowner had no need to twist their arms; they consented to work for this man of their own free will at a mutually agreeable rate of pay.

The vineyard must have large because we see the landowner going into town three more times in search of workers; at 9 am, noon, and then again at 3 pm. Of interest is how these men were to be paid versus how the first group. The first group apparently entered into a kind of “negotiation” for their wages and the landowner and the workers all agreed to set wages. Notice how the second group of workers was to be paid—

You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right. (verse 4)

That’s the landowner talking! Imagine being offered a job by a company that told you that! Why did this second group go along with the landowner without discussing wages? They trusted him; they trusted his judgment. Though not stated, it seems the third and fourth groups of workers were hired the same way. These workers were out of work and out of resources and were probably overjoyed about working. They didn’t ask questions; they were grateful for the opportunity to work and get paid. When you’re broke, any wage is welcome.

In regards to the last group of workers. These were hired to work just one hour. What kind of business operator would hire a bunch of men for just one hour of work but pay them a whole day’s wages? The answer is clear from reading how he spoke to them—

Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing? (verse 6b)

What set this landowner apart from all other landowners was that he was as interested in the people he hired as he was in his vineyard. He actually inquired as to why these men were not working. When they answered him, he provided a solution: he hired them! They obviously wanted to work, and he gave them the opportunity to do just that.

2. Hour of reckoning, 20:8—12

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his supervisor, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ (verse 8)

In Jesus’ day, it was customary to pay workers at the end of each day, not end of each week. As the day wore on, quitting time approached and it was time to pay the workers. There are two main points about this verse. First, the statement “when evening came” points to not only the end of the day in the parable but also the end of this dispensation: the great Day of Judgment and the ultimate manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven. Remember, this parable is meant to teach us something about the Kingdom of God, not about vineyard management. The leads us to the second point: the order in which the workers were to be paid. The landowner wanted them to be paid from the last ones hired back to the first; the opposite order in which they were hired.

There are two reasons for this. First, this reverse order of payment illustrates the primary truth of the Kingdom of Heaven stated in 19:30 and then again in verse 16: in the Kingdom of Heaven the last will be first and the first last. And second, in paying the last first, the ones who started the day would be witness to this reverse order of doing business and therefore learn something about the way the landowner does business. Had they been paid first, they would have taken their wages and just left.

When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. (verse 11)

That’s how the all-day workers reacted at how the landowner paid the workers. Their reaction may be seen as normal, but we learn something about human nature. When the landowner’s strange way of hiring workers benefited them, the workers didn’t complain. When the first group was able negotiate a wage, they never complained. When the subsequent groups were hired on the spot and promised a fair wage for their work, they didn’t complain either. Nobody complained when the landowner treated them well and fairly and probably better than they deserved. But now, at the end of the day when the wages were being paid and all the workers were paid exactly the same amount, they complained. The all day workers in comparing their pay to the pay of the hour-long workers now figured they were being underpaid. The landowner was not treating them fairly, or so they thought when they compared themselves to others.

So, on the surface the complaint of these workers was understandable. However, it betrayed their selfishness. Those men who worked one hour needed just as much to feed their families as those who worked all day. Besides, it was nobody’s business what each worker was being paid. It was the landowner’s right and privilege to pay the workers to pay more or less as he deemed fair.

The attitude of the workers reveals a spirit of jealousy.

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.’ (verse 12)

It is telling that they did not point to the quality of their work as basis for more pay. They thought they should have been paid more merely because they arrived first. Not only that, they didn’t complain that they were put on par with the latecomers, but that the latecomers were put on par with them. They were not only upset with the whole pay scheme, but also with the fact that the latecomers were being treated the exact same way as they were.

3. The principle, 20:13—16

Remember the reason Jesus told this parable was to reveal some truth about the Kingdom of Heaven, and He is using the landowner to reveal it, not the workers. The behavior of the workers reveals something about US, not about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The landowner begins by calling the lead complainer, “friend.” This shows that his rebuke is a mild one; the landowner is not punishing mad. He simply told them that he was, in spite of what they felt, treating them fairly. Breaking down what he said, it looks like this—

  • I am not being unfair to you;
  • I am paying you what WE ALL agreed upon;
  • I have a right to use my money the way I want to;
  • My generosity has made you envious of others.

That last point must have really stung those all-day workers; it showed how stingy they were in comparison to the landowner’s generosity.

The whole point of the story is summed up in verse 16—

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Obviously the thing that occasioned this parable was Peter’s attitude in 19:27—

We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Peter was one who thought he should have been first because he gave up so much. But the parable makes it clear that kind of attitude has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was not condemning Peter or anybody listening to Him; He was illustrating that things work differently in the Kingdom of Heaven than they do on earth. If a believer wants live and prosper in the Kingdom of Heaven, then he must radically adjust his way of thinking.

In summing up the meaning of this parable, Trench wrote: “Not of works, lest any should boast; this was the truth which they were in danger of missing, and which [Jesus] would now by the parable enforce; and if nothing of works, but all of grace for all, then no glorying of one over another, no claim as of right upon the part of any.”

(c)  2010 WitzEnd
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