Response and Rewards

reward

Rewards.  Who doesn’t like them?  Matthew 20 is a chapter that deals with rewards.  The first parable of the chapter draws our attention back to the previous one.  In particular Matthew 19:30 –

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.  (TNIV)

It may surprise you to know that God is big on rewards.  For example, in God’s economy good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior isn’t.  That’s pretty simple.  But it isn’t always easy figuring out God’s way of calculating who gets what reward.  To help us understand how God thinks, Jesus tells some stories.

Matthew 20:1 – 16

Here’s a parable only Matthew records and it teaches us how a person who is last may become first.  The short answer is “free grace.”  Man has a hard time with this because man’s rewards are always based on merit or performance.  God  has a different standard.

Our story begins with a very typical scene but quickly introduces atypical elements that catch us off guard and drives home a critical point.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  (Matthew 20:1, 2  TNIV)

That’s the typical part of the story.  This is the part that makes complete sense to us.  Workers take a job and their pay is based on the number of hours they work.  We all understand that concept.  But here’s the atypical part –

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.  He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”  So they went.  (Matthew 20:3 – 5a  TNIV)

With the second group of men, our landowner makes a totally different arrangement.  Again and again he returns to find more workers – why he keeps going back we aren’t told – and each new group of workers is hired the same way:  they will be paid whatever seems right to the landowner.  Now that’s an arrangement that troubles us.  Would an employee have that kind of faith in his new employer?  Who would take a job without an understanding of the rate of pay?  Good question, and it’s the point of the parable.

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his supervisor, “Call the workers and them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”  (Matthew 20:8  TNIV)

The custom of the day was to pay laborers at the end of the workday.  But something is amiss:  the last group hired will be paid first and the first one hired will be paid last.  Of course, the landowner could do whatever he wanted to do, but it went against the custom of the day.  But wait!  It gets worse.

So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.  (Matthew 20:10  NIV) 

So every worker was paid the exact same amount regardless of how long they worked.  That hardly seems fair, and of course those who were hired first, those who expected to have been paid most, grumbled.

When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These 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.’  (Matthew 20:11, 12  NIV)

On the surface, we might be sympathetic about their complaint.  However, when you look closer, the grumbling of the workers showed a serious character flaw in them:  they were selfish.  Let’s face it, the workers who only worked for part of the workday needed to feed their families just as much as those who worked the whole workday.  And the first group’s pay wasn’t diminished in any way because additional workers were hired and paid.  It was up to the landowner to set them straight:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one 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 generous?’  (Matthew 20:13 – 15  NIV)

The workers who came first agreed to work for a certain rate of pay.  It wasn’t the landowner who had the problem.  It was his privilege to pay whatever he wanted to, and he made no such arrangement with the subsequent groups of workers.  In truth, the landowner was incredibly generous while the grumbling workers were pathetically stingy.

There are actually a couple profound lessons to be learned in this story.  First, in terms of rewards.  All who responded to the landowner’s call were rewarded.  Those who showed up on time and those who were late were all rewarded by the landowner.  Those rewards were given at the discretion of the landowner; they were not merit-based.  This parable, by the way, is not  meant to teach you how to run a business!  You can’t run a business the way the landowner ran his.  The lesson is summed up by Philip Yancey, who makes some good points:

God dispenses gifts, not wages.  None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life.  If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell.  In the realm of grace, the word “deserve” does not even apply.

Just so.  And we’re grateful for that!

Second, we have this from the great Teacher:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.  (Matthew 20:16  NIV)

Back in Matthew 19:27, the apostle Peter remarked:

“We have left everything to follow you!  What then will there be for us?”  (Matthew 19:27  NIV)

Why did he ask that question?  You need to know why because that’s why Jesus told this parable.  Let’s look at what Peter said in that verse.  The first statement is truly commendable.  This rag tag group of men, the first of whom was Peter, really did give up everything to follow Jesus.  Trouble is, his question vitiated his testimony in that it revealed Peter, the apostle who always spoke for the whole group, was still hopelessly worldly and materialistic, just  like those workers who were hired first in the parable that follows.

He asked that question in response to Jesus’ teaching about how difficult it is for a rich man to be saved.  Jesus never said it was impossible for a rich man to be saved, only that it was difficult.  In fact, He wrapped up his teaching on this point with this famous, oft-quoted verse:

With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  (Matthew 19:26  NIV)

In other words, it IS possible for a rich man to enter heaven because God can make that happen.  The answer is even more far-reaching than that.  Regardless of how rich or poor a person may be, regardless of a person’s circumstances, that person is a candidate for salvation if he acknowledges his need for what he lacks:  salvation.  Nobody, rich or poor, has anything God wants or needs.  When a lost soul comes to Christ with empty hands, He will find acceptance and salvation.

The various groups of workers the landowner hired all had needs.  They all needed a way to feed their families.  They all needed to pay their bills.  They all needed work.  They all came to the landowner with empty pockets, and they were all rewarded by the landowner, regardless of where they came from  or when the came.

Luke 14:15 – 24

Like Matthew, the material in Luke 14 is unique to Luke.  Luke is the only Gospel writer who records the dinner Jesus shared with His “friend,” who happened to a chief Pharisee.  He had several meals like this one; no wonder some Jews wondered about Jesus!  The Pharisee, though, wasn’t all he appeared to be:

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.  (Luke 14:1  NIV)

This Pharisee was slick; it looked like he was breaking bread with our Lord, but really he was scrutinizing Him.  He was looking for a way to discredit Jesus.  A trap was being laid:

There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.

Jesus knew this was the trap.  Would he heal this man on the Sabbath or not?  Where did this swollen man come from?  Of course he was being used to trip Jesus up.  Jesus knew this but healed him anyway, and then He gave some principles that should govern such an  occasion (verses 7 – 12).  He summed up own “Emily Post” rules for giving a banquet this way:

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13  NIV)

Considering Jesus was dining with a Pharisee, a wealthy religious leader, this verse might have sounded revolutionary, but in reality it wasn’t.  According to the very religion this Pharisee represented, we read this:

Every third year you are to use your entire tithe for local welfare programs:  Give it to the Levites who have no inheritance among you, or to foreigners, or to widows and orphans within your city, so that they can eat and be satisfied; and then Jehovah your God will bless you and your work.  (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29  TLB)

It is a time to rejoice before the Lord with your family and household. And don’t forget to include the local Levites, foreigners, widows, and orphans. Invite them to accompany you to the celebration at the sanctuary.  (Deuteronomy 16:11  TLB)

The Pharisees and many Jews had not taken this part of the Law seriously for a long time, so Jesus was simply reminding them of what God expected.  One of the invited quests seemed to appreciate with Jesus was saying:

When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 14:15  NIV)

Seizing on that statement and making it a teachable moment, our Lord told another parable to help the Pharisees understand that He was talking about much more than just dinner etiquette.

Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.”  (Luke 14:16  NIV)

This banquet was to be a big deal, which included the customary “double invitation.”  It was to be a “great” banquet and that second invite suggested they all accepted the first one.  And who wouldn’t want to attend such an affair?  Apparently a lot of people didn’t.  One after another, each invited guest offered excuse after excuse for getting off the hook.  It’s not that the excuses are so bad (although they were all pretty lame), it’s that without exception, each person invited had promised to come!  They all – all – went back on their word.  The real reason they didn’t want to come to the banquet was they didn’t want to; they couldn’t be bothered to show up.  In the application of this parable, those who were invited were Jews.

Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.  (Luke 14:21b  NIV) 

This second group of invited guests represented outcast Jews – “publicans and sinners” – as well as those who were poor and handicapped.  That’s a lot of guests, but there was still room.  The banquet hall was huge; there was plenty of room for guests.  Here’s a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s a place with lots of room for lots of people and there is plenty of opportunity to get in there.  The invitations are always being given.

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.  I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’  (Luke 14:23, 24  NIV)

So now even those outside of Israel – Gentiles – would be invited to the banquet.  In fact, these people were not just to be “invited,” but “compelled.”

It’s a great parable that shows how God works.   That they were to be “compelled” shows the evangelistic fervor the Church should have in reaching the lost.  It also shows how the Holy Spirit works to draw sinners into the Kingdom.

The last verse, though, drives home the point of Jesus’ parable.  The first group of invited guests, the ones who at first accepted the invitation then reneged – the Israelites – treated the man who issued the invitation – God – with such contempt their reward was complete exclusion.

When anybody rejects the call of God, God’s isn’t stymied in any way.  God is continually calling “all people” to Himself.  Some will respond properly and be rewarded accordingly.  But many will not respond.  Their reward is also assured.  If we could sum up this parable with one sentence, this could be it:  Say “yes” to God’s gracious invitation.  Now!

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