The Kingdom’s Reward Is the Same for All - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Matthew 20:1-16
September 20, 2020

Jesus speaks to us another parable today (Mat. 20:1-16). He has us think of an estate with a vineyard. He introduces us to the owner of the estate. Jesus calls him the master of the house. This person owns everything and is in charge. Later on Jesus uses the word “lord” for this person. He is the lord of the vineyard. Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven is like this owner of the estate who hires workers to work in the vineyard.

The owner goes out early in the morning to hire workers. It is the beginning of the day. He comes to terms with some workers. He promises to pay and they agree to accept one day’s wage, a denarius, for going to work in the vineyard that day. So far, so good.

Then the owner of the estate goes out at the sixth hour and the ninth hour of the day to hire workers. He sends them into the vineyard.

The hours of the day back then were based on a twelve-hour day. If we were to think of an eight-hour day starting at 8:00 a.m., it would be like hiring more workers at 11:00 a.m. and then at 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon.

Then the owner of the estate goes out again at the eleventh hour. Let’s say it’s about 3:30 in the afternoon. The eight hour workday ends at 4:30, assuming a half hour for lunch. He finds more workers in the marketplace. They have been idle all day because no one would hire them. In his goodness, grace, and generosity, the estate owner hires them at the eleventh hour.

When the day is over, the owner of the estate sends out his manager to call the workers in so that he can pay them. He tells the manager to first pay the ones hired last. What will he pay them? Something unexpected is about to happen.

Here is how it goes. Those who were hired last, who worked one hour, got a denarius, a day’s wage. Those who were hired at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., who worked 5 hours and 2.5 hours, respectively, each got a day’s wage. Those who were hired early and began work at 8:00 a.m. and worked a full day, also got a day’s wage. They all got paid the same.

Does Jesus now have our attention? And maybe we find ourselves saying: “Hold on, Jesus. That can’t be right. It’s not fair that the person who only worked one hour should get paid as much as the person who worked eight.” Or we could say it the other way around: “It’s not fair that the person who worked eight hours should get paid as much as the person who only worked an hour.”

But Jesus is making a point here. We will come back to this.

Upon receiving their pay, the workers hired first began to complain. They measure themselves, their work, how long they have been with Jesus, how much they have done, against the others. They say that it’s not fair. They voice their complaint to the owner of the estate: “You have made us equal with the ones who only worked an hour. That’s not fair because we have been with you so long, and we have borne the burden of working all day. We have gotten the bulk of the work done. We also had to bear the scorching heat of the hottest part of the day and work through it. But these ones hired at 3:30 didn’t have to do that. You are not fair, Mr. Estate-owner.” They judge the owner of the estate. Yikes!

The estate owner addresses these put-out workers: “Just exactly how have I done you wrong? You and I agreed that you would work for a denarius. It is no injustice to you if I want to pay these others the same. Furthermore, isn’t it lawful for me to do what I please with what is mine, since I am the estate owner?” And finally, and this is probably the most important part: “Why is your eye evil because I am good?” (Mat. 20:15). This is what it literally says in the Greek. This means, why are you jealous and envious and full of bitterness and spite and thinking ill of me because I am gracious and generous?

Let’s apply this.

Let’s first do this. We should make it clear that Jesus is not teaching economics and labor relations here for application out there in the world. Out there in the world, the kind of fairness we think should apply does apply. This may go without saying, but since there is so much confusion of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world happening today, it is good to make this clear.

Jesus is teaching us about the kingdom of God. He frames His parable in economic terms. But he is doing so to teach us about the kingdom of God, not about economics, from where He got the terms and imagery. He didn’t speak the parable of the sower of the seed, for example, to teach us about farming, even though He got the terms and imagery for that parable from everyday farming in His day.

In applying this parable, it is also important for us to see that Jesus spoke the parable in response to a conversation with Peter and the rest of the twelve. Just before this parable, Peter had said: “See, Jesus, We have left everything and have followed you. Therefore, what shall we get?” (Mat. 19:27). It is like Peter was saying this: “We have made great sacrifice for you. We have been with you from the beginning. Our reward should be really great, and it should certainly be more than anyone else’s reward.”

In the parable Jesus responds to Peter like this: Peter, everyone in the kingdom of God gets paid the same. You, and the rest of the twelve, included. It does not matter what work they have done in the kingdom. It does not matter when they came into it, whether early or late. The kingdom’s reward is the same for all.  

The fact of the matter is this: the wages or reward involved are the salvation, the inheritance, that the kingdom provides, that Jesus won. This salvation, this inheritance, is the same for everyone. It is the forgiveness of sins, and promise of eternal life with God in Christ in peace and joy. God gives it by grace. There is no different salvation for Peter than there is for you and for me. Therefore it is certain and does not depend on us and how long we have labored. But what does this mean but that the kingdom of God operates on the basis of grace. For it is the same salvation given whether the worker worked for 8 hours or 1 hour.

This is wonderful grace. For what if we were late to the party, so to speak. There is hope for us, even at the eleventh hour. And what if we were hired at the beginning of the day? This grace is just as real, though we may begin to miss it if we start measuring ourselves against the eleventh hour workers according to natural principles of fairness. For there are ways that even the most experienced Christian understands, more and more, that he or she has come to realize things at the eleventh hour. And then we find that the Lord receives us. And this is really the point isn’t it: that the Lord receives us. We live and work on this basis.

And this effects our motivation. The work given by the workers ends up being a work given with an entirely different motivation than being sure that the amount of one’s effort will have a mathematical correspondence, rooted in justice, between the amount of time, effort and burden of the work, on the one hand, and the reward, on the other. Rather, the motivation Jesus inspires in us is one of willing service out of thankfulness and love to God for the immense and profound grace of the salvation the kingdom gives, and out of love for Christ’s church, the things and ministry of the Gospel, and the good of Christ’s people. The motivation is the goodness and generosity of the owner of the estate, and this goodness and generosity captures and inspires our hearts, minds, and wills, because the kingdom’s reward stems from this same goodness and generosity.

Now this does not mean that what everyone does is the same or equal. In other words, there is not an equality of vocation, of calling. Some are called to more responsibility than others, Not everyone is called to be a head or hand. Peter was called to be an Apostle. You and I have not been. So we can talk about a distinction of vocation and a distinction of work in God’s kingdom.

But whatever the work, it is done out of thankfulness to God and loving service, rooted in God’s loving service to us in Christ. And no matter what the vocation and work, the kingdom’s reward is the same for all, freely and generously given by God in Christ. We all eat the same spiritual food and rejoice in the same salvation, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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