In Matthew 20, Peter wanted to know what he and the others would get for their discipleship, which they considered a major contribution on their part. But when Jesus answered as He did, He was teaching that although the disciples would receive rewards for their service, anything they received from God – whether rewards for service or eternal life itself – was a gift flowing from the grace of God only. Sola gratia! God owes us nothing, not even a chance to hear and respond to the Gospel.
Most people think He does, of course, which is why even Church-going people think so little of grace today. “Amazing Grace” by John Newton used to be one of the most popular hymns. But today, as J. I. Packer says in Knowing God, “amazing grace” has become “boring grace” for many people. It is boring because we do not think of ourselves as sinners – at least not very great sinners – and because we think God owes us something anyway. We are kind, generous, forgiving. Why shouldn’t God be?
What Jesus has to tell us is that God is not like human beings and does not operate in line with our ideas. Everything in God’s kingdom is based on grace, which is why “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Nothing in the immediate context of Matthew requires us to see anything more in the parable than that. But I cannot help but notice that it is one of a certain class of parables that deal in part with the problems the Jews had when Gentiles began to believe the Gospel and embrace Christianity. The problem is reflected in the person of the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Lk.15.11-32). It is seen in the parable about the banquet to which many were invited but refused to come (Mt.22.1-14) and in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk.18.9-14).
In the earliest days of Old Testament history, from the calling of Abraham about two thousand years before Christ, God began to deal with the Jews in a special way. It is almost as though He turned His back on the Gentile nations, at least for a time, as He began to create, redeem, and eventually teach and disciple those to whom the Lord Jesus would eventually come. The Jews were proud of that heritage, as we ourselves would be.
But instead of remembering that what they had received was due entirely to God’s grace (grace they had often resisted), the Jews began to suppose that the benefits of their position were really due largely to themselves. They thought they had earned their position by centuries of faithful labor for God. They were not complaining; they were glad for the arrangement. But when Jesus came, all the benefits they supposed they had earned by centuries of hard labor were now offered freely to the Gentiles, who had done nothing to deserve them. Gentiles were like the prodigal, who had squandered the father’s wealth, or the tax collector, who was wicked to the Jewish way of thinking. Moreover, in time so many Gentiles were converted that it seemed as if the cherished Jewish traditions would be discarded.
As I have suggested, a number of parables deal with this problem, though in a variety of ways. The account of the older brother and the parable of the workers in the vineyard are similar. In each the faithful, hard-working people (the son in the one case and the workers who were hired at the start of the day in the other) resent the father’s or owner’s generosity to those they believe deserved less. The son stood outside and refused to go in (Lk.15.28). The workers grumbled against the landowner (Mt.20.11). The root problem was envy of the ones who had been treated kindly.
In the parable of the banquet, the diagnosis is somewhat different. In the end the outcasts enter to enjoy the master’s banquet, but the ones who were first invited are not there because they refused the master’s invitation.
In the story of the Pharisee and tax collector, the root problem of the self-righteous Pharisee is pride. He was thankful that he was “not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tithe of all I get” (Lk.18.11-12). He was proud both of what he was not and of what he was.
These are different ways of analyzing the same problem, a problem that was evident in Jewish reactions to Gentile blessings. But it is not a uniquely Jewish problem. It is a problem for any who think that because they have served God faithfully for however many years they deserve something from Him. We do not. I say it again: We never deserve God’s favors. If we think we do, we are in danger of losing them entirely.
A man is a member of a Church for 35 years, teaches Sunday School, is an Elder and was praying for something many years. He wondered why God did not answer his prayer. He thinks God is under obligation to answer his prayer. Truth is, he is really praying in his own name, and God will not hear our prayers when we approach Him in that way.
That story has to do primarily with prayer, but the principle applies in other areas too. It applies to anything we may do for God and anything we may expect from Him. Jesus says we have to stop thinking of our service in terms of debt or obligation. Instead, we have to serve in the spirit of a son who serves because he loves his father, rather than in the spirit of a hireling who serves only for his wages.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org