Why is it that, in Matthew 20, the owner of the vineyard gave those who had labored only one hour the same amount as those who had labored all day? Was it not because he knew they needed the denarius?
When we read the story carefully, we notice that not a word of criticism is spoken against those who were not hired in the morning. When the master came and asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” they replied, “Because no one has hired us.” It seems they had been willing to work, were eager to work, and undoubtedly needed the work, but they had not been hired. The owner hired them not for what he could get out of them in just a few hours, but because they needed the work, and he paid them the full denarius for the same reason. The owner was not thinking of his profit. He was thinking of people, and he was using his ample means to help them.
How different this is from the older son in the parable of Luke 15! He was angered because his father rejoiced in the return of his younger brother. He should have been rejoicing too, but instead he was thinking only of how his brother had wasted his inheritance. The older brother would have been happy if the property had come home and the son had been lost! As it was, the reverse was true, and he was displeased. God is exactly the opposite. He does not love us for what we do for Him.
So who are we like? Do we serve because we love God rather than because of what we can get him to do for us? Are we like God in our estimate of others, evaluating them in terms of their worth as beings made in the image of God and for fellowship with God rather than just as tools for production? Or are we like the unhappy workers or the disconsolate older brother?
Speaking of the older brother, his story appears in a chapter of Luke that contains three parables of something that was lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. In each case the object remained valuable in the mind of the owner in spite of its lost condition. We can imagine an owner of sheep who might write off the loss of one sheep lightly. “After all,” he might say, “what’s one sheep when I still have ninety-nine? The loss is only 1 percent.” The woman might have said, “I’m just not going to bother about one lost coin – I still have nine. I’ll be happy with them.” The father might say “I’ll focus my attention on the son I still have.” That is not what the owners or the father did.
What is the explanation for their behavior? The object had value to its owner even though it was lost. In all these parables, including the parable of the workers in the vineyard, God values what is lost and seeks it. In the story of the workers it is God Himself who goes out to hire them, early in the day, throughout the day, and until the very end.
Should not we who have been found by God have that same love for others who are lost? And shouldn’t we tell them that if they are lost they are valuable to God even in their lost condition? If you are lost, you may be utterly worthless in your own sight, seeing only the ruin you have made, but you should know that you are valuable to God because (unlike yourself) He is able to see what you were created to be and what He can yet make of you.
There is one last point. I am not sure Jesus had anything like this in mind when He told this provocative parable, but it is suggested by that most important verse that both introduces the story and ends it: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Mt.9.30). The important word here is many, for the teaching is not that every person who begins early with God and works for Him throughout a lifetime will inevitably be last or that everyone who begins late will inevitably be first. That will be true for many people, but it will not be true for all.
Many who begin early will lose their reward or not even come to faith in Christ because they approach God in a false or transactional spirit, on the basis of their merit and not on the basis of God’s grace. Many who enter last will be first because, although they begin late, they nevertheless recognize that their status is due to God’s grace alone and praise God for it. But neither of those cases is true for everyone.
It is not necessary either to start early and finish last or start last and finish first. In fact, neither is best. The truly desirable thing is to start early and work with all the might you have, not for reward but out of genuine love for our Master, Jesus Christ, and when you have finished still to say, “I am nevertheless an unprofitable servant.” It is such people whom God delights to honor.
This is the challenge I put before you, especially if you are young. Do not wait to serve God. Do not wait until the ninth or eleventh hour of your all-too-brief life. Start now. Serve now. Keep at your service year after year. And when you come to the end you will not say, “What am I owed for my service?” You will say, “What a joy it has been to serve my gracious and loving Lord!”
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org