The Workers Who Felt Cheated

One of the cries often heard in life is, “That’s not Fair!”.  You hear it on the playground when children are playing a game.  You hear it on the sidelines when one child gets much playing time and another sits on the bench.  You hear it in the classroom when one child gets a good grade and another does not.

But these kinds of objections are not reserved for the school.  As adults we are still complaining that life isn’t fair.

Someone gets promoted over you or gets paid more for the same work

One person is left a large inheritance and another is not

One believer seems to be granted one blessing after another while someone else has one trial after another.

One child is given lots of financial aid for college, another receives nothing

One person’s mate dies of cancer, while another is healed

One person’s faithful work is honored while the faithful work of another seems ignored.

I bet you can add your own items to this list. There are times in life when we all have on occasion felt that things weren’t fair.  There are times when we feel we are getting cheated. Consequently, when we come to Matthew 20:1-16 it is easy for to identify with those who received less to such a great degree that we are blinded to the message of the parable.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About the third hour 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. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘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.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”” (Matthew 20:1-16, NIV)

Immediately we see the problem here.  Some of the people worked 12 hours and some worked only one.  All of them received the same amount of money at the end of the day.  Now imagine how you would feel.  Suppose you agreed to work for $5.00 an hour.  You worked for 12 hours and made $60.00.  But suppose someone else was hired later and made the same amount?  How would you feel knowing that some of the people were making $6.66 and hour, others $10.00 and hour, some were making $20.00 and hour and one group was actually being paid $60.00 an hour . . . . all for the same work!!!

This parable irritates us so much that many people have tried to explain this parable away by saying, “The people who went to work at the beginning of the day were lazy . . . the people who worked the hour worked as hard as the others who had been there all day.”  This is not only unsupported by anything in the text, it is also unlikely.  The owner in the parable says nothing about the work ethic of the people.  We are led to believe that all of these men worked faithfully.

Others try to say that the message of the parable is that it doesn’t matter how much or how little we do . . . we will all receive the same thing.  In one sense that is true.  Everyone who has faith in Christ will receive eternal life.  But there are many other places in the Bible where we are told that God will also additionally reward each person for their labor.

The challenge this morning is to face this text squarely and to seek to understand what the Lord would have us learn.  I see four lessons in this text.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Characterized by Grace

The first thing we have to notice is what Jesus tells us the parable is about.  He begins the parable with the words, “the kingdom of heaven is like”.  This parable is not teaching us about good business practices or labor law.  It is designed to teach us about God’s kingdom and how people get to Heaven.

First, we should learn that God is seeking people for the Kingdom.  Not only does God seek but he continues to seek for inhabitants of His kingdom.  God has sought people since creation and he continues to seek them today.  And God seeks you diligently. He has pursued you in your early years and if you did not respond He continues to seek you in your teenage years, in your adult years, and in your twilight years.

Second, we learn that all who accept God’s invitation of grace will receive eternal life in Heaven.  It doesn’t matter when you turn to the Savior, the same wonderful gift of salvation will be given . . . anyone who comes to Him He will not cast away. (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13).  As long as there is life in your body . . . there is still time.

I love the fact that the guys who worked for only an hour waited in the marketplace all day long.  They were willing to work, if only for an hour.  They could have gone home.  They could have given up.  They could have concluded they were worthless.  But they didn’t.  They waited in hope and their hope was rewarded.

You may feel that there is too much water under the bridge.  You may feel that you have squandered too many opportunities.  Don’t turn away, my friend.  The Savior continues to invite you to be a part of His kingdom.  There is still hope for you to find forgiveness and eternal life. It is not too late . . . receive His offer today.

There is Great Benefit in Coming Early

Many will look at this parable and conclude that they can wait until the last minute to receive Christ. They can receive the benefit without having to work at discipleship. Why not get paid $60.00 and hour rather than $5.00 an hour?  Why not wait to follow Jesus?  After all, if the last will be first and the first last . . . why not try to be last now so we can be first in Heaven?

Suppose God blessed you with a couple of healthy children.  After several years you decide that you would like to adopt a child.  So you find a 2 year old in need of a home and adopt this child into your family.  The experience was so delightful for you that you find another child, this one eight years old and make him a part of your family.  And then one more time you go out and this time find a 13 year old without a home and you adopt her.

Every one of these children is part of the same family.  Every one is loved fully by the parents.  I suppose we would not be surprised if the two biological children felt a little resentment over the division of their parents love.  They may have resented the invasion of their territory.  But do those biological children would have wanted to trade places with their adopted brothers and sisters?  I don’t think so.  And I believe that every one of the adopted children would have jumped for joy to have had the opportunity to be born into this household.

  • They would love to be able to look at their baby pictures
  • They would love to remember the times when their parents held them, played with them, and cared for them.
  • They would love to have shared in the family history
  • They would have been glad to have been spared the scars of rejection and other problems that remained long after they were adopted.

It is a wrong assumption to think that delaying our commitment to Christ is better.

What makes us think that living without God is better than enjoying the fellowship of His presence?  We seem to think that we need to “sow our wild oats” while we can.  We seem to feel we will be cheated if we don’t get to indulge in as much sin as others.  Why wouldn’t we rather say, “I must not delay in running to the Savior.  I don’t want to miss a single day or moment.”

Those who come late will enjoy the Kingdom of heaven just like those who come early. But those who come early have the blessing of enjoying God’s grace for a longer period of time.  They have less regret and sorrow as they look back on their lives. Talk to any person who has been a true follower of Christ for a number of years and none of them will say, “I wish I had waited longer before I trusted Christ.”  Instead, they will say, “I wish I had come sooner.”

God Cares for People More than Things

We look at this parable often in the wrong way.  We see God acting unjustly toward those who have worked all day.  But in truth, there is no injustice here.  The owner agreed to a contract with these workers.  They agreed to the contract and agreed that it was fair and just. That fact does not change because others received a different wage.

We see this in professional sports frequently.  An athlete demands a long-term contract so they might have security.  Three years into their six year contract they are complaining because others are getting paid more than they are. They feel the ownership no longer respects them.  But is the owner being unfair?  Of course not.  The owner and the player negotiated a fair and good contract.  The owner is living by his end of the deal.

But stop looking at the one who is whining.  Look at the mercy that was extended to those who worked less time?  As I understand it, a denairus is a day’s wage.  The men who worked as day laborers lived from day to day.  Anything less than a denairus would put them in severe straits.  Families would go hungry.  Sure, these men did not work as long.  They did not deserve a denairus . . . but the owner, aware of their need, determined to meet their need without regard for what his obligation was.

The owner would have been just in giving these people a much smaller amount of money, but instead of acting in justice, he acted with mercy.  In your sense of outrage at the perceived inequity in the pay have you missed the element of mercy and grace?

Do you really want God to treat you with justice?  Do you want God to only give people what they deserve?  Of course not!  We depend on God’s mercy.  It is vital to our own salvation and life.  And it seems to me that this is the main message of the story . . . we are recipients of mercy.  Beggars cannot be choosers.

When We Focus on What Others Get We Are Unable to Enjoy What We Have Been Given.

The most practical lesson for you and I to notice is the attitude of the people who were hired first.  These men did not feel cheated when they thought they were going to receive a denairus.  In fact, we might imagine that they felt very fortunate to have a job.  They looked forward to bringing home the day’s wage to their family.  If they had been paid first instead of last these men would not have grumbled at all . . . unless they talked to their friends on the street.

There is another great Jewish parable that really drives home this point.

            There is another Jewish parable that both parallels and illumines Jesus’ story, and it has helped to clarify my understanding greatly. This one is about a “farmer who lived in Poland. For generations before him, his family had been very poor. One night he was awakened by an angel of the Lord, who said: “You have found favor in the eyes of your Maker. He wants to do for you what he did for your ancestor Abraham. He wants to bless you. Therefore, make any three requests that you will of God, and he will be pleased to give them to you. There is only one condition: your neighbor will get a double portion of everything that is bequeathed to you.”

            The farmer was startled by this revelation and woke up his wife to tell her all about it. She suggested that they put the whole thing to a test. So they prayed. “Oh, blessed God, if we could just have a herd of a thousand cattle, that would enable us to break out of the poverty in which we have lived for generations. That would be wonderful.” No sooner had they said these words than they heard the sound of animal noises outside. Lo and behold, all around the house were a thousand magnificent animals!

            During the next two days, the farmer’s feet hardly touched the ground. He divided his time between praising God for such great generosity and beginning to make practical provisions for his newly acquired affluence. On the third afternoon, he was up on a hill behind his house trying to decide where to build a new barn when he looked across at his neighbor’s field, and there standing on the green hillside were two thousand magnificent cattle. For the first time since the angel of the Lord had appeared, the joy within him evaporated and a scowl of envy took its place. He went home that evening in a foul mood, refused to eat supper, and went to bed in an absolute rage. He could not fall asleep because every time he closed his eyes, all he could see were his neighbor’s two thousand cattle.

            Deep in the night, however, he remembered that the angel had said he could make three wishes. With that, he shifted his focus away from his neighbor and back to his own situation, and the old joy quickly returned. Digging deep into his own heart to find out what else he really wanted, he began to realize that in addition to some kind of material security, he always wanted descendants to carry his name into the future. So he prayed a second time: “Gracious God, if it please thee, give me a child that I may have descendants.” With that, he and his wife made love, and because of his experience with the cattle, he was not too surprised shortly thereafter to learn that she was expecting.

            The next months were passed in unbroken joy. The farmer was busy assimilating his newly acquired affluence and looking forward to the great grace of becoming a parent. On the night his first child was born, he was absolutely overjoyed. The next day was the sabbath. He went to the synagogue, and at the time of the prayers of the people, he stood up and shared with the gathered community his great good fortune: now at last a child had been born into their home. He had hardly sat down, however, when his neighbor got up and said, “God has indeed been gracious to our little community. I had twin sons born last night. Thanks be to God.” On hearing that, the farmer went home in an utterly different mood than the one in which he came. Instead of being joyful once again he was filled with the canker of jealousy.

            This time, however, his envy did not abate. Late that evening, he made his third request of God: “Please, gouge out my right eye.”

            No sooner had he said these words than the angel who had initiated the whole process appeared again and asked, “Why, son of Abraham, have you turned to such vengeful desirings?” With pent-up rage, the farmer replied, “I cannot stand to see my neighbor prosper. I’ll gladly sacrifice half of my vision for the satisfaction of knowing that he will never be able to look on what he has.”

            Those words were followed by a long silence, and as the farmer looked, he saw rears forming in the eyes of the angel.  “Why, O son of Abraham, have you turned an occasion for blessing into a time of hurting? Your third request will not be granted, not because the Lord lacks integrity, but because God is full ot mercy. However, know this, O foolish one, you have brought sadness not only to yourself, but to the very heart of God.”  [John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still tells p. 28, 29]

The point is clear, as long as we are focused on what the other guy has that we don’t have, we will be unable to enjoy what God has given us.  We must abandon this notion that we deserve what everyone else has been given.  You expect this kind of behavior from children.  But we are not children any longer.

May I give you a couple of practical ways to apply this parable in your life?

Take advantage of the offer of salvation.  Don’t delay getting right with God.  If you have never surrendered your life and your confidence for salvation to Jesus Christ, do so today.

Take a good look at what God has given you. Ponder the wonder of eternal life, forgiveness, and your undeserved grace.  Spend much time considering what you have compared with what you really deserve.  Do battle against the consumptive mentality of our day.  Focus on what you have rather than on what you don’t have.

Work at learning how to celebrate the good fortunes of others.  Join in the celebration rather than raining on their parade.

Life is not always fair.  But God IS always good. Which of these truths you focus on will determine whether you live your life feeling deprived . . . . or blessed.

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