Thursday, 31 October 2013 16:24

The Labourers In The Vineyard

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Today’s message is on the parable of the labourers or workers in the vineyard. Only Matthew records this parable, and you find it in Matthew 20. The theme for this sermon is, ‘The importance of understanding the parable of the labourers in the vineyard?!’

To understand this parable, it is again so crucial to get the context of it which we find in Matthew 19. There we hear about the disciples comparing themselves to others and thinking because they gave up so much for Christ, they should surely be receiving certain rewards from the Saviour. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is especially in response to Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27, where he asks: “Behold, Lord, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” Jesus lets Peter and the disciples know that, indeed, they would never be shortchanged, having given up all for God and to be followers of Jesus. The Saviour says to them as it were: “Yes, my disciples, you shall receive a super abundant most amazing and endlessly delightful and satisfying reward, far above all your expectations even!”

But then immediately after, Jesus continues with a warning meant to check the spirit of Peter’s question. “But” says Jesus, and here is it is as if you can see Jesus raising His hand in a warning gesture. “But, my disciples, you must know that many that are first shall be last and the last first.” The spirit of Peter’s question required this additional warning for it was a question asked in a spirit of self-satisfaction and bargain-making with God. Jesus, as faithful Master and Teacher, could not allow such a spirit to appear in His disciples without warning words. So also Jesus went on and told this parable of the labourers in the vineyard, describing what it is really like when in God’s kingdom ways, and with His kingdom ways in your and my heart and life. It is most important teaching because not understanding it can result in many that are first becoming last, and it explains how last become first after all. You could say Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard that His disciples [both then and still today] not be among those many first who become last.

For the kingdom of heaven involving truly belonging to Christ and living in His service in devotion and praise to God means literally learning about living by the grace of God, from start to finish, from beginning to end. For the kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, may be compared to a landowner who owns a large estate with a vineyard. The landowner goes out early in the morning, just before six, to hire workers for his vineyard. He finds some available workmen and after coming to an agreement with them for so much a day [the text mentions a penny which at that time was equal to about a regular day’s pay for labourers], he then sends them into his vineyard to work. At nine o’clock Jesus tells us this landowner goes out again, and he finds others standing in the market place, unemployed, and he tells them, as we read in vs. 4: “Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, I will give you.” So they work for him too. Later, the landowner goes out at noon, and again at three in the afternoon, only to find more unemployed people standing idle. And the landowner sends all of them too into his vineyard to work. Indeed, Jesus tells us the landowner goes out again at five o’clock, when it is almost time to quit, time to call it a day, and he still sees some standing that are unemployed. He says to them: “Why do you stand here all the day idle, doing nothing?” They say to him: “Because no one has hired us.” Hearing this, the landowner tells them to go and work in his vineyard and “whatsoever is right, that they shall receive.”

Barely an hour after these last workers were hired, it is the twelfth hour [6:00 p.m.] and time to go home. So the landowner calls his foreman, and he tells him to call the workers to come in order that they might receive their wages, and he instructs him to pay all the workers, beginning from the ones hired last to the ones hired first. Can you imagine all the workers standing in a row, waiting to get paid? The ones hired last, at five o’clock, amazingly each receive a full day’s wage for that time, a penny as the text says. When the ones hired first see this, they think they will receive more, for as it says in vs. 10: “they supposed that they should have received more”. But when their turn comes, to their astonishment and dismay, they too receive a penny, the same as those who worked only one hour!

This makes these workers angry and they complain, grumble, and murmur about their seemingly unfair treatment here. Going to the landowner, the big boss, you might say, they discontentedly complain against him saying as it were: “What’s going on here? These last worked an hour, only one hour, and you give to them the same as for us? While we worked all the day, bearing the burden of the day and the sweltering heat, etc. …..something is wrong here!”

But the landowner responds to the spokesman of the group, probably the loudest one, and he says: “Friend, I did not wrong you. I am not being unfair. I am not cheating you in any way. Did you not agree with me early in the morning for a penny for the day’s work? That is what you bargained for and that is what you received now, so what are you complaining about? Go your way. I will give these last hired ones a full day’s pay too if I choose, for is it not lawful [permissible] for me to do what I want with mine own? Is your eye evil because I am good? Are you envious because I am generous to others?”

So ends this parable which tells us what it will like on that final day when there will be many first that shall be last, and last that shall be first. In itself this parable seems quite easy to relate to and to understand. The story is about an everyday life situation of going to work and being paid for work. Thinking of a labor market, and workers and the unemployed and an employer, the talk of hourly wages and labor contracts, and different rates of pay, this all seems quite clear. What should also be very clear to us is that Jesus obviously did not tell this parable to show what should be standard business practice. Indeed, not!

The whole point rather of this parable is that God’s ways, as the landowner’s ways with his employees, with sinners like us is not to be thought of in terms of a business transaction, so much for so much. No, the kingdom of heaven is not to be thought of in terms of earnings and receipts on our part entitling us entrance into it. Far from it! God, the Landowner, only deals with His employees, with sinners, in the way of grace. And every payment or reward that they receive is always by grace and never on account of merit. “And”, as Paul says in Romans 11:6, “if by grace, then it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace.” The idea of merit and ability to earn from God by our works must be put aside once for all that grace can and may prevail. This parable speaks powerfully concerning the way and method of the gospel of grace. That is its central thrust and theme. As one commentator summarized the parable: “Its about the glory of kingdom grace!”

The parable, let us notice, illustrates this theme in at least three ways. It can be seen first of all in the way the landowner hires his workers. He can only be described as a most gracious employer. note how he was constantly on the lookout to hire the unemployed. The landowner gets up early in the morning in search for workers, and then he goes out at 9:00 a.m., 12:00noon, 3:00 p.m., and even at the late hour of 5:00 p.m, he yet goes out to find and hire more labourers. Clearly the impression given is that this gracious employer hires out of benevolent kind motives for the advantage of the workers themselves. Pity for the idle moved him to go at the 11th hour in search for new workers. It is rather striking that not one labourer in the parable came to the vineyard of his own accord. All were sought out by the landowner and sent into the vineyard.

The disciples needed to be reminded about this gracious landowner. Here they were comparing themselves to others, boasting of their good works, saying: “What shall we have therefore?” and forgetting in the meantime that it was only grace that made them to differ from others. It was because God had come down and sought them and effectually called them that they were labourers in the kingdom, not because of anything in themselves. By nature they too would never of themselves have come into the kingdom of God and in the service of the Lord. In sinful boastful pride the disciples were forgetting that God called them not because He saw something in them so good, but because He, in amazing sovereign grace, chose them and had mercy on them though they too in themselves were wasters and idlers, sinful and lost. God always takes reasons out of Himself when He shows mercy and grace to sinners. It is never because He sees worthiness in us of ourselves.

The disciples were forgetting this truth about themselves concerning their depravity by nature and they were forgetting the truth about why God called them in His mercy and grace to Himself and in His service. Can’t we so easily forget this too? And isn’t it exactly such forgetfulness, if unchecked, that causes many that are first to be last. We need always to be reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians in I Corinthians. 4:7: “…Who makes thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou didst not receive it?” You and I too, if we would not be among those many first who shall be last, must constantly remember and confess who we are by nature, professing always that salvation is by grace and grace alone. Do you do that too? Are you hearing and heeding Jesus’ instruction here?

In the second place, notice how the theme of salvation by grace only especially comes through in this parable also in a negative way in the attitude of those first labourers who agreed to work for so much for the day, that which amounted to an average day’s pay. Tneh reflected a wrong spirit. They worked for contract wages constantly thinking about the merit, the worth, of their labors. But when the landowner gave them their agreed upon wage, they grumbled and complained! Not because they did not receive what was agreed upon, but because others, who worked much less, even only one hour, received the same wage. They thought they should have received more than the others, seeing how hard and long they had worked.

And indeed, they had a real argument in terms of this world’s economic laws, but you see, that is just the point now. In the kingdom of heaven, God does not operate in terms of a work for wages spirit. As one commentator put it: The underlying message in this [parable] is the reversal of this world’s values.” You see, all the Lord’s actions and all His rewards which He grants to His people, are only always out of His grace according to God’s sovereign good pleasure.

There is only always one thing that motivates God to favor men and women, boys and girls, and to give to people like us rewards of different kinds. Do you know what that is? It is the perfect atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of sinners, God’s beloved Son on the cross making atonement for sin through His shed blood. Only on account of that sacrifice does God liberally grant repentant sinners the gifts of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, joy, happiness, assurance, and eternal life. God only always rewards sinners superabundantly and justly so, according to the glorious riches of His mercy and love in Christ Jesus. It is always out of His fullness that sinners receive “grace for grace” [John 1:16]. “For it pleased the Father that in Him [Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen again] all fullness of salvation should dwell [Colossians1:19].

But maybe at this point some of you are asking: “But doesn’t God then reward our good works? Doesn’t He consider them and recognize them at all?” And indeed, He does, but only always through grace, and by grace. And, you see, this is what these first labourers failed to realize or to remember. They thought there was a meritorious relationship between their works and the reward which they should receive. And this same thinking was evident in the question of the disciples: “what shall we have therefore?” So Jesus tells them this parable because their thinking was and is and ever remains contrary to the gospel of grace.

The failure to realize this grand gospel truth about the marvelous grace of God as the sum and substance of the Christian life develops quickly into a proud bargaining mindset as the disciples also reflected, causing many that are first to become last. If such a mindset is left unchecked and not repented of, it means being barred from the kingdom of heaven ultimately. This is so because, as this parable also suggests, such a spirit which trusts not in God but in one’s own works always leads to envy and evil. When it came right down to it, these first labourers were not really upset that they did not receive more pay. What most bothered and aggravated them was that the others did not receive less! Out of spite and envy they complain to the landowner because he had made the others equal with them, while they alone bore the heat of the day and labored all the day for the landowner. Their eye was evil now because the landowner was good to those others. So although they were first, they became last. The disciples thus needed to be admonished for their question, “What shall we have therefore?” It reflected and demonstrated a work for wages, a hireling spirit, forgetting salvation is all of God’s grace to us from beginning to end, God’s grace to us in and through Christ Jesus, the one and only Saviour of sinners.

Do you see from this all too how important that we, you and I, not fall for the trap of prizing ourselves on our doings, as though they somehow give us some claim of right upon God instead of receiving all from the free mercy of God? A true child of God, no matter how active and fruitful even in God’s service by God’s grace, needs ever to remember at best we are only always unprofitable servants [Luke 17:10], and earthen cracked vessels [II Corinthians 4:7], more undeserving of any blessing from God than entitled to any blessing from God, left to ourselves.

Understanding the parable of the workers in the vineyard is what we are aiming to do here. And there is yet a third way in which this parable demonstrates the theme of grace, and that is in connection with the way of the other labourers and the landowner’s payment to them. Notice in the parable how the last labourers, in distinction from the first, made no wage agreement with the landowner before they started working. No, they believed the landowner’s words: “Whatsoever is right that will I give you, that you shall receive.” They entrusted themselves wholly to the kindness and goodness of their master, being only too thankful that he hired them too for his vineyard. They did not rely on their work for a reward but on the landowner and his gracious dealings with them.

And what a surprise these last received! When it was time to quit, they were called upon first, and each of them was given a full day’s pay although none had worked a full day. What a superabundant reward they received! Their mouths must have dropped open in thankful surprise! And so it is in the kingdom of heaven. All those who hope in God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, realizing they have forfeited all God’s blessings on account of their sins and sinfulness, pleading only God’s grace and goodness for Jesus’ sake, shall be abundantly satisfied. Indeed, for God will reward them according to the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus. Those riches of Christ are infinite and unending and everlasting, because Jesus’ once for all sacrifice for sin was so perfect and complete. The heavenly landowner gives grace to the lowly but the proud he knows afar off [Psalm 138:6]. Everyone that exalts himself, like the first labourers, shall be abased; and he that humbles himself, like the last labourers, shall be exalted. Giod is sovereign, answerable to no one, and He only always does right and He may exercise His mercy and grace as He chooses. His gospel word tells us, however, that He has no greater pleasure than to pour out His mercies and His gifts upon all those who trust and follow Him. The Bible says in Psalm 147:11 that He delights in mercy.

This parable is clearly a parable of grace, rich and free. Isn’t its gospel lesson so important and urgent also for you and me, initially and continuously on this side of the grave? Here notice with me yet three points of further application. For one, Jesus told this parable while He was on the way to the cross, and He told it that His disciples, His children, might learn that eternal salvation with all its blessings is only to be found in Him and through Him, and not one whit on account of them or because of something in them. Jesus told it that they might confide and rest only always in His blessed Person and finished work as Saviour of sinners. And isn’t this also now why the gospel is preached to us, you and me, right now?

The gospel of free grace is that your salvation lies outside of you in Christ Jesus and His finished work on sinners’ behalf. As Horatius Bonar wrote:

Thy grace alone, O God, To me can pardon speak;

Thy power alone, O Son of God, Can this sore bondage break.

No other work save, No other blood will do;

No strength save that which is divine,

Can bear me safely through.

The Savior who arose is seated now at God’s right hand with His once for all sacrifice as the all-sufficient eternal basis for our acceptance with God and everlasting reconciliation and restored relationship with God forever and ever, yes, even for as many as repent and believe in Him! How crucial that you too know this gospel truth!

Oh, to learn more and more that God’s grace in Christ Jesus for us is not dependent on our thoughts, our deeds, our sins, our confessions, or our experiences. With Paul I say: “Let not your minds be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ [I Corinthians 11:3].” Trusting in Him, ever looking to the cross, you and I shall never be put to shame! All other ground of hope for eternity is sinking sand, always, as this parable also makes so clear.

The second point to be stressed from this parable and its teaching on grace is that there will come an end to this proclamation and time of gospel promise of God’s free and sovereign grace for sinners. Here let me remind you that the landowner did not again go out after the 11th hour. We can’t press this too far either. But you understand, if the twelfth hour comes, and who knows how close any one of us is to that in our lives, if it comes also when Jesus returns and you are still then being employed so to speak by this world and laboring for the treasures of this world, or if you are yet standing idle in the market place in bondage to Satan, or if you have still that proud bargaining mindset with God, do you know what shall be your lot? It will be everlasting banishment and punishment from God for all your sins and sinfulness, and that justly so. You won’t be able to bear it, but you will have to, forever and ever. If you are yet without Christ as your Saviour and Lord, you are standing at the edge of the precipice of eternal condemnation from which there will be no escape forevermore. How can you live like that when you know that your fall into that precipice can be so sudden and unexpected? Oh, it is yet the 11th hour! The divine Landowner through the preaching of the gospel word is still calling the idle ones in the market place, sinners into His vineyard. Do you hear Him calling you? And how will you respond?

The third point I want to mention yet is that this parable by no means teaches that works do not matter at all. It tells us most clearly that salvation is not by works, but that does not mean that it is without works. God calls us to live holily before Him. We may not continue in sin just because grace abounds with Him. No, as Paul says in Romans 6:2: “God forbid. How shall w, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” A person who looks to Christ in spirit and truth cannot live in sin any longer. Those whom the Lord saves He also sanctifies. In this regard too, you can be sure that those labourers who came in last worked most industriously for their master, and if there was opportunity for work the next day too, they would be there at dawn, yes, out of love and devotion to their gracious master. The more a person finds his salvation in Christ, the more industrious he or she will be in service and love to Him. This must be so for faith without works is dead. Those whom God saves by grace, He also sanctifies and leads to serve in the way of good works to the praise of His amazing grace.

Many that are first shall be last, and the last first. Looking to Jesus therefore, let us gird up our loins, putting on the whole armor of God in the good fight of faith, ever remembering not to rest on what we do ever, but only and wholly on what God has done once for all in and by Christ Jesus, the Saviour of sinners. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” [Ephesians 2:8-9]. Healthy, genuine, zealous Christians are those who, time and again, glory in the grace of God and in His grace alone. Even so, are you understanding this parable and relying on and rejoicing in and reflecting to others “the glory of kingdom grace”? O earth, earth, earth, hear the Word of the Lord, the gospel Word of our Lord Jesus Christ who is yet out to seek and to save sinners. Amen.

Hans Overduin, Radio Pastor

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