Read Matthew 20:1-16
In the early 1960’s we lived on Tyler Street in Mangum, Oklahoma. It was in a small, wood-framed white house on the corner. Across the street was a large, brick house. The bus would stop in front of our house on school mornings and the kids across the street would ride the bus to school.
I was not allowed to ride the bus. Believe it or not, it was not because of something that I did. It was because our house was in the city limits and the house across the street was not. It was actually closer to the school but not in the city limits. The family across the street had plenty of money. We had enough but nothing extra.
Here is another believe it or not. We only had one car and my father left early in the morning for work. So every school day, I watched the kids across the street get on the bus and a few minutes later, my mother put me into a taxi bound for school. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I didn’t have to worry about the family budget. I’m sure my parents were not happy about the absurdity of the situation.
Eventually, we moved 5 miles east of town and I rode the bus too, but the situation on Tyler street never seemed fair. We quietly went on with our lives until the situation had changed.
Today, you can hardly breathe in public without someone being offended or crying “unfair!” Somebody has something better than me and I want it—no, I deserve it as well!
The baseball player signs a contract for a measly five million dollars a year. The team was taking a chance on an unproven talent. Then he has a break out year. Now, he is holding out for more money. The five million a year seemed like a good deal when he put his name on the paper, but now it doesn’t seem fair to him.
Why would five million not be enough? Really, with some strict budgeting, you would only have to eat Ramen once or twice a week, or never.
It’s not enough, because somebody else just got ten million dollars a year. Now, five million seems like you’re working for peanuts. Let’s not forget that you get to play a kids game and get paid for it. Today, my salary numbers would be low for anyone who thinks they can play ball.
A long time ago, Moses came down the mountain will a list of ten really important commandments. When you get to the end of the list there is one that says, “Thou shalt not covet.” It is followed by a laundry list of everything that you neighbor has.
As we consider today’s society, the last might just be the first as far as broken commandments go. That’s speculative and beyond measurement. You can’t really break just one commandment. Usually, you have broken one of the first two if you break any of the others.
Thou shalt not covet has surely been among the top most offended commands, at least in this country.
What is it about us that desires something, not because we need it, but because someone else has it? Our car runs well but it is not as pretty and nice as the new models and surely doesn’t have all of the features.
The girls who check me in at the dealership when I go to get the oil changed on my truck always ask me the same thing. Are you going to drive this until it falls apart?
My answer is always the same. That’s the plan. I know that my answer doesn’t fit the model of this world, especially this nation where there is always something to covet.
Jesus has been painting a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s sort of like a paint by numbers. Fill in number 2 with blue. Some go at the top and others at the edges. Next, fill in number 5 with yellow. There are few of these in the center and one or two in a corner. The other numbers and colors will eventually make a fine picture that will hang in the Louvre or on the family refrigerator.
And so, little by little, we have been given a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven through a variety of parables. We know that there is a kingdom in which we may live now. It is composed of disciples. These disciples share the light and love and good news of our Lord.
It is a kingdom that is meant to grow not only around us but within us as well. It is a kingdom that for this age exists in the midst of sin and evil and death. One day those will be gone, but in this time the kingdom and things opposed to the kingdom share the same real estate.
For those who have eyes to see, it is a kingdom worth giving up all we have to be a part of it. It’s like finding buried treasure.
This kingdom has a single currency. It is mercy. Mercy is the currency of the realm.
Jesus had been teaching in parables, with direct instructions, and with some other figurative methods. The theme that we see time and again is that the last will be first and the first will be last. It is an interesting provocation that being first in this world does not grant you commensurate status in eternity.
Jesus had an encounter with a rich young man who thought he was doing well as far as following the commandments went, at least until his talk with Jesus. Jesus told him to sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and then come and follow him and he would be complete—perfect if you will. This young man went away sad because he was rich in this world.
Jesus makes the point to his followers that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. When the kingdom of the world seems to offer everything that you want, it is so hard to believe that a kingdom where you are not first and not the center of all things could really be better.
Jesus reached for hyperbole again, saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This got the disciples to wondering if they were part of a hopeless cause. Do the best that you can and be lost anyway. They asked Jesus just who could be saved.
He told them that anyone who wanted to get right with God on their own was out of luck. That was a bridge too far. It was a pipe dream. That surely took the wind out of their sails.
But with God—with God—all things are possible.
Peter, knowing that the disciples did not fall into the same tax bracket as the rich young man who went away sad, asked Jesus, “What about us? We gave up everything to follow you.”
Paul would later say that eye has not seen and ear has not heard what the Lord has in store for those who love him, but Jesus gave these few men a glimpse. In addition to live eternal, they would have authority and be given hundreds of times what they gave up. At the renewal of all things—when perfection comes in earnest—their reward will be so great that they truly cannot imagine it now.
So we come to this next parable about the Kingdom of Heaven being like a landowner. About 6 a.m. he went to the place when men hung out to get hired and hired a bunch to work in his vineyard. The rate was one denarius a day. How much is that? It was a fair rate for a full day’s work at that time. These are not white collar jobs. The landowner was hiring laborers.
The landowner came back about 9 a.m. and hired some more, offering to pay whatever was fair. He came back and hired more with the same offer at noon and 3 p.m. He even came back an hour before quitting time and hired some more workers. No mention of pay was made. The land owner just said to go work in his vineyard.
It was five o’clock somewhere—in fact it was five o’clock there—but these men we not headed to happy hour. They were still hoping to be hired and they were.
When the work day was done, the landowner told the foreman to pay the workers beginning with those who were hired last. I would think these last workers were surprised and likely very delighted at what they received—a full day’s pay.
Once word of what happened filtered to the back of the line, expectations went wild. If those who only worked an hour received a full day’s pay, what will we get?
The answer was that they received a full day’s pay as well—exactly the amount for which they agreed to work. But they were not happy. Others received the same amount for less work. Some didn’t even have to work in the heat of the day. This was unfair!
Some of the offended workers wanted answers from the landowner. He gave them questions instead.
- Isn’t this the amount to which you agreed?
- Can I not do what I want with my money?
- Are you envious because I am generous?
Those questions are a bundle of answers in themselves—choices, sovereignty, generosity. How can you be upset when you get exactly what you bargained for? Would you want someone else telling you what to do with your money? What does it say about us when we get upset over someone’s generosity?
Let’s go back to coveting. Coveting steals being content with what we have. Now, if we don’t’ have enough to meet our needs, we don’t covet. We work. We earn more. Coveting seldom strikes when we are working to meet our needs.
Coveting strikes when we have enough to meet our needs. We are working for our daily wage but suddenly or over time, it just doesn’t seem to be enough. We see somebody getting more or more for less effort and we want in on it.
In our commercialized society today, especially in America, we see newer, faster, shinier and our coveting nature kicks in. The more that we think about what others have, the less content we are with what we have.
Make no mistake, God wants to bless us with what we need and something extra to bless others. With few exceptions, we are not called to be poor or live in poverty. If we follow Jesus and seek God’s kingdom with all of our very being, God will grant us things out of his generosity that the godless think they must have.
But coveting gets us off course in our race of faith. It weighs us down. We have been to this place many times. If it gets in our way or is weighing us down in our discipleship, we must cast it off.
This is a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a message for disciples striving to live in that kingdom now, but what is it that we should discern?
How about there is no coveting in the kingdom? We have what we have based on the generosity of the Lord. Can the sovereign Lord not give to each of us as he desires?
We are talking about living in this kingdom now with sin and evil and death still hovering about us. We are talking about living in this kingdom now when the world beckons you to cry “unfair” at every chance you get.
We are talking about living in a kingdom in this age where we must surrender our own expectations to the way of the Lord. We must stop believing that what the world has to offer is somehow better than what the Lord has provided.
There is one more subtle complaint from the workers. It doesn’t deal with work or pay though both of these factors elicit the complaint. What is this additional complaint?
You have made them equal to us.
We are better than those people. We’ve earned what we have. We are better.
In the paradigm of the world, the workers are exactly correct. They are on the mark. We live in a status oriented world. In some countries the distinction is more distinct, but make no mistake the world regards some people as better than others.
But such a model does not hold up in a kingdom constructed from grace. Being better than another disciple in a kingdom where all have fallen short, yet have received forgiveness and mercy is foreign to the foundation of the yoke of our Master.
Who will sit at the right and left of our Master is for the Father to grant, not for us to earn.
By way of a short rabbit trail, consider this parable in the context of the Hebrew believers wanting the Gentile believers to be circumcised and follow at least some of the Law of Moses. The Gentiles didn’t show up at 6 a.m. and have to work through the heat of the day; yet, here they are entering the Kingdom of Heaven just like God’s own people. It’s food for thought.
The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven being like a landowner who:
· Goes out at all hours of the day to find men for his purpose.
· Promises those he hires to give them what is right.
· Is generous with what he has.
Will we let our greed get in the way of God’s generosity? Will we covet something that we don’t actually need just because somebody else seems to be getting a better deal.
Where in all of the laws and commandments is the one that says, we should compare ourselves against others or what others have?
Where in the rules for righteous living is the directive for comparative metrics?
Do we desire eyes to see as the Lord would have us to see or are we forever on the lookout for what else is out there that I might want?
When will we be ready to set aside our covetous nature? The answer to this one is simple. We are ready to set it aside when we truly desire to live in the Kingdom of Heaven now. If we really want to live in this kingdom now, we must check our covetous baggage at the door.
Consider the circumstances of this parable in the kingdom of the world. People hired at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. and all paid the same wage at quitting time, which comes at 6 p.m. gets you what?
In the kingdom of the world, nobody is going to show up looking for work until 5 p.m. The landowner will never get his crops in. Grapes will rot in the vineyard while workers will want twice the pay for their one hour’s work.
The parable models the Kingdom of Heaven, where sovereignty and generosity go hand-in-hand. In the previous parable, we noted that mercy ruled in the Kingdom of Heaven. Given mercy by God, we are to practice mercy with others.
While not specified in this parable; we should consider a similar application of generosity. We are the beneficiaries of God’s generosity. Should we not practice generosity with others as well?
What a kingdom this is where both mercy and generosity are the order of the day. Who would want to live anywhere else?