Read Matthew 20
The men in the parable were looking for work and they knew where to gather. Not everyone gathered here. If you worked in a bank, you probably had a traditional job. Yes, somebody got banker’s hours even in the first century. The bank owner would like to know who was working for him and not have to wonder day-to-day who would be handling the money.
Some people had their own businesses. Fishermen needed a boat, probably a family asset. They might hire someone from time to time, but mostly these were family businesses.
Some people had undesirable jobs. The tanner—the person who handled the skins of dead animals—had a job that few would line up for—it made you something of an outcast.
The people who couldn’t work begged. The lame, the blind, and others who were disabled in some way sat along the side of the road and begged for mercy in the form of money.
So, what kind of work was available to this pool of potential employees? Agriculture was the main source of employment for day laborers. The landowner might hire a foreman or someone with a specialty on a long-term basis, but the daily grunt work would be done by men who were hired for the day.
Seed time and harvest were surely surge employment periods. There might be a smaller demand for labor at other times for pruning or cultivation of some sort. In any case, men knew where to gather in hopes of getting a day’s work. Some days were surely better than others. You had better not come home at noon because you didn’t get hired in the morning.
If you didn’t get a job that morning, waiting to see if someone would hire you for the rest of the day was your job.
So, Jesus described the kingdom of heaven with people waiting to get a day’s work. Some were hired at day break. These were likely your go-getters. If you are not 15 minutes early then you are late. The land owner picked up a crew at daybreak and promised to pay them a denarius—standard pay for a day’s work—and off they went.
About nine in the morning, the landowner went back and found more workers willing to work for the rest of the day. The landowner said he would pay them what was right.
We see a similar routine about noon and then 3 pm. Finally, about an hour before quitting time, the landowner hired anyone else who had not yet been hired.
Quitting time came around and the landowner told his foreman to pay the men, beginning with those hired last. Those who worked only a few hours or even a single hour received a denarius. Those hired first changed their expectations thinking that they would receive more.
They too were given a denarius. This did not seem fair to them and they voiced their grievances. How could the landowner give the men that only worked an hour the same as those who worked all day and endured the heat of the day. This was not fair!
The landowner answered one worker directly. I am not being unfair to you. You agreed to work for a denarius. Here is your pay. Hit the road and take your grumbling with you.
The landowner made a very general statement that gets us closer to the heart of the matter. Can’t I do what I want with my own money?
Now we get even closer to the heart of this parable. Are you envious because I am generous?
Are you envious because I am generous?
The parable ends with a statement that is beginning to sound more and more familiar.
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In the unpublished Part II of the parable, nobody shows up the next day at sunrise for work. You won’t find Part II in Matthew. You have to go to the book of Second Opinions. The parable is not a model for labor in the first century or the twenty-first century.
It is a window into the kingdom of heaven. It gives us eyes to see some things that are of import at the end of the age.
We won’t make this allegorical, but let’s consider the denarius as eternal life. It was what the disciples hoped for and it also is what we seek in this age.
But surely the landowner was unfair. Remember, last Sunday I asked you to stop using temporal metrics to measure eternal things.
We think, “I have been a Christian all of my adult life, and even some as a child, and this yahoo who spent his life doing little or nothing professes his faith a week before he dies and he gets the same thing I do. That can’t be fair.
That can’t be fair!
Now there may be rewards once we enter the age to come. Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what the Lord, God has in store for us. Just receiving life is a big deal!
After telling the disciples that it is really difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, he assured them that those who had given up family and possessions for him would receive a hundred-fold what they gave up.
If you want to have more in the life to come, stop complaining about what benefits others are receiving now, and serve others more than ever.
If you want to have more in this life now, stop complaining about what benefits others are receiving now, and serve others more than ever.
If you want something beyond life eternal, take your wealth or status or privilege and put it to use for the glory of God.
Stop looking at what others have and then desiring it—coveting it—and see what you have and put it to work for the glory of God. Hone in on your relationship with God. Enjoy the gifts that he picked out just for you.
The heart of this parable is are you jealous because I am generous?
Are we jealous, are envious, do we covet what others have received in God’s generosity?
If we had worked all day and got paid exactly what we agreed was fair, we should be thankful. We should not covet what others received or what they had to do to receive it.
Now, as a citizen of the good ole USA, you may or may not like government handouts, unions, wage requirements, or a dozen other things that first-century landowners and laborers did not have to comply with. That’s your right.
As a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, thanksgiving rules. Coveting has no place. Generosity is the standard.
At the onset of the age to come, we will be thankful for the life given to us in the blood of Jesus. Our thankfulness will have no limits or qualifications. We are and will be thankful for the generosity of God.
As we continue in this age, our coveting needs to give way to our generosity. We need to have eyes to see that God has blessed us abundantly so we too may be generous.
If we find ourselves jealous of how another has been blessed, then we have taken our eyes off of Jesus and are focusing on the storm.
If we think that we have been treated unfairly, ask if God has not been faithful to his promises. Where did these other expectations come from?
There is a saying in many sports that involve a ball of some sort. It’s get your eyes off the scoreboard and on the ball.
Let’s take this parable and put it into action for our lives.
Get your eyes off of what everyone else has so as not to covet.
Have eyes to see the generosity of our Lord.
Take on the spirit of generosity in our own lives.
Let’s reduce that to something we can remember.
Know the Lord is generous.
Become generous ourselves.
Be generous. Stop coveting. Be generous.