************ Sermon on Matthew 19:30-20:16 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 31, 2010
"The Generous Landowner"
Old Years Service 2010
We stand at the end of 2010. What comes to mind as you think over the past year?
Let's start with national and international headlines:
-Several European nations teeter on financial brink
-President Obama signs health-care reform bill
-Mid-term elections put Republicans in control of the House
-Arizona's immigration law becomes lightning rod
-New York City approves an Islamic center near Ground Zero
-A Gulf oil rig explodes, leading to the worst offshore spill in U.S. history
-Haiti earthquake kills more than 200,000
-33 Chilean miners rescued after 69 days trapped in a mine
-Americans face body scans or pat downs in airports
-Alberto Contador charged with doping during the 2010 Tour de France
-Canada wins the gold medal in Olympic hockey
(For personal reasons I had to include the last two headlines)
Or, consider the local headlines:
-Church leader shot to death in Visalia
-New Tulare Library opens
-Rain, flood-insurance rates were key issues
-Mooney widening project finished
-Authorities pounced on gangs in 2010
-December sets record for rainfall
-Tulare County Commissioners' lunches and perks
What are your own personal headlines:
-Baby born and baptized
-Son/daughter married in the Lord
-Growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ
-Read through all the Bible in one year
-A loved one died during 2010
What are the headlines for Trinity URC:
-Pastor Godfrey has brain surgery (but he still likes the Padres)
-14 weddings during the past year
-A double marine wedding
-Trinity's membership in the URC is ratified
-Kent Houtsma goes on a mission trip to Peru
-VBS is held at Shelter of Hope and at Big Springs
-Our youth survive a 15 hour bus trip to Oregon
Pastor Godfrey will mention some more headlines during the prayer time. And, at the end of this message I will give some other headlines – ones based upon our Bible reading for this evening.
I The Parable Itself
A All our Bibles are divided into chapters and verses. I am sure you realize that the original Greek and Hebrew did not come with chapters and verses. Now, chapter divisions in the Bible are helpful as they allow us to quickly find a verse. For instance, without them how would you find tonight's Scripture reading from Matthew 20? Occasionally, however, chapter divisions can hinder our understanding of a passage if they separate a passage from its context.
Such is often the case with the parable in front of us this evening. Too many people see a new chapter heading and fail to understand "The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" within its context of Matthew 19.
When we look at Matthew 19, we see that Jesus said the parable in front of us in response to a question of Peter. Jesus had just finished talking about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. An amazed Peter said,
(Mt 19:27) "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"To paraphrase this, if not even the rich will get into heaven, what about people like Peter and James and John? Jesus promises Peter a great reward for leaving everything behind to follow Him (Mt 19:27-30). And, as part of His answer, Jesus tells "The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard."
B Jesus starts the parable with the words, "the kingdom of heaven is like ..." Notice, the kingdom of heaven is not being compared to the landowner, or to the workers, or to the vineyard. Rather, the entire story of the parable depicts what the kingdom is like.
C The landowner hires workers first thing in the morning to work in his vineyard; back then, this usually means going to the marketplace and hiring workers gathered there. Additional laborers are hired the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours; usually, this is done if the harvesting runs behind or if a storm threatens the harvest. That the landowner hires workers right up to the end of the workday, however, is very unusual. That no one else hired the last set of workers implies they are not the best or most reliable workers; in fact, they cost more than they are worth; from an employer's point-of-view, they are worthless and useless. Only a gracious and compassionate master employs this kind of worker (Mt 20:6-7).
The landowner makes an agreement the first hour to pay a denarius – which is the standard wage for manual laborers back then. He makes an agreement the third hour to pay "whatever is right" (Mt 20:4). We are told he "did the same thing" (Mt 20:5) at the sixth and ninth hour. However, he says nothing about wages at the eleventh hour. This is intentional so we are left wondering what they will be paid and so we are surprised when they are paid.
D In accordance with Leviticus 19:13, the wages are paid at the end of the day. Day laborers back then lived a hand to mouth existence. If they are not paid at the end of the day they have no means of purchasing food and therefore go to bed hungry. Now we understand why the landowner hires those workers at the eleventh hour – he hires them so they can buy food for themselves and their families.
The landowner instructs his foreman to pay the workers their wages, "beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first" (Mt 20:8). Every worker receives the same wage, a denarius.
II The Message of the Parable
Let's go back to what Peter said: "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" (Mt 19:27). Do you hear what underlies Peter's statement? Peter thought he earned and deserved a reward because he followed Jesus. Peter looked at his relationship to God and His kingdom in terms of merits and merit points. He is busy adding up his points as he is talking.
So, what is Jesus saying to Peter in "The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard"? Jesus is saying the operative principle in the kingdom of heaven is not merit but grace. Any reward Peter is going to get is not earned; rather, it is a gift of grace.
We all understand this principle in terms of salvation – that it is by grace we have been saved, through faith (Eph 2:8). By means of the parable, Jesus wants Peter – and us – to extend this principle to all of life and not just salvation; Jesus wants us to realize that our entire Christian life is to be lived on the basis of God's grace and not our works.
III The Abundant Generosity of God's Grace
A I want you to consider the generosity of the landowner. He hired the first group of workers at the first hour, then he hired some more throughout the day. Finally, he hired some at the eleventh hour to work only one hour. This landowner, who obviously represents God and/or Jesus, was both fair and generous. To the first group of workers he was fair, as he readily agreed to pay a denarius, the ordinary wage for a day's work. Then he was progressively more generous to each group of workers hired throughout the day (cf Mt 19:15). The landowner could have paid them what they earned because there was such a thing as the twelfth part of a denarius – it was called a pondion. But he chose, instead, to pay them according to their need and not according to their work. He paid according to grace, not debt.
The parable focuses especially on those workers who were hired at the eleventh hour. They were treated with extreme generosity, each receiving twelve times what he had earned on an hourly basis. Why did the landowner hire these workers at the eleventh hour? Because he had compassion on them – he knew they and their families would go to bed hungry. It was all out of grace. Abundant grace.
B This is the way God treats us. Over and over again. The Bible portrays God as gracious and generous, blessing us not according to what we have "earned" but according to our needs – and often way beyond our needs. Is there anyone here who has nothing to eat? Is there anyone here who spent last night in a cardboard box? Is there anyone here who could not pick and choose what clothing to wear this morning and tonight?
In every parable we are meant to identify with someone. In this parable we usually identify with the wrong group – I will say more about that later. But let me say whom we should identify with. Do you know who represents you and me in "The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard"? Let me say this loud and clear. We are represented by the eleventh-hour workers. Because we are all eleventh-hour workers in terms of the work and service we give to the Master. What does the Lord require of us? He wants obedience – total obedience. He wants love – with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. What do we give Him? Only a small beginning of what the Lord requires. Like the eleventh-hour workers, what we give is minimal. And, like the eleventh-hour workers, what we deserve is minimal.
We are sinners who earn nothing. We deserve nothing. God is under no obligation to give us anything. Yet, this past year we received blessing after blessing anyway. Why? They come to us "in Christ." They come to us by grace. They come to us by abundant grace. As one commentator put it, "There is such a thing as the twelfth part of a denarius but there is no such thing as a twelfth part of the love of God." As the psalmist puts it, God "does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Ps 103:10). Out of grace, He dumps all His love on us. Out of grace, He pours blessing after blessing upon us.
IV The Sovereign Generosity of God's Grace
A "The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" teaches us God is not only generous with His grace; He is also sovereign in dispensing it. The owner of the vineyard expressed it this way: "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money?" (Mt 20:15).
Most people who read this parable are troubled by the apparent unfairness of the landowner. Maybe that includes most people here. After all, it does seem unfair to pay one-hour workers the same as was paid to those who worked a full twelve hours. It seems unfair that those who have "borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day" (Mt 20:12) are paid no more than those who put in only one hour.
Five groups of people were hired by the landowner. The first group considered the landowner to be unfair; which is why they "began to grumble against the landowner" (Mt 20:11). The first group thought the same way as Peter. Therefore, they thought they deserved more. They thought they earned more.
Did the last group think the landowner was unfair? Of course not! Rather, they considered the landowner to be very generous.
If we are troubled by the apparent unfairness, it is because we identify with the first-hour workers – this is the wrong group to identify with. We identify with them because we think we deserve and earn what is coming to us. It is because we live by works rather than by grace.
When we live by grace, it bothers us not at all that God pours out His blessings on whomever He wills. When we live as eleventh-hour workers, we rejoice in the generosity of God's grace. When we know our sins and our shortcoming, we do not resent the sovereignty of God.
B Did you notice the saying that comes both before and after the parable? I highlighted the connectors as I read Scripture so you realize that joined to the start and end of the parable is a statement about the first and the last: "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first ... So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (Mt 19:30; 20:16). Meaning what? Meaning that to Jesus all workers are the same and are to be treated the same. Meaning that to Jesus all of us are eleventh-hour workers!
So, what does this saying mean as far as Peter is concerned? Jesus is saying to Peter, "Peter, you are the same as an eleventh-hour worker. Like them, you get more than you deserve. Like them, you get the blessings of my grace."
In light of all this, on this last night of the year, let's add some new headlines for Trinity URC in the year 2010.
-Headline One: Everyone in Trinity is an Eleventh-Hour Worker
-Headline Two: Trinity Lives by Grace, Not by Works
-Headline Three: God is Not Unfair; He is Generous
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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