Oh, behold the church potluck dinner. You think it’s a gathering of people bringing food. To share. To do that churchy word “fellowship”. Let’s get real. Bubbling up underneath the surface is a pile of people sizing each other up based on their potato salad. You know I’m right. There is nothing more horrendous than a bunch of Christians trying to out-Christian each other. Who have forgotten we’re co-laborers and see each other as competition. Yep. There’s blood and potato salad all over my hands, too.
In Matthew 19:27-30 Jesus assures Peter that those who have followed him, seemingly from the beginning, who have left jobs and family to go where he sends them, will receive a hundred fold, sit in places of honor, and have eternal life. Truly the first are last and the last are first in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus proclaims.
I can see a smirk form on Peter’s face. It will be worth it. All of the sacrifice. It leads to something. Something honorable and glorious.
But this is the Peter before he denied Jesus three times. The pre-book-of-Acts Peter. The Peter who only has a vague idea of what it means to be last so that you will be first.
And–just in case there might be a chance Peter or someone else might think that because they got in on the ground floor of denying self and following Jesus gives them license to look down on those who did not—Jesus follows up with a parable about a vineyard owner and those who go to work there.
Matthew 20:1-16 recalls a vineyard owner who goes to the marketplace where people who need work gather. Some are hired early in the morning and work all day. There are others who are hired throughout the day, and a final group hired at five o’clock, right before the work day is over. When it comes time to get paid, the owner starts with those hired last, and pays them a whole day’s wage, even though they only worked a small portion of the day. The people hired in the morning assume since they have been working longer, they will get paid more, it’s only fair. However, the vineyard owner pays them the same as all the others, and they attempt to call him out. Only to get reminded that their envy has blinded them from his generosity. Truly, Jesus says, the Kingdom of Heaven is not about how long you have worked. In fact, it isn’t about you and your work at all. It’s about the vineyard owner. In His Kingdom, the last are first, and the first last.
There are many directions this parable can take a person. However, I’m going to focus on the owner of the vineyard Himself, and what we can press in and glean about God.
First: God is a pursuer. If you notice, this owner goes to the people at nine, and then returns at noon, three, and five, hiring laborers to go to His vineyard.His will is to gather all people to be with Him. He doesn’t just give people one opportunity, but constantly returns to where they are with an offer to receive from Him.
If you look at this parable as an allegory, this can be seen as history–God has, is, and always will pursue people, going to where they are–all throughout history, right up until the ultimate of “paydays”.
Second: God’s nature is generous. (Just not kingdom of earth generous) Verses 11-12 Show the nine oclock laborers grumbling. They felt as if their hardship toiling in the heat had earned them more money. Not so.In verse 13, the owner first responds with the word “Friend”. It is a relational title, suggesting a closeness borne of extended time together–something which people who walk with the LORD over a long period of time enjoy. Then, the owner reminds the nine oclock people they are getting what He promised them–a fair wage. God’s gift of grace. He also reminds them He can do whatever He wants with what belongs to Him. Finally, he zeroes in on the real problem behind their grumbling. It’s a heart issue. He turns it back on them in verse 15. Maybe it’s their envy which keeps them from seeing His nature all along is to be generous. If you really knew me, He insinuates, you wouldn’t be shocked when I act like who I am.
At times we need to be reminded of what keeps us from operating under the Kingdom of Heaven perspective. Serving and being in a close relationship with God, the owner of the vineyard, should make a person more like Christ. If God is a generous God, then we need to reflect that generosity, which includes how we view others compared to us.
Third: God sees us. Even when no one else does. Jesus knew Peter was listening when he told the parable. He knew he assumed his reward of honor would come because he was a nine oclock laborer. So, he makes a point to unpack the plight of the five oclock laborer. Some people might hear this parable and think the people in the marketplace at five oclock were lazy. But, Jesus has the owner ask this group of people directly what they were doing there. They respond “No one has hired us.” (vs. 7) Perhaps they had been there since nine oclock, waiting to be hired, wondering why no one will give them work. Maybe they were considered too old, too young, too different in order to be skillful laborers. We don’t really know.
What we do know is this owner hired them, just a little while before the work day was over. And then paid them a full day’s work. Not because they worked all day, but because God is a consistent pursuer and His Nature is generosity.He saw in them what others didn’t. These five o’clock people matter just as much to God as the nine o’clock ones.
The parable ends with a similar phrase Peter had just heard…Hey, Peter, in my Kingdom, the last are first, and the first are last.
Just in case people still didn’t get it, Matthew 20:17-19 declares Jesus’ mission–the ultimate model for any who would labor in the vineyard of God—Jesus, One with God, came to earth to die for us–the ultimate act of first being last, and then and only then, will he be raised–the last becoming the first.
We will all be nine o’clock followers at one time–serving God faithfully, yet in need of gentle and direct reminders of what might be blocking us from operating with a Kingdom of Heaven mindset. And yet, we will also be five o’clock followers–wondering where God is, does anyone see us–are we too old, too young, not gifted, not doing enough to be worthy of God’s grace–people who need to be reminded that God sees us and calls us worth dying for.
Because, in the final analysis it’s not about our labor in the vineyard, it’s about God’s generosity in offering us grace at all, which is what counts in this parable, and the one unfolding all throughout human history. We serve, not to labor our way into heaven, but to take on the nature of Christ.
Comparison in the Body of Christ is bondage. Acting like the five o’clock people matter just as much as the nine o’clock ones is freedom.