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Last semester, I wrote a paper for my biblical hermeneutics class that analyzed Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the vineyard laborers. Many people (notably Craig Blomberg, who wrote The New American Commentary on Matthew) understand the parable as teaching that there are no levels of rewards in heaven–all are treated equally, despite how they have lived their lives.

Personally, I find this to be a very difficult thesis to support, both in light of the parable itself (which I will deal with shortly) and in light of other Scriptural teaching. The most obvious example would seem to be 1 Cor. 3:10-15, where Paul tells us that our life’s work will one day be revealed either as gold, silver, precious stones, wood, and/or hay–some of our work will last forever, and other parts of it will be burned up in the Judgment. But even in the very same chapter of this parable (Matt. 20:20-28), Jesus speaks that there are some who will sit at his right hand, and some who will not; he goes on to say that there will be a direct correlation between those who will be the greatest in heaven and those who are the least in this life. (More on this after I address the parable of the vineyard laborers.)

So, I argued instead (based largely on a discussion with Warren Wiersbe) that the parable is about limiting God by seeking to get a contract from him on what we will gain from our service. Briefly, my rationale goes like this: the first group of laborers get the landowner to agree (v. 2) on a denarius for their work, but all the other groups of laborers simply agree to work for “whatever is right” (v. 4). In the end, those who had simply agreed to work out of faith in the employer’s fairness get much more money than they deserve–they gain a denarius for working less than an entire day, when the standard wage of that period for an entire day’s work was a denarius.

On the other hand (the shocking part of the parable), when the first group of laborers complain about getting only a denarius, the reply of the landowner is twofold: (1) “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” (v. 13, my emphasis)–in other words, the landowner points out that he had acted absolutely fairly in rewarding them according to their prior agreement; and (2) “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (v. 15)–it is the landowner’s prerogative to pay his laborers more than they “deserve.”

So, in my opinion, here is the point of the parable:

  • First, God is absolutely just–not even in the way he dispenses his grace can he be charged with being unfair.
  • Second, it is wrong to treat God as though he were a hard master from whom we need a contract if we are to be treated fairly, because this view of God reduces the way we live as Christians to nothing more than punching a clock so that we might earn “wages” in heaven. Not only is it wrong to treat God this way, but we lose out on experiencing the fullness of the grace of God.
  • So, the proper attitude of a Christian is to do whatever God calls us to do whenever he calls us to do it, all the while completely trusting in his goodness toward those who love him and are called according to his purposes–we should not be driven by a bottom line in our obedience to God.

I write all this because, as I was reading again through Matt. 20 yesterday, I noticed that this is essentially the same message that Jesus teaches James, John, and their mother at the end of this same chapter in Matt. 20:20-28. Here, Jesus gives us standing orders to make ourselves the least among the brethren in order that we might be counted the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. The problem is that, if we do this with a goal of earning a great reward (“Sure I’m able to drink your cup, Jesus–shouldn’t that buy me a good seat in heaven?”), we will eventually find out that we missed the point. That sort of a life is an attempt to bargain with God for something (in this case, position and prestige in heaven) rather than living with complete confidence in the Master’s fairness and generosity.

It seems, then, that we have a paradox: how can we possibly live with a goal of being first in the kingdom of Heaven (something Jesus seems to encourage, since he himself is the one who gives away the secret to being first, and since that secret–i.e., becoming a servant–is at the heart of all of his ethical teaching for us) when living with the sole purpose of gaining a reward was the mistake of the first group of vineyard laborers?

As I meditated upon this question, I noticed the following verses, which serve as Matthew’s transition between the parable of the vineyard laborers and the story of Mother Zebudee (that is, this is the only thing between the two stories I have been discussing):

17And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18″See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matt. 20:17-19)

I think Matthew included this statement at this place for a purpose–the resolution to the tension between the vineyard laborers and the Sons of Zebudee is found in this aspect of Jesus’ life. He alone obeyed his Father’s will perfectly for his entire life (i.e., he worked the entire day in the vineyard), and he did so by making himself the slave of all, for “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). So, it should come as no surprise to us that:

9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

If we would be first in the kingdom, we must become a slave (like Jesus did) with humility that seeks servanthood in order to deny self and glorify God in all things (like Jesus’ humility). If we would be first, we must become more like Jesus both in our actions and in our attitudes.

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