Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Grace...The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

I wrote about the first seven kingdom parables in the book “Everything We Need: God's Path to Know Him Better.” I enjoyed studying them so much that I decided to write about the remaining five here on the blog. Last week we considered the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18:21-35. The next one in Matthew’s gospel is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. It’s found in Matthew 20:1-16.

The Story

Jesus began, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.” Similar to last week and several of the parables I discuss in the book, this parable begins with a key male character performing an action. These key male characters represent God in all of the kingdom parables. God is looking for workers for His vineyard – His kingdom within the world.

He found some workers at the beginning of the day. He added to His workforce four more times throughout the day – 9:00am, noon, 3:00pm, and 5:00pm. By the end of the day, He had five different groups of workers who had all performed different amounts of work.

The workday wrapped up at 6:00pm. The landowner told his manager to give each man their wages. He had agreed to pay a denarius to each of the workers from the beginning of the day. The other four groups had only agreed to work; they hadn’t made a financial agreement at the time the landowner called them. The manager paid the latest workers first and worked his way backwards through the day until he paid the earliest workers last. Imagine the disdain the earliest workers felt as the manager paid each man the same amount regardless of the time of day they began working.

The earliest workers began complaining, “These men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12).

The landowner points out to the grumbling workers that he is free to pay any worker any amount he chooses. Should they really complain that he chooses to be generous?

In a biblical parable, each detail of the story is significant. Each element symbolizes an aspect of the greater message Christ was teaching. For example, as I began, the landowner represents God and the vineyard represents His kingdom within the world.

What’s a Wage?

In the parable, the landowner and workers agree to a wage of one denarius for a day’s work. This was a fair, normal amount. Here’s the significant part…the word for wages isn’t only a paycheck. Throughout Scripture, it also includes the idea of a reward. A reward awaits those whom God calls to work in His kingdom. Its first use in the Old Testament even tells us exactly what our reward is – and it’s not streets of gold, a mansion, or even eternal life. “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’” Fellow worker in God’s kingdom, God is our reward - our very great reward.

What Work?

Required work may seem out of place for entry into the kingdom. After all, the gift of salvation is free. Nothing we can do earns us a spot in the kingdom; it is only by God’s grace. So, why did the men work?

I could say something about the intrinsic value of a job well done. Or, the landowner found the men being idle while Scripture contains a lot of verses about working hard. Something else is the greater point here, though.

All men received the same reward regardless of the amount of work they did. In essence, they received the reward for answering the call when the landowner came to them. They were willing to follow Him; He granted them the agreed upon wage. Jesus said in another place, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). That’s all God requires – our belief in Jesus as His Son whom He sent to pay our sin debt through His death.

What’s a Day?

The landowner called workers to the vineyard at five different times throughout the day. Some people see this as symbolic of people who come to Christ at different ages. Some accept Him as young children, some in their teens, some as adults, and some even in the last few moments of their life. Regardless of the age you accept Christ as your Savior, your reward is the same – eternity in His presence. This could be; it’s true and it’s consistent with the rest of Scripture. I have another idea, though.

The day may be symbolic of the whole age of humanity – from the time of Adam until the end of Christ’s future millennial reign. If so, each time the landowner called more workers would have to represent a different period of time in which God reached out to us. As it turns out, five different time periods happen to exist.

  1. Adam and Eve in the garden, prior to their initial sin. They walked in open relationship with God as sin didn’t yet separate them from His presence. (Adam and Eve are the only examples.)
  2. From Adam and Eve’s fall until the time of Moses. Immediately after the first sin, God made the first promise to send a Savior. (Examples – Seth, Noah, Abraham, Jacob)
  3. From Moses until the time of Christ. God gave us the Law to reveal sin and our inadequacy in living a sinless life on our own. (Examples – David, Isaiah, Solomon)
  4. From Christ’s first coming until His second coming. God revealed Himself through the Son who was the Word made flesh. (Examples – disciples, Paul, Martin Luther, you, me)
  5. From Christ’s second coming until the end of His millennial reign. Jesus will dwell on earth with us as He rules over His kingdom for 1,000 years. (Examples – people yet to be born during that time period)

One common thing saves believers during each time period. Salvation comes by believing God and what He has revealed as of that point in time. For Adam, Abraham, David, Paul, you, me, and believers still yet to be born, the reward is eternity in the presence of God. That’s not something to grumble about!

Overall point

Whereas last week’s parable focused on forgiveness, this parable is all about grace. Grace given at five times during the day as men are given opportunity to work; grace given during five time periods as we are given opportunity to enter relationship with Him.

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). God doesn’t reward as man might expect. In His grace, He gives generously to all who follow Him. “This is the essence of God’s grace, when He rewards and blesses man according to His will and pleasure, not necessarily according to what men deserve. … God deals with us according to who He is, not according to who we are” (Guzik).

Click here for a free, downloadable study on more parables of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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