Matthew 20:1-16(I preached this sermon at the Spring Bible Conference at New Brunswick Bible Institute, April 26-29, 2007. The conference ended with the graduation ceremonies. This message was part of my series on the parables of Jesus.)
I want to make a few predictions about this year’s graduating class.
1) All of you will go on serve the Lord somewhere.
2) Some of you will go to small churches. A few will go to larger churches.
3) Some of you will see early success. Others will end up in difficult situations.
4) Some of you will move quickly up the ladder of ministerial success. Others will spend years moving from one small location to another.
5) Some of you will surprise others by the positions you attain in the Lord’s work. Some will surprise others because you don’t attain those positions.
6) And as the years roll on, it will be obvious some of you seem to be doing better while others seem to continually struggle. I use the word “seem” advisedly because things are not always what they appear to be.
7) And even though we like to say that we don’t play the comparison game, we do. You can’t deny it. Graduates are weighed and measured against other graduates. Pastors are continually compared to their peers. So are missionaries and youth pastors and music leaders and everyone else in the Lord’s work.
8) Because we live in a competitive society, there seems to be no getting around the problem of comparison and competition.
9) And some of you will come back for your 10th anniversary feeling good about yourselves. Others will feel less good. Some will stay away altogether. And by your 20th anniversary, you may wonder if you chose the wrong career path.
As I have said, we don’t often talk about these things, but we should because they are true.If you don’t want to be compared to anyone else, you picked the wrong world to be born in. Everything is measured and evaluated. And we reward those who have the largest, the fastest growing, the most productive, and we pay special honor to those who work the hardest, do the most, and produce at the highest level.
In every church you serve, you will be compared with those that came before you and with others in the same position in nearby churches. And the graduates will compare themselves with each other to see how they are doing in the great race of life.
Hit the Ground Running
When I talk with young people going into the ministry, I always tell them to hit the ground running because you won’t have much of a honeymoon period. That’s one thing that has changed in the last 30 years. For better or worse, the following two things are true about most churches:
Expectations are higher than ever.
Patience is lower than ever.
I know of no profession where it is easier to feel like a failure than the ministry because it is a job with no clearly defined boundaries. No one knows exactly what the pastor’s job is supposed to be. And writing a job description doesn’t really help. If you have 300 people in your church, you have 300 different job descriptions. And all of them are comparing you with other pastors in other places. A lot of the time you won’t measure up.
To say what I have just said may make it sound as if I am negative about the ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am positive and upbeat about the potential of this generation of young people. I see a passion for Christ in the twentysomething generation that is much deeper than anything I experienced when I was their age. And despite all the problems—and there are problems in every church—I still think the local church is the best hope of the world. And there is no better way to serve the Lord.
I have done a lot of thinking about the problem of how to evaluate your own success in the ministry. We can say that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. That’s true, but we do it anyway. It is very hard not to look at the success of others, especially of those you know well, and not feel a twinge of envy. I certainly have struggled with that over the years.
You Can’t Tell in Advance
Since this is graduation weekend, I will add one other fact. You can’t tell in advance how people will do in the future. Some we think will shine may struggle for years. Some will labor in relative obscurity. And some will seem to go from one success to another, rising in influence and power. Others will struggle for decades. Some will face family problems and unforeseen health issues. Some will reach positions of great influence, others will flounder, and there will be many somewhere in between. But there is no way to know beforehand how things will shake out.
Here are a few things I have learned along the way:
1) You’re always being compared with someone so stop complaining about it.
2) When you are compared, you’ll end up looking better than some people and worse than others because there is always someone above you on the ladder and someone below you.
3) We generally envy those who seem closest to our level. A pastor with 150 people doesn’t envy Rick Warren with his 21,000 because Rick is clearly in another category. But he probably envies his classmate who pastors 250 people, gets a larger salary, and doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.
4) The most frustrating thing is to feel like you are being passed over for some positions while people you regard as less qualified are chosen over you. Or worse yet, you aren’t even considered for those positions.
5) Here is the ironic part of all of this. If you could get to know the people you envy, you would discover they envy the people who are one rung above them. So it goes.
Grumbling Under Our Breath
What happens when we play the comparison game? The answer is simple. We lose our focus on our own ministry, and we begin to grumble against the Lord. Grumbling is a particularly dangerous sin for those in the ministry. The dictionary offers these definitions for the word “grumble":
1) To show one’s unhappiness or critical attitude.
2) To make complaining remarks or noises under one’s breath.
3) To murmur or mutter in discontent; complain sullenly.
I love that second definition because we’ve all done that. We smile when we hear about the success of someone close to us. And under our breath we are saying things that we wouldn’t want anyone else to hear.
The Bible has quite a bit to say about grumbling, with the preeminent example being the children of Israel in the wilderness who grumbled against Moses and the Lord.
They grumbled because they didn’t have enough water.
They grumbled because they didn’t like the wilderness.
They grumbled because they thought Moses was a bad leader.
They grumbled because they missed Egypt.
They grumbled because they weren’t yet in the Promised Land.
They grumbled because they thought God had let them down.
“So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, ’What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15: 24)
“The whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (Exodus 16:2).
“But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, ’Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’” (Exodus 17:3).
“All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ’Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (Numbers 14:2).
“Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer” (1Corinthians 10:10).
“Don’t grumble, brothers, against one another, so that you won’t be judged” (James 5:9).
I. How to Spot a Grumbler
If you don’t know whether this applies to you, here are three marks of a Grumbler.
First, a grumbler is never satisfied with what he has. If it’s money, he never has enough. If it’s his home, somebody else has a nicer one. If it’s his grades in school, an A- is a disappointment. He is an expert in criticism and a Ph.D. in nitpicking. Nothing is ever really enough.
Second, he always has an excuse. Ask him why he doesn’t buy a new car and he says the interest rates are too high. Ask him again and he says they cost too much. Ask him again and he says new cars are a rip-off. Ask him why he doesn’t buy a used car and he says you’re just buying somebody else’s problems. Ask him why he doesn’t fix up the car he has and he says you don’t throw good money after bad.
Third, he secretly believes he can never succeed. The key word is “secretly.” He may not even be aware that he has given up on life. But his grumbling gives him away. Down in his heart the grumbler believes the game of life is rigged, the cards are stacked against him and that, try as he might, he is doomed to failure. Show him the glass of water and ask, “Is it half full or half empty?", and he’ll say, “I don’t know, but the water is probably polluted.”
II. The Grumbling Farm Workers
And that brings us to the parable Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16. It begins this way: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (v.1). In order to understand this story, we need to know a few facts about the landowner.
*He owns a huge estate. Don’t think of hundreds of acres. Think of one of those ranches in Texas that goes for miles in every direction.
*He needs many workers.
*Harvest time has come so time is of the essence.
*He can’t wait. He must have help now.
*He has the resources to hire many workers.
The landowner has two things in abundance:
1. Plenty of work
2. Lots of money
These two facts are the key to this story. Nothing else makes sense unless you see that this man has plenty of work and also has the resources to pay handsomely for the work he needs done in his vineyards.
The marketplace was where the unemployed would gather. It would be like a union hall today. Men would go to the marketplace to wait for someone to offer them a job. They were idle until someone came along who needed their services.
The men in this story have nothing to do on their own. They have no job and no prospects of getting a job. Their outlook is bleak until the landowner comes along. It’s not as if they have a job and the landowner lures them away with the promise of a bigger paycheck. They have no job, no money and no hope. Anything that happens is a blessing to them.
So that’s the picture behind this story.
A vast estate.
A great need.
A wealthy landowner.
Many unemployed workers.
As we study this story, we can see five groups in view. First, there are the men who were hired at 6 AM. There is much to be said on their behalf. They were up early–that’s good. They negotiated their wages–that’s good. They were hired first–that’s good. They contracted to do a day’s work for a denarius. That’s good because it was the normal wage of a day’s work in the first century. It’s good money and it’s also fair money.
Second, there are the workers hired at 9 AM. There is more work to be done–that’s good. These men were ready, willing and able–that’s good. They were offered a job–that’s good. The landowner promised to pay them whatever is fair–that’s good. They aren’t promised a denarius since the day is already partly gone. They are asked to trust in the landowner’s sense of fairness.
Third, there are the workers hired at 12 noon. They get the same deal as the 9 AM workers–that’s good.
Fourth, there are the workers hired at 3 PM. They also get the same deal as the 9 AM workers–that’s good.
Fifth, there are the workers hired at 5 PM, which meant they would work for only one hour. In this case, most of the day is gone. From the standpoint of the landowner, they represent wasted time and wasted potential. But they are ready to work–that’s good. They are offered a job–that’s good. They aren’t promised anything at all. These men worked the least but they went with no promise whatsoever. They had no way of knowing what the landowner would do. They probably figured to get only a tiny bit, but they couldn’t even be sure of that. So it was grace that gave them the job and it was faith that caused them to take it.
Before we go any further, we can say this much about the landowner. He had lots of work, lots of money, and lots of compassion. He could have ignored those men he found later in the day but he didn’t. That they were hired at all was an act of pure grace.
Two Big Surprises
When the day’s work is done, the time comes to pay off the workers. Immediately something unusual happens: “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going to the first’” (v. 8). This is unusual but not unheard of. Perhaps he wanted to use pocket change for the latecomers and save the big money for those who worked all day.
But the landowner has something more in mind. He pays the last group first in order to reveal the hidden motives of those hired earlier in the day. Only the first group had a contract. The others worked by faith. The landowner wants the first group to see how generous he can be to those who trust him without a written agreement.
Now comes the kicker of the story. “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius” (v. 9). That’s an incredible wage for only one hour of work. I’m sure the 6 AM guys were saying, “Whoa! If he’s paying a denarius for one hour, what’s it gonna be for us?” By that standard they expected 12 denarii for 12 hours of work. But they had agreed to work all day for one denarius, and that’s what they got paid. A deal is a deal.
You Made Them Equal to Us
Here is the real shock of the story. Those who worked all day received the same as those who only worked an hour. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius” (v. 10). Now I ask you, how would you feel about that? You’d feel the same way these fellows did. They began to grumble against the landowner. Let me say frankly, I sympathize with them. Who hasn’t been in their shoes? You work hard, you sacrifice to get the job done, you keep your part of the bargain, and some airhead waltzes in at the last second and gets as much as you do. I agree. It doesn’t seem right. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (v. 12). I know they are grumbling, but let’s face it, you would too.
What’s at the heart of their complaint? Fundamentally it’s in that little phrase “you have made them equal to us.” If you just count hours worked, they aren’t equal. It’s not that they minded the latecomers getting paid, and it’s not really that they minded the latecomers getting a denarius. Even that would be okay. But verse 10 says, “They thought they would receive more.” And that’s why they grumbled.
First there was observation–they saw the latecomers being paid.
Then there was expectation–they assumed they would be paid more.
Then there was consternation–they couldn’t believe what was happening.
Finally there was detonation–they blew up when they found out everyone was being paid the same.
Their complaint sounds good on its face, but it is based on a standard of human comparison. Ultimately they weren’t complaining against the other workers. Their beef was with the landowner. But he was the man who hired them in the first place. Without him, they would never have had a job at all. And for the groups hired at 9 AM and 12 noon and 3 PM, he never promised to pay them more or less than anyone else. He simply promised to give them a fair wage, which he did.
Their grumbling reflects badly on their own character.
We Root For the Wrong Side
On one level it’s hard not to feel sympathy for these workers. The same thing has happened to all of us. We work and someone else gets the credit. Or we work just as hard and they get more credit. Or we work much harder and they get equal credit. Life is like that. And you might find yourself secretly cheering for these workers and saying, “Stand up for your rights. Don’t let the boss push you around.”
That’s why Jesus told this story. He knew we would instinctively root for the wrong side! What is the root cause of our grumbling? It is envy– a belief that others are getting what they do not deserve and we are not getting what we do deserve. We root for the wrong side because we think we are like that early group that started early and worked all day. In our own eyes, we work so hard and receive so little in return while others do so little and receive so much.
So we go out from here brimming with confidence ready to go to work, with our motives as pure as we can make them. We work hard, we sweat, we toil all day in heat of the sun, we bear the burden of the work, and we try to do our best. And just when the road gets bumpy here comes somebody else who passes us by doing 95 and they leave us eating their dust.
And so we grumble. But let me say something crucial. At that point our problem is not with our fellow workers whom we envy. Our problem is with God. Are you envious, the owner said, because I am generous?
We’ve Got a Problem with God
When you finally boil it all down–grumbling is only a symptom. The deeper problem is envy. But underneath the envy is an even deeper issue. We’ve got a problem with God. We’re mad at God because we think he was better to someone else than he was to us. In the final analysis, Jesus told this story to teach us something about God. We may think when we look at our life that we are getting justice while someone else is getting all the grace. That’s how it is in this world.
We think we are like the 6 AM laborers who showed up early, worked hard all day and bore the burdens while others stood idle until the last moment and then worked for only an hour. But that’s not how God sees it. God’s view is that we are like the men who were idle all day until 5:00 P.M. and at the last second find work to do. For those men, their reward is all out of proportion to their work.
Grumbling comes from two things:
First, we overestimate our own importance.
Second, we underestimate the grace of God.
This parable is not just teaching us about final rewards. It is also probing at the level of our motives. Why are we doing what we do? If it’s a straight reward you want, fine, you’ll get it. God will never cheat you. But that’s all you’ll get. And you’ll go to heaven grumbling all the way, always checking to see how you are doing compared with someone else. But if you decide to do your work for the Lord’s sake alone, you will never be disappointed.
III. The Cure for a Grumbling Heart
What, then, is the cure for a grumbling heart? Our text suggests three things:
1) Thank God for the Blessings Your Have Already Experienced.
The longer I serve the Lord, the more critical this seems to be. Before you grumble today, thank God first for your blessings. The men who worked all day and then felt cheated forgot that if the owner hadn’t come along, they wouldn’t have had a job at all. How much better and nobler to say, “Thank God for the good things he has already given me.”
2) Don’t Judge Yourself by the Way God Treats Someone Else.
Here is the heart of the problem. The grumbler can’t keep his eyes off his more fortunate friends. Looking at others always gets us in trouble. Remember, God isn’t obligated to treat everyone alike. He isn’t bound by our standards of fairness. If he chooses to bless someone more obviously than he blesses you, that’s his business. Many people struggle with this concept because they think that because God did something for a friend or a neighbor or a loved one, then God must be bound to do the same thing for them. But it doesn’t work that way. God can deliver your neighbor from cancer and you may die of cancer. Or vice versa. Envying your neighbor because he has something you don’t have is a waste of time because God treats us as individuals, not as groups. The truth is, he might do for you exactly what he’s done for someone else, or he might do more or he might do less or he might do something entirely different. He’s God. He can deal with us any way he chooses.
3) Remember that God Rewards Faithfulness, Not Production.
We live in a world that puts a premium on production: “What’s the bottom line?” “How many new calls did you make this week?” “How many books have you written?” “How many degrees do you have?” “When are you going to get that promotion?” “How’s your career going?” It’s easy to bring that thinking over into the church. We tend to reduce the Christian life to a mechanical process–so much prayer, so much Bible Study, so much work in the church equals a certain reward. We’re very production oriented. That’s the way the world looks at things. You either produce or you’re fired.
But God’s point-of-view is different. The world looks at production. The Lord inspects motive.
The world says, “What did you do?” God says, “Why did you do it?”
The world says, “What’s the bottom line?” God says, “Were you doing it for me?”
The world says, “Show me your stuff.” God says, “Show me your heart.”
Here is the truth. You can’t tell by looking at others where you stand with the Lord. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “The last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16). Some people who in this life appear to have it all together will be sitting at the back of the class in heaven. And some who appear to have accomplished very little will shine like the stars. This parable teaches equality– not of opportunity, but of faithfulness.
It is a wonderful antidote to grumbling to think of it this way:
–God is just. No one will be underpaid.
–God is generous. Everyone will be surprised.
If we want justice, we will have it and grumble all the way. If we want grace, we will have it and remember that we were idle before God called us out of the marketplace and gave us a job to do.
Good news, my friends. The Master is coming to the marketplace and he’s looking for workers. There’s plenty of work, more than enough to go around, and he’s looking for volunteers. You needn’t worry about the salary. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. No one has ever been laid off. And no one has ever been disappointed.
What opportunity has the Lord given you? Are you still standing idle in the marketplace? Has Jesus called you into his vineyard? If he has, then only one thing should occupy our minds. That is to do the job with the might and power we have. And according to our faithfulness–and far beyond it–will be our reward.
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