Grumblers Anonymous

May 6, 2007

We have just posted a new sermon called Grumblers Anonymous. 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. Here’s an excerpt:

I want to make a few predictions about this year’s graduating class:

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.

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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?


January 10, 1988

All of you football fans no doubt remember the moment. It was perhaps the lowest moment of a rather dreary season for the Dallas Cowboys. It happened in Philadelphia in the first game after the strike. Fourth quarter, the Eagles are leading 37-20, only seconds to go and the game will mercifully be over. Quarterback Randall Cunningham appears to be taking the knee but No!, he’s throwing long for the end zone. Pass interference. First down on the one. The Eagles score as time runs out.


Three days later Blackie Sherrod wrote a column in the Dallas Morning News about Buddy Ryan and his in-your-face tactics. The column was called “Once-Snooty Cowboys had a rub coming.” Toward the end Sherrod wrapped it up by saying, “Perhaps it coincided with the decline in Cowboys fortunes — or perhaps it precipitated same — but Your Heroes have become Your Complainers. If it isn’t Everson Walls carping on something, it’s Michael Downs. If it isn’t Tony Dorsett, it’s Jeff Rohrer. If it isn’t this, it’s that.

And he told a story President Lyndon Johnson used to tell about an old hound dog that liked to lie on the front porch, baying plaintively. “What’s the matter with that hound? asked a visitor. “He’s laying on a cockleburr,” said the farmer. “Why don’t he git up?” “Cause he’d druther howl.”

That little story rings true because there’s a little hound dog in all of us. There are times — we all have them — when we’re laying on a cockleburr and if the truth were told we’d druther howl than get up and do something about it. Getting up takes a lot of energy and if we howl long enough, maybe somebody will come along and take care of that cockleburr for us.

The sermon this morning is entitled “Grumblers Anonymous.” This is a subject I know about from personal experience. I’ve done my share of howling and so have you. In fact, there are some folks who are professional grumblers. You’ve known them, maybe you work with one, maybe you live with one, maybe you married one, maybe you are one. They are so sure the world is unfair that they resent being comforted. Their chief pleasure is displeasure; their chief consolation is being inconsolable.


If you don’t know whether this applies to you, here are the 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, a 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. This probably is the worst. 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 ripoff. 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. And so it goes. 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 say, “Is it half full or half empty?”, and he’ll say, “I don’t know, but the water is probably polluted.”

Put it all together and what do you have? When the grumbler looks to the present — he is never satisfied. When he looks to the past — he always has an excuse. When he looks to the future — he secretly believes he can never succeed. And so he grumbles his way through life. Why? Because he’d druther howl than get up and do something about it.


And that brings us to a wonderful story Jesus told in Matthew 20. It is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus told it to his disciples who were wondering about their rewards in the world to come. It has a lot to say to all of us who hold honorary membership in Grumblers Anonymous.


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.” (v.1) In this case, early in the morning means about 6:00 A.M. He went out in his pickup truck, found some men, and hired them. Verse 2 says, “He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them to the vineyard.” That part of the parable is very true-to-life because a denarius was the common pay for a day’s work back then. Now before we go any further, note please two facts: 1. The landowner did the men a favor by hiring them. They were unemployed before he came along. 2. The landowner offered them a fair deal — a day’s pay for a day’s work.

But there was a lot of work to be done that day and the owner needed more men so when 9:00 A.M. came, he went back down to the market square and saw some more men. Verse 4 says, “He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right.’” Note that things are a bit changed now. It’s still a fair deal, but these men aren’t promised a specific amount of money. They are forced to trust in the owner’s integrity. So off they go.

Later on, it became evident that he needed still more men. So at 12 noon he comes back and hires some more. Then again at 3:00 P.M. Same arrangement.

It is now 5:00 P.M. The working day is almost over. It is the eleventh hour. Verse six says, “About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’” (vv 6-7) Now the situation has changed again. The day is almost done, yet the owner hires more workers. These men have been standing around spitting and whittling all day long. At the last moment they are hired, but these men aren’t promised anything at at all.

Up to this point everything is normal. The men who work all day are promised a definite wage. Those hired later are promised right treatment. Those hired for the last hour are not promised anything. It all seems reasonable.


But now the day is done and 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.’” 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. Who knows?


Now comes the kicker of the story. “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius.” That is, those who worked all day received the same as those who only worked an hour.

Now I ask you, how would you feel about that? You’d feel the same way these fellows did. “When they received it, 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 get as much as you do. I agree. It doesn’t seem right. “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.” 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 expected to 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.


Here is the landowners’ reply. It is devastating. “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” The answer, of course, is yes. “Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.” That’s simple enough to understand. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” Answer: Yes. “Or are you envious because I am generous?”

At last we come down to the root of the problem. The workers were envious because others had experienced the owner’s generosity and hadn’t done as much to deserve it. They had gotten exactly what was promised them — a day’s pay for a day’s work. What burned them up was that others had gotten a day’s pay for one hour’s work. They couldn’t bear to have someone experience by grace what they had had to work for.

Notice Jesus tag line at the end. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

* * * * * * * * * *

As I say, 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. Ladies nad gentlemen, the reason we root for the wrong side is because we think we are like that early group that worked so hard. 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, 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?”

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 a 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.

God’s view is that we are like the man who is idle all day until 5:00 P.M. and at the last second finds work to do. For that man, his reward is all out of proportion to his work.

Grumbling comes from two things: First, we overestimate our own contributions. 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’ 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.


What, then, is the cure for a grumbling heart? Our text suggests three things:


The longer I am a pastor, the more critical this seems to be. As I look around and see those whom God greatly uses, they seem always to be the ones who are thankful for what they have. Before you grumble today, thank God first for your blessings. When you finish with your blessings, if you still feel like grumbling, go ahead. You see, the men in our story 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.”


Here is the heart of the problem. The grumbler can’t keep his eyes off his more fortunate friends. It’s that looking at others that 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. But the truth is, if you look closely at the people you envy, behind almost every door is a story of heartache and pain. What I’m saying is, God may indeed treat someone else differently than he treats you, but there’s almost always another side of the story you can’t fully see.


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?” 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. 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 it means when it says, “The last shall be first, nad the first shall be last.” 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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?