Reading: Matthew 20:1-16
It’s no surprise that the parable today is in direct response to our main character through the story. I wonder who that could be, you may be thinking. Why Peter, of course.
In the previous chapter is that challenging saying about the young man who turned away. The rich young ruler. Remember him? Listen again: Mat 19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Mat 19:24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Mat 19:25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Mat 19:26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Mat 19:27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
The bit at the end of Matthew 19 is for you to read at home. Especially verse 28 – I bet you’re surprised by that one.
At the end of Matthew 19 Jesus says to Peter: Mat 19:29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. Mat 19:30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
And then Chapter 20 begins with the word “for”. Remember that there were no chapters at the beginning when the bible was written. Not even spaces between the letters of the early bible. So here we go then:
Mat 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.
It’s addressed to people who have left everything to follow Jesus, and applies to every generation. Things are upside down in terms of this Kingdom. This is a unique parable about the Kingdom and God’s grace in the kingdom. It ends again with Mat 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
So let’s consider firstly what’s the parable is not about!
- It’s not about trade unions and fair wages. Elsewhere in scripture it’s very clear that workers are to be paid properly.
- It’s not about lazy people. There’s a temptation by those who have never been without anything, especially a job, to look at those standing around doing nothing and say “lazy bunch – why don’t they get a job?”
I don’t know if you’ve lived anywhere where people stand around near a work and income/person power or labour office hoping that someone will hire them for the day. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence. And it’s terribly discouraging. It’s common in big cities.
Looking after workers and the needy is part of the biblical standard given to us. If you want a biblical reference for this read Leviticus 19:
Lev 19:9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. Lev 19:11 “‘Do not steal. “‘Do not lie. “‘Do not deceive one another. Lev 19:12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. Lev 19:13 “‘Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
And of course Deuteronomy: Deu 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Deu 24:15 Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.
SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Verse 15 gives us a clue: Mat 20:15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
If the Landowner in the extended simile is God – then he is both generous and sovereign.
And it’s the labourers who were hired at the beginning of the day that the landowner has issues with. Or the ones that had issues with the Landowner.
And this verse 15 is a fascinating one – which actually says this: (BBE) Have I not the right to do as seems good to me in my house? or is your eye evil, because I am good?
The idea of a bad or evil eye takes us back to Matthew 6. Mat 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.Mat 6:23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
And of course in this passage the concept of the evil eye is translated with words like “jealous” or “envious”. And jealousy and envy are aspects or manifestations of the breaking of the last commandment – do not covet. It’s all about what and how you see things. And what we want for ourselves.
A comment in the Life Application Study Bible says this: Spiritual vision is our capacity to see clearly what God wants us to do and to see the world from his point of view. But this spiritual insight can be easily clouded. Self-serving desires, interests, and goals block that vision. Serving God is the best way to restore it. A “good” eye is one that is fixed on God.
It’s about how you see things and how you judge them. About whether you have an eye for the things of the Kingdom or whether your shades have dollar signs on them – or “me, me, me” as a filter – whether you think of your own reward first like Peter. It puts his complaint in context:
Mat 19:27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
His complaint does rather sound like a whining petulant child now. It has this “unfair” kind of feeling implied. Like the people hired at the beginning of the day for a fair wage who are resentful of the Johnny-come-lately people whom the Landowner gets in at the last minute – and pays the same rate for the day.
The Landowner is totally fair and keeps his agreed deal with the workers who worked all day. What they don’t get is how the 11.00th hour people also get that same wage.
This is grace revealed. Generous grace. It’s about the character of the Landowner, who represents God in the parable.
SOME SIMILAR BIBLICAL EXAMPLES MIGHT HELP:
- Like the penitent thief on the cross. No baptism – no catechism – no chance to serve in endless duties at church. Just grace.
Can you think of others?
- Perhaps the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story comes to mind – whining that his dad was throwing a party for the prodigal who was so selfish and who squandered everything. One commentator reflecting on this says the words of the elder brother might be like this: There are the sounds of a party in progress. “My brother is receiving a celebration? What is going on here? This is certainly not fair.” Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 4518-4519). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
SO WHAT ABOUT US
In every church (certainly in the 6 or more I have served in over the years), you get the workers who have served there for many years, some of whom believe they are entitled to more reward because of years of service. A meritorious kind of status.
The Kingdom of God is not like that. There is no ladder of importance really – we all are recipients of gifts from God. But the moment we treat the church as our club, then there will be a pecking order of some sort.
So is this about the church today? In fact Tom Wright’s thoughts are helpful – he writes with church people in mind – doing church stuff:
God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowingly generous nature.
There is always a danger that we get cross with God over this. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, God is out in the marketplace, looking for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everybody else) with his generous grace. The earliest church clearly needed to learn that lesson. Is there anywhere in today’s church that doesn’t need to be reminded of it as well? Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 57-58). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
Amazing and generous grace is revealed in the character who portrays the nature of God.
Do you know this God? May you come to discover his amazing grace.
And like the shepherd who leaves the 99 to look for the lost sheep, the Landowner (God) is out in the marketplace seeking those in need and inviting them to participate in a different vineyard in his upside down Kingdom.
Reading: Matthew 9:32-38
I was intrigued a while back by a conversation I heard – when a member of our local church here at BBP spoke about “strangers” coming to church on a Sunday – how they didn’t know these strangers.
We can be a bit clubby sometimes.
Years ago – in 1996 – I was privileged to go to Argentina for an international conference run by “Harvest Evangelism”.
There was a revival going on the cities of Argentina at that time – through church unity and cooperation and intense prayer and intercession, local churches were getting together to reach every street in their towns with a prayer cell – and connecting with their neighbours in mission.
I recall the main speaker – the head of Harvest Evangelism – speak on this text from Matthew 9.
It’s the gospel reading for today and it follows on quite well from Sunday – where we read the Luke account of this business of the harvest being great and the workers few.
Ed Silvoso said this – or words to this effect: When you are in a crowd – say in a shopping centre – and you see the masses or encounter their shopping trolleys – or get stuck behind them when you are in a hurry and they seem to have all day – what do you feel?
Are you like Jesus?
The key verse is of course this one:
Mat 9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Σπλαγχνίζομαι – splagchnizomai is the word. It’s one of the richest Greek words in the Bible. Literally it is something like a bowel movement – oops. That sounds wrong. Thayer’s Greek dictionary explains it like this:
1) to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity)’
One 18th century commentator put it like this:
(John Gill) … he was moved with compassion on them: his bowels yearned for them, he was touched with a feeling of their infirmities, as the merciful high priest, the good shepherd, and faithful prophet; being heartily concerned for the souls of men, their comfort here, and everlasting happiness hereafter…
It’s about something that churns inside of you.
Compassion is the key. Is that the feeling you have? What Jesus felt?
It is such an interesting verse – in fact all the words are rich – so rich that the various translations sound like this:
(AOV) En toe Hy die skare sien, het Hy innig jammer gevoel vir hulle, omdat hulle moeg en uitgeput was, soos skape wat geen herder het nie.
(ESV) When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
(MSG) When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.
(KJV) But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.
Jesus is moved by the masses. We sometimes avoid them – as the world is so different from what we grew up with.
The best sense of this that I have experienced was not at a shopping centre – but going with the crowds to watch the Springboks play the All Blacks one night at the Cake tin – the Westpac stadium in Wellington. They came in their droves – and it was so gloomy. OK they were all wearing black – but there were thousands. Streaming towards the stadium – emerging out of the station, off buses, or along the sidewalks. I had a real sense that day – that this is what Jesus is interested in. All those people. Okay that particular group was a bit obsessed with the religion of rugby, so we have to be especially compassionate towards them.
The heart of Jesus is for those who are harassed and helpless.
Back to Matthew 9:37 – Jesus he tells them to pray to the Lord of the harvest:
Mat 9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Mat 9:38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
In Mark we read this:
Mar 6:34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
And in that passage he goes on to feed them – with five loaves and two fish.
Dear friends – there is work to be done.
It begins with compassion. And compassion goes together with love. Paul said this of his passion to reach people in his first letter to the Corinthians:
1Co_9:16 Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! And then in 2 Corinthians he says this: 2Co 5:14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.
Of course that verse precedes the one we have mentioned on a couple of Sundays: 2 Corinthians 5:17
2Co 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
May you and I find a new compassion for the masses. This city is a reflection of the world we live in. All shapes, sizes, ethnicities (nations literally) and many, many people who are so different from us.
Yet they are the same us us. Without Christ the good shepherd – harassed and helpless, confused and aimless, in short – LOST.
We are called to be part of this plan to introduce them to Jesus the good shepherd. Amen.