Receiving God’s grace is far better than getting ahead of others

Make my heart Your royal throne. – King Jesus come and rule in my heart.  My heart will never be more satisfied than when it is living in complete submission to Your good Lordship over me. Amen!

Let’s continue our worship by opening God’s Word to Matthew chapter 20.

I again welcome those worshipping online or in our Extra Precautions Chapel.  For those online, please use the links alongside the livestream for fill-in-the-blank sermon notes, the preaching manuscript, and children’s coloring pages. 

For those in our chapel, we are so thankful you’re making the extra effort to regather with us for weekly worship. It is quite easy these days to find reasons to wait just one more week before rejoining in-person worship. But you have chosen to come today, and we thank God for your in-person worship with us! 

God created us to be relational, and so extended isolation—although selfishly comfortable—is actually harmful to our souls.  So thank you.  Thank you for making the extra effort to prioritize your spiritual relationships with others even while you appropriately steward your physical well-being. 

We praise God for everyone who is returning to our weekly worship gatherings.  May we all stay humble, compassionate, and full of faith, hope, and love in this unique season of ministry together. 

Today I have some really good news to share!  Here’s the great news:  God’s grace is far better than we imagine!  God’s grace is far better than we know.

Each of us are far more sinful and broken than we even realize today.  Sometimes when we assemble to worship Jesus on Sunday, we are only aware of our own distress, weakness, and failures.  But behold King Jesus!!  

In Christ, we are far more loved, welcomed, cherished and accepted by our Holy God than we could ever dare to dream or hope to imagine!  This is really good news!!  Our God is a God of grace who chooses to relate with us based on His promises, rather than our performance!  Hear this good news and rejoice today:  Eternal life comes through mercy instead of merit!  

This is so contrary to how we think and live, isn’t it?

And that’s why Matthew 18-20 repeatedly emphasizes the Topsy-turvy priorities of God’s kingdom.  When Jesus reigns in our hearts the way up, is down. We truly live only when we die to self.  The humble are exalted, the first are last, and our future is secured by God’s grace rather than our own sacrifices!

You see these verses in Matthew 20 complete Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question in verse 27 above.  The chapter break here is unfortunate.  

Remember, Jesus had just blown the disciples’ minds by teaching that no amount of earthly wealth or religious standing can possibly save our souls. Then in 19:27, Peter replied, “See, we have left everything and followed you, What then will we have?”

And Jesus assures Peter that God will always take care of His followers.  No sacrifice for Jesus will ever be wasted.  But following Jesus is far better than any pursuit of upward mobility.  Following Jesus is far better than the American Dream.  For in Jesus’ kingdom, many who are first will be last, and the last first.

God’s kingdom doesn’t operate on the worldly basis of merit and comparison.  God’s kingdom operates on the basis of grace.  And to help make sure we understand His marvelous grace, Jesus tells this parable.

So please stand to honor the public reading of God’s Word, as I read Matthew 20:1-16, in the English Standard Version:

20 “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. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

This is the reading of God’s Word.  

Let’s Pray Together.

Why would anyone give their life away to follow Jesus?  What would ever motivate a person to leave everything – their wealth, their social standing, their dreams for a perfect marriage and family – simply to follow Jesus?

The parable in Matthew 20 answers this question, but in a way that makes us squirm.  This story purposefully makes us uncomfortable.  

After all, when we read how the master rewarded the last workers who worked 1 hour the same as the first workers who worked 12 hours… it doesn’t seem fair to us, does it? As we read, our hearts resonate with the expectations of the first workers in verse 10, and we affirm their complaint in verse 12.  This master seems unfair, (or at least unwise), in how he treats his employees.  

How does this master help us better understand the kingdom of heaven, as introduced in verse 1?

Well first, we must resist the urge to press every fine point in a parable to some theological conclusion.  Remember, parables are teaching stories.  They are stories laid alongside the truth in order to help illustrate the main truth principle that is being taught.  Most often, each parable practically illustrates one central truth for the teacher.  

And so carefully consider the context. Peter’s question in verse 27 betrayed He was still operating on a basis of merit, or conditional exchange, or equivalency:  

Since he had left everything and followed Jesus, then what reward did he earn?

Underneath Peter’s question was a conditional ethic of merit and justice.  Peter assumes that God will give small rewards for small sacrifices, and great rewards for great sacrifices.  Since he and the rest of the disciples had sacrificed more than others to follow Jesus, it seemed justified that they would be ahead of others at the end of time.  This only seems fair, right?

But this is not how God’s kingdom operates.  Even the greatest possible sacrifice we could ever make for God will never put God in our debt.  Jesus wants to make crystal clear that His kingdom doesn’t operate on a basis of fairness or conditional reward…but on the basis of something far better:  His generous grace.  

The main point of this parable is simply this: Receiving God’s grace is far better than getting ahead of others. Christ-followers are rewarded for bringing our neediness to God, not our performance.  

Church, God rewards your repentance, not your resume! Your entrance into kingdom life is never about what you have done…but about what He has done on your behalf!

Therefore, we must trust God’s grace, not our own efforts, for all of our future kingdom rewards.  For whenever we accuse God of being unfair, we are adopting a conditional, works-based ethic which only condemns ourselves before our Holy God, and betrays that we have set our minds on the things of man, rather than the things of God.

Let’s walk through the story now to see if we can trace this main point through,

The Parable.

This parable has four scenes.  Verses 1-7 contain the first scene of various groups of workers,

Entering into the Master’s service.

Remember what we’ve learned the last couple of weeks from Matthew 19.  Jesus taught you must be dependent, like a child, to enter His kingdom. Then a rich synagogue ruler asked a question of what work was required to enter His kingdom.  So Jesus described how difficult it was for financially independent people to enter His kingdom.  In fact, Jesus taught that it is impossible for anyone to enter the kingdom apart from God making it possible for them.

And now, in verses 1-7, Jesus describes how a large grape farmer recruits 5 different groups of laborers to enter his service and help bring in his harvest.  

The first group enters the master’s service at 6am – early in the morning according to verse 1.  By Jewish custom, the harvest workday went from 6am to 6pm, and so this first group of laborers only enter the master’s service after they negotiate for themselves a fair, perhaps even slightly generous, wage of 1 denarius for the day.

One denarius was the going-rate of daily pay for a Roman soldier, and these day laborers were unskilled, so we understand these workers entered the Master’s service with joy – knowing that they have 12 hours of hard labor ahead of them, but thankful to be employed and thankful to have negotiated a more than fair compensation for all their hard work.  This was a good day!!    

In verses 3-5, the master returns to the marketplace around 9am, 12noon, and 3pm, and each time we see more workers entering the master’s service.  

However, notice the distinction between these later workers and the first group of workers.  The workers hired at 6am negotiated their own wage for the day, didn’t they? But the later groups simply trusted the master to pay them what was right under the circumstances.  They trusted the master’s character and were satisfied when the master promised in verse 4,

Whatever is right I will give you.

Finally in verses 6-7, the master goes to the marketplace again around 5pm. There’s only one more hour left in the workday, but when he sees there are still workers who need to be hired if they are going to provide for their families that day… he compassionately recruits them into His service as well. 

So throughout the day, this master has called 5 different groups of servants into His service – the first for an agreed upon wage, and the last for “whatever he deemed right.” 

The curtain now falls on scene 1. 

In verses 8-10 we observe scene 2 which is,

The Rewarding of the Master’s servants. In verse 8 the master gives his foreman specific instructions.  

Pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.

This is unexpected.  All the workers are together in one group…and most of them are sweaty, dirty, smelly, and hangry.  It’s been a long hot day of manual labor, and they’re itching to get paid and go home.  

So the foreman calls those who started working at 5pm.  They hadn’t even broken a sweat. They had barely got started before the day was over.  And the foreman gives each of these last workers a denarius!  

A full-day’s wage!  They only worked one hour – they certainly didn’t earn this.  What an amazing gift!  

Of course such generosity is not lost on the rest of the workers still waiting for their paychecks.  So verse 10 says,

When those hired first came, they thought they would receive more

Let’s see… since that person only worked one hour and received 1 denarius…and since I worked 12 hours, I should get 12 denarii!  Cha-Ching!  I’m definitely getting ahead today!!

But look at the end of verse 10, …but each of them also received a denarius.

Curtain falls, end of scene 2. 

Now in verses 11-12, we find The Grumbling of the Master’s servants.  Scene 3.

They were sorely disappointed as they compared their unequal sacrifices with their equal pay.  Their comparison led to coveting which led to complaining.  

And so verse 12 they keep on grumbling, 

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.

Notice the first workers have two complaints:  unequal time, and unequal sacrifice.  When they compared themselves among themselves, they concluded they had served the master longer, and in harsher conditions, and therefore were entitled to a greater reward. 

But as the curtain falls and rises for the last time, verses 13-15 reorient our thinking with,

The Rebuking of the Master’s servants.

The master’s rebuke is gentle, as he answers, 

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  

I’ve upheld my end of our contract.  I’ve kept my promise.  There’s no injustice here.  The fact that I’ve decided to be generous to others does not change your rights.  Your complaint is not due to injustice, but envy.

Take what belongs to you and go.  I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you

You first workers got what is fair by our legal agreement.  But I sovereignly choose to be generous to these last workers.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, he asks in verse 15?  The master clearly has the right to extend grace to whomever He chooses.

Or do you begrudge my generosity?

Literally, this could be translated, Is your eye evil because I am good?  Are you envious because I am generous?  

This final question exposes the root problem.  Their perspective was wrong.  They related only to their master on the basis of conditional law-keeping.  They viewed God’s grace as something that they had earned, and now deserved.  They in fact despised anyone receiving what they did not earn…unless of course it was their self.   Their performance-oriented perspective didn’t allow for grace, and so they accused the master of injustice and attacked his character. 

This is the parable. 

Now let’s make sure we get,

The Point (19:30, 20:16)

Verse 16 repeats verse 19:30, thereby serving to bookend this story, and clearly indicate that this principle is the point of the parable:

The last will be first, and the first last.  

In other words, this parable teaches that,

God’s kingdom reverses all values of man-centered comparisons.  Those who are first in this world’s way of thinking, may in fact be last in God’s kingdom.  And those who seem to have the greatest needs and inabilities now on earth, may find themselves most greatly rewarded by God’s grace throughout eternity.  

After all, this world operates entirely on the basis of merit: “The early bird gets the worm.”  “Those who work the hardest, get rewarded the most.”  In this world, success is always measured in comparison to how far ahead you can get in comparison with others.

But all the comparative rankings of this world are meaningless in God’s kingdom.  Because God’s kingdom is based on mercy, not merit.

Church, this is counterintuitive, isn’t it?  It exposes the wrong motivations behind the hard work ethic that has been infused into our midwestern “Christian” subculture. 

Many of us actually believe some form of a prosperity gospel.  We foolishly believe that our earthly success is somehow connected to our godliness.  So when we are making lots of sacrifices for Jesus, we’re quick to think like Peter that we deserve better health, more wealth, and greater eternal rewards than others.  After all, we’ve paid our dues, and we’ve earned it, right? 

Or from the other perspective, when our marriage crumbles, or our child dies, or we lose our job or our health, we are quick to conclude these losses are the consequences for our lack of faith or sin.  

This is the heretical lie of the prosperity gospel. That God prospers those who obey, and God punishes those who disobey.  But the prosperity gospel comes from the pit of hell, loved ones!  It is the stinking thinking of this world.

So let’s not miss the point!  God’s kingdom is a reign of grace, not law-keeping!  Grace is undeserved blessing…not conditional rewards of merit and justice!  This world claims to value justice, fairness, and rights.  But in reality, every person only wants others to be treated with justice, while we demand others treat us with mercy.

So don’t miss this good news today friends!  Life in God’s kingdom is far better than anything the American Dream can offer you!  Like we’ve learned the last few weeks, Kingdom life is far better than your dream of a big family and a happy marriage.  Submission to Jesus is far better than your dream of independence and self-sufficiency.  Sacrificing everything for the sake of Jesus is far greater than your dream of financial wealth and/or religious respect. 

And now today, living as an undeserving recipient of God’s grace is far better than your dream of getting ahead and doing better than others in this life.  

God’s grace always puts us in a better position than our own efforts at upward mobility ever will.  So stop judging yourself based on how your own life matches up with others.

Remember, Receiving God’s grace is far better than getting ahead of others.  Grace, by its definition, is God’s undeserved favor to sinners like you and me who only deserve God’s judgment.  God’s grace is the only reason any of us can enter into God’s kingdom.  

So then, let’s apply the point of this parable to our lives by considering,

Application: The Practice 

And of course, the first way we must apply Jesus’ teaching is to,

Humbly receive God’s grace and rejoice in it.

Too many of us are like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  We despise God’s rescuing grace because we are ultimately trusting in our own works for our standing with the Father.  We accuse God of wrongdoing when those who we deem to be the most vile of sinners are completely and freely pardoned and forgiven by God’s grace.  

So… today, if you find it difficult to swallow God’s undeserved generosity towards other sinners… can I just remind you of some great news?  

Cheer up – you yourself are far more sinful than you even know…but because of Jesus’ death and resurrection on your behalf, you are far more loved, welcomed, cherished, and accepted than you could ever dare to dream or hope to imagine!

You are always with God, and all that is His has been given to you!  Nothing on this earth can ever satisfy your soul like living forever in God’s kingdom.

So acknowledge your need for grace.  Admit that you aren’t strong enough to bargain with God.  Some of us today really need to have our pride humbled.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  So stop justifying yourself through comparisons with other sinners.

Justice condemns every single one of us.  And entirely apart from your own doing, God today offers you His saving grace!  You can’t earn it, you’ll never ever deserve it…but you must receive it and rejoice in God’s grace if you will ever enter into His eternal kingdom!

And when you repent of your self-reliance and receive God’s grace, then Humbly refuse to compare yourself with others.  Because pride is the root of all envy and covetousness, and pride opposes God’s grace.

Let’s anchor our identity in the finished work of Jesus, rather than our own meager efforts at obedience.  Let’s anchor our assurance in the promises of God, rather than the compliments or comparisons of others.  

Those who compare themselves among themselves are not wise, and in John chapter 21 Peter had to learn this lesson again.  After Jesus predicted Peter’s martyr death, Peter tried to change the subject by asking, well, what about John?  And Jesus answered, “What is that to you?  You follow me!”

In other words, measure your success as a Christ-follower by your dependence upon Christ’s work, rather than how your head, heart, hands, or home measures up with other Christians.  Faith alone in Christ alone is the only metric for success in God’s kingdom.  

Then finally, put this parable to practice this week and Humbly replace grumbling covetousness with grateful contentment.  Gratitude has such a purifying power in our hearts!  The worship of thanksgiving drives out all idolatry and starves the root of covetousness.

So practice the spiritual discipline of gratitude this week.  Thank God for all the expressions of His undeserved grace in your own life.  

Thank God for the forgiveness of your sins.  We never deserved such grace!  Thank God for entrance into His kingdom!  We never deserved such grace!  Thank God for your ability to serve Him in His harvest.  We never deserved such grace!

And then – and this is so important – thank God for how you see Him blessing others with His grace.  Praise God when you see evidence of God’s kindness and mercy in others’ lives. 

It is only our own pride that makes it difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice.  So when following Jesus seems to require greater sacrifice from you than others, rejoice that God has showered them with such mercy.  Learn contentment, and let your life be without covetousness; be content with whatever you have, For God Himself has said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you.

And when God Himself is our inheritance, what could we possibly lack in this life? 

So remember the topsy-turvy priorities of Jesus’ kingdom today, and reflect upon the wonder that,

Receiving God’s grace is far better than getting ahead of others.  The only way up is by acknowledging your inadequacy and your own neediness.  The only path to eternal life is through dying to your self-reliance and pride.  For under the rule of God’s grace, many who are first in this world will be last in eternity, and many who are last will be first.