The ESV has a rather unfortunate translation of Matthew 20:15. It says: "Or do you begrudge my generosity?" Literally it is: "Or is your eye evil because I am good?" The goodness of the master reveals the evil of our eyes and our hearts. We don't just begrudge his generosity. We begrudge him.
The grumbling of those who worked in the vineyard the longest reveals something about them. It reveals their assumptions. It sounds as if they want fairness. But the cry for fairness only applies if the rules are broken. The master broke no rules. He gave them what they agreed to work for, a day's wage, which was standard operating procedure. No, they don't want fairness. They want more. They want more because they think they're worth more. They assume their work is somehow better and more deserving.
And we side with them. Our initial thought, too, is that it's not fair. This mentality reveals what we really think about the master, about what he promises and what he commands. It reveals that we really think he's holding out on them and, likewise, us. It reveals that we think doing what he says is burdensome, that the reward is not worth the work, that it'd be way more fun to be doing something else, with someone else, in someplace else. We think that what we have done has earned what he gives. And more than that, we think that somehow what we've done in the Kingdom of God is not only better and more deserving than what others do, but also that God somehow owes us because of it, that he is in our debt, and not we in his. Can't He see, we think to ourselves, all that we have done, all that we have given up over the years, all the fun we missed out on because we were doing what He asked? Can't He see that we're worth more . . . worth more than what He's given . . . worth more than His only Son?
Repent. The commandments of God are not burdensome. They are set into place to protect you and bless you. They are established to ensure that you will be made holy by His Work and Word (1st-3rd Commandments) and to ensure that you are kept from defiling yourself and others, keeping you holy (4th-10th). They are given for your benefit. They are given to keep you safe. They are His good will toward you. They are His gifts to keep you holy and undefiled. And you begrudge Him for it. Your eye is evil toward Him because He is good toward you. Repent.
The kingdom of God isn’t like workers in a vineyard. Rather, “The kingdom of God is like the master of the vineyard who goes out himself to hire workers who had no work to work in his vineyards." The owner goes out himself. He doesn’t send his manager, he doesn’t send his servant, which we know he had. But instead he goes out himself. He goes to the corner of the marketplace where all the unemployed go daily to search for work. And going early one morning, he hires workers and makes a contract with them to work in his vineyard for one day’s wage, that is, one denarius.
But later, moved by the sight of so many without work, He goes back again to check and to see for himself if any are left. And when he arrives, he finds them all standing. He finds them all ready, eager even, to work. So he hires more. But this time he doesn’t quote them a wage. He only says, “I will give you what is right,” that is, I will give you what is just.
The vineyard owner continues this throughout the day, returning to the unemployment marketplace, checking to see if more remain unemployed. He’s compulsive about it, the way we check our e-mail when expecting an important note, or the window when we’re expecting someone to visit. The vineyard owner checks for himself again at 12:00 noon, 3:00 PM, and finally just one hour before dusk at 5:00 PM. And each time he finds the same thing: workers standing, workers ready, willing, and eager to work.
Now something akin to this still happens in the Middle East today at the Damscus Gate in east Jerusalem. And there, those who haven’t been hired by 12:00 noon (the 6th hour) all go home. They all call it a day at the 6th hour. But the workers in this parable all stay well past noon, and not only that, they’re still standing, and so despite all the odds of getting hired past the 6th hour, these guys stay. And they’re not found loafing, they’re standing, they’re ready to work, eager—even those staying till the 11th hour, an hour before dusk.
None have given up hope. They are staying until night comes when no one can work. They remain eager and expectant, even optimistic. They were faithful to the end: hopeful, trusting that someone might come by and hire them for the remainder of the day. For if no one comes, they must return home humiliated to an anxious wife and hungry children with bad news of another day of frustration and disappointment.
And when asked by the vineyard owner: “Why have you stood here unemployed all day?” They say: “Because no one has hired us.” That is, “We’re eager to work, willing to work, ready to work, able to work and we will not give up! We will stand here until the light fades and go home in the dark if we must.”
And this is the amazing thing. With one hour to before the night comes, the vineyard owner doesn’t give them charity. He doesn’t just flip them a denarius and send them on their way so he can be done with them. He doesn't just dust his hands of them, and go home feeling good about himself. He refuses to humiliate them further by putting them on relief. Instead he gives them the one thing they so desperately needed, what they wanted so much but evaded them all day. He gave them a job.
The vineyard owner puts them on his payroll. He takes responsibility for them by hiring them as his workers in his vineyard. What is his he puts into their hands—his grapes, his livelihood, his future—and in exchange he takes upon himself responsibility for what is theirs—their livelihood, their future, the feeding of their families.
This finally is what drives the owner to return time and time again—his compassion for those who are without, those who have nothing but hope that they’ll be rescued and given a chance to work. The owner sacrifices of himself, trekking back and forth, despite the heat, despite have a manager, a servant, who could do it for him, to ensure that no one is left without work, that no one is goes home without honor or food for his family. And he does it again and again and again.
And when the whistle blew, the owner says to his servant, the manager of his affairs, “Pay them all THE WAGE,” that is, the only wage mentioned—a denarius, a day’s wage for a day’s worth of work. The owner makes all the workers equal: Those who worked all day and those who stood looking for work all day. They’re all equal. They all have the same reward, the same wage.
This our Lord has done also for you—for all of you. For this parable reveals what the kingdom of God is like. It is like one who, because of His compassion, sought to save those alienated from God because of their sin. It is like one who for the joy set before him, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant though being equal to God, and humbled himself becoming obedient unto death, death on a cross. The Lord Jesus Christ didn’t just give you charity, he loved you, taking on himself what is yours—sin and death—and gives to you what is his--his righteousness and his life.
And in Christ, you all have to the same reward. In Christ, in His kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. For in Christ there is no last, there is no first, only THE WAGE, the just reward, that he gives out of his divine goodness, His grace, His mercy, His compassion. What is His is yours, and what is yours is His. And thus, you are a member of his kingdom, a worker his vineyard, an heir in his family.
And because of this, you have a calling, you have a job. For the Lord leaves no one without work. He gives to each according to his call. He calls some to be mothers and fathers and others to be sons and daughters. Some, he calls to be employers and others be employees. And for others still he calls to be teachers in His kingdom, while some he calls to be hearers.
But regardless of what calling you have, in the kingdom of God everyone works, everyone has a job, everyone a duty. For this is God’s will, that you work in these callings serving one another, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. And not because you have to prove something to him, not because you must earn your way, but because you are eager, willing, and able to work for the benefit of those in your care.
And in doing that you find that you are in God’s employ. That you are on His staff. That you are servants of God your King. That your master is not one who demands but gives, He gives what is His to you to make you His own. And the work he gives isn’t aimless or petty. It has a purpose uniquely created for each one of you. To show you that regardless of what you think you are worth, that no matter what you do or for how long you do it, you are called by the compassion of your Lord Jesus Christ and the giving of himself on the cross and that is sufficient to carry you through all the daily trials and struggles that you face. Hope in that. Trust is that. And you will find that rest in what He gives—forgiveness of sin, new life in Him—makes you free. You are free. Freed to live in His cross-shaped compassion, and from out of that, freed to give of yourself in sacrificial love toward one another.
All were unemployed. All were rescued from shame, from guilt, from certain death and given new hope in the compassionate self-giving of the Lord. And you are no different. So come and feast with the Lord on the fruits of his vineyard, the just reward from His labor for you.