I will give you what is right (Oct 4, 2020)

I will give you what is right (Oct 4, 2020)

October 7, 2020
Benjamin Ehlers

I will give you what is right

Matthew 20:1-16

Livestream link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbZiLNLDDMU


Maybe you’ve heard the question – meant to etch away at Christianity for being unfair: “Could Adolf Hitler have gone to heaven if he had repented on his deathbed… and would he have passed Mother Theresa on her way to hell if she had not?” In essence, “Do bad people go to heaven ahead of people seemingly better by far.” That’s the question Jesus is answering in the parable he tells his disciples. What do you think?

We’ve read the story. A vineyard owner goes out to hire some workers for his vineyard. This was a very common scene at the time. Freelance laborers would gather in the morning in the marketplace in hopes of being hired for the day. The vineyard owner hires a number of laborers in the morning – probably about 6am – and agrees to pay them a denarius. A denarius was not an unusual wage for a day’s work, yet, at the same time, it was on the generous side for unskilled labor. They agree and go to work. But as the day goes on, the vineyard owner realizes he needs more help. So he goes out and finds more workers again and again at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm. Even just an hour before quitting time he goes out, at 5pm, and hires some more workers. To all these added workers, he simply says, “I will pay you whatever is right” (Mt 20:4).

Finally, when evening came, it was time to get paid! And as the latecomers were surprisingly paid a denarius, the first ones hired got excited at the generosity of the landowner! “Surely we are getting bonuses!” they must have been thinking. “Because we bore the burden of the work through the heat of the day!” But when they were paid only a denarius, they grumbled and complained. “You are being unfair!” they said. “We worked longer, we ought to get more!”

I’ll go back to the question I began with today. Could Adolf Hitler have gone to heaven if he had repented on his deathbed and would he have passed Mother Theresa on her way to hell if she had not? While the premise is absurd – meant to make us writhe a bit – the answer, theoretically at least, is quite simple. Yes on both accounts.

When given an extreme comparison like this, we might be thinking, “Why is God so unfair? Why does he admit bad people to heaven ahead of people seemingly better by far? People who have been in the church longer, working harder, and bearing the burden of persecution most of their lives?”

The disciples weren’t immune to this kind of thinking. In fact, this parable is directed at them! A rich young man came to Jesus and asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). To cut to the chase, toward the end of the conversation, Jesus revealed this man’s problem of the heart by telling him to “sell your possessions and give to the poor… Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). The rich man went away sad, because he had great wealth. And Jesus concluded, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23). And here’s what I wanted to get to: Peter then said, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27). What reward will there be for us who have followed you from the beginning and given up all we have?!

Sadly, I think we too can easily fall into that kind of thinking. I’ve been a Christian all my life. I’ve never fallen away. I volunteer at church. I’m in Bible Study and worship. Surely there is some greater reward due to me. Yes, all believers are saved – whether they come to faith early in life or late in life; whether they have a clean past or a dark past – but since I have walked the road longer, and borne the burden longer, surely there is something more due to me! It’s only fair, right?

And that’s our downfall. Expecting God to be fair in this way. Expecting to receive something better and maybe even working towards that goal. Well, we confessed what is actually fair at the beginning of the service today. “I confess that I am by nature sinful… I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity.” There is in me a stubborn determination to resist that very knowledge. Instead, during the week I find I am hungry to know just the opposite of what I’ve confessed. I daily enter my world searching for the evidence that I am actually a pretty good guy doing well. And although, to the observer, my life seems to “work,” don’t let me fool you. I cannot resist the awful knowledge that God is entirely right about be. I take my place among the murderers and silently slip in among the thieves. I am nothing but a sinner fit to be condemned. That’s what God’s Word says. And in moments of brutal clarity, I pass the same sentence on myself.

That’s when I die. I am crucified, and I die with Christ. There was nothing for God to do with me but condemn me. That’s exactly what he did… except… he substituted me with his Son. I see the awful death of Jesus and know that it was mine. It didn’t happen to me, but it should have – that would have been fair. And in coming to that dreadful conclusion about myself, the identification with him is complete. I am crucified with Christ. This is the death that makes me free! Thanks be to God that he does NOT give me what is fair.

Now I see that he pays me what is right – not according to what I have done, but according to his mercy and love! The reality is that everyone is a sinner afterall. And although the symptoms of this fatal disease do vary greatly from case to case, everyone will die from it. If we are talking about earnings and wages, “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). The remarkable thing is not the apparent goodness or badness of people in heaven or hell. The gift, the miracle, the wonder is that anyone ultimately receives goodness from God – a wage much better than we deserve, “The gift of God is eternal life” (Rm 6:23).

God, “the vineyard owner” thankfully doesn’t operate in the usual way. What a person deserves is beside the point. It’s his generous heart that determines what a person gets. So this parable carries with it both a warning and a promise for us. A warning that all comparisons based on merit or work do not belong in God’s kingdom. This can be a hard pill for us to swallow since almost everything else in life is based on merit. The promise, though, is that our relationship with God is based solely on grace which he lavishes upon us in abundance. The key is to shift our focus. The story only offends our sense of fairness when we compare ourselves to other workers. It’s the difference the vineyard owner points out when he responds to the complainers, “I am not being unfair to you” (Mt 20:13), rather, “I have the right to do what I want… I am generous” (Mt 20:15).

God understands this is not the typical human way of thinking. He even said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Is 55:8). So, when we find ourselves casting an envious eye upon the generosity of God toward another, we need to put our “spiritual blinders” on and focus solely on how generously God has treated me personally. Not comparing myself to others. Not demanding better thinking that’s fair. Demanding fairness from God is setting our sights fatally low. Those who set their sights merely on what’s fair, tragically, will receive it. The vineyard owner even said, “take your pay and go” (Mt 20:14). It’s an echo of Jesus’ judgment on the last day, “Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire” (Mt 25:41). Your pay, your wage, what’s fair for sin, is death.

But, to those who don’t demand. Rather understand what they rightfully deserve and plead for mercy – those who wait on God’s goodness, focusing solely on their own unworthiness and His mercy, will receive it! When we keep our eyes where they belong – fixed on God – then we have a correct view of our worth and labor. Then, when God places a denarius in our hands – the denarius being salvation – we can marvel that the Lord isn’t fair! Thanks be to God! He doesn’t give us what we deserve; no, he gives us what we don’t!