Summary: How is the Kingdom of heaven to be understood in light of laboring for Christ while the world enjoys the pleasures of sin? The parable of Jesus in Matthew 20 is helpful here.
Matthew 20:1-16 Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Jesus introduces this parable saying that the kingdom of heaven is like this. That's an impressive, if not disturbing introduction to this particular parable for many reasons. I believe that the kingdom of heaven in Matthew's gospel applies directly to the church. If this is true, what might Jesus be telling us?
This parable is easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. For instance: Can you imagine being envious of someone who lives for the devil for most of their lives and finally comes to Christ at the end and is saved? Some see this idea in this parable. A darker question is: Would some of us prefer such a scenario for our own lives? For example: Maybe I can sow my wild oats and enjoy sinful pleasures for most of my life and avoid all that Christian duty stuff and church commitment, but close to the end, I'll repent and still avoid hell! That thought says that abundant life is actually outside of Christ and not within the borders of the kingdom of heaven. The prophet Malachi deals with this. Perhaps you have been there. Is anyone here growing weary of working for the Lord and getting discouraged?
I must admit that in my childhood I remember many of my friends got to stay home on Sunday nights and watch Walt Disney while I was dragged to church by my parents for another boring church service. I remember thinking, why do we have to always miss the good stuff?
Can any of you relate?
Does this parable address any of this? Is Jesus saying that working for the kingdom is like hard labor in the hot sun out in the fields while living in the world is like hanging out with your friends in the market place sipping coffee while you wait for a gig? Is that his message here? I would argue that THAT thinking completely misses the point of the parable, but points to another problem of the heart that is answered in other scriptures.
So what is going on here? Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, and making points that we need today. Let's look at it carefully and let the words of Jesus sink in and show us something can help us. Think with me about Jesus' words here.
1. The landowner goes out to hire men to work in his vineyard. Do these men want to have this job? Absolutely! They have come out early in the morning hoping to find work so that they can feed their families and make enough to live on. The landowner doesn't have to twist their arms to get them to come! They WANT this job. They NEED the pay! The landowner agrees with them for a denarius, or a day's wages. It is a fair wage and, glad to get it, they go out to his fields to work, blessed with the security that they and their families will eat and have enough to live on today. They are happy to give a day's work for a day's wages. It's all fair and square.
If you were to interview any of them as they head off to the vineyard to work, which do you think they would be: aggravated or thankful that they had a paying job today? Of course they would be thankful! The landowner has blessed them by giving them this opportunity. Do you think that they would look on other men who were not hired as better off or worse off than themselves? Again, it's a "no brainer." Of course they would consider themselves as better off than those standing around waiting and hoping for a job! They are secure in the employment of this landowner. Glad to have the job. The concept of wishing they could be among the unemployed instead of having this work would be totally foreign to them.
2. But the parable continues. Jesus says that the landowner keeps going out every few hours and finding others who are standing around unemployed. When he sees them, he sends them out to his vineyard to work saying, "Go work for me and I'll pay you what is right." He doesn't tell them how much they will get, only that it will be "right." Would you like to know the Greek word here that is translated "right"? Some of you scholars might find this interesting. The word translated "right" is the same word for righteous or just. All the landowner is offering these men who are hired later on in the day is what would be fair pay for their time. They do not expect to receive a whole day's wages, but only what is right.
3. Then comes the final part that creates the tension and will later give heartburn to the workers who were hired early on. The landowner goes out at about an hour before quitting time and sees still others standing there. Have they been there all day? Yes. That's what the landowner asks. Do you think they were happy and enjoying standing around all day without work? No way! Remember, this was long before welfare and social security. Listen to the landowner's question. Why have you guys been standing here idle all day? It is clear that this is his first encounter with them today. He didn't see them before this and they didn't just get here after a lazy day at the club or McDonalds. These men have been looking for work all day and no one hired them. They might have been worried about feeding the family, wondering what they would say to the wife and kids when they had to go home that evening empty handed.