Scriptures: Philippians 1:21-30 ; Matthew 20:1-16
The first thing I want to mention, as I move into the sermon today, is about the sermon title. While it has great alliteration, I've come to the opinion, during this week, that I named it wrongly. There is a difference, at least Biblically, between jealousy and envy.
I want to take a moment to touch on that, because God is seen as a jealous God. Jealousy, on the positive side of things, deals with holding onto what you already have or own. God has us as His people. He has claimed us. He has paid for us. He is a jealous God. He doesn't like encroachment on that.
Envy is when you desire something that someone else has, or you feel like you deserve more and it's unfair, so therefore they shouldn't have what they have. The Word of God has a couple of things to say about envy. Proverbs 14:30 says “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Song of Solomon 8:6 says that “Envy is a cruel as the grave; its flashes are flashes of fire.”
We all know what happens with fires. We've seen it on the West Coast. I think they said one of the wildfires was sparked by a pyrotechnic device used in a party to reveal a baby's gender, and because of the dry conditions and the wind, things got out of hand.
As we look at our parable today, Jesus actually begins before this parable by saying, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” That saying bookends this parable, because he says it in the passage before this, as well as at the end of this parable. So I think to explain it somewhat, and to reinforce it, he goes through this parable.
The Kingdom of heaven – that is, the experience of heaven, the experience of God's rule in our lives – is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. So the landowner is God. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day, and sent them into his vineyard.
You could consider the denarius kind of symbolic. But I also want to help you understand it in a practical sense, because parables are very practical. Some people like to call them earthly stories with a heavenly nugget of truth. A denarius was a standard day's wage. If you had a denarius, you could get bread, vegetables, probably not meat, but some sort of protein like figs or nuts, and you could feed your family.
The owner went out in the morning to hire men. These were all day workers. I don't know if any of you have ever been a day worker, or hired a day worker, but it's literally what it sounds like. You go out and hire them for the day, and pay them at the end of the day. The next day, as a day worker, you might get to work again, and you might not. Most of these men made what is called a subsistence living. If they didn't get hired that day, they didn't eat, and neither did their families.
When I was detasseling corn as a teenager, it was a form of day labor. We had to get up at the ungodly hour of four in the morning and meet at the bus. The man would count us, and if there were sufficient people, we would take off in the buses to go to the fields. If there were too many people, then he would choose, usually the more experienced folks, and the others would have to come back the next day.
If, for some reason, you cut out before the end of the day, then you were not paid for the full day. You were paid just for the hours you worked. And you probably didn't need to bother coming back the next day, because there were always more people that could be hired. Day labor is something that is fraught with uncertainty.
The men began working in the vineyard. At about the third hour, the landowner went out and saw men standing in the marketplace. They all gathered in one place, so that those hiring could pick and choose. It wasn't necessarily for a vineyard, there was construction and other kinds of labor. So he saw them standing there and he said, “You also go work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”
So he went back and got more. The third hour is nine in the morning. The first ones had been hired at six, now these at nine. It says then he went back at the sixth and the ninth hour, to do the same thing, at noon and three o'clock in the afternoon. That at about the eleventh hour, he went out and found still others standing around. This is five in the evening.
Now leaving aside the modern skepticism of mine that immediately says, “How could they get there in time to do any work at all?” he sends them to the vineyard. He asks them, “Why have you been standing here all day long, doing nothing?” He's asking, in a way, “Are you lazy?” They answer no. “It's because no one has hired us,” they answer.
Now I want you to think about these folks that were left at the end of the day. Most of the time, when you deal with day laborers, you choose on the basis of physical capability or skill sets. These are the folks that were left behind. These were the folks that were probably older, or infirm in some way. Maybe some of them were very young, though most of the time child labor was done within families, not hired out as day laborers.
So these were the folks that no one wanted. Yet the landowner tells them, “You also go and work in the vineyard. It reminds me of a story that Jesus told about a marriage feast. You might want to read it sometime. The one who was hosting the marriage sent out invitations, and those who were well-off and socially and economically advantaged said, “I've got other stuff to do.” So he went out and pulled people in off the streets, and when they weren't dressed well enough he got them dressed.
So they all go to work, and when the evening had come – when the day was over – the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” So he started with the last ones, the infirm, the aged, the ones who would be seen by the world as the “least-deserving” of any sort of blessing or payment. And he gave them a denarius.
Now when those who had started work first saw that, their expectations suddenly changed. They thought, “Ooh! He's giving these guys a denarius. What am I going to get? Because I've been working here all day. I've been putting in more effort.” Suddenly they're expecting more than a denarius, because they feel like they are more deserving.
And the owner gives them a denarius, and they begin to grumble and complain. I have to tell you, just as with the parable of the prodigal son, I see most of the people in the churches today as being in the position of those guys right there, with their expectations. You've been serving God for a long time. You've been faithful for a long time.
I'll get into this more a little later, but I get asked, “Do you really believe that those who make deathbed confessions will go to heaven?” Or they'll ask about those that have done evil things – Hitler is frequently used as an example – could go to heaven? This question is based in an idea of fairness. They see that as not being fair.
Yet the owner here says, “Friend, I'm not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you? Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
If those hired first had been paid first, they would have taken their denarius and they would have been totally satisfied and left, and might not have ever known what anyone else was paid. But because they saw the generosity of the landowner to those that they felt were less deserving, suddenly what they got wasn't enough anymore. They were envious of the owner's generosity.
Their discontent did not arise out of any injustice done to them, but out of the grace extended to somebody else. Their feeling was “I deserve better because I put in more hours than the others. It's not enough that I get what I've been promised. I deserve to get better than them.”
What they were discovering was envy. Those who were first in terms of their hiring ended up being last in terms of their gratitude for the generosity of the owner. They got what they were contracted for, and suddenly it wasn't enough.
This is a side-track here, but I have to mention this. They obviously didn't understand the idea of the owner determining, as he said, “Don't I have the right to determine what I want to do with my own money?” I mention this side-track because so often we see that in the world today with, frankly – this might get me in trouble with some people – contemporary social justice warriors.
They think they can dictate to the owners of companies how they're to market their products, who the company can support, and how the company can advertise. They go beyond just boycotting or not patronizing, which would be completely and totally their right, and begin to use aggressive techniques to prevent other people from patronizing the company, or they try to change the laws to force the owners to do what they think is right.
It's a forgotten rule in this day that those who own get to determine how they will run their own companies. We live in a day when protests are allowed to determine policy, and it requires no investment of money, no investment of labor, no investment of thought, for modern activists to change the world. All that is required is a willingness to be stirred up by something, whether true or not, and jump on the bandwagon and begin the offense. A lot of times in social media, but even more so, recently, live.
And here's the still greater tragedy. The same willingness to concede to the loudest voice appears to determine doctrine among the people of God. Too often, ungodly men and women, intent on making the congregation sensitive to the latest social need, are willing to stifle, sometimes, the teaching of the Word, in order to promote some pet point of view.
And terrible though that is, what is still more terrible is that these people are convinced that they are doing God’s work. Now I'm not accusing anyone here of doing that. It's just something that, as I said, I felt that I had speak to, with regards to the envy that these workers felt and spoke of, and how that relates to us in our lives.
I've been asked, if someone confesses on their deathbed, and accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, will they go to heaven? My answer is, as far as I know the Scriptures, if it is true repentance in their heart, and true acceptance of Jesus as Savior, then yes.
Then I have gotten the question, “Then why should I care now?” At the root of it is the idea that it's not fair. “They get to live their life however they want to live, and then, suddenly, they get to go into heaven.” The person asking that is totally ignoring the grace of God that is being extended to them as well as this other person they are talking about.
Because frankly, no matter how long you've been a Christian, you don't deserve the kingdom of God. It's only by God's grace, and His great sacrifice, that you enter into this kingdom. He didn't just pay a denarius. His Son, the Father's own Son, came and suffered and died, for you to get in there. So if you are going to understand your payment for your work, your attitude should be that of gratitude for the opportunity to work. But so often, like these men, we judge God by our standards.
And let me say, as a side-note, we're also judging them – that is, those other people. We're saying that we're worth more than they are. They don't measure up, and therefore they shouldn't receive the same kind of love that we do. I've even had people ask me, could Hitler get into heaven? After all, he killed six million Jews. And I have to say, according to what I know of Scripture, if he had a truly repentant heart at the end of his life and he accepted Christ as Savior, then yes. Do I understand it? No. But I'm not God. And neither are you.
Yet we sit in that position and we judge what God is extending to other people. It is a temptation to do so, because we have been followers for so long and we have done so much and worked so hard for the Kingdom. But you know, as hard as we have worked, we're never finished.
That's the other thing that I want to point out about this story, that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere in what I've read on it. That is that the landowner kept going back to the market. Yes, you could say that is because he's a generous man. But it also suggests that the work could not be completed for the day. It needed more helpers. So these men, who were complaining about having worked from the beginning of the day, are not recognizing their own need for help. They are not recognizing the fact that, even though I'm sure they gave it their best, that it wasn't enough. The owner saw that, and helped.
The envious attitude doesn't recognize that those who were called later and were infirm or aged had their own special challenges, that maybe those who were healthy and young and totally capable wouldn't have had to worry about. It doesn't take into account – the story doesn't tell us – who was doing what job. Because trust me, when you're harvesting something, or even if you're just watering the vineyard, it was a lot of manual labor.
In those days they didn't have irrigation systems like we do. Water had to be carried. Pruning was done by hand. Picking was done by hand. The grape presses, to tread the grapes to get the juice out – well, that wasn't done by hand, it was done by foot, but nevertheless it was manual labor. All these different positions, all these different jobs, who knows who was assigned what? Maybe somebody who was older was simply tasked with carrying water to those who were working, so that they didn't faint from the heat of the day.
You see, everybody gets a different job. Everybody contributes in their own way. Regardless of when they're called, regardless of how “capable” they are, the reward is the same. Because God has offered us the greatest reward we can have, which is eternity in heaven with Him.
So sometimes, I think, we need to get off our high horse. We need to stop wasting our time and our energy judging others, and concern ourselves with the generosity and blessing that God has given us. Never take it for granted. Never think you're done. And always be grateful for the help God provides.
That's something that we struggle with, here in the Western hemisphere at large, but especially, I think, in the Midwest – accepting help from outside. But sometimes we need it. And there is no shame in offering somebody else the opportunity to experience the same praise that you have received.
So don't envy what others receive. Don't judge the value of someone else who has been chosen by God. And focus on what you can do, to work in God's kingdom and bring Him praise and glory. After all, that's what we're here for. May your heart be full of contentment and joy, for the grace that God has shown to you, rather than the judgment you deserve.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.