Book Reflection // October 15, 2022 // View Series
The Parables of Jesus by James Montgomery Boice
Chapter 6 // Mathew 20:1-16
This parable is the second of five parables that focus on salvation and is bracketed by a familiar phrase that Jesus liked to use, although he used multiple variations of this phrase. The two phrases are “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) and “The last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16). Since the parable of the Workers in the vineyard falls between these two similar statements, it must be an illustration of this key concept and principle. This parable is easily understood and seems simple enough on the surface, but difficulties arise when we look at the dealing of the businessman with his hired workers. There are three lessons we will look at as we consider this parable: God is no man’s debtor, God cares for people more than for things, and many but not all.
A Difficult Parable
The parable itself is not that difficult to read and understand. We can see the story revolving around a businessman that goes out into the marketplace and hires workers for his field at 6:00 AM, 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM (just one hour before quitting time). He sets a price for the workers he hired at 6:00 AM, but for all the others he only said that he would pay them a fair price or what is right. At the end of the day, the businessman had the workers paid from last to first and gave the same wage that he agreed to pay those first workers to all the workers no matter how long they served. This is where it gets a bit difficult for the earlier workers and for us as we read this parable. It seems unfair to pay the later workers the same wage that the first workers received. Even though we know that the early workers agreed to work for this wage and should only expect to receive what was promised, there seems to be an unjustness to the way the payments are made. At the root of our difficulty (and the difficulty of the first workers in the parable) with this business owner is our own envy of his generosity. We find it difficult to understand such a lavishly generous person that seemingly wasn’t generous enough with us. Our envy blinds us to the generosity we are receiving. As Boice says, “It is a problem for any who think that, because they have served God faithfully for however many years, they deserve something from him. We never deserve God’s favors.”
The first lesson we see from this parable is that God is no man’s debtor. What Boice means by this phrase is simply that we cannot put God in a position of owing us for a service rendered. That we can never put God under an obligation to repay us for our work, our faith, our persistence, our faithfulness, or any manner of service we render to him. “When I say that God is no man’s debtor I mean that we can never place God under obligation to do something for us because we have done something for him.” We so easily fall into this trap of service to God. Even our most godly and righteous work that we give to the Lord can be turned into leverage by our pride and used as a justification for healing or financial relief. When we couch our prayer in a manner of reminding God how much we deserve from him because of our faithful serving, we miss the point completely. Our serving to the Lord should be on the basis of a son that simply loves his Father, not as a hireling who serves only for his expected wages.
The second lesson we see in this parable is that God cares for people more than for things. We can easily see this in the businessman’s dealing with the people that he hired. As he kept going out into the marketplace and continued to find people looking for work, he did not look down upon them or judge them for what may have been perceived as laziness or lack of desire. What the businessman saw were people who were willing to work but did not have an opportunity. The owner was moved to action in his heart not because he saw a profit in hiring them but because he wanted to support them and give them an opportunity to earn their wage. “The owner was not thinking of profit. He was thinking of people, and he was using his abundant means to help them.” This is the same heart we need to have. We need to make valuations and estimations of the people we encounter in terms of their worth as human beings made in the image of God. We are to love people simply because we love God and not because of what that person can or will do for us.
The third lesson is that “many who are first will be last.” It is important to note that not everyone who begins early will end up being last. There will be people who begin serving the Lord early in life and will be faithful servants for a lifetime. There will be others who will come to Jesus late in life but will nevertheless catch fire and serve faithfully. This phrase Jesus gives is not meant to give preference to one over the other. We are all called at various stages of our life to come and follow Jesus. The challenge is to serve faithfully for the amount of time that God allots to your life. If he calls you early, serve diligently and faithfully for a lifetime. If he calls you late in life, then serve him faithfully for the remaining time you have in this world. “Do not wait to serve God. Do not wait until the ninth or eleventh hour of your all-too-brief life. Start now. Serve now.”
So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.Luke 17:10