The Upside-Down Kingdom

A sermon manuscript for Matthew 20:1-16,
prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes | parables study tool handout)

Introduction

As you know, we have been working through Jesus’ nine parables about the Kingdom of God. We were blessed to have Dr. Michael Vanlaningham teaching us for the last few weeks. This week and next, I’ll be concluding this series, and then Pastor Bob returns on June 3rd. I hope you are continuing to pray for him and for his time away on sabbatical.

I think it would be helpful to begin today with a very brief update on our current progress through this series. Here’s a summary of the parables we’ve studied so far.

Kingdom Parables Summary Slide

We don’t have enough time to dwell on this or go into detail, but we’ll make this slide available from the website for your review on your own this week. In general, I hope you are beginning to see some patterns in these parables. For example, notice how King Jesus repeatedly expresses that He is growing His kingdom and will in the end separate those who are His from those who are not. In general, as you study these parables, you should be asking yourself, “What does this parable tell us about the King and His Kingdom?”

Today, we are studying the parable of the day laborers in Matthew 20.

An Introductory Hermeneutical Comment

Hermeneutics (n.) – a formalized approach to interpreting Scripture

Hermeneutics FunnyLike I said, before we dive into the text, I want to share a hermeneutical tool which will be useful in interpreting Jesus’ parables in general, and this parable in particular. An important question we must answer when interpreting parables is, “How deeply do I dig into the details of the story for the lessons its teaching?” We need guidelines for determining which details are important.

For example, in the parable we’re going to look at today, Jesus explains that a landowner goes to the marketplace several times throughout the day to recruit day laborers to work in his vineyard. We could ask all kinds of questions about this, such as:

  • Why a vineyard and not a wheat field?
  • What is the significance of the specific times or the number of times he goes to the marketplace?
  • What does owning a vineyard say about the social status of the owner?
  • Etc.

But are these good questions? Is Jesus intending for us to delve into these details and search for meaning in them? I contend (and most scholars agree) that he does not. These details are just part of a good story.

To determine which details are important and how deep we should dig, here is a useful guideline:

The key lesson(s) taught through a parable
are closely linked to the key character(s).

In other words, it is typically recommended that we extract one or two principles associated with each of the main characters in a parable, and understand the other details of the story to be the background or context for these characters’ interactions.

So, with that said, let’s pray and then dive into the Parable of the Day Laborers.

Prayer for Illumination

Father, we are so thankful for your word and for the opportunity to gather together around it as your people. Would you open our eyes to see what you have for us today? Speak to us clearly, so that we may understand your will and your ways. Strengthen us, so that we may be obedient and faithful to do what you command. Give us grace to trust you in all things.

Thank you for your Spirit, who reveals truth to us, including the interpretation of parables and the illumination of your word in general. Do that work for us today, and be glorified in our time together.

We pray these things, knowing that you hear us and love us and give us all good things in Jesus. It’s in His name that we pray.

Amen.

The Parable of the Day Laborers

Vineyard Workers

Open your bibles with me to Matthew 20:1-16, and follow along, as I read from the ESV…

The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So, they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

So, the last will be first, and the first last.

Master of the House: Observations and Interpretation

The first character we meet in the story is the master of the house. He’s the main character and represents God Himself. I’d like to make two observations about him.

Observations

1. The Master of the House aggressively seeks laborers for his vineyard.

The master of the house is ostensibly a wealthy landowner. He needs workers to help him tend his vineyard. Like any agricultural endeavor, it’s a seasonal business, so he doesn’t employ workers year-round. Instead, he hires them only when he needs them – a few days at a time, mostly during planting and harvesting.

It was common in Jesus’ day to visit the town’s marketplace to hire these kinds of workers. The “marketplace” was the 1st century’s equivalent to classified ads. Workers would be hired in the morning, work through the day, and (if their employer obeyed the Mosaic law) be paid at the end of each day. They may or may not be hired again the next day, but there is no long-term arrangement. This is strictly temp work for a single day.

In 1st century Israel, the workday was 12 hours long, lasting from 6am (roughly sun-up) to 6pm (roughly sun-down). So, when the bible mentions the hours of the day (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc), it is a means of counting through the 12 hours of the workday, beginning at 6am.

The Jewish Workday

As you can see on the diagram, the master of the house goes out repeatedly throughout the day (marked by red diamonds). He even makes a final attempt in the 11th hour, almost at the end of the work day. These frequent trips to the market were very unusual, so it’s clear that he is aggressively seeking laborers. He could have gone out once in the early morning (or for that matter, not at all), but instead he chooses to spend his whole day recruiting. He is obviously quite invested in giving the most people possible the opportunity to work.

2. The Master of the House pays his laborers in an unexpected way.

Denarius

Silver Denarius ca71 AD, Roman Imperial Vespasian

Notice in v2 that when the master goes out early in the morning to find workers, he agrees with the first batch on a wage. This was also very common. A denarius was commonly paid as the wage for a day’s labor. It was about US$90 in today’s terms. As the day wears on, however, the master of the house ceases to name a specific number. Instead, he agrees to pay them “whatever is right” or “fair.” This would have been considered unusual. But the laborers evidently take the man at his word – he must have had a good reputation – that he will pay them fairly, and they head off to work. So it’s not until evening comes, when the master of the house prepares to pay the laborers, that things start to get exciting.

As we see in v8, the master lines up the workers to be paid from the last hired to the first, which strikes us as odd, if not wrong. Surely the guys who have been sweating all day in the hot sun would have the honor of lining up first, getting their wages, and getting home to their families, right? But the master doesn’t do that. Instead, he intentionally organizes them in a way that doesn’t make sense to his listeners in order to create a teachable moment.

Then, in a shocking move, the master of the house pays all his laborers the same wage, regardless of how long they’ve worked (see vv9-10). And this is where the trouble begins. But we’ll save that for when we discuss the day laborers. For the moment, our concern is to interpret the master’s actions.

Speaking of which, let’s get to it. There are three points of interpretation I’d like to make…

Interpretation

1. God is actively seeking citizens for His Kingdom

Father Runs to Prodigal Son

God is not hiding. He’s not passive. He’s not playing games or being cryptic. The Psalmist writes that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19). The Apostle Paul wrote that God has made Himself obvious throughout creation (Rom 1:20). The author of Hebrews said, “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. But in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son [who is] the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature” (Heb 1:1-3). We even have the Scriptures – God’s word in written form, readily available and accurately preserved. What more could we ask?!

Like a loving father who desires to be reconciled with his lost children or a bridegroom passionate about His bride, God pursues us. In Jesus’ parable, God relentlessly comes to people and draws them to Himself. In the same way, He is calling each of us. From the earliest moments of human history to the very last hour before Jesus comes again someday, God is seeking worshippers and children and citizens who will live under the rule of His Son Jesus in His Kingdom. That’s the kind of God He is.

And a side note… If you haven’t personally responded to Him, if you aren’t sure you’re a citizen of God’s Kingdom, don’t leave today until you’ve settled that important issue. Come talk to me or any or the pastors or elders about it. Don’t leave without coming to Jesus!

2. God’s Kingdom is revealed in the whole story (not just in the denarius)

It’s easy to read this story and identify the Kingdom of Heaven with the wages paid to the workers. That’s partially correct, but the denarius isn’t the whole story. Jesus didn’t say that “the Kingdom of God is like a denarius that is paid to day laborers…” He said the Kingdom of God is like this whole story.

We have to navigate several dangers here. We don’t want to read this story as if Jesus is describing the Kingdom of Heaven as a reward for our work, as if, somehow, we could earn salvation by our labor in the vineyard. That is not at all what this story is about.

We should also avoid translating “work” in the story to directly mean “work” in God’s kingdom. This parable is meant to be an allegory about what it means to walk with God and live as a citizen of His kingdom. In the allegory, the great blessing God gives to us is not just the denarius, it’s also the “work” itself. To work for the master of the house is, allegorically speaking, to live under the rule and reign of King Jesus, which is life the way it was meant to be. It is inherently, exceedingly, incomprehensibly valuable in its own right, and we should be just as eager to attain it as God is to offer it to us.

My point is that we need to look at the whole story, including the work in the vineyard, which represents life in God’s Kingdom.

And that brings us back to the question of how we interpret the master’s approach to paying the workers. As we saw, he pays each of them the same wage, regardless of how much they worked. This would have scandalized Jesus’ listeners, just like it does us. It just doesn’t seem right. And so, it prompts what I think is the key interpretive question for this parable…

The 800lb gorilla in the room is this question: Is God fair?

The 800lb Gorilla slide

This isn’t necessarily an easy question. I would say the answer is more complicated than a simple yes and no. So, let’s dig into it. I would start by confidently stating that God is unequivocally fair.

3. God is perfectly right in the way He responds to us

God is 100% perfectly just and righteous. There isn’t a single blemish or hint of corruption anywhere on His record. Every judgment He makes or has ever made about anything has been perfect and flawless.

But God’s dealing with us (like the master’s dealing with his workers) doesn’t appear to be fair, because in effect there’s a character missing from the story: Jesus Himself. If we leave out Jesus, then our works always earn their commiserate rewards. Specifically, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). But Jesus changes everything. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God deals scrupulously fairly with us in Jesus.

God has meticulously accounted for every thought and every action ever undertaken by every human being who has ever lived. Sadly, most of these are crimes against Him (what Scripture calls “sin”), and not one stone will be left unturned by God in punishing those crimes. But the good news is that, for the one who belongs to Jesus, every ounce of the punishment we deserve for our sin has been poured out on Him instead of us. Jesus willingly, lovingly, astonishingly takes our place – if we allow Him to. And if He has taken our punishment on Himself, then when God turns to us, there is no account left to settle, no sins left to punish, no wrath left to pour out. Instead, the Father can welcome us into His family and invite us to dine with Him at His table. His response to us is entirely grace, always love, and lavishing us with good and undeserved gifts.

Because Jesus pays for our sins in our place, God gives all His children the same undeserved grace, regardless of our work or our circumstances. In the terms of the parable…

  • The work of the laborers is our participation in the Kingdom – it’s our worshipping God and walking with God and yes, working for God.
  • The denarius the laborers receive is the amazing grace God gives to us, not because of our labor – whether 1 hour or 12 – but because of Jesus.

Slide - Master of the House summarySo, yes, God is fair. And God is gracious. In this way, He is perfectly right in the way He responds to us: with both justice and grace. This is our third interpretive statement about the master of the house.

Day Laborers: Observations and Interpretation

Okay, that’s the master of the house. But he isn’t the only character in this story. Let’s talk about the laborers. What do we observe about them? Again, I have two comments I’d like to make.

Observations

1. The laborers all start out grateful.

The 6-7am crowd was thrilled to sign up to work for the landowner for a denarius. And after that, the workers continued to flock into the vineyard all day long, trusting the master of the house to do right by them. They all want to work, some probably desperately. We can imagine – as the hour grew later – that people would come to the marketplace with less and less hope that work would be found. And so, we can also imagine their gratitude each time the master appeared and offered yet another batch of workers fair wages to work the rest of the day.

But their gratitude didn’t last.pouty_face

2. The laborers end up grumbling.

They may have started out grateful, but many ended up grumbling. Look at vv9-12…

When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

When they applied their earthly sense of fairness to the situation, the master’s actions didn’t live up to their expectations, so they accused him of injustice. The workers were comparing themselves to one another and climbing over each other to get what they perceived to be their due.

We know our rights! This isn’t fair! How dare you mistreat us this way!

But the master of the house confidently responds that he has done no wrong. See vv13-14a…

He replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.”

And he’s right. The first laborers, who worked all day in his fields, were paid exactly what they had agreed to, and the rest were paid more than fairly, even generously. The master of the house has indeed kept his word. The problem is that, as soon as the other laborers saw the last workers get a full denarius, they secretly changed the deal in their hearts. The master of the house promised them something, but they took in their surroundings and engaged their earthly wisdom to set aside his word and upgrade their expectations.

Interpretation

How should we interpret this? What does this say about us, about Jesus and about His Kingdom?

I think the big take-away here is that the God’s kingdom functions according to different rules than we might be tempted to believe. It’s a kingdom that, from our earthly perspective, is upside-down. We can’t judge God’s ways by our earthly perspective any more than the laborers could rightly judge the master of the house by theirs. Participation in the Kingdom of God means an upside-down approach to life.

I realize that this is a very broad and general conclusion. Learning to live differently in light of God’s Kingdom is the Spirit’s life-long work of sanctification in us. For our purposes this morning, I think the question is: What are the specific applications of this concept that flow from this particular parable?

Slide - Laborer summaryI see two, which are closely linked to the two rhetorical questions the master of the house asks the laborers at the end of the parable. We’ll consider these two points of application as our take-aways from this message, and then we’ll close.

Application

1. Surrendering our Judgments to God’s Authority

Look at vv14b-15a. Still in character, the master of the house asks the laborers who are grumbling against him,

“I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Is it not fitting for me to do what I want with what is mine?” (my translation).

Funny JudgeCan’t you just hear the incredulity in this response? The master is displeased and somewhat amazed at his workers’ wrongheadedness. He fulfilled his promise to all these workers and was in most cases very generous, but they’re grumbling instead of being grateful. They think they know better than he does.

This story should hit pretty close to home. We all do this. It’s so easy to think we know better than God does, though we’d likely never admit it out loud. It’s easy to exert our earthly wisdom to determine what’s generous or right or fair, even though we know so very little about the world around us, when it comes right down to it. When something happens that hurts us or which we don’t like, we can think, “If I was in charge, things would be different!” That is dangerous and foolish thinking. God is preeminent and sovereign. Everything belongs to Him, including you and me, and He is perfectly justified in doing whatever He pleases with what is His. That’s not only His right as the all-powerful Creator of the universe, but the fact is that whatever He chooses to do is inherently just and fair by definition, because God Himself defines justice and fairness by His actions.

It’s God’s job to rule the universe, not ours. Our role is to submit to Him. If we want to participate in the Kingdom of God… If we want Kingdom citizenship… Then we have to be comfortable with an absolute monarchy. Jesus is a sovereign, all-powerful King who loves you and would adopt you into His family, but He’s a sovereign, all-powerful King nonetheless. We can’t have your own little kingdoms or our own little standards for goodness on the side. If we try, then they become competitors to His rule, and that won’t turn out well. We don’t get to exert your own authority or assumptions or aspirations about how the universe should work. It is fitting and proper for God to do whatever He pleases with what is His.

So, the question is, “Will we surrender our judgments to God’s authority?

White FlagThe Kingdom of Heaven is only fit for those who will.

Keep in mind… It’s not just that in any battle, God always wins, so it’s foolish to contend with Him. But we should want God to win. We must choose to believe that God is good and right in everything He does. This is an exercise in training our minds to align with reality. Compared to a great many of our earthly judgments and perceptions, reality is upside-down.

  • It may seem like a good idea to prefer my judgment over His, but it’s not.
  • Sin may seem attractive, but it will actually destroy you.
  • Your circumstances may seem particularly undesirable, but the truth is that everything that comes to us passes through the hands of the all-powerful, all-wise Father who loves us.
  • It may seem like you have to be better or work harder for God to love you, but you don’t.
  • It may seem like you can’t be happy or can’t change, but you can.

I could go on and on, but the point is that we have to surrender our judgments and declare God to be right. And that is great news, because we are not wise. Only God is wise. Only God is a perfectly just judge, and only Jesus can be King. Stop trying to figure everything out, and just run to Him. Stop letting your heart overrule Him. You have to lead your heart! Trust His word … do what it says … no matter what it costs. No one whose hope is in Him will ever be put to shame!

Okay, last point of application…

Surrendering our “evil eye” to God’s Goodness

Covetousness Evil EyeThe other half of v15 is the master’s second rhetorical question. He asks, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” (ESV). Nearly every translation I consulted renders this phrase differently. So, again, I’ve created my own translation, which is what you see on the screen.

The first half of the question is an idiom in the original Greek, and the word translated “generosity” in the ESV is simply the word for “goodness.” Literally translated, the question would be,

“Is your eye evil because I am good?” (my translation)

To say that one’s eye is “evil” means that he is perceiving something in the world around him, and choosing to respond to it in a sinful way. So, what the master of the house is really asking here is a corollary to his previous question,

“Are you responding sinfully to my goodness? To my generosity?” (my alternate translation)

The problem with the workers’ response is two-fold. We already saw that they were standing in judgment, wrongly, over the master of the house. But they are also wrongly comparing themselves to one another. Instead of being grateful for the work opportunity, or (gasp!) being happy for someone else with whom the master had been exceedingly generous, they’re grumbling and making accusations. Why?

Because everybody wants to be first.

back-of-the-lineAren’t we all like that? I want my way. I want what’s mine. I have to look out for #1. But that isn’t how life in the Kingdom of God works. Kingdom life is upside-down. We don’t call “unjust” what God has called “good,” and we don’t focus on our wants and needs while ignoring the wants and needs of others. We learn to love … to put others before ourselves. God’s children should be the most generous and loving and deferential people in the world. Unity should be our hallmark, precisely because we know how to love. You want Coke when I prefer Pepsi? Then I buy Coke, because I’m thinking of you. You like hymns when I prefer praise choruses? Because I love you, I’m voting that we look into used pipe organs. You want pizza tonight when I’d rather have tacos? Because I love you, I already have your favorite pizza joint on speed dial. Whatever the details of the moment, we are called to be citizens of a different Kingdom … a kingdom in which we take joy in getting to the back of the line, in seeing others ahead of us. It’s a kingdom that, compared to this world, is upside-down.

And by the way, if we learn to love like that, the world will beat down our doors to get even a taste of heaven.

So, the question is, “Will you surrender your ‘evil eye’ to God’s goodness?” Will you agree with him about what is good? Will you train your eyes to look at the world the way Jesus does and your hands and feet to do the things Jesus did? Because what He did, and what He wants us to imitate Him in doing, is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This is the hallmark of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Conclusion

We’ll end here, because it’s where Jesus ended. Look at the last verse in our passage (v16). Having concluded His parable, He offers His listeners a single line of commentary. Jesus concludes by saying,

“So… In this manner… Those who are last will be first, and those who are first [will be] last.”

Whoever tries to claw their way to the front of the line, God will make sure that they end up last. When we grumble against God for exerting His sovereign authority, or call “evil” what He calls “good,” or fail to love others because our eyes are fixed on ourselves, then we sin and move away from God’s heart. We set ourselves at odds with God’s Kingdom. But conversely, in the end, King Jesus, with perfect justice and perfect grace, will move to the front of the line everyone who has surrendered their own kingdom to be ruled by Him.

And we will find on that day that, all along, this world was upside-down.

upside-down-castle

Let’s pray…

Father, your love is amazing! Your grace is enough! Your justice is utterly perfect. We confess by faith today what we cannot always see with our eyes: that you are good and everything you do is right … and that someday, you will be glorified in a way that is unmistakable and indisputable, when you return to reign on the earth in glory.

Jesus, we wait eagerly for that day, but let us not wait passively or question you because you have required patience from us as we wait. Instead, let us be quick to obey your word, to love you and to love those you’ve placed around us. Settle this teaching in our hearts that it may be at work every day in our lives, that the world may see you in us and find you through us.

It’s in your name, Jesus, God’s great Messiah, the King of kings, that we pray.

And all God’s people said…

Amen.


Image credit:
1) Kingdom Parables – Dan Pongetti, 300DPI
2) Parables summary / O&I slides – mine
3) Herm-a-what? – Jeff Davis blog
4) Workers in a vineyard – SmileWithFamily
5) Denarius – Ma-shops
6) Father runs to prodigal son – maasbach.com
7) 800lb gorilla – Daily Kos
8) Pouty face – gracelakeville.org
9) Funny judge – bankruptcy-law-seattle.com
10) White flag – Huffington Post
11) Covetous eye – Regeneration, Repentance and Reformation
12) Back of the line – Greg Schwem
13) Upside-down castle – housebeautiful.com
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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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