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Click here for the reading: Matthew 20:1-16.

This parable is an expansion of the assertions Jesus has just made in Mt. 19:28-30 about the apostles who have given up all things and followed him. The forsaking of what was familiar and comfortable will result in the attainment of hundredfold gifts and the inheritance of eternal (19:29). This will turn upside down what was everyone’s expectation, so that the rewards given to the apostles and the wages rendered to the laborers are both instances of the first being last and the last being first (19:30, 20:16).

Turning things upside down happens according to the Master’s pleasure. He has lordly freedom to do what He desires with what is His (19:15). The existence of the vineyard, the fact that there is work to do, and the calling into that work are all His doing. Anyone’s being in the vineyard, whether from sunrise or from much later in the day, is at His good pleasure. He keeps His freedom in all things. He does not submit to His workers’ expectations.

Submission is the laborers’ business. He is clear about this, “whatever is right I will give you” (20:4). He will be the Judge of right and wrong, not the laborers. They have work to do, and as the day passes, He will find others and bring them into the labor as well. The laborer is one among others, called among others, awaiting a reward among others in a labor not his own.

So the objection the laborers have – their Massah and their Meribah – is that the Master of the vineyard is unjust in rendering to a man according to His choice. Their basic issue is that He is free and does not reckon the situation according to their expectation and sense of fairness. “You have made them equal to us” (20:12) is not about a modern legal equality of opportunity but about an unjust equality of outcome despite the smaller efforts of the later hires. What’s wrong with that accusation?

They agree on a denarius (cf. 20:2 and 20:13) as the wage. In His generosity (20:15) the Master has chosen to render to everyone who labored the same denarius. He is giving more than He needed to give. His gift is far beyond expectation. This enrages the laborers who want to dispose as they see fit with what is not theirs. They want to say to the King how the kingdom should be. They want Him not to be free with His grace.

The overturning of expectation and the shock it occasions will happen again when the Son of Man is delivered over to His enemies, crucified, and raised on the third day (20:19). The unready disciples will have been told all these things and yet will flee in fear when they occur. His kingdom comes always as a surprise even when He has explained or shown in a story how He is and what His ways are with His grace and mercy. On the third day and on the Last Day the first shall prove last, and the last shall prove first – to the surprise of many!

Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5.

With greater foresight than his forefathers Paul considered that he could fall along the way. Paul does not often employ sports metaphors probably because a pious Jew would have little knowledge of the nude contests of pagan antiquity carried out under the benediction of strange gods. The metaphor he uses in 1 Cor. 9 would be well-known to everyone because the Greek cycle of four years, the Olympiad, was named after the winner of the medium-distance footrace at the Olympic Games. The dedication to their sport and the singleminded pursuit of glory those athletes famously displayed are commanded by the apostle here.

If someone displays dedication, singlemindedness, and laudable devotion to his task in something that perishes with use, something that comes and goes again, why would a Christian be less demonstrably dedicated, singleminded, or laudably devoted in the attainment of eternal life? The crown that awaits him fadeth not away, so where is his intensity, his drive, his refusal to be distracted in the pursuit of the glories of the resurrection to life? Self-control in earthly things is laudable, but how much more in refraining from anything that would put an obstacle in the way of salvation?

Paul’s body is not neutral. He must keep it “under control.” Like an athlete his body can be his own worst enemy. Lust, sloth, and devotion to ease all prove eager jailers for the Christian, waiting to lock him down and lock him in to their demands. Paul is master over these things and considers them real dangers because should he not practice this self-control and discipline of his body, he the great preacher of Christ could be “disqualified” like a runner who had coached others but could not himself compete well.

Paul’s forefathers, who are our forefathers (10:1) in following Christ (10:4), exemplify failure and disqualification. God “was not pleased” with them and their ways, their testing and their quarreling and their grumbling and their weak-minded suspicions. They were baptized into Moses, but we who are baptized into Christ could also be overthrown. They ate the same Spiritual food and drank the same Spiritual drink, but we who eat the Spiritual food and drink of the Lord’s Supper could also be overthrown. The graces of manna and water from the rock did not overturn the reign of blasphemy and evil suspicion in their hearts and minds, and they fell as evildoers. Woe to us if we likewise fall! Woe to us if we likewise blaspheme and presume upon God’s grace!

Paul opens up the Scriptures and the hearts of the fathers to show that beneath their idolatry and blasphemy was the desire of evil (10:6). Blasphemy and idolatry come forth from the deeper well of evil desire, and the discipline of Paul’s body is the purification of desire – the pruning back of the otherwise wild growth of desire so that it does not choke out the seed of the Word.

Click here for the reading: Exodus 17:1-7.

Questioning the Lord’s servant is always questioning the Lord’s faithfulness. Did He send the right man? Does He know what He’s doing? In Ex. 17:3 the responsibility for thirst is deflected from the Lord to His servant Moses, but since the Lord is the Author of salvation, the salvation from Egyptian bondage was His doing with Moses as a mere instrument. To question Moses’s integrity and goodness is to question the Lord’s integrity and goodness.

Moses’s despair is understandable, “What shall I do with this people?” (v. 4) They prove impossible – quick to judge, quick to accuse, slow to consider what the Lord has ordained. An indirect report of their demands makes clear their readiness for blasphemy: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (v. 7). The Lord’s instructions for Moses to carry out the provision of water very publicly shows that the problem is the public provision of lies and blasphemies in Israel, not their thirst. The same staff that cursed Pharaoh could bless Israel, and it will according to the Lord’s command. All things happen at His command. The sense of being abandoned in the wilderness Israel displays can only come from a dullness and hardness of heart against the Lord and His servant Moses.

Quarreling and testing go hand-in-hand. The strife is always for the sake of the suspicions, slanders, and blasphemies. Quarreling and grumbling come forth from blasphemy and doubt like evil, poisonous waters issuing from black springs. All of it tumbles out at the least occasion of an encampment without water. Rephidim is the occasion for quarreling, grumbling, misery, and testing, but the source of these things was a cancerous doubt of the Lord’s goodness and Moses’s guidance that was already consuming Israel before they came to Rephidim.

Suspicion of the Lord – the shadowy sense that He is not Who He has promised to be and may in fact not do what He has promised to do – links Ex. 17 to Mt. 20 and Israel of old to the laborers in the parable. What are the sources of suspicion in the Bible and in our congregations? Doubt, ignorance, a high-handed sense of one’s destiny apart from the Lord’s guidance, sheer ignorance of the magnitude of His grace. For the grumbling and the suspicious water came forth from the rock. For the blasphemers the Lord was in their midst and gracious in His provision. His servant’s staff struck the rock, and water gushed out in their midst. The dark memorial Moses sets with his words and then in his book is of their quarreling, calling the place Massah and Meribah. “Testing and Quarreling,” the place where the people doubted the Lord’s goodness and yet the Lord was good.

If we use the ways of the children of Israel as examples as the New Testament does, we find them almost altogether negative. So many fell in the wilderness, and only Caleb and Joshua persevered to the land of Canaan according to God’s promise. In testing and quarreling they passed their days, and they fell in the desert without water, without the milk and honey of Canaan.

Grace is not grace if it is in any way earned or deserved (Romans 11:5-6). This is exactly what the Jews failed to understand. God chose Israel purely by grace out of all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God preserved faithless Israel purely by grace for the sake of His holy name and the promises which He had made (Ezekiel 20; 2 Kings 8:19, etc.). Yet Israel responded either with hypocrisy (Jeremiah 7:1-4) or pride (Luke 18:9-14). Even the rich young man, whose question about eternal life in Matthew 19 forms the context for this parable, placed his trust in his keeping of the commandments.

Yet I think it would be equally problematic to see in this parable a kind of divine equality, as if God’s free grace meant that heavenly rewards are all the same. This would make Jesus’ answer to Peter in Matthew 19:28-30 difficult to comprehend. Jesus does not rebuke Peter for his question. Those who have left everything will receive a great reward in the world to come. The key in understanding grace is in Matthew 20:15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” It is God’s freedom of action that makes grace to be grace. Anything else is an attempt to bind Him and make it an issues of wages.

The parable opens with a master seeking workers for his vineyard. The Lord refers to Israel on several occasions as His vineyard (Isaiah 5; Jeremiah 12:10; Ezekiel 19:10; Psalm 80:8-11). Like the master of this house, the Lord calls us out of the world and into that vineyard. Idleness is the way of the world. The Lord set Adam to labor in the garden before the fall into sin (Genesis 2:15). If anyone will not work, let him not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Lord calls us to holy labor and sets our hands to the task.

The different hours that the master calls workers only accentuates the difference between the first called and the last. When the evening has come, all are given the same amount: a denarius, or a normal day’s wages. The amount is instructive for us. If the master in desperation for laborers promised some extraordinary amount, we might draw the conclusion that the reward for our labors is the key. “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). Yet the reward that is set before us, the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), is sufficient for us. It is not worthless even if we might regard it as petty according to our standards, because grace is not grace if it is a matter of wages.

This, then, highlights the earlier point. God is free to do what He pleases with what belongs to Him. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). Grace is not a birthright, a matter of the flesh. God owes no one anything, because we are all lawbreakers. The master of the vineyard would be perfectly just if he hired no one. Those who labored twelve hours didn’t deserve more for their labor, because they didn’t deserve to be in the vineyard in the first place. May our eye not be evil because God is good! Righteousness comes by faith, not by works, and the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever, because He chose us when we were yet His enemies.

The reward of righteousness, then, is also purely a matter of grace. The right hand and the left hand of Christ, indeed places of great honor, belong to those for whom the Father prepares them (Matthew 20:23). To judge the twelve tribes of Israel on twelve thrones is indeed a tremendous honor (Matthew 19:28). Yet they are not a matter of right. The last will be first and the first last, because God gives to each of us according to His pleasure, not according to our desires or imaginations. If we are in the vineyard, let us rejoice for that reason alone, for it is already a sign of God’s undeserved love for us. The crosses which God makes for us will be different from Christian to Christian, because He is working out His own purposes in us.