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Faith Bible Church, NY
July 31, 1994
Equality in the Kingdom
Today we are going to be examining Matthew 19:30-20:16 and the topic of “Equality in the Kingdom”, which is the point of Jesus’ parable in our passage. But before we look at our text we should come to grips with this term, “Equality.” What does that mean? Is it a good thing? Is it the standard by which we should live? How does it affect our understanding of fairness? What is fair? What is equal? What is equality?
Webster says that equality is: “the quality or state of being equal.” So what is equal? Among Webster’s definitions are these; “1a: of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another. b : like in quality, nature, or status. 2: regarding or affecting all objects in the same way: impartial.”
We like to thing that we should all be equal. In fact there is a big cry in our society today for “equal rights” by many groups. For whatever reason they feel that they are not equal with other people and they want the government to address their grievance and make equal with other people. Our current national leadership is certainly striving to make everyone more “equal.” In fact, the way some politicians talk about it, it sounds like we have neglected to follow our constitution’s premise that “all men are created equal.”
Maybe that is a good place to start this morning, asking are we created equal? The answer of course is Yes and No. That is the answer to almost any general question about equality, for you have to specifically define what you are going to compare in order to determine if they are equal or not.
Did God create everyone equal? If you are going to compare physical and mental attributes the obvious answer is no. Everyone gets a different mix of chromosomes resulting in some of us being male and some female. Some people are tall. Some short. Some are naturally coordinated, and others can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Some get hair for life and some don’t. Some are geniuses from the start, others struggle to comprehend even the most basic things about the world around them. In terms of mental and physical attributes, God did not create all people equal, He created us differently from one another.
In terms of our standing before God, we have all been created equal with three exceptions – Adam & Eve and Jesus. Those three individuals did not come into the world with a sin nature, but everyone else has been born “dead in trespasses and sin.” We were all created equal but condemned by our sin nature inherited from Adam. I don’t know about you, but that equality does not thrill me, but until I come to grips with that, I will never understand God’s grace and mercy. God’s mercy will forgive my sin though I am undeserving of that forgiveness. God’s grace will make me His child though I am unworthy to be His slave much less adopted into His family.
Recall that the rich young ruler whom we met in 19:16-21 wanted to have eternal life, but only if he could gain it for Himself. His question was great: “What good thing must I do that I may obtain eternal life?” But eternal life is not something that you can obtain, it must be given to you by God, and He only gives it out according to the conditions that He has set. You must come to Him as a child would come to his father, with humility and trust, and then simply ask for His forgiveness. God gives grace to the humble, but He resists the proud (1 Peter 5:5), and that is why salvation, eternal life, is a matter of the heart.
Jesus’ questions to the rich young ruler exposed his heart for what it really was, still proud and self centered. And so the rich young ruler departed from Jesus grieved. He was greived because he had failed to obtain eternal life and because he stood condemned by the very law he claimed to have kept from a youth up. Eternal life was available to him, but He was unwilling to obtain it on God’s terms.
The disciples recognized that they had fulfilled what this man had been asked to do. They had left everything and followed Jesus. They wanted to know what reward in heaven they would receive for doing so, and that is what we looked at last week in 19:28-29.
The apostles will receive a special reward of sitting on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel when Jesus will sit on His glorious throne during the thousand years that He will reign on Earth prior to the consummation of the ages and the beginning of Eternity (See Rev. 20). For anyone else that may have to leave their home, family or business in order to follow Christ, His promise is that they will receive many times as much as what they left, and they will receive eternal life.
None of these rewards are earned, they are given by God’s grace to those who follow the Lord. God calls us to repentance and to following Him. That is what should be done regardless of any personal consequences. It is in God’s goodness that His grace extends to give good gifts to those who follow Him. It is like I said last week. When I take my son Jonathan to the store, he is obligated to obey me and act decently regardless of what I may or may not do for him while I am there. If I then choose to buy him a candy bar as a reward for being good, he has not earned it. It has come from my grace to him. If he had been bad, he simply would have earned himself chastisement. All that God does for us is because He is merciful and gracious, not because we are deserving of it.
The parable that Jesus now tells His disciples is a strong reminder of that. The rewards they or anyone else will receive for following Christ is as a result of God’s grace, not a matter of God being obligated to them. Within the kingdom there is an equality of reward, not because people are equal, but because God’s grace extends to make up the differences.
Look at 19:30: “But man who are first will be last; and the last, first.” This statement comes immediately after Jesus tells Peter of the rewards of following Him. It is apparently a phrase that Jesus may have made up for it is not found in other Jewish writings of the time period, but its point is that there is an equality of reward with God. The parable Jesus tells in Chapter 20 illustrates the point. Follow along as we begin to examine it.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
First, note that the purpose of this parable is to illustrate something about the kingdom of heaven not about life here on earth. This story will give us some understanding of what God’s kingdom is like.
The scene is set with a man who owned a vineyard going into the marketplace to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. We are not told what they are being hired to do. It could be preparing additional land for a vineyard which was a very labor intensive job. Vineyards were planted on the sides of the hills. Terraces would have to be created within the rocky soil. Much like we do around here, they would take the rocks and make them into walls along the edges of the new field. This not only gets them out of the way, but in this case serves as a barrier to erosion as well. It was hard work. The laborers could be doing this, or they could be pruning the vines which was also a very labor intensive job. Each vine had to be pruned properly so that plant could bear more fruit. The branches that had been pruned off would then be gathered together and hauled away. Or the laborers could have been gathering the grapes. This could be very labor intensive because there was only a limited time for all the grapes to be harvested. It had to be done after they were ripe, but before they could shrivel or Autumn rains came. Regardless of what they were hired to do, it would be hard work.
The laborers themselves were they people at the bottom of the economic ladder. These were people that either had not skills at all, or there particular skills were not needed at the present time, so they hired themselves out as unskilled day laborers. They usually gathered in the market places of the village where those who were looking for help could find them. They might be hired by the job, by the hour or by the day, but whenever one job was over, they had to find another one. This was one reason the Mosaic Law required and employer to pay their employee at the end of the day. For these type of workers often live hand to mouth, and what they earned one day would be all that they would have in order to feed their family the next day.
We do not see much of that around now because Unions have a hall where the workers can gather, and Temporary service agencies contact their people by phone. When I was in Los Angeles there was lots of unskilled labor around and they would often gather by building supply places early in the morning hoping someone who was coming in to buy building materials might hire them for the day.
Our text tells us that this landowner came to the place where the laborers gathered early in the morning, probably at the first watch, about 6:00 a.m. in order to hire some men to work for him. He negotiates a wage with them: a denarius , for their day’s labor. A denarius was the wage a Roman soldier earned in a day and was considered to be a good wage for a laborer to earn. The landowner agrees to pay them this good wage, and the workers head off into his vineyard to begin their day’s work.
Verse 3 tells us what happens later in the day. “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.”
We find that the landowner goes back to the village and the third hour, about 9 a.m., and finds more men standing idle. That does not mean that these men were lazy, just that they did not have work yet. Then, for whatever reason, the landowner decides to hire them as well. Possibly because he needed more help, or possibly because he was compassionate.
The scene here also reminds me of Los Angeles because as the day would go on we would see that the number of workers waiting for a job was less, but there were still many waiting for someone to hire them. Some of these men may have arrived later, some may have already done a couple of hours work somewhere and already returned, some were the men did not appear to the have the physical ability to work as hard as other men, so they would often be the last hired.
The landowner does not tell the men a specific wage, just that he would pay them “whatever is right.” These men who apparently knew the landowner as trustworthy and righteous agree to work for him under that agreement, so off they went into the vineyard.
In verse 5-7 we find that the landowner repeats this a couple more times. “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did the same thing. and about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.'”
This landowner goes back into the village and hires more laborers at the sixth hour or about noon, at the ninth hour, about 3 p.m., and then again at the eleventh hour, about 5 p.m. The normal work day during the growing season was 12 hours. These last men only had an hour left in the work day, and yet they were still waiting for someone to hire them. The landowner seemed somewhat surprised that these men were still there. He must have seen them earlier in the day because he was aware that they had been there all day. The landowner may have thought that since he had hired so many of the other men, someone else would have hired these men, yet here they still were waiting for work. Out of compassion the landowner hires them even if it is for just an hour and the men gladly go, since it is better to have an hour’s work and wages than none at all.
Up to this point all is going well in the vineyard. Additional laborers are being hired throughout the day and the work is progressing. Now it is evening and time to pay the workers. Verse 8, “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages beginning with the last group to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.”
Now for whatever reason the landowner decided to pay the last workers first. Now this was a very pleasant surprise to these workers who had only worked an hour or so to find that they were
paid a whole denarius. They had not worked very long and certainly had not earned such a wage, but the landowner was generous. I am sure they went away praising the Lord for such a generous employer.
That is reflective of the Lord’s graciousness to us. He is very generous to us and when His grace goes out to us far beyond our expectations we rejoice. But the true nature of the human heart is found in verses 10-12.
“And when those hired first came, they though that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.'”
When the men who had been hired first saw the generosity of the landowner to the first men they quickly began to calculate how much more they though they would be paid. If working one hour = one denarius, then working 12 hours = 12 denari. What a fantastic wage! And so when they only received one instead of 12, they thought they had been cheated. Look at their complaint: “you have made them equal to us.” They complained that they had received the same pay. Equal pay, but what they wanted was equal pay for equal work, or unequal pay in consideration for the greater number of hours they had worked.
Tell me, how would you have felt if you were one of these last workers? How would you have felt if you had been of the first workers? Do you want equality?
Yet the issue here is really not equality, but the landowners generosity and the envy of the first workers. Look at verses 13-15. “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way, but I which to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious (evil – ponaros) because I am generous.”
The landowner had in fact done nothing wrong, nothing against the law, and nothing unethical. All he had been was extremely generous. Yet instead of rejoicing over the good gift of the landowner to the other workers, these men were envious. Instead of being glad that they were hired and paid a very good wage, their question was, “Why didn’t we get an equal amount of his generosity? It is not fair!” Isn’t that the way we often view fairness? Not in terms of an agreed contract, but in terms of what someone else may be getting, especially if it is in anyway more than us.
Give two children a candy bar and then watch them try to split it between them. It has to be split evenly, 50/50 and nothing less. Why? Because it would not be fair for it to be anything else, not because I might get more than you, but because you might get more than me, and if you do you must give some of it to me! It is envy that drives this kind of “fairness,” this kind of “equality.” And it is a sad fact that this is the kind of equality that so many groups are asking for today. An equality born out of envy.
I like what William Barclay said about envy, “Envy does not so much want the things for itself; it merely wants to take them away from the other person. The Stoics defined it as ‘grief at someone else’s good.’… It is the quality, not so much of the jealous, but rather of the embittered mind.”
We may have to be battling this sort of thing in the world, actually fighting now to keep what we have earned or have been given simply because other people do not think it fair for us to have what they do not. That may be part of living in a fallen world where envy is an expected norm, but it should not be in the kingdom.
Jesus concludes the parable the same way he started, “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.” There is an equality in the kingdom not because of any class envy or redistribution of wealth, but because of God’s wonderful grace to all of us sinners who deserve none of it. If you understand nothing else, I hope you understand that. This was Jesus’ warning to the disciples not to get wrapped up in whatever possible rewards they may receive from Him in the future. They are to rejoice that they have eternal life and have the opportunity to serve the Lord. They should also rejoice over everyone that follows Jesus regardless of how late in life a person may finally do that.
There is no room in the kingdom for us to be envious of one another regardless of what God may give or do for your or allow you to do. Whether it is material blessings, relationships, or how and what He allows me to do in serving Him, if God gives more grace to you than to me, then all I can do is praise Him for what He has done for you. His promise is that He will give me what I need, and if I have no lack, I am unjustified to complain that you have more things, more friends, or more people are affected by your ministry than mine. That only reveals the sinfulness of my own envious heart.
Just as the landowner initiated and accomplished the hiring of the laborers, so it is God that initiates and accomplishes salvation (John 6:44). Just as it was the landowner that set the terms of the job to done and the wage to be paid, so it is God that sets the terms of Eternal life – a humble and trusting heart that will follow Him (Mt 18:3).
Just as the landowner kept going back to find more workers, so we find God continually calling people to Himself (2 Peter 3:9), and He accepts all who are willing to come to Him (John 6:37-39). God is compassionate and gracious and always gives more than deserved. He has the divine authority and ability to keep His promises, and He always keeps His promises.
Sin made all men equal before God by making them all dead in trespasses and sin, condemned to Hell. God’s grace is the great equalizer that removes sin and makes every believer equally acceptable to Him in Christ. That is an equality I can rejoice in.
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