Expository Sermon on Matthew 20
Bellevue SDA Church 6/30/2018
©2018 by Maylan Schurch
(To hear the audio for this sermon, click the triangular “play” button on the line just below.)
Please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 20.
While you’re turning there, I will mention that this is still another sermon in the series that I’m calling “Red Print.” Since the beginning of the year, we’ve been looking at some of the actual words Jesus spoke – the words that are printed in red in some Bibles. These days we hear a lot of people telling us what Jesus believed and taught, but Bible-believing Christians know it’s best to go right to His very words and see what we can learn from them.
When I was 15 years old, in my sophomore year at the local high school in my hometown of Redfield, South Dakota, I got a part-time after-school job at Sunshine Dairies, the milk-bottling plant in town. At the end of the school year, my parents suggested that since I had only a few credits to go in my high school classes, maybe I would like to finish high school through an accredited correspondence course from a place called the American School in Chicago. So I did that, and the company sent me textbooks and examination books, and that’s how I finished high school.
This meant that I could work full time at the dairy, and that’s what I did. This was wonderful experience for me. I learned how to get to work on time, how to punch a time clock, how to do exactly what I was told and not goof off, how to wash milk-bottling machine parts so that they were absolutely sanitary (which has been a great help whenever I wash dishes. You will never become ill from dishes which I have washed. I get the water as hot as possible, and I scrub them hard.)
And of course, since I had become a working man, I got a weekly paycheck. I think when I started, as the youngest worker in the plant, I was making probably 75 cents an hour. And just from osmosis, I learned that it is not polite or proper to ask somebody else what their hourly wage was. And if someone asked me, I learned to adroitly evade the question.
Looking back on it now, I realize that this was kind of silly. I mean, I may have been making 75 cents, but Doug, the guy who was three or four years older than I was, who worked on the half-gallon milk-carton machine next to me, probably got a grand total of 85 cents an hour. But even though there were just a few pennies difference between my wage and his wage, and the wages of everyone else, we all guarded our own wage rate very zealously. And if rumors started going around that somebody who’d worked at the dairy not quite as long as someone else was making a slightly higher wage, the rest of us were puzzled and outraged.
Imagine what it was like, then, when as a working teen, I read Jesus’ parable about the landowner. I really had a hard time with this one, and if you don’t yet know the story, you’ll see why as we go through it.
Because, like all the other red print Jesus said in the Gospels, this is a very important story. And I think the only way we can make any real sense of it is to keep our eyes on the landowner. Because we need very greatly what this landowner will teach us.
Let me show you what I mean. Let’s start with verse one.
Matthew 20:1 [NKJV]: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner . . .”
Notice – this isn’t simply a generic story Jesus is telling for entertainment purposes. Like many other parables He told, this one begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” So whatever happens in the story, no matter how crazy or how illogical it seems, this story tells us what the kingdom of heaven is like. So rather than dismissing it as a fairytale or an unsolvable puzzle, we need to pay attention to it.
And in this particular story, we need to keep our eye on the landowner. Because it is very clear that Jesus is telling us that the way the landowner behaves is how God behaves. And the more I read about this landowner, the more I like him.
In fact, let’s lay down the first sermon point here. When I keep my eye on this landowner, what’s the first thing I see? In other words, what’s the first truth about God that I discover?
Here is Sermon Point One.
God owns land.
If you’re reading from the English Standard Version, it calls this man not the landowner but the “master of a house.” And that’s actually the literal reading in the Greek. But all the other major versions called him a landowner, probably because the story features his land.
So if the landowner represents God, that makes sense. Because God owns land. (See Psalm 24:1 – 2 – “The earth is the Lord’s . . .”)
This week in the news I saw a story about a British power company who was planning to put a windfarm on a strip of land on the east coast of England. But as they were digging, they discovered what has turned out to be a sort of ancient road or trackway used by people way back to 2300 BC. This discovery has turned the windfarm project into a 16,000-acre archaeological site. Those doing the dig have found tools, arrowheads, and even the skull of an extinct cow.
This means that God, who is represented by this landowner, owned that land as well. He created it. He also created those ancient people who walked along that trackway and left those tools and arrowheads behind.
(Here’s a link to this story.)
Remember, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like” this landowner. So why is that important? It means that God isn’t merely a faraway religious idea. A lot of people treat Him that way. Aside from using His name profanely, they seem to scarcely think about Him at all, except maybe to unthinkingly blame Him for bad things that happen.
The fact that God owns this planet – Psalms says that He owns the cattle on a thousand hills – and the fact that Jesus said that the heavenly Father is so interested in each one of us that if somebody asked Him to, He could give an accurate count of the number of hairs on a person’s head – the fact that God owns and is deeply interested in this planet and the people who live on it reminds me that God isn’t simply an optional philosophy I can choose if I happen to agree with it. God is too close, too real, for that. He wants our companionship too badly for that. Read through John chapter 17 sometime, Jesus’ prayer to His Father, and you’ll see just how close They want to be to us. They want to be within us.
So what do I do with this? I need to get into the habit of remembering that God created, and therefore owns, my very body. He also owns any resources I have – where I live, what I drive, where I work, what I get paid. Later in the story, when the vineyard workers go to work, they’re working on land owned by the landowner, harvesting grapes owned by that landowner. And it’s the same with you and me, as we move out from this sanctuary and move into another week. We must be stewards of the resources God has given us.
Let’s look at something else we learn as we keep our eye on the landowner in Jesus’ story.
Verse 1: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
Are you watching the landowner carefully? If so, you see that he is not a playboy. He’s not taking a cruise around the world in his yacht. He’s not sitting in a grandstand somewhere cheering on his favorite horse in a horse race, or his favorite basketball team, or whatever.
No, this landowner is on the job just as vigorously as anybody who works for him. And as we see what he does in the next few verses, we’ll discover the second truth we learn as we keep an eye on this landowner. Here comes Sermon Point Two.
Not only does God own land, but God has work for everyone.
During camp meeting week, I sat in on what is probably the most practical and useful seminar I have attended in a long time, maybe even ever. The class was called “Becoming Skillful Comforters.” It was one of the most popular classes that week. A couple of days I counted the class members–one day there were 26, and the other day there were 27.
The teacher was Karen Nicola, and she got right to work teaching us that no matter who we are, no matter how much education or how little education we have, no matter what our personality type is, we can learn to be real comforters of people who are grieving a loss of some kind. She told us things not to say to grieving people, because these statements would only make things worse. She told us how important it was to listen to what the other person is saying, and not try to jump in with hints and how to tips of our own.
Karen had us sit around little tables, four persons to a table. Nobody was allowed to sit by themselves at the back of the room, although some people at first tried to do this. She would walk over to them and graciously urge them to fill up an empty space at one of the tables. And for at least half of each class session, she was not the one doing the talking – we were, to the other people at our table, and occasionally to the whole group when she asked for feedback.
Karen Nicola believed exactly the way the landowner in Jesus’ story believed. Watch what he does.
Verses 1 – 5: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.
The more I read this story, the more amazed I am. This landowner probably had employed trusted servants he could send out into the vineyard to recruit workers. But instead, this is important enough to him that he goes on these recruiting trips himself, several times that day. The New International Version translates the hours he went out into modern terminology – the landowner recruits the first group early in the morning, then comes back it 9 o’clock to collect other workers, and then again at noon, and then at three in the afternoon. And in a moment we’ll see that he goes out one more time.
So why is this important? Why did Jesus want us to know this about the kingdom of heaven and that heaven’s landowner King?
Well, for one thing, it’s very clear that in the kingdom of heaven, there are no spectators. There are no observers. There’s work to be done, and so the landowner comes out and continually recruits workers. Because God has work for everyone of us to do, no matter what physical condition we are in, no matter how unprepared we feel to work for Him, no matter how battered and beaten by the world we have been. God has work for each one of us to do.
I know I’ve told the story of how when I was a kid, my mother would be working in our kitchen, and the phone would ring, and on the other line would be a lady who called just to vent her frustrations about her husband. And mom would patiently stand there for an hour and a half, trying to stretch the coiled cord of the phone all the way over to the sink so that she could get something done while this lady talked. But mom would patiently listen. The caller was hampering Mom’s housework, sometimes immobilizing her, but with that heavy black phone receiver propped up by her shoulder, Mom was doing the work of the Lord.
So what should I do, now that I’ve been reminded that God has work for every one of us? One of the most helpful parts of that camp meeting comforting class was listening to other people at my table tell stories about how they had been comforted in an in-expert way, and in some instances they themselves had been in-expert comforters to other people. In that class we learned from each other almost as much as we learned from the teacher.
I think that you and I need to develop or refine our “helping stance.” The people who are in charge of our potlucks tell me that when they’re shorthanded, other people often rush in to help them serve or clean up. At camp meeting, at the end of the final meeting in the big auditorium, one of the conference people mentioned that an event would be happening the very next day in that auditorium, and could everybody help load the chairs onto the chair carts. It was amazing to see everyone spring into action, and within just a few minutes those 2,000 chairs were folded and stacked, and the floor was clean.
That’s what I mean by the “helping stance.” Our greeters in the foyer are great at this. They watch for people coming, they greet them, they hand them a bulletin, they show them where the appropriate classroom is, and so on. And that’s just one example of the helpers in this congregation. Christians understand that the heavenly landowner won’t allow anyone to be a spectator. There is work for everybody, and everybody is needed.
And that means everybody. Watch what happens next.
Verses 6 – 7: And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’
Here comes Sermon Point Three. What do we see when we keep our eyes on the landowner in this parable?
Not only does God own land, and not only does God have work for everyone, but God even hires the un-hire-able.
Think about it. After the landowner had returned from his ninth-hour, 3 PM recruiting trip, he could’ve said, “Well, that’s it. The guys just have three hours to work. Let’s just use the people we have, and call it good.”
But no. Out he goes again at the 11th hour, which is 5 PM, an hour before quitting time. He gets to that marketplace, and who does he see? A bunch of guys who still have not been hired.
Why haven’t they been hired? We don’t know. Were they there when the landowner showed up for his earlier recruiting trips? We don’t know. Maybe not. Because each time he had come earlier in the day, he had rounded up everyone who was willing to work. Maybe some of these final people had at first refused the idea of vineyard labor, but as the day went along, nobody else had come along to hire them to do any other kind of work. So here they are, at 5 o’clock, still waiting for something to do, and may be getting desperate.
And maybe some of them didn’t look like good workers. Maybe they didn’t think they were good workers. Maybe they had slept in that morning and come to that marketplace too late in the day. Maybe they’d slept in.
You’d think that at 5 p.m. the landowner would have paused and studied these stragglers shrewdly. You’d think he might be saying to himself, “Okay. Why are these guys still here? Are these really the type of people I need out there picking grapes?”
But instead, he gets really direct. “Why are you guys just standing around here doing nothing?” They tell him, “Nobody has hired us.” Here’s a perfect opportunity for a vetting question like, “Why not?” But instead, the landowner hustles them out to the vineyard to get in maybe 45 final minutes of work.
God is in favor of full employment in the work He needs done. Here in the United States, full employment is considered to be when less than 4% of workers are unemployed. But with God, full employment is when one hundred percent of the people are involved in His cause. True, not everyone has the same talents or abilities. But we all have something to do for the kingdom of God. God knows what that is, and we need to pray that He shows us what it is, if He hasn’t already.
Now get ready for the most jolting and confusing part of this whole story. I can imagine Jesus, in amusement, watching the faces of His listeners as He tells them this final scene.
Verses 8 – 12: “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’
Can you see why I was so confused by this parable as a full-time teenage worker? If I worked one hour, I would get 75 cents. Whether I came in for the first hour or the last hour of the work day, I knew would get 75 cents for it.
Notice the landowner’s good-natured explanation.
Verses 13 – 16: But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
So what do we see as we keep our eyes fixed on the landowner?
We see that not only does God own land, and not only does God have work for everyone, and not only does God even hire the un-hire-able, but if we keep our eyes fixed on the landowner, we see that God exchanges my strict fairness for His staggeringly generous fairness.
The Bible is full of stories about eleventh-hour people, those who frittered away a good part of their lives ignoring God, or even opposing God. And when the Heavenly Landowner eventually tapped them on the shoulder in a way they couldn’t ignore, and they went out into His vineyard, they became the most grateful of all. Toward the end of Luke chapter 7, Jesus said that the people who are forgiven the most, love the most. When the apostle Paul was still Saul, he was a persecutor. But when Jesus met Him in a blaze of heavenly glory and convinced him not to do that anymore, Paul was so grateful that he considered himself the chief of sinners, unworthy of God’s love. And he spent the rest of his life introducing other people to that same love shown by that same God.
God exchanges my fairness for His fairness. My fairness – which is a good fairness for the way things are in this world right now – says that people get paid for work they do. We are used to being paid by the hour, or paid by the piece, a wage calibrated to how long we work or how much we do.
But in heaven, as we understand, there won’t be any wages. Why would there be wages? Down here, wages protect us from starvation and keep us sheltered. But in heaven we will build houses and inhabit them. We will plant fruit eat it. In Jesus’ story the landowner gave each worker a fair day’s wages, even though some didn’t truly deserve it. You can say that heaven’s “denarius” is eternal life and eternal security. Everyone who responds to God’s call will be given exactly that same priceless privilege.
And if that system seems deliriously ridiculous, so be it. That’s the way heaven works. Both heaven and earth work on the merit system. Down here, we do a good job and sometimes we’re promoted. But in heaven, it’s not our merit, but Jesus’ merits that make us deserving of heaven. Another name for this idea is the Gospel. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
And the only logical thing to do, when presented with a gift like that, is to say yes to it. Have you done that? Have you not done it yet? Either way, raise your hand if you’d like to accept Jesus’ life and death for you, right now.