Dr. Charles Sykes once said that the average teenager uses the phrase “It’s not fair” around eight times a day. It’s not fair that some people are taller, faster, prettier, more popular, or more successful. Life may not always be fair, but God is always good.
Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 are identical bookends that frame this kingdom parable. Jesus said not what the kingdom of this world is like, but what the kingdom of heaven is like. Heaven uses different math than the world. For example, Jesus said that the widow’s two pennies were worth more than all the gold given in the Temple in one day!
Today’s parable, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, could also be called the parable of the generous boss. From this parable we learn several lessons about God and our response to His salvation.
First, we learn that it is never too late to come to God. In this parable, some workers begin their day’s work at 6 am while others begin at 5pm with only an hour until quitting time. The early morning workers represent people who’ve been in God’s kingdom for most of their lives. Most people who accept Jesus do so early in life. Adult salvations are less common and deathbed conversions are rare. A pastor in Indiana named Jeff visited Adolph, a 93-year-old man with terminal cancer. Adolph, who’d lived a hard life, asked Jeff, “Is it fair for someone to live their whole life one way and then at the end of their life ask God to take them to heaven?” Jeff thought for a few moments and then answered, “No Adolph, it is not fair, but fortunately for you and me, God is not fair—He is gracious!” Jeff then shared the plan of salvation with Adolph and Adolph accepted Christ! A month later, Jeff preached the funeral for Adolph—a heaven-bound man who never attended church. Although deathbed conversions may sound nice, remember that you have no control over how or when you exit this life!
Secondly, we learn that responding to God’s invitation brings more than imagined. The laborers who’d worked the whole day felt as if they’d been cheated when latecomers received a denarius for their hour of work but the early workers had agreed to work for a denarius. The landowner had not been unfair to them but had been generous to the others. The liberality of the landowner was not evil—the jealousy of the laborers was wrong! In this parable, God is the landowner and the vineyard is the kingdom of heaven. The day of work represents a person’s lifespan. The evening is the entrance to eternity and the denarius is eternal life. We enter the kingdom of heaven not on any system of merit but only via the gift of God’s grace. The dying convert gets there the same way as the apostle. If we received fairness from God, we’d all be sent to Hell. There will be crowns and rewards in heaven but those are for faithfulness and service, not for salvation.
Next, we learn that God is sovereign and does as He pleases. Just as the landowner in the parable sought laborers, so God sovereignly initiates salvation. He also establishes the terms of salvation just as the landowner set the day’s wage. God also continues to call people into his kingdom ‘all day long’. And God is compassionate to people who recognize their need like the workers who were looking for work even at the late hour.
Finally, we learn to be thankful without comparing ourselves to others. There is no place for jealousy in God’s kingdom. Everything we have, we’ve received from God and this should elicit humility from us. Don’t be like Jonah, who grumbled and was angry when God showed compassion to Nineveh and saved them. Be grateful that God called and saved you to eternal life, whether as a child or an adult or as an elderly person. God saves all who come to Him, no matter the age or stage of life!