Matthew 20:9-16 – “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” NIV
Here is the remainder of the Jesus’ parable and the part that often causes much discussion. It’s the end of the laborer’s day and time to receive pay. The owner calls them up beginning with the last workers hired. To everyone’s surprise, he pays these last guys hired a full day’s wage which immediately gets the workers hired first thing in the morning thinking that they will be getting a little extra just to be “fair.” To their surprise, the owner pays them a full day’s wage, also. They begin complaining about the “fairness” and “equity” of the situation. It is then that Jesus using the owner’s words asks the questions in the parable. If Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, one might assume that He is talking about salvation. We don’t work to earn our salvation; but each of us individually must choose to stop “standing around” and choose to follow Jesus and join Him on His mission. We can do that as a young child, or we can wait until we are 90 (if we live that long), and salvation or eternal life with Jesus will be our reward. It’s the same for the young or the old. It’s the same for people who have in their eyes committed a few sins or someone that has desecrated all 10 Commandments but has repented and turned to follow Jesus.
However, some people have a problem with this. When I was in Ashland Theological Seminary, I was part of a counseling team for the former NYC gang leader Nicky Cruz’s Crusade. This was in the early 1970’s, and his story was pretty fresh. He told about some of the crimes that he had committed and how God had forgiven him. It seemed that from his account, he had never been arrested or convicted of these crimes. When I got to church on the next Sunday, several people were upset at the fact that a criminal had been allowed to speak at the college. It seemed that they were having a problem with God’s grace and the fact that he had not been punished. Similar feelings and statements can be found regarding the conversion of mass murderer Teddy Bundy who was executed for his crimes.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were having the same problem with God’s grace and who would be allowed into the Kingdom of God. Many of the people who were choosing to follow Jesus had broken both the religious law and the civil law. It’s the same today. Jesus reminds us that the criteria for salvation was never ours to set. God can save who He chooses to save. He is true to His promise no matter how few or how many our sins have been. All have sinned. Many times those who have sinned heinously have had to bear the consequences, misery, and missed blessings for their sins. Many times those who have followed Jesus for most of their lives will never realize the problems and misery they avoided by following Jesus early on. If we believe the thesis that Bruce Wilkinson writes about in The Life God Rewards: Why Everything You Do Today Matters Forever, then there will be rewards in heaven beyond salvation.
Some questions for us: In what situations do I feel that God is too lenient with His grace? Are there times that I wished that I had waited to follow Jesus so I could continue to enjoy the “rewards” of sinning? What’s the Holy Spirit trying to teach me about a “grace-full” life?