Matthew 20:1-15

“He who labors as he prays, lifts his heart to God with his hands,” wrote Bernard of Clairvaux in 1130 A.D. He might have written, “… in his calloused hands.” It is ever as the old Latin truism says, “labor omnia vincit” — “work conquers everything.” Our work, our jobs define our lives and tell us in part why we’re in the world.

Jesus’ work was a redeeming work. On the cross, Jesus was not only faithful in providing eternal life, but Jesus also remains faithful in providing for us those material goods which we need to endure and to live every day of our lives. “Every good and every perfect (and every material) gift,” says James, “comes down from the Father above” (James 1:17).
Many of the most popular songs across the years speak of how important our jobs are! Some years ago there was a country and western song — a kind of crass song — whose opening line was “Take this job and …” well, you know the rest, of course. Obviously the songwriter was not happy with his job. The chorus of another song, popular when I was in high school, said, “Yip yip yip yip boom boom boom boom, get a job! Sha la la la, sha la la la.”
Tennessee Ernie Ford once sang, “You load sixteen tons and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt./St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.”
Or, the ever-popular campfire sing-along song which went:
I’ve been working on the railroad
All the live-long day…..
Can’t you hear that whistle blowing
Rise up so early in the morn.
Can’t you hear the captain shouting
“Dinah, blow your horn!”
And about five o’clock in the afternoon, that song changes to, “Dinah won’t you blow? Dinah won’t you blow?” Haven’t we all felt a little like that, waiting for that whistle sometimes? Remember that old black slave in Showboat, who stood looking out over the Mississippi and sang,
You and me, we sweat and strain,
Bodies all weary and wracked with pain.
Tote that barge, lift that bale,
Get a little drunk and you land in jail.
A fella gets weary, and tired of tryin’
Sick of livin’ and scared of dyin,
But Old Man River
He just keeps rollin along.
One of my favorite bumper stickers amends the song of the Disney dwarfs to say, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go!” It happens day after day.
When Pearl Bailey was doing the black Dolly on Broadway, she would often finish her performances by sitting down on the circular ramp face out into the audience. There she would sit and talk with the crowd. One night somebody asked her, “Miss Bailey, why do you do this every night? Why don’t you just sing your role and go home?”
“You know,” she replied, “these people work hard all week long. Somehow when they come here on Friday night, I feel if I can just make them laugh and forget how heavy and hard their work week has been, I’ll feel a little like Jesus, who in Matthew 11:28, said, ‘Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.'”
What a great gift it is to have a job, to work till we’re “sick of livin’ and scared of dyin” and then to come to Christ’s church and be the people of God together. Both being at work and being the people of God are most necessary to think well of ourselves. I read of a little boy who finally had found a reason to think well of himself in a crazy world. The book took a baseball and bat into his backyard and cried, “I’m the greatest batter in the world!” and tossed the ball into the air. He swung mightily, just as he missed it completely, and cried out “Strike one!”
He again tossed the ball into the air and said, “I’m the greatest batter in the world!” Once again, he swung, missed and cried “Strike two!”
After looking over the ball and bat, he tossed the ball in the air and reminded himself: “I’m the greatest batter in the world!” One last time he swung with all his might, and missed again.
“Strike three!” he exclaimed. “Well, I guess I’m the greatest pitcher in the world!” (submitted by Wayne Rouse, Preaching, July/August 1991, p. 35).
You know, every day we get up and we try to think of what we’re best at and what the world really is about. Some days we don’t want to go to work, and some days it doesn’t seem that work helps us to think well of ourselves in the least. I’ve always appreciated the tale of the mother who woke up her son and said, “Son, it’s time for you to go to school.”
“I don’t want to go to school today, Mom,” he argued back.
“Son,” she replied, “you’ve got to go for three reasons. First of all, school is important for the development of your life. Second, you do not have one good reason for staying home today. And third, you’re the principal.”
There are some days when we can hardly wait to get to work. There are other days we get up and go because we’ve got to do it. Perhaps the most degrading change that can come to any person is when the word “career” changes to the word “job.” Job is a nasty little three-letter word that says, “Your toil is to get the bucks and feed your family and keep the roof fixed.” But the word “career” says, “I’ve got a life dream. And I’m planning with my employer how to live out my employment years in such a way that my life will have meaning to me. I’m going to spend most of my life at this place. I’ve got a career.” I’ve always believed that if you start playing by the rules of self-aggrandizement where you work, you deserve whatever you get. Remember the proverb: “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”
A long time ago Barb and I bought a house in New Mexico where a good many retired people also live. One of the fringe benefits about this community of seniors was they immediately started calling Barb and me the “young people” in the neighborhood. That sounded so good. But you know what I really liked about those people? I found in them a people who were genuinely in love with life. After years of the rat race, they found themselves retired.
For the first time in their lives, they didn’t have to go to work and they were free to explore what it meant to be fully human. Suddenly they didn’t have to compete for a desk that was three inches longer than the guy’s desk in the next office. They no longer had to compete for the best carpet in the office suite. Once they quit competing, they somehow became real. Praise be to God, they found they were even happy. Some of them began taking square-dancing lessons. All their lives I think they had wanted to square dance but they had to work, and once off work they had to go to church (and remember, you don’t square dance if you’re a Baptist).
Every time I thought about these happy, liberated square dancers, I thought, “Oh, the liberation Barb and I are going to have someday.” And I’ve already confessed to you tongue-in-cheek that somehow, when we get out of town, we always say that we’re going to smoke and dance. We’ve never done it yet, of course, but who knows? Someday …. To be honest, we’d have to take smoking lessons, too, ’cause we don’t know how to do that. But it all accentuates the misery that comes upon all of us when we work all day long, trying to please other people. And then we walk into a church where we’ve got to please other people? The drudgery of work, coupled with the drudgery of legal expectation, all but destroys the deepest, most authentic joys of our lives.
In Jesus’ story, the early-hired are grumpy for three reasons.
They were all working and were as happy as could be. Then they went into a church-like mode of mutual envy and began to compare salaries. “I wonder how much she makes.” “I wonder how much he makes.” “Why doesn’t God ever bless me like He does old so and so?” Such comparison is an endless and losing game.
When are we most mature as believers within the Christian community? Could it be when we can bless our fellow church members who get a better job or buy a bigger house than ours? If there’s any time I don’t like church people, it’s when they look across the congregation and see someone who just bought a nice new car and say, “Hm! He’s either doing something dishonest or making his payments with his church tithe.” We are most demonic when we lose the ability to bless our peers as God blesses their circumstances.
I. They Forgot the Curse of Not Having a Job (Matthew 20:3)
The early-hired in Jesus’ parable made three mistakes. First of all, I think they forgot how bad it felt to have no job. Here in Matthew 20:3, it says they were just standing around anyway, and an employer hired them. In so doing, the employer gave them dignity and a place to fit in life. He gave them a salary and the glorious self-esteem of having an honest earned wage at the end of the day!
My mother, to the last I ever knew her, always bought more groceries than she really needed. She bought mostly extra canned goods. She’d buy those canned goods and she’d stick them under the bed, or over in the corner by the chimney. And I used to say to her, “Mom, why do you do that?”
“Well, Son,” she’d say, “things could get tough.”
What made her think that? Well, things had been tough. I was born at the end of the Depression in 1936, but we Millers really stretched the not-so-great Depression on into the ’40s. I can remember Mother saying things like, “Things can get tough. We’ve got to save some of this food.”
I would ask, “Mom, what do you think about the Depression?” She’d say two rough words, “Herbert Hoover!”
Few who lived through the Great Depression really liked him. Many put the blame of those Scrooge days on him. Remember the song in the musical Annie? Remember those financial derelicts standing around the campfire in rags? They had lost their homes, their cars, their incomes, and thus they sang a little song,
We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover
For really showing us the way;
We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover,
For making us what we are today,
In every pot you said a chicken,
But Herbert Hoover, you forgot,
Not only ain’t we got the chicken,
We ain’t got the pot.
That’s how Mother felt about it, too. But during those “dirty thirties,” she taught me that God is most gracious when He gives us a place to go to work. What line of work was Mom in? She was a laundress. You can’t make a real living as a laundress but she didn’t know that. You can’t raise nine kids on a laundress’ pay. She didn’t know that, either. So every morning I’d see her go off to work with her hair up in a bun and she looked great. But at night when she came back after working over tubs of hot water all day long, her hair was straight and a little limp from the humidity of her calling. But she taught her children a million miles of truth in her example. Her truth was simple: how good it is to have a job!
When Barb and I first married, I moved to Kansas City and left Barb in Hunter. I couldn’t afford to take her to Kansas City. I had Barb and no income. Once in Kansas City, I went to apply at Hallmark Cards. I had about thirty or forty dollars in my pocket. I had to pay all that to the guy to rent the little apartment that afternoon. And I applied for that job and they said, “We just can’t tell you. You’ll have to call back later and see if you got the job.” So I had my next interview at Ford Motor Co. in Claycomo. I want you to know that it is possible to walk from Hallmark Cards to Claycomo, Missouri. You can walk about four miles an hour if you hurry.
I walked out there and applied. On the way, I got caught in the rain. By the time I got there for the interview, I didn’t look so good, and I felt even worse. I applied but didn’t get that job. Before I left Claycomo, I called back to Hallmark Cards and said, “How about the job?”
And they said, “We’ll give it to you if you can come back this afternoon and fill out the papers.” I walked all the way back to Hallmark Cards. You can do it if you hurry. But do you know what I felt that night? That night I went to bed and I thought, “Lord Jesus, I haven’t got any money, I haven’t got much to eat, but I’ve got a job!”
II. They Forgot to Bless Others (Matthew 20:11)
The early-hired also forgot to bless others. When they looked around and saw what everybody else had, they began to grumble.
“When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘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” (Matthew 20:11-12).
They who had a reasonable wage forgot to bless the Joneses, simply because it seemed to them that the Joneses had an even better wage.
When you look across the congregation and see any brother or sister whom God has blessed (even if He appears to have blessed them even more than you), just go up and throw your arms around them and say, “I’m grateful God has blessed you.” Every time I see God financially bless any member of this church, I hug them and I tell them I’m happy for them. And I truly am happy. How great it is to see people get the blessings of God. I feel I must walk up and say to them, “Congratulations. God loves you. I’m grateful and I’m glad about your good fortune, Mr. Jones!”
III. They Couldn’t Celebrate the Generosity of God in Their Own Lives (Matthew 20:15)
The third thing the early-hired couldn’t do was celebrate the generosity of God in their own lives. Do you know what their real sin was in the vineyard? They didn’t take God to work with them that day. You’re not going to make many friends for Jesus if you go in there grumbling over how short your desk is when somebody else has got a bigger one. All you really make clear is how you are failing to take God to work with you.
George MacDonald was defrocked by the Scottish church. Once “fired,” he nevertheless continued to go into his study and (for the many years of his life) wrote sermons. Those sermons were never ever preached in anybody’s church, and were called “The Silent Sermons.” In one of those sermons he wrote this:
The man to whom business is one thing and religion another is not a disciple. If he refuses to harmonize them by making his business religion he has already chosen Mammon; if he thinks not to settle the question it is settled. The most futile of all human endeavors is to serve God and Mammon. (George MacDonald, The Closet Sermons [Wheaton, IL; Shaw Publishing, 1974], p. 82)
One man in our church has his Bible laying on his desk. When I walk into his office and I see that Bible laying out there, I just want to say, “Hey, everybody, here’s a man who takes his commitment to Jesus Christ to his job and he’s not ashamed of who he is in Christ.”
When John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness, he cried:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay” (Matthew 3:10-14).
I know sometimes there are all kinds of injustice out there. But I somehow believe these verses are just as real. I think God ever wants us to be moral examples when we go to work. He wants us to be good workers. But He also wants us to talk about our faith and who we are.
How frequently the Bible speaks about our jobs and its material obligations. In 1 Timothy 6:10, the Bible says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “Now on the first day of the week, let every one of you lay by him in store as God has prospered him.” One of my favorites is in Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior
(Habakkuk 3:7-19).
Psalms 37:3 has always been a favorite of mine. It says this:
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Delight yourself in the Lord
and he will give you the desires
of your heart
(Psalms 37:3-4).
And Psalms 37:25, listen to this:
I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread
(Psalms 37:25).
God is out to take care of us. Our strong hands and backs and His goodness is the trinity of the workplace.
Amos Wells has a wonderful little poem about the man with the withered hand who came to Jesus, and Jesus touched his hand and for the first time his hand is strong and well. And according to Amos Wells, he says,
Praise God, I am a man again
Oh, let me grasp a hammer and any saw
Bring me a nail and any piece of wood.
I am a man again.
And he reaches to his wife and says,
Rachel! Rachel!
For these long years my hand is able
To smooth your shining hair.
Oh, I am a man again.
A man for work.
No more a bandaged cumberer,
I am a man!
They say they’ll cast me from the synagogue.
But let them. I’m a man again.
I’m a man again.
God is always taking care of His people.
One of the stories that circulated about Fiorello LaGuardia, the one-time mayor of New York, tells of those terrible depression times when a man was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. LaGuardia, a very short man, was very tall in his sense of justice. When this poor man was brought into the court, LaGuardia looked down at him from the bench and said, “I fine you $10.” Then LaGuardia stood from the bench, reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. He took $10 and said, “I freely pay your fine.” Then he turned to all the watchers in the court and said, “I fine everyone in this room 50 cents for living in a city where a man has to steal bread to feed his family.”
Consider the graciousness of God: “I am old, I’ve been young and I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread” (Psalms 37:25). And as I do remember, the word “generous” spells about the same as the word “grace.” You see, God’s big accusation in this parable is “Are you mad at me for being generous?” (Matthew 20:1).
I first encountered this passage in Matthew when my sister was dying. Not knowing if she’d ever received Jesus Christ as her Savior, I went from Omaha down to Oklahoma for the express purpose of asking her before she passed on if she’d really come to eternal life. I will never forget the experience of going into a hospital room and seeing her in this very sick condition. She could barely speak. Her voice was soft and pleading. When all others had vacated the room, and the time was just right, I asked her, “Sis, have you ever asked Jesus Christ into your heart and do you know His wonderful gift of eternal life?”
She whispered and I drew my ears as close to her as I could. I heard her say, “You know, Calvin, there’s a story in Matthew 20. It’s about people who went to work in a vineyard. Some of them worked all day long and they got a penny. And some of them came in at the very last minute, and they also got a penny. I’m glad you asked, but what is so wonderful to me is to know that those of us who come at the very last moment receive the same ultimate gift of life, just like those who came at first.”
This is the generosity of God. This is the grace of God. Let’s go to our workplaces and magnify Christ, in here, out there, wherever we serve. Let us remember that He who saved us from sin did it with a cross. He who saves us from a lack of bread and the depravity of dependency does it with our jobs.

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