In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the parable of the Landowner who goes out early in the morning and hires men to work in his vineyard. He agrees to pay them a denarius for the day’s work. Later he goes out and hires others to work. He then hires men throughout the day, even up until the last hour. When it comes time to pay them, he pays each of them a denarius, even those who only worked an hour. The men who had borne the burden of the work and heat of the day took exception and began to grumble. Jesus sums up the parable by saying, “So the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).
What is Jesus saying? He is saying that God’s grace reverses the customary way of doing things. We do not get rewarded for our performance. Performance based acceptance is out the window. The focus is shifted from our sterling accomplishments, our hard work, our noble sacrifice, our undying love and our complete commitment to God’s grace.
Is the thief on the cross (the one who never did one good work) enjoying the same blessedness as the Apostle Paul? Does Paul have a problem with this? Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:10, “I worked harder than all of them”. But in the rest of the verse he says, “yet not I but the grace of God that was with me”.
Do you think that people will be flocking around the Apostle Paul in heaven praising him that he was the greatest apostle, missionary, preacher, etc. Will we be praising John the Apostle? Hardly, for when John saw Jesus, “he fell at His feet as though dead. But here on earth we tend to give honor to those we perceive as great.
God reverses things and says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise…frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent…the foolishness of God is stronger than man’s strength…I chose the lowly things, the despised things, the things that are not to nullify the things that are so that no one can boast before Him” (1 Cor. 1:18-29).
The cross is the summation of the Great Reversal. The verdict of the cross is that man has nothing to offer — that he was born a failure and had a relapse — that he is a loser and does not measure up. Fortunately that is not the end of it. We can admit our failure and sin and be made new in Christ.
Probably the best example is The Prodigal Son. He did everything wrong but finally came to his senses, admitted his sin and wrong and went back to his father. The father receives him, honors him, blesses him and they began to celebrate. The older brother becomes angry and says, “all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders”…(Lk15:29). He does not understand grace — that God has reversed the customary way of doing things. Jesus tells us that even if we do all that we are commanded to do we are still unworthy servants (Lk. 17:10).
The workers in Matt. 20 missed the point and were asking the wrong question, as we sometimes do. Instead of asking “Why didn’t we get more because we worked harder?”, maybe we should be asking “What love is this that allows a thief on the cross to enter heaven?” “What is this grace that accepts a Prodigal son?” As the hymn says “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?”