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Service And Reward

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Proper 20

Pentecost 18

Ordinary Time 25

8. Service And Reward

Matthew 20:1-16

"For The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out

early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After

agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them

into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw

others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them,

'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is

right.' So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and

three o'clock, he did the same. 6And about five o'clock he went

out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why

are you standing here idle all day?' 7They said to him, 'Because

no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the

vineyard.' 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to

his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay,

beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9When

those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the

usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they

would receive more; but each of them also received the usual

daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against

the landowner, 12saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and

you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the

day and the scorching heat.' 13But he replied to one of them,

'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for

the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you, and go; I

choose to give to this last the same as I give


to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs

to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16So the last

will be first, and the first will be last."

Social status may be determined by many factors. Some of

these may be given by birth, genetics, or for reasons other than

the achievement of the person. These include such things as

color of skin and eyes, kind of hair, height, body build, gender,

national origin, family's social position, inherited wealth, and


Other factors may be determined by achievements through a

person's efforts. These include such factors as level of

education, employment, development of skills, hard work, wise

investment, or initiatives taken.

People who have sought to improve their social and economic

status by what they have achieved may resent the higher status of

others who were given their status by the accident of birth or

nationality or family connections. It would appear to them that

life has not been fair.

The parable of the laborers who worked longer than others in

the vineyard seems to suggest an unfairness in the rewards in the

kingdom of heaven. The actions of Jesus do suggest that he was

not ready to judge persons by normal standards of determining

social status. The parable proposes a different basis for

receiving salvation than the way in which persons are generally

rewarded by society.


Context of the Gospels

Matthew has set the parable that is unique to his gospel in

the context of events which both Mark and Luke have. The

encounter with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark

10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30) leads the disciples to raise questions

about whether they will be rewarded for the sacrifices they have

made. Matthew uses that as the specific occasion for Jesus'

telling of the parable.


The parable is also in the context of two other events when

people tried to exclude other persons from Jesus' attention. The

first precedes the location of the parable by Matthew (Matthew

19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). It is the attempt of

the disciples to protect Jesus' time by excluding the children.

Jesus reprimands the disciples for doing so and proceeds to bless

the children and then uses them as an example of those who will

receive the kingdom of heaven. The children do not receive the

blessing from Jesus for what they have done but just for who they

are and because of his graciousness.

The second is the healing of two blind men in Jericho whom

the crowd tried to exclude by admonishing them to be quiet.

(Matthew 20:19-34; only one blind person in Mark and Luke: Mark

10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43.) The blind man, once healed,

immediately becomes a follower of Jesus out of gratitude for the

blessing of sight that he received.

The context also includes the request of the mother of James

and John to seek a privileged position in the kingdom. (It is

also found in Mark 10:35-45, but not in Luke.) Jesus used the

question to assert that greatness in the kingdom is by

servanthood. He also asks them if they are willing to face the

same difficulties which Jesus anticipated for himself and his


Context of Matthew

The parable is bracketed by two variations of the statement,

"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first"

(Matthew 19:30), and the inversion of it, "So the last will be

first, and the first will be last" (Matthew 20:16). According

to Matthew Jesus continues to use the various events to

communicate his vision of what the kingdom of heaven is like and

how it differs from current common conceptions of it.

Immediately preceding the parable when Jesus accepts the children

and blesses them, he uses them as a model as to how the kingdom

is granted by grace where other persons would exclude them. Then

in the encounter with the rich young man, he indicates that it is

almost impossible for anyone to be worthy of the kingdom on the

basis of his or her actions.


Context of the Lectionary

The First Lesson. (Exodus 16:2-15) The people in the desert

complain against Moses and Aaron for bringing them out into the

wilderness where they fear they will starve. God then assures

Moses that he will provide bread daily for them to eat. They

will have enough for daily food except on the sixth day they will

have twice as much as needed so they can observe the Sabbath of

rest. Then the people will know the glory of the Lord who can

provide for their needs. They will have no further reason for

complaining against the leaders whom the Lord has appointed.

The Second Lesson. (Philippians 1:21-30) Paul affirms his

own life to be in accordance with his understanding of the

kingdom of heaven. He desires to depart and realize the full

presence of Christ and his kingdom. But he also understands that

his mission is to have those whom he brought into the church have

the full knowledge of the meaning of the gospel which had

transformed his life. This knowledge will not be for the

destruction of their opponents but for salvation for the

Philippians. They can be assured of their salvation because they

are now having the same struggles which Paul had.

Gospel. (Matthew 20:1-16) The parable revolves about the

equal rewards given to workers in the vineyard for unequal

amounts of labor.

Psalm. (Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45) The psalmist calls the

people to give thanks. They are to remember the miracles which

the Lord has done in the past. The latter verses recount the

experience of the Israelites being brought out of Egypt with

riches and then reminds them of the way in which the Lord

provided for the Israelites in the desert as is told in the

passage in the first lesson for today. The gratitude for the

memory of God's provisions should lead them to be obedient to

God's statutes and laws. In such manner they will praise the

glory of the Lord.


Context of Related Scriptures

Leviticus 19:13 Ä The law against oppressing or robbing

neighbors. Do not keep a hired servant's wages overnight.

Deuteronomy 24:15 Ä The need to pay laborers before sunset.

Psalm 24:1 Ä The divine ownership of the earth.

Jeremiah 12:10 Ä Shepherds ruin the vineyard.

Malachi 3:5 Ä Judgment against those who defraud by

withholding wages.

Mark 7:22 Ä Jesus' teaching about the sins of the heart,

including covetousness and envy.

Luke 3:14 Ä John the Baptist tells soldiers to be content

with their wages.

Philippians 4:11 Ä Paul's contention that "In whatever state

I am, to be content."

Colossians 4:1Ä Paul's admonition to masters to treat their

slaves fairly.

James 5:4 Ä A condemnation of those who don't pay persons

who mow the field.


Content of the Pericope

Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who, apparently at

the peak of the harvest season, hired temporary workers five

times during the day at about three hour intervals. He

negotiates with the first workers to pay them the normal wage for

a day. With the other workers he only agrees to pay them what is


At the end of the day the landowner instructs his manager to

pay each of the workers the normal daily wage. The workers who

were hired first and worked for 12 hours expected to be paid

more, especially more than those who only worked one hour. When

they got the same amount as the others, they complained about its


The landowner reminds them that they got what they had


agreed to as a fair wage. He then poses rhetorical questions as

to his right to choose to do as he pleased with what he owned and

whether they resented that he was a generous person.

The point of the parable is given at the end: "So the last

will be first and the first last." The parable is given in

response to the query from the disciples as to whether they would

be rewarded for their faithfulness in following Jesus and

enduring the hardships and sacrifices of such life.

Thesis: Salvation is not earned by efforts but is given by

grace according to a person's need.

Theme: Kingdom rewards are given generously to those who

enter it.

Key Words in the Parable

1. "Landowner." (v. 1) God is the sovereign who owns the

earth. People are called to be laborers for God.

2. "Laborer." (v. 1) Those who enter the kingdom have a

task to do. To care for a vineyard requires a lot of tedious

hand labor, both in pruning the vines at the beginning of the

growing season and at harvest time.

3. "Vineyard." (v. 1) A vineyard is often used as an image

for God's kingdom.

4. "Early." (v.1) The day started at sunrise, which was

normally 6 a.m. It was designated as the first hour in their

system of reckoning.

5. "Usual Daily Wage." (v. 2) A denarius was usually

considered a daily wage. An oral agreement was binding under the

law at that time.

6. "Standing Idle." (v. 3) Literally it says they were


"hanging about." Day laborers would assemble in the marketplace

of a town or village. Employers who needed temporary help would

go there and select the number they needed. The marketplace

served as the employment office in that culture. If men were not

hired, they would linger there with nothing to do.

7. "Pay you whatever is right." (v. 4) The men were in no

position to bargain. Earning anything was probably better for

them than spending the day idle. They had to rely on the

fairness of the employer.

8. "About Five O'Clock." (v. 6) The landowner went very

late in the day, with only about an hour of time left. No

explanation is given as to why these men were still in the

marketplace and had not been hired earlier. Presumably the

landowner was anxious to get the grapes harvested before the

rains came and spoiled them.

9. "No One has Hired Us." (v. 7) Some reproach is implied

in the question about why they were still there. The men became

defensive. During the harvest season plenty of work should be

available for anyone who was willing to work.

10. "Each of Them Received the Usual Daily Wage." (v. 9)

The owner knew that the men had to provide for families. They

needed the usual wage or their families would go hungry.

11. "Friend." (v. 13) Is the term an implied reproach? It

was the same address Jesus used with Judas when betrayed in the

Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50). Jesus also addresses his

disciples in a similar fashion (See John 15:15).

12. "I Choose." (v. 14) It was the prerogative of the

owner to use his possessions as he wished. As long as he paid a

fair wage to the workers who labored all day they had no reason

to complain even though the inequity between their effort and the

reward seemed unfair compared to the other workers.


13. "Are You Envious?" (v. 15) Literally the expression is

"Is your eye evil?"



1. What is Justice? The word justice is slippery. It can

have different meanings to different people or in different

circumstances. One standard, and probably the most frequent one,

is that of equality. Everyone should be treated equally. A

frequent slogan in labor-management negotiation which embodies

this concept of justice is "Equal pay for equal work."

Another standard has a similar basis but is dependent on

merit. You should get what you deserve. This principle is found

in "piece work" as opposed to an hourly or daily wage. It is

assumed that if people are more productive, they deserve more

pay. It is generally assumed that a person with more education

and higher skills deserves more reward. Thus a doctor who

invests years in getting an education and honing skills deserves

more per hour than someone who goes to work right out of high


A third standard is based on need. The Marxist principle,

"From each according to ability; to each according to need,"

comes out of Karl Marx's Judeo-Christian background (See Acts

2:45). The owner in the parable seems to have combined a

principle of equality (all received equal pay) with a sense of

need (generosity to those who only worked at the end of the day.)

The workers who labored all day thought the pay was unjust on the

basis of merit, what they deserved.

It is generally agreed that Jesus is not proposing a general

economic principle in this parable, but emphasizing the

generosity of God in rewarding those who enter the kingdom,

regardless of when in life they respond to God's call.

2. Service and Reward. A distinction sometimes is made

between work and play. It is the difference between extrinsic

and intrinsic rewards. It is work when persons have to be paid



efforts beyond what they get in terms of satisfaction from the

activity itself. Persons have to have a monetary reward for

engaging in certain activities or they would not do it.

Play is when people just enjoy doing what they are doing,

regardless of whether they get any reward otherwise. The effort

expended is not the measure of whether it is work. Enjoyment in

doing something is its own reward in play.

The parable suggests that service in the kingdom is more of

the nature of play. It has its reward in doing the right thing,

not because of the amount of extrinsic reward. Nevertheless, God

is good and generous and the rewards received may be well beyond

our deserving in a strictly egalitarian sense.

3. Working in the Lord's Vineyard. The English language has

no equivalent play on words to that of the German for the

expression "The kingdom is both Gabe and Aufgabe." Gabe is the

German word for gift and Aufgabe is the word for a task. The

kingdom is both a gift and a task.

Some confusion exists between the giving of salvation by

grace, and the doing of kingdom work as a task. Persons do not

receive the kingdom because they deserve it. It is offered to

all by the grace of God. As Lord he is a good and generous


However, once the gift is received, it is a call to a life

of obedience to God's will. As such it is a task that is more a

response of gratitude for the privilege of being in the kingdom

than as the reward that is offered at the end of life.

4. The Lord is Sovereign. What we receive from the earth is

not simply something we have a right to have. We have the earth

in trust as co-creators with God in bringing God's will to

complete fulfillment. With God as sovereign Lord, we are to work

in the vineyard and not to destroy it. The earth is created with

amazing recuperative powers. Nevertheless it has limits and the

resources are finite.

The earth is intended to provide us with our daily needs.

Our needs should be met with consideration for the needs of

others and of those to come in later generations. We should use



resources to meet our needs with care, and not with envy of those

who acquire in excess of their daily needs.

5. The Inversion of Values. Matthew frames the parable with

the warning that the first will be last and the last will be

first. So often the kingdom values are the opposite of worldly


The events recorded just prior to the parable led Jesus to

contrast the kingdom with conventional wisdom. The first

incident was the blessing of the children. They model the

kingdom in their innocence and directness. They are not engaged

in the intrigue and deception so often characterized by adults.

They are themselves and do not attempt to mislead others as to

who they are in order to manipulate and gain advantage over


The second incident was the encounter with the "poor" rich

man. He wanted a quick and easy way to salvation. He had no

real sense of his need to change. He manifested a certain

smugness in his good behavior. He saw nothing in his life that

would call for a radical transformation. He was possessed by his

possessions. So he missed the opportunity to participate with

the followers of Jesus in the joy of sharing in the work of the


As the disciples looked at the young man and compared his

lot in life with theirs, they may have had a question about whose

life was better. Jesus does not think that many possessions make

a person rich. Rather it is the commitment to the kingdom and

its values that gives true and enduring meaning to life.

Homily Hints

1. The Good Landowner. (vv. 1-15) The actions of the

landowner reveal Jesus' understanding of the nature of God.

A. The Generous God. God provides for daily needs for those

who labor in the kingdom. His grace is not conditioned on what we

deserve. It is dependent on our real needs.

B. The Seeking God. The owner returned again and again to

the market place to see if any were still idle. He offered all a

place to work in the vineyard, even those whom others had



C. The Sovereign God. The owner had the right to choose how

the goods were to be distributed. The standards for reward were

not always according to conventional wisdom. God's awareness of

need is larger than the human tendency to be centered in one's

own needs or desires, and not to be equally concerned with the

needs of others.

2. The Right Side Up Kingdom. (v. 16)

A. The False Values Turned Around. God corrects false

values when people get obsessed with who is number one.

B. Supplying Daily Needs. Jesus understood that the daily

needs of people have to be met. People are not just spiritual

beings. They have physical needs as well. Physical needs once

met should serve the spirit and not become ends in themselves.

C. Fulfilling Human Potential. Care needs to be taken that

fulfilling human potential is not confounded with thinking that

people are the sole source of salvation. Some people seem to be

so concerned about a philosophy of humanism that they end up

appearing to be anti-human. Jesus always loved people and was

incensed when they were prevented from realizing their full and

true humanity.

3. Invidious Comparisons. (v. 12)

A. Corrosive Envy. Comparison of a person's gifts with

others can disrupt relationships. Persons' self-esteem can be

damaged if they look at the gifts others have instead of

accepting and using the gifts they have.

B. Jealous of Position. Often church fights arise because

people want positions of power. They resent others who have

positions they want to have so as to control the institutions and


C. Measured by Christ. The antidote to corrosive envy is to

look at oneself in comparison with Christ and not


with other people. The goal is to emulate the servanthood and

cross bearing of Christ, not to compare oneself to other people.

4. What Time is It? (vv. 1-15)

A. Early Arrivals. The people who are privileged to enter

the church early have a lifetime to enjoy labor in the kingdom.

B. Late Arrivals. People who have had long membership in

the church may envy those who enter late and their freshness and

enthusiasm. The late arrivals may seem to surpass or even

displace the long-term members of the church. It is a danger

that may affect the harmony of the church.

C. Never Too Late. God continues to seek those who are

outside the kingdom. Despite a long life outside the kingdom, it

is never too late to be accepted. Entrance into the church as

representative of the kingdom is not just for the young.

5. Kingdom Work. (vv. 1-15)

A. The Scope of Service. It is not just those who are

engaged in full-time service, such as the pastor or the director

of Christian education, who serve the kingdom.

B. Voluntary Service. Persons may find their service in the

kingdom does not have to be paid because their daily needs may be

met otherwise. They find their reward entirely intrinsic and do

not need extrinsic rewards.

C. Lay Service. Emphasis can be given to the values of lay

activity in the Church. Ordained ministers are not set apart

because they are more valued but because they have different


6. When is Justice Done? Examine the different standards of

justice and their implications for Christian behavior.

A. Equality of Worth

B. Our Just Desserts

C. Love Fulfills Justice



Points of Contact

1. Birthright or Convinced. The Society of Friends

(Quakers) make a distinction between birthright Friends and

convinced Friends. Those who are birthright Friends were born

and raised in a family that was a long-time member of a Friends

Meeting. Convinced Friends are those who at some stage in their

life became a member by their own choice, even though having no

background in the Society. While other religious groups may not

have the same terms, jealousy may arise when new members

(convinced) receive more attention and seem to be rewarded with

positions of prominence and influence.

2. Who Do You Follow? Someone has suggested that with a

change of pastor a congregation may actually have two or more

sub-congregations in the same church. One congregation may feel

their loyalty remains with the previous pastor. Another group

may identify with the new pastor. Still others may feel they

belong to some earlier beloved pastor. The issue is not to which

pastor the congregation owes loyalty. It is rather a question of

all giving loyalty to Christ and following him. Otherwise envy

and jealousy may leave a congregation divided and struggling over

who is rewarded with power in decision making. Those holding

loyalty to early pastors may eventually leave the church.

3. A Gap Between Professionals and the Laity. Many churches

have moved increasingly to professional leadership. Earlier the

church may have only paid the pastor. Now they may have a

multiple professional staff, including associate or assistant

pastors, directors of Christian education, youth ministers and

choir director(s). The church may even pay members of the choir

and Sunday school teachers. Compensating persons for their

professional service has New Testament support. Problems may

arise, however, when members resent being asked to undertake

tasks in the church for which others are paid. They may also

come to feel


that the church really is the professionals and that the laity

has no role to play in it.

4. Joy in Service. Happy is the person whose work is play.

Members of the church should find joy in their ministering to

others. Any extra reward is just a bonus. People should find

satisfaction in having opportunity both in serving others in the

church and through the church reaching out to serve others.

Unhappy is the person who has not learned the joy of service.

Points to Ponder

1. The Pharisees or the Disciples. It is not quite clear

who the persons are in the parable who were hired to work at

different times during the day. Was it the Pharisees who had

sought all their lives to be faithful to God and now envied Jesus

and his disciples? Was it the disciples who were with Jesus from

the beginning of his public ministry and who were envious of a

young man such as the one who asked Jesus what he had to do to be

saved? Who are the people today who are like the workers who

labored 12 hours and grumbled at the latecomers who received a

full day's wage?

2. Retributive Justice. A standard of justice which was not

discussed earlier is what is called retributive justice. It is

embodied in such phrases as "giving the criminal what he

deserves" and "paying a debt to society." It is a reverse side

of merit as the standard for justice. The question arises as to

whether vengeance is only the prerogative of God. Is a generous

and good God only able to mete out justice fairly according to

need, just as the parable suggests that reward is according to

need and not according to merit on the basis of how much or how

long someone has served? What does this parable have to say

about the Christian attitude toward criminals, especially those

who show repentance and respond to Christ's call?


Illustrative Materials

1. Who is "Church"? A congregation was located in a college

town. Most of the residents of the town were of a particular

ethnic group. Many of the faculty members at the college joined

the church. On one occasion all the delegates to a district

conference were members who had come to the church after becoming

affiliated with the college. One older member of the

congregation complained, "Why don't they appoint some members of

'the church'?" meaning some of the long-term ethnic members of

the congregation.

2. Equal and Distributive Justice. During the Depression a

family with four children sometimes had one orange for lunch. To

assure equitable distribution of the orange the oldest child

would cut the orange and then proceeding from the youngest to the

oldest the four children chose a quarter section. This assured

that the orange would be divided in equal parts since it was

presumed that if they were not equal in size, the one who did the

cutting would get the smallest portion. She would not want that

to happen.

On Sunday the family would have a roast or some other meat.

If the pieces were of unequal size, the largest piece always went

to the father since he was the wage owner and needed energy for

the hard work he did. Need and not equality was the measure of

what was fair in that instance.

3. Deathbed Baptism. The emperor Constantine delayed

becoming a Christian as long as he could for fear that what he

did might prevent him from receiving eternal life. Only when he

was on his deathbed did he finally consent to be baptized, so

late that he could not do anything to jeopardize his salvation.

4. Give Him a Penny. Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician.

He was teaching a group of young people how to do mathematics.

One of the students asked him what good this knowledge was going

to do for him. Pythagoras told one of his servants to


give the student a penny so he would get something out of the


5. Status Envy. A group traveled through the South during

the time when the nation was becoming aware of racism and civil

rights. They talked with some workers in a factory about the

need for equality among the races. One of the workers protested,

"But if the Negroes are equal with us, no one will be below us!"

6. Seeking Rewards. It is reported that a woman in the

Middle Ages went about with a torch and a bucket of water. She

wanted to burn heaven and put out the fires of hell so that

people would love God for himself alone.


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