What’s In It for Me?
Several years ago, a small book was published entitled, The Penguin Principles. It was a book aimed at new pastors just learning the ropes. Some of it was meant to be humorous, but even the humor contained nuggets of truth, including the first principle of church life: “Despite the pious things we say…less than 5% of….the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other 95% are asking, 'What's in it for me?'”[i]
Does this question ever cross your mind?
You hear a lot from preachers about how you ought to live right, to serve the Lord, to be involved in church, to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms Christ expects a lot from His followers; being a faithful Christian involves a lot of responsibilities. Many of you work hard and diligently in your ministry here, all on a volunteer basis. Do you ever ask, “Is it really worth all the headaches and hassles? If I follow Jesus and serve Him the rest of my life, what do I get out of this?”
How do you suppose the Lord Jesus would respond to this question? We don’t have to wonder, because the Bible records a time when somebody asks him this very thing. A very sincere follower of Jesus named Simon Peter asked it in Matt. 19:27 (read.)
Sounds to me like Peter asks in a nutshell, “What’s in it for me?”
Jesus doesn’t scold Peter for asking the question. In fact, He gives Peter and other apostles a very big promise in vs. 28-30 —when Christ returns …in the regeneration… to remake the world, Peter and the rest of the apostles will sit on thrones with their names on them. He promises whatever they’ve sacrificed for Him, they’ill recover. But then He includes in His answer a puzzling statement: But many who are first will be last, and the last first. Then our Lord tells them a parable in Matt. 20:1-16 that answers this question not only for Peter, but also for us: what do you get for serving Jesus?
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, He wasn’t describing anything out of the ordinary. In those days, there is no unemployment office or Help Wanted want ads in the newspaper. When this wealthy landowner needs workers, he simply goes down to the marketplace and hires whoever he chooses. One Bible scholar writes:
The men who were standing in the market-place were not street-corner idlers, lazing away their time. The market-place was the equivalent of the labor exchange. A man came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. The men who stood in the market-place were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them stood on until even five o’clock in the evening is the proof of how desperately they wanted it. [ii]
Jesus weaves a story of this landowner going out to the marketplace at dawn [6 AM] looking to hire some hands to harvest his vineyard. He agrees to pay them a denarius a day (v. 2)---the going rate for a days’ work. They head out to the field, while the landowner stays in town.
Around 9PM the landowner returns to the marketplace and hires a second crew. It is crucially important to note in vs. 4 he promises to pay them whatever is right.
As they head off to the vineyard, the landowner stays in town, where he meets more unemployed men at noon, and then at 3 PM and sends them out with the others. Finally, at the 11th hour, 5 PM, one hour before quitting time, he asks another group why are you standing around here at the marketplace? They reply Nobody hired us. And he says well, I’m hiring you. Go out to my vineyard and whatever is right you will receive…(v. 7).
One question about this last bunch: Why is this guy so eager to hire men who will only work an hour? One reason may be the same reason modern farmers hire extra help: they’re working to beat the rains. This farmer apparently needs all the help he can lay his hands on to rescue his harvest.
V. 8 tells us after the workday is done it’s time to settle up. He commands his steward to pay the workers hired last, and then move on to the ones hired earlier.
This is when things get ugly.
The steward starts with the team hired at 5 PM and gives them a denarius. They are surprised, but grateful to receive a full day’s pay for only one hour’s work. The next group is the 3 PM shift and they, too get a denarius. About this time the workers hired at 6 AM start to get their hopes up: if they get a denarius, we ought to get 3 times as much. Imagine their shock and disappointment when the steward pays them only 1 denarius—the same as the men who worked only one hour! They march straight to the boss’s office and demand an explanation. What do you mean paying these loafers the same thing you paid us? We worked and sweated through the heat of the day, while they barely worked an hour for you. How could you do this to us?
But the landowner stands his ground. Guys, I’m not cheating you. How much did I tell you I would pay you for a days’ work? They refuse to answer, but we remember it was a denarius. Take your hard-earned wages. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Why should you be so angry because I choose to be so generous?
Now maybe you wonder about this situation, too. It doesn’t seem too fair, does it? Why would this landowner do something like this? One commentator explains it this way:
These men…were the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious…they were always living on the semi-starvation line… if they were unemployed for one day, the children would go hungry at home…to be unemployed for a day was disaster. [iii]
Now do you see why this landowner is so generous? He isn’t just focused on grapes, or labor, but on the needs of poor people. Without his generosity, these men and their families will go hungry that night. His generosity is motivated by his concern for them.
Jesus finishes up this story by spelling out the point in vs. 16. In other words, My reward system is a little different from the rest of the world. I think that difference shows up in 3 principles found in this parable that can answer the question what’s in it for me?:
1. The Master promises a reward to all of His servants.
In one Calvin & Hobbes cartoon, the two are lying in the shade of a tree on a summer afternoon discussing the important things of life. Calvin says, "What if there is no heaven? What if this is all we get?" Hobbes answers, "Well, if this is all we get I guess we'll just have to accept it." Calvin replies, "Yeah, but if I’m not going to be rewarded for my good deeds, I want to know it now!"
Calvin assumes a common error that many make: that somehow heaven is a reward for doing good deeds. One thing you’ve got to be clear about this parable is that it’s not about salvation of your soul, but instead about rewards for your service. Your salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not by works. You don’t earn your spot in God’s family, nor work your way into heaven.
But after you are saved, you begin your service to the Lord, and just as each and every servant in the parable was rewarded, so you and I will be rewarded for our service. There are glimpses of how that works sprinkled throughout Scripture:
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Ephesians 6:8 …knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.
1 Corinthians 3:14-15 14If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.
Whatever else these verses say, they clearly tell us Christ rewards His servants for their faithful service to Him.
Of course, faithful service involves not just what we do, but why we do it. In Matt. 6 Jesus hammers home the point that only what is done for God’s approval, not people’s applause will be rewarded by God. 3 times our Lord repeats the refrain..and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you openly…Our service should be, in the words of
Col 3:22 … not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.
All of these passages reinforce the point Jesus makes which answers Peter’s question: what do I get for serving Jesus? Each and every faithful servant is rewarded by Christ.
Sometimes your reward comes to you here on earth. It may a pat on the back, an award. It may be something much better—God allows you to see how what you do brings Him glory or helps other people.
Many of our rewards await us when we go to be with Jesus. Heaven is not our reward, but all those who go to heaven receive a reward for their faithful service.
Max Lucado writes: For all we don’t know about the next life, this much is certain. The day Christ comes will be a day of reward. Those who went unknown on earth will be known in heaven. Those who never heard the cheers of men will hear the cheers of angels. Those who missed the blessing of a father will hear the blessing of their heavenly Father. The small will be great. The forgotten will be remembered. The unnoticed will be crowned and the faithful will be honored.[iv]
Jesus promises a reward to all of His faithful servants.
But what kind of reward? This parable teaches us another important lesson:
2. The Master promises to reward us with what is right.
Remember what the landowner promised to give his workers?
v. 4 …whatever is right I will give you.
v. 7 …whatever is right you will receive.
He doesn’t give them a specific figure, and yet they go and work for him. He never promises to pay them all the same thing—only what is right. For some reason, they trust him.
When you work for the Lord, you can trust Him to reward you according to what is right. But who decides exactly “what is right”? He does. I can think of a couple of reasons why this is good.
First of all He knows us. Have you ever watched one of those games shows—the Price is Right, or Wheel of Fortune, where you watch somebody play this game—solve the puzzle, answer the question, whatever. And suddenly they pull back the curtain and show the prize and you’re like—what? I wouldn’t want that! Who in the world wants a fancy set of clocks?
Well, somebody must, or they wouldn’t offer them as prizes! I’ve seen people jump up and down over porcelain ducks and thought Big Deal! What kind of prize do you call that?
So often value is in the eyes of the beholder. I could walk into a used bookstore and find what I consider a treasure, and excitedly share my joy, while you stand there yawning, trying not to be rude (I know. I go through this with Jennifer all the time!)
But our Lord knows the desires of our hearts as individuals and His rewards are not just generic, they are keyed to the desires of our hearts.
Ps 37:4 Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
Which brings me to a second point: even though He doesn’t give us all the same reward, we have no reason to be envious.
Sometimes you and I can be just like those angry laborers, asking why did he get this, and I only got this? Why do you give her so much more than you give me? Don’t be surprised if your Master replies in the words of vs. 13: Son/daughter, I am doing you no wrong. Can’t you trust Me to reward you with what is truly valuable? Don’t you believe I love you, and will always give you what is best for you?
Psalm 37:4 Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with things you do to earn it... Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. -C. S. Lewis [v]
What do you get for serving Jesus Christ? He promises to reward you with what is right, what is best, what will make you realize that your hard work really is worth it all. Whether that reward comes on earth, or in heaven, it will bring great joy and gladness to your heart as nothing else can. Your Master will give you what is right, but He will also give you more than what is right, because this parable teaches us
3. The Master’s reward is based not so much on your performance, but on His grace.
After her son Neal’s grades fell, his mother met with his teacher who said, "He's very bright and he's so interested in computers. Maybe it would help if he did his homework on a home computer." That evening Neal’s mom called her older daughter in college. During the conversation, she mentioned, "Ned is failing 8th grade, so we are buying him a computer." After a long silence her daughter finally said, "Gee, mom, if I rob a bank, will you buy me a car?"
Kids are like grown-ups: we want what’s coming to us. I’ve seen grown men and women rattle off a list of what they got from mom and dad as compared to what their brother/sister got from mom or dad. Adults try to climb a little higher on the corporate ladder or the social ladder, or even the spiritual ladder to be able to say I’ve worked hard, done my duty, and now I want what’s coming to me.
When we ask what do I get out of serving Jesus? We may be asking for God to give us what’s coming to us. But do you and I really want God to give us what we deserve? I don’t think so.
We may believe we want what we deserve because we focus on our best moments, our noble moments, when we seem to be angels who haven’t gotten their wings yet. You and I think about ourselves at our best and say I should get what I deserve.
But think for a moment about yourself at your worst. When you are your most hateful, most unforgiving. Think about the worst thing you’ve ever done, that one thing makes you ashamed to even recall, that time you were so selfish and sinful. Let your mind focus on yourself at your worst, and then tell me: do you want God to give you what you deserve?
Of course not. Which is why the real beauty of this parable is the simple truth that God doesn’t give us what we deserve—He rewards us according to His grace.
Mt 19:30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
Mt 20:16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.
Jesus is saying Guys, it’s not about competing for first place, not about being able to brag about your progress. The rewards the Master gives us are not given by what a bang up job we do, or how hard we work, or even how long we’ve been at it. His rewards are given to us for the same reason this landowner gave these men who worked only an hour a full’s day pay—because of His generous grace.
The real point of this story is not how hard these men work, or even how easy some of them had it only working one hour out of the day. The real point is how gracious this landowner is.
That’s a picture of our Master. He takes sinners like you and I, who owe Him such a debt, and completely forgives us. He doesn’t owe you, or I, a thing. We owe everything to him, and yet He hires us to do work that really matters and then rewards us for doing it. That is grace, my friend.
Does it matter whether or not you serve Him? Of course it does. If you have no desire to serve the Lord, then there’s something wrong. Does it matter whether or not you do a good job? Of course it does. He calls us to do our best, to strive for excellence in all we do for His glory. But in the end, it’s not your performance that earns you His reward—it’s all by His grace.
1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am…but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
That ought to both humble us and excite us. It ought to humble me to remember that when God gives me something to do, and I do it well, I really cannot take the credit, because without Him I can do nothing. At the same time, I can be excited because His grace gives me the freedom to do far more than I could ever do on my own.
In a DENNIS THE MENACE cartoon, Dennis and his friend Joey are leaving Mrs. Wilson's house, hands full of cookies. Joey says, “I wonder what we did to deserve this.” Dennis answers, “Look, Joey. Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we're nice, but because she's nice.”[vi]
Your Master rewards you richly not just because of what you do, but because of His grace.
What do you get for serving Christ? You can be sure of this: He always rewards His faithful servants with what is right, according to His grace. This ought to motivate us to love Him and serve Him faithfully because we have this promise from our soon coming Master in
Re 22:12 And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.
[i] William G. Carter, No Box Seats In The Kingdom, CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, 1996.
[ii]Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament (Mt 20:8). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity
[iii]Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament (Mt 20:8). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity
[iv]Lucado, M. (1999). When Christ comes : The beginning of the very best (68). Nashville: Word Pub.
[v]10,000 Sermon Illustrations, electronic ed. (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2000).
[vi] Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn, Cross Road: For God So Loved