Let me put it to you real simply. You are 12 years old and your mother asks you to go out and rake the yard. It’s a big job and will probably take you all morning. She promises: “I’ll give you ten dollars if you do it well.” So out you go and you start raking, piling leaves, stuffing them into bags, hauling them off. It’s hard work. And then about 11:45, your little brother comes smiling around the corner, grabs a rake and starts to help you gather leaves. How cute. That is until your mother says at noon: “That’s good enough. Come here and let me pay you.” And she proceeds to give the little rat $10 and then hands you $10. Now what would you say? Wouldn’t you be screaming at the top of your lungs: “That’s not fair!” And what if your mother says: “It’s my money and I can do with it what I want; what’s your problem?”
That’s today’s parable in a nutshell. But to get what it means, you’ve got to back up a little bit. The parable began with Jesus saying: “For.” “For the kingdom of heaven is like...” That means we better find out that “for” is there for!
And if we back up, this is what we find. A rich young man who had come to Jesus. And that young man thought he had kept all the law. But Jesus showed him that he’d broken the first commandment – because he had made a god out of his stuff. When Jesus told him to give it all away to the poor and then to come follow him and he’d have treasure in heaven, the young man thought “I just can’t do that,” and went away sad. That led Jesus to comment that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.
That astonished the disciples. They ask: “Who then can be saved?” I think the answer they were expecting was: “Only folks like you, who have left everything and followed me. What do you think, dummy?” Instead they get this answer: “With man this is impossible, but not with God. With God all things are possible.”
And that is what set Peter off. And setting Peter off is what prompted the Lord’s parable. Peter pieced it together. “Oh fine. I get it. You or your Father are going to work some miracle in the end to bring in even those who haven’t sacrificed a thing for you? Well that’s not fair. We have left EVERYTHING and followed you. What then we will we have?”
Jesus' answer, of course, is that they will have a kingdom and an abundance. They will sit on thrones to judge Israel. They will receive a hundredfold in the church for all that they left, and all kinds of trouble too, and they will have eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and so the parable of the laborers.
Do you get it now? The parable deals at its root with our begrudging God’s generosity. And so it is a parable of special importance for those who have been long at work in the Lord’s front yard or his vineyard. It’s a parable for us to rethink and get a handle on the truth about living the kingdom life.
Peter spoke of it in terms of sacrifice, of all that they had given up. And how many times we think the same way! When we belong to the Lord and live as His people, too often we cast the longing eye back toward our so called “freedom” when we could do whatever we wanted and not worry one little bit about whether or not it pleased the Lord. We think of how we’ve lived lives of “sacrifice” – if you will – and then see Jesus granting entrance into the Kingdom to those who have sacrificed nothing, for with God all things are possible, our sinful old Adam rises up and cries: “Foul!” Not fair. As though the poor thief on the cross had really gotten to live it up and then he has the audacity to sneak into the kingdom at the last moment.
What our parable shows us is how twisted the thinking is. You see, it’s not a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of life. The only life that’s worth the living in the end is life that’s lived in service to God, in faith in Him, in communion with Him. Any other life is just idleness, just wasted time. It’s when you realize that life in the vineyard is real life, that you begin to get the perspective of the Owner of the vineyard, and you look on those who are living aimlessly in the world, living as though pleasing themselves was why they were here, and you feel sad. You think, man! they’re missing out on what life itself is for.
And so when one starts off life in the Lord’s vineyard, baptized as a baby (like Sidnee) we rejoice that they’ve begun the adventure of a lifetime – given over to real life. Or when one creeps in at the last moment and is rewarded with eternal life, there is no complaining and saying “not fair.” Instead, there is the hugging of the brother or sister and saying: “I’m glad you made it in before the end of the day. Welcome to the Lord’s vineyard where the work is joy and there’s always plenty for everyone to do.”
And you know, that is itself the attitude of our Lord Jesus, who came to do His Father’s work with joy in His heart. It was not a burden to Him to live this life of service - it was the only life worth the living! And He went to His cross precisely so that what is impossible for us could by done for us by the God-man. He labored to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. That's the miracle He works not just for those who come late, but for us all!
For those who all their life long have known the joys of work in the vineyard and for those who have found out only in the middle of life what life was all about, and even for those who come in at the very end, praying: “Jesus remember me in your kingdom” - for them all He died to fling wide heaven’s gates and to each he gives the very same gift: the gift of His body and blood, forgiveness of sins and oneness with Him forever. It’s a gift that says: “This is how much I value and love you; can you value each other any less?” So you see, it's not a matter of your ratty little brother getting the same as you - it's a matter of God's rich love giving you and him both far, far more than either of you could ever deserve or even dream of. And to Him be the glory forever!