Some of my favorite childhood memories include spending time with my grandparents. I can recall one particular instance where my younger sister and I were told by my grandmother that if we participated in some chore, we would be given one dollar. First up was my sister. She was given the duty of laundry and she completed her chore well. She received her payment. Now, I was up. To my surprise, the labor I was assigned was to simply eat the food my grandmother had cooked. As one who loved to eat, I made no squabble about it. I did my “chore” and received my dollar. Of course when my sister found out what I received compensation for, she was not too thrilled. She had done work to receive her dollar while all I did was stuff my face. In all reality, the compensation we received from our chores was not based on our works, or merit. It was based on the grace of my grandmother. How else could I have received a dollar for merely eating? It was not based on my work. My grandmother operated on a different system. And so it is with the kingdom of God. After telling the disciples what they will receive since they have left everything to follow Jesus (19:27–29), Jesus gives them a principle (19:30) followed by a parable (20:1–16). The parable in Matthew 20 is meant to illustrate the truth of the principle in 19:30. So what is the principle? “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30). To explain what He means by this statement, Jesus offers the disciples a parable of laborers in a vineyard to show what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is clear throughout the parable that Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is characterized by the grace of God. We see that because it is only by grace do the laborers enter the vineyard of the master or landowner, who represents God. He is the one who goes looking for them. Interestingly enough, the parable tells us the master goes not once but multiple times throughout the day to look for workers. The first are promised a denarius, a day’s wage, while the later workers are told “whatever is right I will give you” (20:4). After the final workers are hired an hour before the day is done, the master prepares to compensate those as He said He would. The time comes and those who came latest line up first. They receive a denarius. Once they make their way through the line, those who have been working all day are hopeful. Why? Because if those who have worked less received a denarius, surely they will receive more. However, they are disappointed when they are given the same amount. As someone who has worked all day and compared to someone who has worked one hour, the natural response would be to grumble and gripe. And that is what these workers did. The master wisely responds, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belong to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (20:13–15). The system the workers were basing their labor on was merit. Not so with the master of the vineyard. He compensated them with the terms He had laid out. Ultimately, he was basing it off of His own generosity and grace. The landowner could choose what he wanted to do because it was his; he owned it all. The system of God’s kingdom operates on God’s terms. We do not get to say how God gives and whom He should give to. In our sin, we find the only payment we truly deserve is death (Romans 6:23a). However, God in His grace sent Jesus Christ to live a sinless life, to die the death we deserve, and to rise again so that we could find eternal life in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:23b). We cannot save ourselves and our works cannot get us into heaven. Only by repenting of our sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can we have eternal life. It is not by our merit but only by God’s grace.
- How does understanding the concept that the kingdom of heaven operates on a system of grace inform the statement, “the last will be first, and the first last”?
- If the kingdom of God is characterized by the grace of God, how can you be a reflection of that this week in your relationships?