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Gratitude for grace

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16

Thesis: Life’s motivation should be gratitude for grace, not performance to earn it.

John Claypool has long been one of my favorite preachers. In his now-classic treatise, The Preaching Event, he describes the preacher as a “gift-giver,” one who gives to others the gifts he has received from God. The gift we have received is grace. The gift we are to give is grace.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t open the package. Claypool describes himself during his school years as “a nobody who had to compete and out-achieve all others in order to become a somebody.” Even in seminary his problems with self-esteem persisted and were made worse by the institution he attended. Perceptively, he calls his theological alma mater “a community of grades rather than a community of grace.” Claypool has been reading my mail. And yours.

Surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans are like John Claypool. We live with perpetual self-doubt and self-esteem problems. Most of us feel deeply inadequate. We don’t want you to know who we really are, because we’re afraid if you do, you won’t like us very much. So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish you to see. It’s a mask we wear. And we’re never without it.

But there’s a better way. Living by grades is a sure road to frustration and despair. We can never do enough, for long enough. There’s always someone else to impress, another way to perform. We’re only as good as our last success.

By contrast, living by grace is the sure road to joy of mind and peace of soul. It is the only way off the roller coaster of good days followed by bad. And it’s a road available to every one of us. Here’s how to find it.

Accept the grace of God

We meet the hero of this week’s parable early: “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard” (Matthew 20.1). Remember, in a parable about the kingdom, the hero is the King. In this week’s guise, he’s a landowner with a vineyard. He owns the vineyard and all it produces. He can hire workers or not. As many as he wishes, whenever he wishes. Anything he pays them is by his choice. And so all is grace.

The first group of workers agreed to receive a denarius, the typical working man’s wages, worth around 17 cents today (Broadus 412). And they began working in the owner’s field.

Around the “third hour” he found a second group of workers. They agreed to work for “whatever is right” (v. 4) and joined the first crew. At the “sixth hour” and the “ninth hour” the vineyard owner hired still more workers, who agreed to work for whatever compensation the master determined to give them.

To this point the story is all routine. The Jews divided the day, from sunrise to sunset, into twelve equal parts. Thus the “sixth hour” was always noon, and the third and ninth would correspond roughly to 9 AM and 3 PM (the hours would be longer or shorter as the length of the days changed; Broadus 412).

A man not hired at the first hour of the day (6 AM) would wait for work “in the marketplace” (v. 3), the place where prospective employers and employees met. These were day laborers, in the most precarious position of anyone in ancient Israel. Even slaves belonged to their master and his family, and would not starve unless times were at their very worst. But a day laborer was hired for a day at a time. He made so little that he could save nothing. To go a day without work was to go a day without food for his family (Barclay 2.223).

Given that the workers were sent to a vineyard, we know that this was the time of the grape harvest, toward the end of September. The fall rains would arrive shortly. If the harvest was not gathered before the rains broke, it would be ruined. Each year’s grape harvest was a race against time. So the master would need all the workers he could get, whenever he could get them (Barclay 2.222).

As a result, even at the “eleventh hour” (v. 6), an hour before sundown and the end of the day’s harvest, the vineyard owner found and employed still other workers. These men had spent the day looking for work, to no avail. Now a man is willing to hire them at day’s end. They cannot expect to receive much compensation, but anything is better than nothing.

So far so good. No surprises, except that a landowner would hire men for so little time, and that workers would accept what they could only anticipate as the smallest of wages. Now comes the twist, the turn which changes everything: “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius” (v. 9). This was twelve times what they deserved or expected. Imagine their surprise and delight at the generosity of their employer. This is a gift not earned, payment not deserved. Compensation chosen by the owner of the vineyard, in his sovereign will. This is amazing grace.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a woman dressed as a male page and hid herself in the queen’s bedroom, waiting for an opportunity to stab the queen to death. But she was found by the queen’s attendants and dragged before Her Majesty. Realizing that her case was hopeless, she fell before the queen’s throne and begged for grace. Queen Elizabeth looked at her coldly and quietly said, “If I show you grace, what promise will you make for the future?”

The woman looked up from her knees and said, “Grace that hath conditions, grace that is fettered by precautions, is not grace at all.” The Queen was surprised. After a moment’s reflection she said, “You are right. I pardon you by my grace alone.” And they led her away to freedom. Historians tell us that from that moment Queen Elizabeth had no more devoted, faithful servant than the woman who had received her grace.

Such gratitude is the true and best motivation for service in the King’s vineyard. Not so we will be rewarded, but because we are. Not so we will be people of worth, but because he has made us so. Not so he will love us, but because he does.

The world’s religions know little of this grace. Prometheus gave fire to men, and was punished by the gods for his “man-loving disposition.” Whether we seek to climb up to God on the Buddhist ladder of the eight-fold noble truth, the Hindu pathway of karma, or the Muslim or Jewish rope knotted with laws and regulations, the work is ours. The way of grades.

Christianity is different. During a British conference on world religions, the experts began debating what, if any, belief was unique to our faith. None could be found—others had various doctrines of incarnation, resurrection, and revelation. Then C. S. Lewis wandered into the room and asked what the controversy was about. He was given the question, and responded immediately, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Share the grace of God

Whenever surveyors ask Christians in America for their favorite hymn, Amazing Grace always tops the list. We love to sing about grace. We love to receive it. But we’re not always so enthusiastic about sharing it.

The owner arranged payment of his workers so that those employed last were paid first. When the one-hour employees received a day’s wages, the twelve-hour workers quickly did the math. The grace by which they had been employed at all has now faded in the face of this new possibility of wealth. In their minds the good news has already been shared with their wives and families, bills paid, vacation days planned.

Then came the second surprise: “each one of them also received a denarius” (v. 10). And excitement turned sour: “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowners” (v. 11). “Grumble” here means to complain or gripe. The imperfect tense shows an ongoing, continuous action (Broadus 413). We can hear their words of frustration, whispered to each other as they scowl at their one-time benefactor. Spurgeon said it well: “As soon as the penny was in their hand, a murmur was in their mouth” (276).

Someone became their spokesman: “These men who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burdens of the work and the heat of the day” (v. 12). He has a point. The work in that late summer Palestinian climate was hard, its heat intense. The “heat of the day” probably refers not to typical high temperatures, a routine fact hardly worth mentioning, but to the dry and scorching east wind common in that region of the world.

This was the wind which blasted the grain in Pharoah’s dream (Genesis 41.6), withered Jonah’s vine (Jonah 4.8), and destroyed the vine in Ezekiel’s parable (Ezekiel 17.10; Robertson 160). It was infamous throughout the world and a terrible thing to experience (Broadus 413). Those hired last worked in the cool of the day, not its heat.

When we compare ourselves with others we can always find someone who has had things easier than we have. Someone has been given greater advantages, had better luck, seen better times. As soon as we assume we have earned what has been given to us by grace, we want more grace. We are thankful for our blessings until we see others we have missed. Then we take for granted all we have received, and protest that others have received more.

We complain about the boss’s son who inherits the business we work so hard to advance. We are frustrated that people who work no harder than we do have a nicer home, a newer car, or better clothes. We forget that all we have comes by grace. Did we deserve to be born in America with its freedoms and not North Korea with its oppression? Did we deserve to have parents who loved us rather than abandoning us? Did we deserve to be given physical and intellectual abilities and not challenges? Did we deserve to work in an office in Dallas on September 11, 2001, and not the World Trade Center in New York City?

The master straightened things out: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” (v. 13). “Friend” is a kind, familiar term, a generous reply to this man who has voiced such criticism (Broadus 413, Robertson 160). What we have is the grace of our Master. The proper response is gratitude, not grumbling. So “take your pay and go” (v. 14). Literally “Pick up your money,” as if the worker had contemptuously thrown his denarius on the ground (Robertson 160).

Now the sovereign will and rights of the master are made clear: “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v. 14). “Are you envious” translates “Is your eye onerous,” evil, stingy, miserly. The ancients knew that the eye reveals the soul (which is why sculptures made of dead subjects always leave the eye blank). The “evil eye” revealed an “evil soul.”

The owner can do whatever he wishes with his money and his vineyard, for they are his. If I want my employer to be generous with me, I should expect him to be generous with my colleague as well. When all is of grace, all receive grace. And “the last will be first, and the first will be last” in line (v. 16). Each should be grateful to be included.

Celebrate the grace of God

Jesus’ parable exposes the motives of our hearts. Each of the workers did what he was employed to do, for as long as he was employed to do it. Each received the wages he had agreed to accept. But some rejoiced in grace, while others complained about it. The story reveals our reasons for religious activity, our motives for spiritual service. Grace for some, grades for others.

Why are you reading this commentary? Why do you serve the Lord and our church? Why am I writing these words? Our motives can only be two: a desire to become significant, or gratitude that we already are. We serve Jesus so that he will love us or help us; or we serve him because he already does. We work in the vineyard to be blessed, or because we are.

Jesus’ parable makes this diagnostic suggestion: to learn whether or not you are a person of grace, see how you respond when someone else receives it. When someone else is given the recognition you hoped would be your reward; when another is graced with more than he or she deserves, when you wanted to receive more than you deserve.

In Matthew 19, Peter says to Jesus: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (v. 27). Does his question reveal your heart today?

Is your motive grace or grades? Dr. Criswell’s comment is worth repeating: “Jesus seeks permanent servants to honor Him, and men and women love the work and who are not in His service for pay or reward. We are not to work for the Lord by contract, for the reward, for what we can get out of it. We are to work for our Savior just for the love of the Lord and we are to leave the reward up to Him” (p. 116).

The pastor then illustrated his exposition with a poem, author unknown. Perhaps the Spirit would speak its words to your heart:

Where shall I work today, dear Lord?

And my love flowed warm and free.

Then the Lord pointed out a tiny place

And said, “Tend that for me.”

I cried, “Oh, no, not over there,

Why, no one would ever see,

No matter how well my work was done.

Not that little place for me!”

When the Lord spoke, He was not harsh.

He answered me tenderly:

“Tell me, precious child of mine,

Are you working for them or for Me?

Nazareth was a little place

And so was Galilee.”