Child Games: Jesus & Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

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There are many childhood games that give nostalgia

  • Candy Land / Chutes & Ladders / Parcheesi
  • Go Fish / War / 52 Card Pickup 😊
  • Monopoly / Risk
  • Checkers / Chess

While some games are based on random chance, chess is considered a game of skill and intelligence. Chess is highly strategic, and your success depends on ability to know your opponent’s moves in advance. So, the story of Magnus Carlsen should humble most of us.

Magnus was solving 50-piece jigsaw puzzles when he was two-years old. By age five he was building magnificent Lego creations. In 2013, Carlsen earned the title chess grandmaster at the age of 13 and later that year became a “World Chess Champion.” A year later, Carlsen held all three titles: World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion, and World Blitz Champion, and has since held all three titles. His peak classic chess rating is 2882 is the highest in history. In an interview, he mentioned being able to see 15-20 moves in advance. People have called him the “Mozart of Chess.” You can match your chess skill against him on the smart app “Play Magnus,” which simulates his game play based on hundreds of matches. There you will see Carlsen is a prodigy and makes playing with any of us like child games.

In greater ways, playing chess with Carlsen was like having a conversation with Jesus. If you asked Jesus a question, he would often return answer with another question. He challenged your perspective and confronted faulty assumptions about life, people, and faith God. You could say the religious leaders in biblical times were playing checkers while Jesus was playing chess. Jesus described the naivety, insincerity, and duplicity of the religious leaders as child games. img_4601

Matthew 11:16-19
16  “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
17  “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’
19  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Regardless of how they (or we) thought, Jesus was never a pawn. He was, and always will be, king.

Over the next several weeks we will encounter Jesus on a variety of topics that challenge consumer and casual Christianity. One of the primary purposes of these passages – and messages – over the next several weeks is to teach us not to mistake buffet Jesus for Bible Jesus. The buffet Jesus is different for everyone as they pick and choose what to accept and what to avoid. It is easy, far too easy, to fall into this trap and make God into our image, fit into our preferences, and shrink Him down to our size. Think about it: the biblical Jesus was much more controversial to church-type people than to common sinners. Why do we think it would be different today?

In all, we must be very careful not only to read our Bibles but to allow it to read us; not reading our preconceived views into the text but receiving God’s values from the Scripture.

Today’s message is from Matthew 20:1-16 on the topic of GRACE – uncomfortable grace.

EXAMINE           Matthew 20:1-16

Let’s read and consider some general observations…

The kingdom of heaven is like…

  • Jesus tells many parables describing the kingdom of heaven.
    • There are many topics Jesus speaks frequently about, but they all come back to the kingdom of God (136x in Gospels).
    • Jesus commands us to prize and prioritize kingdom above anything else in life (cf. Mat 6:33).
    • We should do more study about the kingdom of heaven and its implications for how we live on the kingdom of earth.

A business owner with laborers.

  • Vineyard
    • God loves creation and we should care for it. The fruit of the land is a blessing – from Genesis 1, Noah Gen 9:20, Canaan Nu 13:23, lovebirds SoS 1:14, onward to Christ and church Jn 15:1-5.
  • Business
    • God desires fruitfulness and productivity. “Why do you stand here idle all day?” (20:6)
    • Kingdom of heaven will have activity and business.

 

An owner hires and pays laborers

Owner = God, almost always. But we often try to place ourselves in the story and want to find ways to make ourselves the owner, or at least have the owner’s authority or have a say in the owner’s actions. The contrast is true, we don’t like thinking of ourselves as the laborer or servant. This tension is the measure of our faith and spiritual growth. There is strength in being a servant in the right kingdom. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

In this case, the owner is hiring workers and does so at multiple times in the duration of the day.

  • 6AM (start of day) = 1 denarius a day.
  • Third hour (9AM) hired for “whatever is right” – no set agreement but just the owner’s promise to take care of them.
  • Sixth hour (12PM), Ninth hour (3PM) hired for same “whatever is right”
  • Eleventh hour (5PM)

The story does not inform us why the increase of hiring workers.

  • Was this a judgment on the workers – not being sizeable or skilled that others were required?
  • Was the judgment on the task – the workload was greater than expected and there was urgency to complete by end of day?
  • We are not privy to this information, but it’s the owner’s vineyard and he is wise and within his right to make these decisions.
  • Yet – the very act that the early workers, and any of the rest were chosen was an act of grace. Not all the working candidates were chosen.

Illus: Nicaragua seeing men walking either early or late… crowds at the bus stop. Work = eating (2Thes 3:10)

In terms of payment, we know deep down God does give rewards and punishment. The parable illustrates that God’s payment isn’t based on earning but not necessarily opposed effort. The employees work for their agreed payment. We see the owner paying a flat wage but in other parables the wages are commensurate to the work (Mat 25). In all, the owner’s system of payment is based more on generosity.

The owner calls laborers and pays them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first – all receiving a denarius (20:8-9). Observations…

  • The 5pm workers are still fresh and energetic, still smell nice, no sweat marks on head or shirt, hands aren’t even dirty!
  • The integrity, generosity, and compassionate faithfulness of the owner is abundant to each. He cheats no one.
  • All other workers are watching the payment, knowing what they were promised but somehow believing they are entitled to more. In our entitled mindset, if the last workers received a denarius for one-hour work, then the pay scale should be 1 denarius per hr, thus the 12 hr workers hit jackpot. Not so!
  • Interestingly, the owner could have avoided the controversy by simply paying the laborers in the order he hired them. If he paid the first workers their denarius and sent them on their way, they would have been content and unaware of the late laborers pay. But the owner established the system and pays in reverse order for all to clearly see His generous grace.
    • It’s almost as if the owner is trying to pick a fight. The point isn’t to advocate socialistic philosophy where everyone gets paid the same regardless of how much they work. We cannot read our modern assumptions into the text, but to understand the author’s intention for the text within the context of the passage.
    • In this case, the context gives us a clue based on a repeated phrase: “the first will be last and the last first” (cf Mat 19:30; 20:16).
      • In the previous passage we see the rich young ruler who thinks eternal life can be earned by good works or that God’s kingdom can be is a commodity to purchase; neither is true.
      • The same is happening in the parable of the vineyard laborers who have worked all day, expecting not just their agreed payment but more than agreed – entitlement!
    • Those who were first hired and worked longer thought they would receive more, but they received the same. So, they grumbled at the master (20:11)
    • Owner’s response, “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 belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (20:13-16)

The concept of faith as a contract between equal parties could not be further from the truth. Christianity is not a contract between individuals and God, but rather a covenant where He is the benefactor and we are the beneficiary. We do not deserve what God graciously offers to us in Christ, and the only thing we add to our salvation is the sin.

 

APPLY/THINK

Some concluding summary and application…

Few things are ingrained in life, especially living in USA, as having a sense of justice. Believing in justice means we believe things fit in their place with right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Justices gives us a sense of control, and at the end of the day, peace.

But justice with God often throws us for a loop.

  • If you’ve ever asked God, “why did you let this happen?” then at some point you have acknowledged your sense of justice is different than that of Jesus.
  • If you’ve ever been angrier at the sin of others than your sin against others, then your sense of justice is different than that of Jesus.
  • If you’ve ever made a conscious and continual decision not to forgive someone, then your sense of justice is different than that of Jesus.

Life is not fair; neither is grace.

A sign you have misunderstood grace and view Christianity as a contract:

  • Pride and Greed “thought they would receive more…” Why do you consider yourself above others?
  • Jealousy you have made them equal to us” Why compare to others when Jesus is only comparison?
  • Ungrateful and bitter “they grumbled at the master” Is your source of joy in circumstances or Christ?
  • Indifference toward others “do you begrudge my generosity?” We likely make the assumption that the late laborers are lazy (Who wants to work 8-12 hour days?!?). The text doesn’t make this judgment, only that no one hired the workers. The truth is the owner is simply compassionate and generous toward those who doesn’t always have the same privileges.
    • There’s a lot of discussion about privilege these days. Undoubtedly, we can see several forms of privilege:
      • Two-parent homes[1] Higher education, economics, etc.
      • Father involvement[2] Higher health physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually.
      • Religious involvement[3] Higher life quality and satisfaction.
      • Ethnic privilege – This is where it gets uncomfortable for many people.[4] Many people are unlearned or unsympathetic to any reconciliation efforts in this division. As soon as the topic comes up people get defensive and start becoming argumentative or propose “what-aboutisms,” trying to win an argument. But Jesus doesn’t call us to win arguments as much as He calls us to win people to Himself. If our motivation isn’t love for others, then we are nothing but clanging cymbals and noisy gongs.
        • Suggestion: Decrease the public and general statements and increase the personal and specific statements. Let’s start one by one saying, #YourLifeMatters. In this effort of loving people individually we begin to make a difference in the world around us. One person can have a significant impact. Start with one.
          • Not belittling or discouraging participating in greater public movements. There is value to participating in public forums and promotions. But the effectiveness of any movement is always implemented locally.
        • Certainly, the point of this parable is displaying how God shows no partiality and is gracious to all persons.

Overall, we tend to wince and scowl at a story about people not getting what they deserve.[5] It’s not fair; and that’s the point. God’s grace in salvation is, by definition, not fair. D. A. Carson has put it rather candidly: “Do you really want nothing but totally effective, instantaneous justice? Then go to hell.”[6] Gratefully, God surprises us with His mercy. God does what we would never expect according to what we could never earn. Once again, we see this underlying truth emerge: God doesn’t owe us salvation for something we have done; He gives us salvation despite everything we have done. God owes us nothing, yet He gives us everything in Christ.

If we want God to be fair and Jesus to be just, then hold on and buckle up for the bumpy ride. If God gives us what we deserve, then we are doomed for eternity (Rom 3:23; 6:23). Instead, we would much rather God to be merciful and Jesus to extend us grace. I don’t recommend you wait to have 11th hour faith because we are not promised another minute or hour… today/moment is time of salvation! But God’s grace is available in 11th hours, but you cannot predict such time.

Further, if we consider this parable not from the audience perspective but from Jesus’s perspective, then we become much more humble and grateful. Jesus is really the one that worked all day while we are idle and late laborers. Even more, Jesus did not get what He deserved but was punished for our shortfalls and laziness. The wages He deserved have been transferred to us. We have inherited what we have not earned.

If we truly understand this parable, it has the potential to radically challenge your thinking and create a Christ-centered paradigm for how you view life, faith, and others.

  • Commit today to a faith relationship with Jesus Christ based upon grace and gratitude.
  • Contribute to faithfully working in the Lord’s vineyard. Contribute as much as you can with as much time you have.

[1] Quick Examples: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/04/25/the-changing-profile-of-unmarried-parents/, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/power-two-parent-home-not-myth, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/04/25/the-changing-profile-of-unmarried-parents/

[2] Ex: https://www.fatherhood.org/father-absence-statistic, https://twitter.com/drantbradley/status/1278371164960817152,

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/31/are-religious-people-happier-healthier-our-new-global-study-explores-this-question/

[4] Articles about helping to discuss the topic of racial justice: https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2020/07/06/how-to-guide-talk-racism-white-privilege-with-family-friends/3278514001/, https://www.nae.net/racialjustice/, : https://intervarsity.org/page/media-engages-intervarsity-and-black-lives-matter

[5] This paragraph lightly adapted from David Platt, Christ Centered Exposition: Matthew 20.

[6] Donald Carson, How Long, O Lord, 161.

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