18th Sunday After Pentecost October 16, 2011


God’s “Unfair” Labor Practices

Matthew 20:1-16

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:18-27


540, 761 [TLH alt. 364], 400, 778 [TLH alt. 374]

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

[Jesus said], “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”

In the name of Jesus, who rules in our hearts with grace and truth, dear fellow Christians:

Do you like your work? Would you change it if you were able? If you could work for anyone you would choose, who would it be? According to Fortune magazine Google is the best company in the United States for whom to work. Benefits like onsite childcare, a fitness center, and flexible hours make it attractive to employees. Generous wages and stock options have made it possible for quite a number of employees to work their way up through the ranks and become millionaires.

But what would happen to Google’s number one status if they treated their workers like the landowner in Jesus’ parable dealt with his employees? The first group of laborers agreed to work for a denarius a day. A denarius was a Roman coin worth a typical day’s wage. Let’s say it represents a wage of $10 per hour which would be $120 for the 12-hour shift running from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Other workers were hired at 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, and even 5:00 p.m. — just an hour before quitting time. The landowner didn’t tell them what they would receive. He simply said, “Whatever is right I will give you.”

At the end of the day the workers lined up for their pay. Those who had worked in the vineyard for only an hour and had barely broken a sweat each received a denarius! They were thrilled and a little shocked at the generosity of the master. Meanwhile, the first group of workers was doing some quick mental calculations. If these last laborers received $120 for an hour’s work, they could expect at least 12 times that amount, $1,440! Eagerly they tore open the pay envelope, and there it was: six $20 bills—$120 just like everyone else received. They felt cheated. “It’s not fair!” they grumbled. “We worked harder and longer, and so we should receive more.” If this happened today the workers probably would file an unfair labor practices charge against the employer.

Google doesn’t operate that way. It’s no way to run a business. But that is how God runs His Kingdom. It matters to us because we are part of that Kingdom. God has called us to work in His vineyard. How should we feel about that? Should be we be joyful or complaining, eager to work or walking the picket lines?


It helps our understanding to look at the context of Jesus’ story. Just before this a wealthy young man had approached Jesus with the question: “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus told him, “Obey the commandments.” The man replied, “I have kept them all. What else should I do?” Jesus then told him, “If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven.” Jesus wanted the man to examine his heart and realize that he was not perfect since his love for wealth was competing with his love for God. But instead of turning to Jesus in repentance, the man went away sad (cf. Matthew 9:16ff).

After observing all this, Peter took up the conversation: “We have done what you told him to do, Lord. We have left everything to follow you. What are we going to get?” (cf. Matthew 19:27). Peter was thinking like the first group of workers in the parable:“We have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day. It’s only fair that we should receive a greater reward.”

Do you ever feel that way regarding your service to the Lord? It’s easy to slip into that mindset. After all, it’s the way we view fairness in the workplace and in the world at large. Hard work and accomplishment earn a reward. That is fine in earthly affairs. Paul told the Thessalonians: “If any would not work neither should he eat(2 Thessalonians 3:10).

However, the danger arises when we carry over that attitude into our relationship with God. We imagine that we are entitled to a generous paycheck drawn on Heaven’s bank because of our record and years of service. Many of us have been lifelong followers of the Lord. We worship regularly in His house. We support His work with our offerings. We teach Sunday School and VBS, serve on boards and committees. We clean church on Saturday and get our hands dirty on work days. We try to be kind and helpful to others as we are able. It is only “fair” that God should recognize that, especially since so many other people do not do nearly as much.

But the Lord sees things differently. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts(Isaiah 55:9).

In the parable the first workers thought the landowner was not giving them their due. In their minds they deserved better. They forgot that it was by the owner’s grace they were even hired. They needed the job to put food on the table and care for their families. The landowner had gone out and found them, not the other way around. The workers needed him much more than he needed them. The master paid them just what he had promised. Why should they complain about the master’s goodness to others? The story emphasizes that God deals with us not on the basis of “fairness,” but by grace—undeserved love. That is reason for relief and rejoicing, not complaining.

If God gave us what we deserve, we would receive the wages of sin, eternal death. We have nothing to boast about, for we didn’t approach God and hand Him a glowing resume. There is nothing good in us by nature. We wanted nothing to do with Him. Jesus told the disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you(John 15:16). Would you want to argue before God that you have been a model worker in His kingdom? How often does He find us relaxing in the shade instead of laboring under the sun in the vineyard? When we are working how often do we complain that the work is too hard?

The landowner told the men hired later in the day, “Go and work, and I will pay you what is right.” We think immediately of a day’s wage for a day’s work. But the owner meant something else by “what is right.” He was thinking of what was right and good according to his grace. That is just what God does. It doesn’t matter when the worker is called into the vineyard of His Kingdom or how long he works. He receives the full wage just like everyone else. The dying thief on the cross next to Jesus or the Apostle Paul, the infant who dies shortly after baptism or the believer who serves the Savior for 90 years—all receive the same pay for the same reason. Every believer receives forgiveness of sins, peace with God, confidence to pray, strength for whatever comes in life, and finally the eternal joy of Heaven—all as a reward of grace. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord(Romans 6:23). Thank the Lord that His labor practices are “unfair”!


But if the paycheck is the same for every worker in the vineyard, why bother working? If those hired first had known from the start what would happen at quitting time, would they have been ready to work at 6:00 a.m.? Why not sleep in and show up at noon or even 5:00 p.m. and save yourself the extra work?

I recall meeting a man who was in his 40’s at the time. We spoke about religion, church, and the Savior. He told me that he knew spiritual matters were important, but that at the time he had a home, family, and job, and he wanted to put all his efforts into those things. He added, “But when I retire I will be sure to read the Bible and get serious about my soul.” Even though the Lord was calling him at that moment, he was saying, “No, I’m too busy now. I’ll show up at 5:00 p.m. and put in a good hour of work.” What was he saying about the value he placed upon the Lord’s call? It’s a dangerous plan. It shows a complete lack of appreciation for God’s grace. Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near(Isaiah 55:6). When the sun sets on one’s life or Jesus returns in judgment, it will be too late to head for the vineyard.

What about us? Once we are in the vineyard, why bother working too hard when God’s gifts are all by grace anyway? Why do more at church, when you look around and see others who, at least from your perspective, are not doing their fair share? Perhaps you have been serving the Lord for decades in all kinds of capacities. Why not say, “I’ve done my fair share. Now I’m retiring.” Or we could limit our service to one specific area and reason, “I’m willing to use this one certain gift and that’s it. Someone else can do the rest.” These attitudes contribute toward a reported statistic which says that in the typical church 10% of the people do 90% of the work.

There is only one thing which is truly effective in turning that around and inspiring us to work with all our hearts for as long as the Lord leaves us on earth, and that is God’s grace. His grace caused Him to send Jesus. Jesus accomplished all the work needed to save us. He was perfect in our place. He paid the penalty for our sin so that God’s justice would be satisfied. His grace has called us into His Kingdom to work in bringing other souls to faith; and it is His grace which gives us the desire and strength to carry out the work. Paul wrote the Galatians: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me(Galatians 2:20 NIV).

Drawing on the grace and strength of the Lord enabled Paul to gladly give his all to serving. He wasn’t concerned about whether he was working too hard or whether Peter and the others were doing their fair share. He was beaten, whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, and thrown into prison more times than he could remember. Yet he never lost his enthusiasm and zest for living to the glory of God. He looked forward to Heaven, but in the meantime told the Philippians: “Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you…I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith(Philippians 1:24-25). Working hard in serving the Lord was not a chore at all, but rather a reward in itself. It truly was a labor of love!

May our service to the Lord at church, within the congregation, in our homes, and in every other area of life likewise be a labor of love—work we enjoy and want to do as workers in the vineyard. May we come to see that there is no better place to work. May we be faithful laborers from now until the sun sets on our world and the Lord calls us to receive the reward of grace He Himself earned. Amen.

Grace has a thrilling sound o each believer’s ear;
That peace with God through Christ is found
Is news I gladly hear
. [WS 778:1]

—Pastor Michael M. Eichstadt

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