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Looking for Laborers

Matthew 20:1-16

1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.

2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,

4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.

5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.

6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?

7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.

8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.

10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.

11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,

12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.

15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.


Buckner Fanning, pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church, San Antonio, said that early in his ministry that he was preaching a revival meeting at one of the churches in Bogalusa, Louisiana. In the last service of that revival they asked a young man who had not been a Christian for a long time to give his testimony. As he stepped out on the platform Buckner said it was as if he stepped out of one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings, the kind they used to put on the front of The Saturday Evening Post. His coat sleeves were too short and his entire suit was too tight. He couldn’t button the collar of his shirt and he was tall and lanky. He looked like he had come straight from the country and he probably had. He was very nervous as anybody would be standing before a congregation speaking for Christ for the first time. But he got started with his testimony and he was basing it upon the experience of Abraham, offering up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. 

As he continued with that testimony in his nervousness he began to use the name Isaiah instead of Isaac. He got those two Bible characters mixed up and he talked about Abraham offering up Isaiah and people in the congregation who knew their Bible began to snicker and there was a bit of uneasiness about them. That kind of thing happens to anybody and everybody who speaks. Somewhere along the way you are going to say the wrong thing and you are going to notice the response of the audience and you will realize that you’ve said something wrong, but you won’t remember what it is. He just noticed that the people were snickering and the people were uneasy. That made him even more frustrated and before he had finished he not only was calling Isaac Isaiah, he was calling Abraham Birmingham. He got to talking about Birmingham upon the top of that mountain ready to plunge that dagger into the breast of Isaiah and it was almost more than the congregation could take as they sat there snickering and laughing in their uneasiness. 

Finally he just stopped and he looked at the congregation and without any rancor in his voice, without any bitterness in his voice at all, he gave a great big sigh and he laughed and he said, “Well, folks, I’m doing the best I can for God. I hope you are too.” And Buckner said that’s been a long, long time ago since he heard that, but he had never forgotten those words: “Folks, I’m doing the best I can for God. I hope you are too.” 

The challenge I want to issue to you on this the first day of the New Year is that you make that same kind of commitment, that you will do the very best you can for God this next year. I think maybe the text that I’ve chosen today suggests that idea, that theme to us. It is the story of a wealthy landowner who early one morning went out to hire workers to work in his fields, in his vineyard. When he had found some he negotiated a price with them and they went to work. Then on about the third hour of the day he went back and found additional workers and hired them and they went to work in his fields. Then at the sixth hour of the day he went back and found more workers and he employed them and without negotiating a price with any of these secondary workers he said to them, “You go and work in my fields and whatever is right I will pay you.” And on the basis of faith and trust that this man would pay him a just wage, a fair wage, they went to work.

They went back at three o’clock in the afternoon, the ninth hour, and he found some other workers and he asked them to go and work in the fields. And then the last time he went back was the 11th hour—five o’clock in the afternoon, one hour before quitting time. And he found some additional workers and he said to them, “You go and work in my fields and whatever is right I will pay you.” 

The end of the day came and he lined the workers up and began to pay them their salary for their work that day. And to the dismay of everyone else involved he paid those last workers, the ones who began at five o’clock, a full day’s pay. And the ones who started at three o’clock he paid them the same amount and the ones that started at 12 o’clock he paid them the same amount. And the ones that started at nine o’clock in the morning he paid them the same amount. He paid everybody who worked for him, regardless of how long he had worked, exactly the same amount of money. The normal wage for a laboring man in that day. When those who had worked longer hours saw what he had done, they began to complain to the master. They said, “We have borne the heat of the day, working out in the fields for 12 long hours and you are not paying us any more than you paid those people who worked just one hour. That’s not fair.” 

And the master responded to them by saying, “Well, friends, I have done you no wrong. When you starting working for me we bargained, we negotiated a price, and you were willing to work for a certain amount of money and I paid you what we agreed on. What I have done was not to wrong you in any way; instead I have been more gracious to these other people and I have given them more than they earned, more than they deserve. After all, it is my money. These are my vineyards and I am free to do with my money what I please.” And then he made this statement: “Those that are last shall be first, and those that are first shall be last.”

When we hear this parable of our Lord, first it sounds like he is describing some kind of imaginary activity, some kind of imaginary event. But the truth of the matter is, apart from the way he paid those laborers, the story he told was the kind of thing that happened all the time in Israel. That is to say, the hours that he talked about in this parable are normal hours. The workday for a laboring man was from sunup until sundown, from six o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening, 12 full hours. And the six o’clock hour was the first hour of the day; nine o’clock in the morning was the third hour of the day; 12 o’clock noon was the sixth hour of the day; three o’clock in the afternoon was the ninth our of the day and five o’clock in the afternoon was the 11th hour of the day. The hours mentioned in this parable are normal hours. The pay they received was a normal pay. It was a penny. The Roman word denarius, which was the normal salary for a workingman, a single silver coin. The hiring conditions were normal conditions.

When he went to find people to work, they were not idle gossips standing on the street corner with nothing to do. They were not people who were simply wasting their time. They were laboring men who had gone down to the labor exchange, to the unemployment office looking for work. When you needed a day laborer, that’s where you went, to the unemployment office. These men were standing around there hoping to find a job. They were anxious to work, they were ready to work, and the hiring conditions of this parable are normal. The paying of these men was a normal activity. For the Jewish law required that at the end of every working day the laboring man should be paid for his work. 

These people were very poor. They did not live from week to week. They did not live from paycheck to paycheck—they lived from day to day. It was necessary that at the end of every working day the laboring man be paid so he would have something to live on the next day. The only thing abnormal about this parable is that he paid every man who worked for him exactly the same amount of money. And that’s the part of the parable that throws us. It is the part of the parable that is most surprising because when we see the master paying every man exactly the same amount of money, it seems unjust, unfair to us, just as it did to those laboring men. We leave this parable of these men hired at different hours of the day, working for different periods of the time, but for the same pay. And we wonder what is the meaning of this parable.

I think we might understand it if we knew something about what happened before this experience. Just prior to this Jesus had encountered the rich young ruler, a young man who had come to him to ask, “Master, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?” And Jesus said, “You must go and live by the commandments.” And the young man said, “Well, I have kept the commandments from the time I was a child. What lack I yet?”

Jesus, knowing that this young man was gripped, he was possessed and dominated by his wealth, said to him, “You must go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me. “ And the scriptures say that this man had great wealth and he turned and walked away from Jesus very sorrowfully. He was unwilling to put Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God in front of his wealth and so he lost out on his opportunity to be saved. 

When this happened Simon Peter, speaking for the other disciples, said, “Lord, we have forsaken everything to follow you. What shall we have therefore? You just told that young man that if he would go and sell everything he had and follow you he would have everlasting life. Lord, we have done that. We have forsaken everything—our houses, our jobs, our families—we have given everything to follow you, now what are we going to get out of it?

And Jesus proceeded to answer Peter and the other apostles by saying, “Well, when I come to my kingdom, you are going to share in the ruling and the reigning that I shall do. If you have given up houses and lands and brothers and sisters and all of those things, then you will be rewarded in eternity a hundredfold.” And then he made this most significant statement: “Many that are first shall be last and many that are last shall be first.” 

And it was following that questioning and answer time about rewards in eternity that Jesus told this parable about the man who went out early one morning to hire some workers. Then he hired some later and some later and some later, and then at the 11th hour, just one hour before quitting time, he hired the last batch of workers and then it came time to pay them and he paid everybody the same amount. And he made that statement: “Many that are first shall be last and many that are last shall be first.”

I think there are two possible interpretations of this parable. Perhaps Jesus told this parable to reprove the bargaining spirit that Simon Peter had expressed. Simon had said, “Lord, we have forsaken everything to follow you, now what shall we have therefore?” And Jesus may have been saying to him, “Simon, that’s not the spirit. That’s not the right attitude that you are to have as you enter into my kingdom and begin working for me.” 

Do you remember in the parable the first men who went to work bargained for their wage? They talked with the landowner and they agreed on the salary. But thereafter, all who came to work simply heard the master say, “Go and work in my field and whatsoever is right I will pay you.” And all of those other workers went to work in the field on the basis of faith and trust in the master. They were trusting his graciousness, they were trusting his fairness. They were trusting his goodness to pay them what was due. And Jesus may have been saying to Simon, “That bargaining spirit of yours is not the spirit in which you work and labor in the kingdom of God. You are to work and to labor in the spirit of faith and trust, knowing that when the end comes will pay you what is fair. You will be justly rewarded for what you do. That may be the meaning of the parable.

There is a second possible meaning. It is this: that he is reminding us that regardless of when a person begins to work for him that their pay will always be the same. You see he was talking to these 12 apostles who had been with him from the very beginning. In a sense they had been working for him since the first hour of the day. And maybe they felt that because they had been with him from the beginning, because they had started out from the first, they were due some special honor, some special privilege, some special priority in the kingdom of God. And Jesus was saying to them, “I want you to know that even those who come later, those who come at the third hour, those who come at the sixth hour, and those who come at the ninth hour, and those who come at the very last minute, every person who comes, regardless of when it is, is going to share equally in my rewards at the end of time.” 

Whatever the central meaning of this parable is, there are three truths in it that I think we need to hear and need to understand today. If you are taking notes on the sermon, here is the first thing that you will want to write down.

1. The Lord is ever seeking people to work in his kingdom.

I think it is significant that the Lord likens his kingdom to a vineyard where there is work that needs to be done. He does not compare his kingdom to a place of idleness where men stand around and twiddle their thumbs and wonder why we are and what we are to do. It is rather a place of work, a place of employment, a place where things need to be done and he suggests to us that he is ever and always calling us to be involved in his kingdom and to go to work for him.

I suggest to you that the highest honor and the greatest privilege that God could give to anyone of us is to work with him. The apostle Paul put it this way in the first book of Corinthians when he said, “We are laborers together with God. “ Paul was suggesting that God has given to us that high honor and that great privilege of joining hearts and hands with him in the mighty work of the kingdom of God and there is no privilege ever given to any person greater than that privilege. 

Now, we desperately need something that will give eternal significance to our lives. And it is only as we invest our lives in kingdom of God that we invest our lives in the work of our Lord—growing people in our Savior Jesus Christ, building his church, extending his kingdom—that we invest our lives with eternal significance. And the Lord recognizing this calls us and keeps on calling us to work in his vineyard. 

Jesus said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus recognized that it was in committing your life to some great cause, to some worthy cause, that you really find out what life is all about. And so there are many people today, many in this congregation, who are wasting their lives on trivial pursuits, on insignificant undertakings that have no eternal value whatsoever. And until you find your place in the kingdom of God and begin to serve the Lord Jesus with all of your heart and mind and soul you will never find that eternal significance that you want in your life and that you desperately need in your life. 

And one of the truths of this parable is that our Lord is ever and always seeking people to work in his vineyard. I want you to notice that he tells us that he invites those whom the world has rejected. He not only went at the first hour of the day and hired workers, but he went back again and again. Finally, at the last hour he found some men standing there idle and he said to them, “Why don’t you go to work?” And they said, “No man hired us.” Now, they hadn’t been standing there all day or he would have hired them at the first hour. They had gone to other places looking for work. They had been seeking employment and one by one they had been rejected. They had been turned down by first this vineyard owner and that one and another and another, and they came at the last hour of the day sad and rejected. And they are told, “I’ve got a job for you to do. Through you have just an hour left to work, go into my vineyard and whatever is fair I will pay you.” And it suggests to us that the Lord is always seeking workers, even those whom the world has rejected.

Some of you feel sad and rejected by life and by its circumstances and by your friends and perhaps your loved ones. But there is a great promise in scripture. Jesus said, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). And those whom the world rejects can always find acceptance and they can always find a place in the kingdom of God. And our Lord is ever seeking after us to get to work in his vineyard.

When I talk about working in God’s vineyard I do not mean that you are necessarily employed directly by the church. I mean in your chosen vocation, as a doctor, as a lawyer, as a merchant, as a teacher, wherever you work and whatever you do in that capacity. In that office, in that place, you have a marvelous opportunity to labor in the vineyard of God and to be his servant and to be his instrument and to build his kingdom there. Regardless of who you are or what you do, regardless of how many times you may have failed in the past or been rejected by others in days gone by, you can be assured of this: our Lord seeks you to work in his vineyard. And if you want your life to count for the highest and best, you need to go to work for him.

2. It is the spirit of our service rather than its length that matters.

There is a second truth I want you to see in this parable. Not only that God invites us to work in his vineyard but that in his service, it is our spirit rather than the length of service that matters. It is not how long we have worked. It is not how many years we have put into the kingdom of God. It is rather the spirit and the heart we put into God’s work that really matters. That has always been the way with God and his kingdom. 

Perhaps you remember that the supreme ambition of David’s life was that he might build a house for God. Although he was able to do many things David never had the privilege of building God’s house. So he came to the end of his days and there was no temple of God in Jerusalem and he must have felt that he was a failure. He must have felt sad and rejected because he had never been able to accomplish that which he longed to accomplish. There was a desire in his heart but he was never able to do it with his hands. 

I want you to notice God’s response to David’s experience. In 1 Kings 8:18 the Lord says this to David: “Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart.” In short, God gave David credit for the achievement because he built a temple in his heart. He was never able to build one with his hands but he longed to and the building of the house of God was in his heart. God gave him credit for building the house of God. That’s always the way of God. What is in our heart is more important than what is in our hand.

Take the widow who was dropping an offering in the collection plate at the Temple one day. Jesus stood in the background and watched and he saw the wealthy come by and drop in their large sums of money. And along came this and she dropped in the widow’s mite, just two pennies. And our Lord, seeing her heart, our Lord knowing her desire, her longing, said, “That woman has given more than all the rest.” The reason was that though she gave just a little bit, it was in her heart to give all that she could, all that she had. And God has a way of looking in our hearts and he tells us in this parable that it is the spirit of our labor more than the length of time we spend doing it.

How do we know what’s in a person’s heart? We know what’s in a person’s heart by what they do with that which is in their hand. David was not able to build a house of God, but he went as far as he could in building the house of God. He raised the money. He collected the material. He had the plans drawn. He went as far as he could possibly go to build the house of God and because he did what he could do with that which he had in his hand, God gave him credit for what was in his heart. 

How do we know that that widow had a heart and a desire to give more to God? Because of what she did with that which was in her hands. She had two pennies and she dropped those in the collection plate and because of what she did with that in her hand, we know that in her heart there was a desire to do her very best, the most she could for God. 

God always measures the desire of our heart by what we do with our hands. So if we will seize the opportunity that is ours, if we will use the resources that he entrusts to us, if we will do the best we can with what we’ve got, with where we are today for Jesus Christ, then God accounts that as acceptable service rendered to the kingdom of God because it is our spirit and our desire and our longing that counts the most with him.

Some of you are not doing nearly as much as you would like to, not nearly as much as you would if you could. And understand this: God sees the desires and the longings that’s what is most important to him. And in this parable he rewarded those who worked nine hours, and those who worked six hours, and those who worked three hours, and those who worked one hour as much as he did those who worked all 12 hours. They seized the opportunity that they had and they did the best they could. And when they were hired they went to work and did their best. It is always that way with God. He is concerned not only about what is in our hand but what is in our heart, and he rewards us by the spirit of our labor, not just by the length of our labor.

3. It is not too late for you to go to work in God’s vineyard.

There is one other truth I want you to know. Not only that God is looking for people to work in his vineyard, not only that God measures our service by spirit rather than by length, but this truth. It is not too late for you to go to work in God’s vineyard. He hired workers until the 11th hour. And the 11th hour was the last hour before quitting time. And even though they had failed up until that moment to find employment, when the Master called they answered that call and until the last hour our Lord keeps calling us and inviting us to be a part of his kingdom, to be involved in his work.

There are some of you who have spent a lifetime of failure. You have never found your niche, your place. You have never become really involved in the kingdom of God. You have intended to. You have wanted to. You planned to. You have resolved yourself to do it. Again and again you have determined this is what you’re going to do. I am here to tell you that it is not too late for you. As long as time lasts, and as long as you hear the voice of God calling you and inviting you, it is not too late. And the parable teaches us that until the 11th hour we still have that opportunity to get involved in a meaningful way with the eternal and the living God.

In the book of Revelation there is a beautiful word picture painted for us of the holy city of heaven. There are 12 gates in that city, three to the north, three to the south, three to the east, three to the west. There has been a lot of speculation as to the meaning of those gates. I’m not sure of all that is meant by them, but I think that you need to take note of the fact that three of those gates are toward the east, the direction of the dawn, and three of them are to the west, the direction of the sunset. And I think at least in part our Lord is saying to us that in the dawn of your life, in the early hours of your life, you can enter into his kingdom, into his palace. But if you miss that, even in the sunset hours of life you can still enter in.

Bob Couch told a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. He was in a revival meeting in the Central Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. They had come to the close of the last service. He had given the invitation, the people had made their response, and he had stepped down to the front to help the pastor counsel with those who had made decisions. They had introduced them to the congregation and they had come now for the time of benediction when Bob Couch felt somebody tugging on the sleeve of his coat. And he looked down and there stood a little girl and she said to him, “Brother Couch, my grandfather is back on the last row and he wants to know if it is too late to be saved.” And he said to her, “No. You tell him to come right now.” 

And when the pastor finished the prayer and the people started to leave the sanctuary, he called them back to attention and said, “Folks, stay in your places. There is a man who wants to be saved. We are going to sing another hymn.” So they sang again. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” And while they sang that hymn a 72-year-old grandfather walked that aisle and gave his life to Jesus Christ. When he spoke to the congregation at the end of the service he said, “I want to thank you for never losing interest in me or ceasing to pray for me over these past 40 years. And my only regret is I have so little of my life left to give to the Lord.” 

It is a sad thing. A person lives 70 years before they come to that place of commitment and faith. But it is sadder still if they never come. If they live and they die without making that greatest of all commitments. And the Lord is saying to us at least in part in this parable, “Until the 11th hour, until the very last hour, you can still come.” 

And I believe that this is his invitation to you and to me at the beginning or this New Year. He is looking for men and women who will work in his kingdom and he invites you to be a part of it. 

Even if you have been rejected by the world, even if you have tried and failed again and again, he is saying, “Go work in my vineyard. I have a place for you.” And he is saying above all, “It is not too late yet.”

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Today's Devotional

The Cement of Civilization

George E. Jones, former deputy editor of U.S. News, once raised the question, “Whatever became of belief in America?” He went on to point out that belief in America is being replaced by pessimism, distrust of leaders, and laxity in standards. The old certainties are passing away and skepticism and cynicism abound everywhere. Then he called belief “the energizer of progress” and the “cement of civilization.” Jones is right. People who believe nothing do nothing. Without belief people won’t take a stand for righteousness. They just don’t care enough. When a lack of belief is widespread enough, a nation can’t even muster up enough people to defend itself against the enemy. Belief is the cement of society. It holds the home, the school, the community, and the nation as well as the individual together. Without belief, convictions, and values they all fall apart.

The falling apart of society we are experiencing is in reality a crisis in belief. Easy divorce, crime, suicide, alcoholism, youth runaways, abortion, drugs, and the like are all expressions of the emptiness of our lives. We don’t believe anything and so nothing matters.

Carl Henry said we are approaching what he calls “the absolute autonomy of man.” Man thinks he does “not need God either to know the truth or to do good ... whether he wishes to walk on the moon, cure cancer, or bring peace on the earth.” That’s a joke. We might be able to walk safely on the moon without God—but we sure can’t walk safely on our own streets. We might eventually be able to cure cancer without God, but we can’t cure crime, depression, rebellion, or alcoholism.

Friends, let’s face it—we are as helpless to deal with our real problems as our forefathers were. That’s why we must get back to the faith of our forefathers. We must get back to the Bible.

Why not get yours out and dust it off today. If you don’t have one, buy one. Begin to read it, study it, and live it. Go to church and take your family with you. Humble yourselves before God. Believe him.

That’s our only hope.

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