Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
This is a test. Open a Bible to this phrase in Genesis, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful.” Raise your hand when you find it. Now look for it in Genesis 28. Raise your hand when you find it. Now find it at Genesis 28:3.
This exercise proves it is good the Bible is divided into chapters and verses. Stephen Langston, Archbishop of Canterbury, made 1,189 chapters about 1228 A.D. The first English Bible to use chapters was the Wycliffe Bible (1382 A.D.)
In 1448 A.D., a Jewish rabbi named Nathan divided the Hebrew Old Testament into about 23,214 verses. In 1551 A.D., Robert Stephens, a French printer, published a Greek New Testament with 7,959 verses. Stephens made the divisions while resting at inns along the way on a 300-mile trip from Paris to Lyons, France. The sometimes strange, arbitrary numbering of verses spawned a legend saying he made the divisions on horseback during the trip, the theory being, some choices were caused more by bumps in the road than by serious thought.
The first English Bible to have chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible in 1560 A.D. Chapter and verse divisions are not authoritative. They exist only for convenience, to make finding references easier in a book having 800,000 words.
This history takes on relevance for us today if we compare Matthew 19:30 with 20:16. The two verses, in essence the same statement, introduce and conclude the parable of the field workers. Thus the chapter break here is not well placed.
Matthew 20:1 (Holman) “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”
When Jesus would tell a parable, His intent was to teach one central truth. Other points can be inferred, but the one main lesson must always be kept in mind.
This parable was Jesus’ way of explaining what He meant when He said the first will be last, and the last will be first. There will be shocking surprises aplenty on Judgment Day. To present this high truth, Jesus used a lowly story.
A landowner went to town to hire field-workers at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. At 6 p.m. he paid the workers. They all received the exact same pay, though they did not work the same amount of time. This seems strange to us.
This parable of the field workers teaches that our specific spiritual rewards in eternity will not be based on length or quality of service as we perceive it, but on God’s gracious, hidden-to-us, way of judging. The Bible teaches us what general rewards we will all receive—Heaven, everlasting life with Jesus, etc. Specific rewards cannot be known in advance by anyone. No one here knows who’s first or last. Only God can see what is truly happening. Our job is to focus on the work.
Matthew 20:2 “After agreeing with the workers on one denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
This was the usual way a landowner hired field workers. He went to town to find laborers willing to work for one denarius a day, the standard pay in those days.
Jesus presented His Kingdom as being a place of work, a novel idea to some believers. He wants laborers, not loiterers. Our calling is to serve Him and others.
At the first of this year, we set our course to accomplish certain goals. Have we achieved the five goals we set out early in the year to do? Did we read all the Bible, tithe or increase giving by 2%, minister, go on a mission trip, be in a small group. Work is the stock in trade of the Kingdom of Heaven. Too many believers are content to do nothing, or at best precious little, to help in God’s vineyard.
Matthew 20:3 “When he went out about nine in the morning, he saw others standing in the market place doing nothing.”
The landowner wanted workers. He meant business. Grape harvests ripen near the end of September. Soon thereafter the rains come. Once rain starts, the crops are ruined. The whole scene before us entails urgency, a race against time.
I appreciate Kingdom workers who are in dead earnest about God’s work. John Wesley had much to say on the topic. As a young man, he wrote his mother, “Leisure and I have parted company.” A biographer later wrote, “They never met again.” He once said, “My one aim in life is to secure personal holiness.”
He said of his preaching, “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” He also said, “Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.”
Wesley was not perfect, but did see the seriousness of our task. We do not have infinite time to influence our children and grandchildren. We will someday pray for them no more. Family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers are flooding into a Christ-less eternity. Do we know for sure how it is with them? Do we care?
In our text the landowner, who earnestly wanted field workers, went looking for more laborers at 9 a.m. He found men standing idle in the marketplace. They were not lazy. They were precisely where laborers came to find work for the day. They were like the people who gather every workday morning here in Springfield at the day laborers hiring building at the corner of Cherry and Glenstone.
Unfortunately, these men in the marketplace were outside the vineyard, where real work gets done. Things done outside the vineyard are, in the final analysis, busy-ness, activities that end in nothing, like making bobby pins. Only one activity yields everlasting results; working in the vineyard, in Jesus’ field.
Otherwise, energy is expended on nothing of ultimate purpose, on nothing great enough to be worth giving our lives to and for. God, because He loves us, calls us to something better. Blessed are the Christ-followers who perceive, and revel in the fact, we have been given work to do that is worth giving our lives to.
Too many build crumbling sand castles and melting ice sculptures, laboring for the temporary only. A shepherd in the Alps once devoted 15 years of his life to learning how to balance a pole on his chin. Could he have maybe used his time better? We laugh at him, but is our work any more profitable for the Kingdom?
It is appropriate the landowner sought in the marketplace for laborers. It was not only where laborers gathered, but also where money brokers did finance, and where people socialized. What an apt picture of efforts that have as their highest aim to buy and get gain, or to make us famous. Outside financial, society-conscious marketplaces, in God’s vineyard, is where the real work gets done.
Ben Pilgreen, our former Teaching Pastor, whom we sent to San Francisco to start a church, reminded us we need to leverage the temporary for the eternal. Our time, our money, our prayers, and our faith are all needed in the vineyard.