God Is In Control
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
In this parable of the field workers, Jesus was explaining what He meant when He said the first will be last, and the last first. On Judgment Day, we will not be judged according to what we see here and now. There will be surprises galore. We cannot know for sure till the end who has what reward, or who is first or last.
Matt. 20:13-14 (Holman) He replied to one of them, “Friend, I’m doing you
no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours
and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you.”
The all-day workers felt they should have more pay than the ones who worked fewer hours. By showing envy, they unintentionally proved they had no concept of grace, and did not value it. They wanted judgment by works, based on their own estimation of what they had done, and felt they should have earned more.
Let the record show, the owner tried to be, at the same time, gentle and straightforward. The worker was wrong and rude, but the owner called him “Friend”, not “reprobate” or “dunce”. It is okay to make strong arguments if they are expressed in soft language. The owner wanted to be discreet, yet plain spoken.
The worker’s attitude was not good. Beware discontent and envy. They can indicate that someone ranked among the first may be plummeting toward the last.
It is possible to live life under a false illusion, thinking we are first, yet ending up last. Yearning to be greater than others is not good. Yet on the other hand, don’t think of yourself as last. The setting for our parable taught this lesson.
To the religious leaders, country people, hired laborers, were outsiders, for sure last. Jesus went to, and talked about, people who needed Him most, and were open to His message. They weren’t as impressive as the big wigs, but by taking full advantage of the opportunity Jesus gave them, they proved they were not last.
Matt. 20:15a “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my business?”
The owner paid everyone what he wanted to pay them. He asserted his right to decide, though to us the workers obviously seemed to be at different levels of deserving pay. On Judgment Day, the final rewards will be distributed by God’s plan and criteria, not ours. This does not mean God is capricious, but indicates He makes decisions based on His own totally fair criteria, which is unknown to us.
We humans are cursed with a hyper-desire to know everything. Like our first ancestors, we want to gorge ourselves by feeding from the tree of knowledge.
At some point, we have to stop trying to figure it all out. This is what it means to live by faith, not sight. We try to understand, yet know a calculation is being done beyond our ability to grasp. Rewards will be dispensed according to standards we do not understand. Our task is to work hard at being righteous—holiness matters most—without being obsessed about these rewards. Do we want the prize and reward? Yes, but we can’t figure it all out. It doesn’t compute to us.
“Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more” (Wordsworth).
However complex or inexplicable life becomes, however hard the journey, believers are expected to yield to the sovereignty of God. We believe He is in control. We simultaneously believe in free will, but do not try to 100% reconcile this with our understanding that God sovereignly overrules all for His purposes.
We believers should embrace and rigorously defend this doctrine. Our God deserves to be honored for what He is—King of history, King of glory, seated on the throne of the Universe. People who hate this doctrine need to ponder. Who or what else would we want in charge? Blind fate? If we think clearly, we know we would want over us a God as gracious as the owner presented to us in this parable.
Matt. 20:15b “Are you jealous because I’m generous?”
Be rid of envy. The best receivers of grace don’t begrudge it to others. Humility and a deep sense of personal unworthiness are the only right attitudes.
If we have a sense of our own goodness, or a “better than thou” attitude, we begin to diminish God’s grace by thinking we need less of it as time passes. God wants to keep us forever in the state of humility we first showed as new believers.
Matt. 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
I have a friend who says he has no clue as to what this parable teaches. His honest humility makes me pray, “Oh Lord, as we seek to understand Your intent here, give us clear direction. Help us not to miss the point of this vital parable.”
We all want to know what criteria will determine who will be first and not last. Some truths about effective Christian living we know are axiomatic, self-evident. One, God looks on the heart; stay inwardly clean. Two, God delights in earnest desire; blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst after righteousness (MT 5:6). Ho hum humdrum won’t receive any reward. Why should God reward mediocrity and slovenliness? Three, God weighs proportionately. Some have more abilities than others; quantity is not the issue; the issue is stewardship of what we are given. Four, God loves a spirit of faith, prayer, and dependence on Him.
These are all true, valid estimations. I think the parable reveals one other very vital path to the reward we should seek. The parable commends the workers who by faith were fully confident the owner would reward them generously.
The first workers, the smug ones, received a contract, an assured amount of pay for their labors (v. 2). Their total attitude was expected pay based on what they earned by their own works. They did not appreciated grace, and fell to last.
In contrast, the 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm laborers, the last, received no contract (vv. 4-7). They worked, totally trusting by faith in the owner’s kindness. These latter workers had the proper attitude. They knew they would never be cheated or in the owner’s debt. They never doubted his grace, and became first.
Many rewards are promised to all believers. Do enjoy the thought of them. Dwell on them often, but don’t obsess or fret over them. Every conceivable reward is ancillary and secondary to one grand prize of trusting God. The spiritual work we do has value independent of the lower-ranking rewards attached to it.
I think this parable teaches us God will in large part dispense our rewards based on how much our thoughts in our efforts were focused on Him, rather than on a reward that would feather our hat. As we serve Him, do we do our deeds to Him, with Him, for Him; is He in our minds as we serve? Are we overly worried about what others think, or about beating someone else out? Is it about Him?
At some point, Christian living has to be about Him. Legend says Thomas Aquinas, the famous and influential Catholic priest, while in private devotions one day, was asked by Jesus what reward he wanted for his lifetime of labors. Aquinas replied, “Nothing but Yourself, Lord.” To be able to say it and mean it would be like suddenly standing before the burning bush, before the fire that needed no fuel, and having to take our shoes off to walk barefoot on the holy ground angels trod.
Hebrews 11, the roll call of faith, points us to what it takes to be enrolled in God’s Hall of Fame. Enoch “was approved, having pleased God” (11:5b). For Enoch, it was all about God. Moses “persevered, as one who sees Him who is invisible” (11:27b). His thoughts never could escape the God of the burning bush.
When the sinful woman broke the alabaster flask of oil (LK 7:37-38), poured it out on Jesus’ feet, and weeping, washed them with her tears, and with the hair of her head wiped His feet, kissing them, do you think she was trying to leverage from Jesus some kind of reward? No. She was just hoping she didn’t get thrown out of the house. Hers is a story of pure untainted love that will be told forever.
The widow, her two little mites barely making a clinking noise in the money receptacle, was she thinking about a mansion? No. She was showing love for God.
The lowly, sinful publican, beating his chest, was not thinking about leapfrogging over the Pharisee. He simply wanted his life to be right with God.
This topic grieves my spirit, for it is the golden chalice I have not achieved. I have set my course to find it, but am not close to attaining it yet. For me, living the Christian life is still too much of works, of rewards, of outdoing others. This pure pilgrimage is worthy of all effort by us all. I ask you, join me on this holy pursuit.