In Matthew 20 Jesus tells another parable. It is the story of the landowner and the workers that he hires at different times during the day. In the parable the landowner goes and hires men first thing in the morning and tells them he will pay them the daily wage. They agree and get to work. Then at 9 AM, 3 PM and 5 PM he goes out and finds others promising them a just wage for their work if they start right away. They all go. At the end of the day he pays them all. He starts with those hired at 5 and pays them a full day’s wage. Then he does the same with those he hired at 3 and at 9. Finally when it comes to those he hired first, they think that he will pay them more. But he doesn’t. They complain about the “injustice” because they got paid the same as those who started only a short while ago. The landowner says that it is not unfair. He paid them what they agreed to. He says who are they to challenge what he does with his own money and asks if they are envious of his generosity.
Now people can read this a lot of ways. It’s actually a really tough parable. I think first when we read scripture it’s important to think about what it meant to that group of people at that time. Jesus was in the middle of many confrontations with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The heat is getting turned up as we are approaching the time when they would look to kill Jesus. One of the things that they are most mad about is that all sorts of “sinners” seem to be allowed into this kingdom that Jesus keeps talking about and they seem to be on the outside and they don’t like it. After all, they’ve followed all the rules. They’ve been in this since the beginning. They should be first, not last.
But part of the scandal of the gospel is that it opened the kingdom to everyone. Now to be clear this doesn’t mean everyone gets in. And not everyone will have an equal outcome place in heaven (more on this soon). But Jesus is throwing the doors open to everyone. Gods generosity is this grace – everyone is welcome. This means that entrance is based on God’s (the landowner in the parable) grace and generosity, not on the condition of our own making. This flies in the face of the self righteousness of the Jewish leaders of that day, well intentioned as many of them may have been.
Bottom line, the meaning here is clearly that pharisees were missing the kingdom because of their self righteousness. Their envy of those that Jesus was welcoming got in the way of their own entrance.
So what can we learn from this and apply now?
First, and you can find this theme in many of the parables Jesus tells the pharisees and teachers of the law, self righteousness is not good. We need to constantly check ourselves to make sure that we are not being self righteous. We don’t earn the kingdom on our own merit. What we deserve is death. The grace of God, if we repent and accept it, will allow us to enter. Our works or merits come from that. Without that our works and merits don’t really mean much because they are self centered instead of God centered.
Secondly, envy is a problem. Envy is to want something that someone else has that you think you deserve. One definition would be that it is the combination of coveting something that someone else has and hating the person who has it. Bear in mind this is not just about money or physical things. One can be envious of someone else’s lifestyle, spouse, lack of spouse, talents, abilities, family, or spiritual gifts. It’s a sense that I should have what they have and they shouldn’t have it. I believe that in our culture right now this is a huge unnamed issue.
Who am I to judge what someone else has in comparison to what I have? Lord have mercy! We need to check ourselves hardcore here. What, and who, are you envious of? Repent of that.
Finally a thought that occurred to me as I read this is an idea about generosity. Generosity is not owed. The final three groups of workers did not demand generosity from the landowner. He did not owe them a day’s wages. Generosity is given by choice. Always. You can not mandate generosity. We should work to grow generosity to be sure. Starting with our own. But we can’t demand it or mandate it. Because if we do, it ceases to be generosity. And that sort of rips off both the giver and the receiver. That doesn’t end well.