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Jan 25 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

Miscellaneous – Matthew 19 & 20

First Light

Some mornings, I get so enthused over what emerges from my meditation in scripture
that I feel a need to share it with someone else. I really should know better, because
what looks terribly interesting to me in the predawn stillness may appear silly or
uninteresting to others in the glaring light of day. Regardless, I am naive enough
to think you will find something worthwhile in this morning’s contemplation.

When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day. Matthew 20:9-12 (If you are not familiar with this passage or the story of the wealthy young landowner, you will want to read Matthew 19-20 to get the context of this parable.)

The physics of the kingdom of heaven: A person can be brought into a workplace on the lowest rung, work the least amount of time, do the least work, suffer the least, and receive the same award (wages earned) as those who were first and had worked long and grueling hours (thereby relativizing the status of “first place”). Strange physics, that one percent of the labor on a project can produce the same benefits to the laborer as twenty, fifty and one hundred percent of the labor did for the others (Mt. 20:1-9).

Now I am certain that one hour’s work did not produce the same results in the cultivation of the vineyard as twelve hours, but that is irrelevant to the parable, for there is always more than enough work to be done in God’s vineyard (Mt. 9:36-38).

In our four-dimensional universe, in which this story is set, we would have to conclude from the uneven results of labor-to-wage that:

  • The rules of the game are different from what we had assumed
  • Scoring is based on the least rather than the most–as in golf where strokes are added up. But this doesn’t work because it contradicts the criterion of those who at the beginning were first (i.e., in first place, because they had work and the promise of pay when the day began and the others did not)
  • Someone cheated
  • The game was rigged
  • That some other factor was in force other than a mathematical ratio of effort to result or cause to effect (the cause being hours of labor and suffering and the effect being the paycheck at the end of the day)

This last possibility is closest to the answer that Jesus indicates when he emphasizes the generosity of the landowner, whose prerogative it was to determine and pay whatever wages he chose to the laborers who went to work for him. And this raises an important point that I do not remember seeing addressed in any commentary on this parable; namely, that the landowner was not generous to those laborers who came first to work in his vineyard. With them, it was all business. He hired them, they worked, and when the time came, he paid what he owed them. They had an agreement (Mt. 19:2 & 13). He did not extend any grace to them, but merely fulfilled his side of the agreement (see Ro. 4:4-5).

In the larger context of this parable, the young man “who owned much property” and went away from Jesus grieving, belonged to the privileged class of people who occupy the first place in society (Mt. 19:22 & 30). He had an agreement with God based on the commandments and his current situation in life (Mt. 19:16-20). If he had not asked Jesus, “What am I still lacking?” he could have walked away content with that agreement and what it would get him. He went away sad only because he learned what it would take to be “complete”–he would have to voluntarily relinquish his first place position, move down to last place, and follow Jesus (Mt. 19:21).

The young man’s inability to break his agreement and throw himself on God’s mercy cost him the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19:23-24). The life he was living did not require faith or grace (after all, was not his life already graced?). Whatever agreement he had with God will stand on the day of judgment, so long as he lived up to it. God, we know, will always prove faithful to his side. But the young man will not be among the first in the kingdom of heaven, for that is reserved for those who came to Jesus with nothing or else gave up everything to follow him (Mt. 19:27-30).

It seems like (and I’m certain) it was so much easier for the blind men to just get up and follow Jesus (Mt. 20:29-34). After all, they had nothing to give up but their blindness and the place by the side of the road where they sat and begged. How easy or difficult it is to follow Jesus depends on how much we value what he offers us compared to the value of what we leave behind (see Mt. 13:44-46). Naturally, it will be easier for some than it will be for others.

O Lord Jesus, work the physics of Your grace into my heart, mind, spirit, body, and life. May I live it, inspire Your people with it, and extend it to others.

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