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Getting Rewards Right

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | July 3, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

Society is obsessed with fairness. The problem with fairness is that if you insist on it, it quickly becomes your idol. And the more you insist on fairness, the more you will be angry and envious. You’ll even become angry with God because, let’s face it, life isn’t fair.

In the parable about the workers being paid equally despite the number of hours they put in, Jesus gave us three lessons that should show us how we should serve God.

I think it would be true to say that our society is obsessed with fairness, but actually the desire to be fair is inborn in every human heart. Those of us who have had children know that if you are going to share a cookie with them, or if two children have to share the same cookie, you had better cut it right down the middle so that it is fair. They’ll look at it and they’ll say, “Is this fair? Is this side bigger than the other?”

Now just imagine what it is like when you work for an organization, as many of you I’m sure do, and you feel that the pay scale is unfair. I remember a baggage handler at O’Hare with whom I was speaking because we had a suitcase that was late and all those things. He was complaining to me about those who were in his particular department and those who were the head of the airline. He did some investigation and discovered how much they were being paid, and it seemed to be so unfair in comparison to what he was being paid. He said, “There they are in beautiful offices, doing virtually nothing.” And he said, “Look at their pay scale.” And he was angry because life is unfair.

Or think of the situation in which you do as much work as somebody else and you get paid less per hour, and of course, that is an issue that women have often spoken about and tried to change the way in which employers and employees work together. And the whole issue behind it is, is it fair?

Now I think it’s wonderful to work toward fairness but I need to tell you today that if you insist on fairness, and if fairness has become your idol, you will be angry. You will be filled with envy, and you will even be angry with God because life isn’t fair.

Jesus told the story in which, when you read it for the first time, it seems as if he is condoning unfairness. I remember reading it as a child and wondering what in the world Jesus was teaching, because you read this parable and it seems as if he’s saying that it’s okay to be unfair. Jesus, in this parable, is not giving us a blueprint for how to run a company, but what he is doing is he’s after something else. And the parable, that at first seems to be a parable that condones unfairness, turns out to be life-changing if we understand its implications and its teachings.

The parable is found in Matthew 20, but we must understand the context of this parable. Jesus, in the previous chapter, talked to a young ruler who asked what he would have to do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. “What would I have to do to rule with you?” is really what he was asking, and Jesus said, “Well, sell everything that you have and then come and follow me, and you’ll be able to have that eternal life that you are seeking.” Of course, that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is that eternal life is free. Jesus here is talking about something else that has to do with the offer of the kingdom of heaven, and what it would take to be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven. But then Peter hears this discussion and Jesus said it is difficult for a rich man to be saved. It’s difficult because oftentimes rich people depend upon their money, and so this generates some discussion. And Peter, being the most American of the apostles, says in verse 27, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

Now Jesus didn’t rebuke him for asking that. It’s okay to ask that question, but Jesus is going to shed some light on this whole business of rewards, and what he’s going to say is transforming indeed. But Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world (in the regeneration when the world is restored and the kingdom is set up), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” That’s to the apostles, and then here’s a promise to all of us. Verse 29 of Matthew 19 says, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life (that is to say life and position in the Kingdom). But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

And now comes the parable. I hope that you are able to follow along in the Bible. Let’s go through this together and see what Jesus teaches about – quote – fairness.

He says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning.” That’s six o’clock in the morning. He goes out at six o’clock in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. The grape harvest actually begins to ripen and needs to be taken off as a crop in the end of September, and after that the rain begins. And so he goes to a labor exchange board where there are people who gather every morning to see whether or not they could get a job for that day (day laborers) and he negotiates the Scripture says in verse 2. “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day (which is a good wage) he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour, (that’s nine in the morning) he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour (the sixth hour would be noon) and the ninth hour (that’s three in the afternoon) he did the same. And about the eleventh hour - we’re talking here at five in the afternoon - he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” And they went into the vineyard but now the day ends. It’s six o’clock and it’s time to be paid, and now the intrigue begins.

“And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’” Now that in and of itself is a great change. Wouldn’t you pay the people who came at nine o’clock in the morning or six o’clock in the morning first? Why pay the people who came at five o’clock first? And then notice it even gets twistier, if there’s a word like that. If not, I think there is now. (laughter) You’ll notice he says, “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came (That’s five in the afternoon - shock), each of them received a denarius (a full day’s wage). (Wow!) Now when those hired first came (the six o’clock people – six in the morning) they thought that they would receive more because after all the man who worked only one hour gets a full day’s wage and he’s leaving the area to run home to his wife and say, “Mama Mia, we’re going to be able to have some steaks tonight; look at what this landowner gave me – a full day’s wage for one hour’s work.” So those who come at six o’clock think that they should receive more but each of them also received a denarius, and upon receiving it they did what often happens when employers ask employees for a meeting to discuss their wages. “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” It ain’t fair!

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”

The question is how do we interpret this parable?

Number one, there are those who say, “Oh, the denarius is salvation, and at the end, whether you get saved late in life, whether you get saved early in life doesn’t matter. Everybody gets to heaven. Well, it is true that whether you are saved early in life or late everybody gets to heaven, but I can’t believe that this denarius is the ticket to heaven, that it is salvation. For one thing, we don’t work for our salvation. For another thing, I can’t imagine waking up in eternity and begrudging the fact that there are some people there whom we think shouldn’t be there.
Have you ever thought that in heaven you are going to say to Jesus, “Jesus, I can’t believe that he made it over there.” (laughter) No. You know what that guy will be saying. “I can’t believe that he made it into heaven.” None of that! I don’t think that it is salvation.

There are those who say, “Well, what it really means is that in the end no matter how long you serve, whether you are faithful or unfaithful you’re going to get the same reward.” I don’t buy that at all. I think the Bible is very clear that we are going to be judged very thoroughly - years ago I preached a series of messages on that - and that this thorough judgment is going to show that some people are going to be rewarded above other people, and they are going to be given more responsibility in the kingdom because of faithfulness or lack thereof. And those who weren’t faithful are not going to receive the same reward. Everybody in heaven happy! Everybody contributing to the glory of God but like a chandelier, some bulbs burning more brightly! It’s not true that we are all going to be rewarded the same.

Some people say, “Well, the only way to look at it is to think that the folks who came at five o’clock worked so hard; they did as much work as those who showed up at six in the morning. There’s no evidence in the text that that’s true. In fact, when those who came at six o’clock in the morning and complained and said, “We have borne the scorching heat of the day,” the master didn’t correct them and say, “No, you are just a bunch of lazy people who didn’t do anything all day.” No, they worked hard. How then to interpret?

I believe that what Jesus is trying to teach in context is this. The Jews who came to the vineyard early because they were chosen by God resented the fact that the Gentiles who showed up later were being blessed more than they thought God should bless people like that because you and I know that God sometimes over blesses certain people that shouldn’t be blessed in the way he blesses them. And so they resented the fact that there were those who came to the vineyard late, and lo and behold, God is giving them more than they deserve, and I think that really the bottom line is this. What God is dealing with here – what Jesus is dealing with - is the attitude with which we serve.

And now I am going to give you three lessons that grow out of this parable. I want you to write them down and each one has an important word that describes the way in which we should serve God. And now it is time for you to write. I’ve been talking. Now you write.

First of all (number one), we should serve God in faith without bargaining. Do you notice - or maybe you missed it…? I think that one of the keys to this parable is verse 2. “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius for a day he sent them into his vineyard.” You can just imagine it. They were haggling. “How much are you going to pay me? I’m not going to step into this vineyard until I know up front exactly how much I am going to get at six o’clock this evening.” So he agreed with them for a denarius a day. It’s interesting that there was no agreement with the others who showed up. Remember he told them, “Go into my vineyard and whatever is right I’ll pay you,” and they trusted the vineyard owner to do right by them. And so, as a result of their faith in his goodness, he overpaid them.

Do you remember the story in the New Testament about the man by the name of Simeon who invites Jesus into his home? He wants to check Jesus out to see whether or not he might get some benefit from believing in him, or whatever. And as he has this feast, a woman of the streets comes and she kneels beside Jesus and she knows that she is deserving of nothing. Who gets blessed most? Is it the person who is shrewd and calculating and wants to find out exactly what benefits come to him, or is it the person who says, “I have no benefits coming to me.”?

Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling. Ah, that elicits the generosity of God. Don’t ever bargain with God. Please don’t. Don’t say, “Lord, if you give me this job, I promise you I’m going to start to tithe.” Or, “Lord, I promise you I’m willing to go to Africa as a missionary if you give me a husband first.” Now, I might also want to point out that if you think that way he’s going to have to agree to go too, I would think. Don’t get into this business of saying, “God, if you do this, I’ll do this.” If you reward me in this way I promise I’m going to reward you in that way.” No, come in faith, believing that God will be generous and serve him wholeheartedly.

A friend of mine (who actually taught me a preaching class at Dallas Seminary), whose name is Haddon Robinson, had a son by the name of Torrey and he likes to tell this story. One day when he was a boy, Torrey mowed the lawn in Texas – in the hot Texas sun, and he came in and said, “Dad, I have mowed the lawn,” which being interpreted is to say, “Pay me.” So his father said to him, “Well, Torrey, how much do you think it’s worth.” He said, “Oh, I don’t know,” and his father is trying to get him to name a price and he won’t. Finally he said to him, “Why don’t you give a price as to what you think it is worth for you to mow the lawn,” and then the boy said this. “Dad, I would rather have you make the decision because I know you’ll give me more than I ask for.” (laughter)

God is generous. Don’t bargain with him before you go into the vineyard. Don’t be a legalist and say, “Well, God, if I do this, then you owe me that.” Just serve him in faith and he will do right by you I can assure you. (applause)

There’s a second lesson that we must learn and that is we must serve him in submission. It’s very important now and this gets to our hearts. Sin is going to be revealed in your heart very shortly so get ready for it. All right?

Serve in submission without envy. Now you’ll notice here that the folks who showed up at six o’clock were envious because the ones who showed up at five got the same as they did. And there’s nothing that elicits envy in our heart more than feeling that we are being treated unfairly and seeing somebody else being blessed more than we think they should be blessed. If you know anybody who is being over blessed and you seem to be under blessed then immediately envy comes into our hearts.

Dr. Charles Ryrie, who is the author of the notes in the Ryrie Study Bible, tells this story. He says one day he was on American Airlines and he had purchased a coach seat, but because of overbooking they asked some people from the coach section of the plane to go into first class, but he was not among them. And so as he was stewing there in his theological juices, I guess, (laughter) being a theologian and knowing his Bible and having it with him, he turned to this parable and read it and this is the way in which he read it.

“Friend (verse 13), I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a coach seat? (laughter) Did you not get a coach seat? And if I choose to bless somebody else, is American Airlines not allowed to do as it wills with those who are its own? If American Airlines wants to take somebody out of a coach seat and give them first class treatment, is your eye envious because American Airlines is generous?” Wow!

Rebecca and I have seven beautiful grandchildren, and an eighth on the way, by the way, and when our oldest grandson, Jack, was about five years old, Grandpa and Grandma Lutzer took him to a store. We used his parents’ van and we went to a store and we bought him – now he’s four or five years old – a little car that he could actually sit in and drive. It was battery operated, etc. You can move it along the sidewalk. You just needed to press a button and this car went – a little fire engine. Boy, would I have liked that if I had received one of those when I was younger. Of course that was even before they had steel and metal (laughter), but we took him along because we wanted to make sure that he could sit in it and that it was the right size and all. I still remember, and I seldom remember these things, but I think it cost $230.00. Some things you do remember.

So after we put it in the van, and we’re on our way home, and of course, he’s absolutely elated, we stop at a dollar store because his little sister, Emma, was going to have a one-year old birthday party that evening, so Rebecca, of course, buys her a few balloons and ties one around her little chubby hand so little Emma has a balloon.

Jack said, “I want that balloon. I want that balloon. Give me this balloon. Give it to me.” And I was thinking, “Jack, we just spent $230.00 for your little car with an electric motor, painted red, that you can drive on a sidewalk, and now you are bent out of shape because your little sister has a balloon.” And by the way, I told a friend of mine that story and he said, “My grandson actually broke his sister’s balloon.” And you know, that’s a picture of us all. God gives us multiple blessings. “He who spared not his own son but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things.” We have forgiveness of sins. We have the status of being sons and daughters of the most high. We have an inheritance that is waiting for us. We have his mercy that we can depend upon, and his providence that guides us. We’ve got all of that and then we see somebody else over here who has a couple of balloons that we don’t have, and immediately envy begins to rise in our hearts and we say, “Why does God do it for them? It just isn’t fair,” because we’re overcome by envy.

The second word that I’m giving you today is the word submit. Faith and submit with out envy. There’s a story about a man who had a dream. He was standing in a long line of people and Jesus came along and blessed this person. He said, “I bless you, I bless you, I bless you,” and when Jesus came to him he said, “I’m not going to bless you because I know that you are going to keep on believing and trusting me anyway,” and then Jesus went to the next person.

Do you feel that way? Let me ask you honestly, and this is a sin that you need to deal with, and that I need to deal with. Are you envious when God is generous, when God in his sovereignty blesses some people more than he blesses you so that your ministry isn’t as great, your house isn’t as nice, your job isn’t as easy? Are you envious because God is generous?

By the way, speaking of it from the other side, isn’t it amazing that when we are blessed we handle that very well?
One day I was on a flight with my daughter to a funeral, and it was United Airlines that had oversold, and so they took us. I always only buy coach seat tickets but they took us who were in coach and they brought my daughter and me into first class. I didn’t send an e-mail to United and say, “What kind of a schlocky outfit do you run anyway? (laughter) Here I buy a coach ticket and you give me first class treatment.” No, that’s not what I thought at all. The first thought that came to mind was, “It’s about time.” (laughter) When we are on the receiving end of blessing we’re just fine with God and with everybody else. But if we discern it is unfair we are consumed with envy.

There’s a final word I’m going to give you and that is thanksgiving or joy rather than grumbling. You can put whichever one you want in there. And here’s why I think that maybe this gets to the heart of the parable. What Jesus wants to show here is that the rewards that he gives us are not wages. Oh, for the legalist, maybe. Yeah, they’ll get their denarius, but for the others who serve with joy and submission it isn’t a matter of wages. He is going to give you so much beyond all wages that you won’t even think in terms of wages. It’s not a matter of saying, “Oh, thirty years of service – thirty crowns.” No, no, no, no, it is so much above and beyond that, that you can’t even think. Look at what Jesus said earlier to Peter.

He says, “Everyone who has left houses, or brothers or sisters, or father or mother, or children or lands, for my sake will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit a place within the kingdom.” That isn’t wage. That is just God’s undeserved generosity towards people who don’t deserve anything like that because God says, “I love to give and I am generous if you trust me, if you submit to me, and if you take your situation with gratitude and joy for any opportunity to serve within the Kingdom – any opportunity.” And I’d like to relate that to Moody Church and say that we always stand in need of volunteers, and we never have enough volunteers and we have opportunities in our kiosk for you to find out exactly how you can be involved, and so forth, but the point is that it is not a matter of whether it’s prominent or whether you even get thanked for it or whatever. At the end of the day it’s a privilege just to put your foot into the vineyard and to serve the Lord. (applause) And it’s a great honor to do anything in the vineyard, and then to know that as a result of it, don’t bargain with God and say, “Well, I need this denarius.” Oh no, no, no. You don’t bargain with God and he’ll give you things that you can’t even imagine to over-bless you and over-reward you, because the point of the parable is the generosity of God - giving to those who serve well and who trust well, much more than they could ever possibly deserve.

Some of you are here today and you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, by the way, so I need to point out that it’s not a matter of you serving in the kingdom that brings salvation. This has to do with rewards for believers within the kingdom. You come to Christ as you are with your need and you trust him as your savior, and that is a free gift. It doesn’t come about by service. But after you’ve trusted Christ, service should be the natural response of a heart of gratitude where we serve. How do we serve? We serve in faith, in submission, and with joy and gratitude, trusting God to do right by us and believing he will, and believe me, he will do right by you above and beyond.

It’s an old story that’s been told in various versions, but it fits so well here I must tell it again. There was a missionary couple by the name of the Morrisons who were missionaries in far-flung lands. I think it was Africa. And they came to America on the same ship as Roosevelt, the president, when he went overseas, obviously many, many years ago. When the ship arrived in New York there was, of course, as we might expect, a delegation to meet Roosevelt, the president of the United States. You’d have security officials, you’d have welcoming committees, and all those other things. There was all this hubbub because the president of the United States arrived in New York.

The problem with the Morrisons was that there was nobody there to greet them. I have two sisters, both of whom were missionaries, one in Mexico for about 30 years, and one single sister in Africa for 30 years, and she knows a little bit about what that’s like. Of course, we greeted her when she came to our part, but she would land here in America somewhere or Canada and there’d be nobody there to greet her, at least initially.

But anyway, the Morrisons thought to themselves, “This doesn’t seem right. Yes, of course, he’s the president of the United States, but we are serving the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and the God of all Gods, and we arrive in the New York Harbor and there’s nobody even there to meet us. There’s nothing but emptiness and nobody to even say, ‘Howdy.’” But as they wrestled with this and even told the Lord how they felt about it, and as they said to the Lord, “You know, Roosevelt comes home, and there’s a big delegation for him. We come home, and there’s nobody here for us.” It was as if the Lord said, “Wait a moment. You’re not home yet.” (applause)

Wait till you get home. You leave father and mother, and houses and land for my sake and the kingdom, and you serve well in the vineyard, you’ll receive a hundredfold because God is generous, and don’t you ever be envious because he is more generous with some people than with others. Does he not have a right to do as he wills with those who are his own? Can you thank God right now for your situation? (applause)

And so Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.” Legalists say, “What’s in it for me and exactly what am I going to get out of it?” Yeah, yeah, you’ll get something. You’ll get wages. Those who serve with submission and faith and joy, they won’t get wages. They’ll get rewards totally disproportionate to what they’ve done.

Let’s bow together in prayer.

Father, we want to pray today that you might make us satisfied with our lot in life. Oh yes, we can improve our situation most assuredly, but at the end of the day, in all of the unfairness of life, help us to rejoice that we have some part in your kingdom, whether small or large, whether recognized or unrecognized. May we rejoice in just knowing that we have a foot in your kingdom to serve you and love you. Help us to be satisfied with your decisions and to not be envious because you are generous. Root that sin that is so deeply embedded in our hearts out so that we can grab hold of it and confess it and forsake it we pray. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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