Matthew 20:1-16 – Service

A few weeks ago at The Lantern Church I was preaching on Matthew 20:1-16 on the topic of Service as part of an opportunity for me to try out preaching to a congregation (of around 100 people).

Though I had little time to prepare due to exams, I would appreciate your feedback. A rough transcript can be found below.


Why does life seem to be so unjust?
On a global sense, how is it that we are so privileged in this country with food to eat and water to drink?
How does are attitudes towards justice and fairness shape our attitude towards the work and service we do?

Recently we had the general election and it seems like our society has been becoming more and more unsure about exactly what is fair and what isn’t. With a hung parliament where no one has known who the right political party to vote for, we as a nation have been divided where each of us believes we’re fighting for the best, the fairest party policies.
One thing especially that people have been unsure about is what level the minimum wage is and how best to pay people with different salaries. Lots of us feel like we deserve much more if we’ve been working for longer or are more equipped for the job.

How do you view your work?

Christopher Wren, arguably one of the greatest architects in history, in the 17th century was commissioned to build St Paul’s Cathedral.
He employed many brick layers and one day, whilst observing three of them working on the cathedral, one crouched down, one kneeling and one working very hard and fast, he asked the question: “What are you doing?”. The first, without turning around just said “making a living”, the second said “building a wall”, but the third, most productive of all of them with a gleam in his eye said “I’m building a cathedral for the almighty!”

How do we view the work we’re doing in God’s big picture?

I think in many ways, our attitudes towards serving in both church and our work or schools shape the impact of our service and our motivations behind it. It’s easy to get bogged down thinking of ourselves as amazing servers or maybe being resentful of others for what they also do or don’t do, but that’s not how Jesus teaches that we should be working.

Let’s have a look in the Bible at Matthew chapter 20 verses 1-16 and see what Jesus wants to say to us from this parable today.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

At the start of the story in verses 1-7 we’re introduced to this landowner wanting to hire workers for his vineyard. The workers at the start of the day are hired a denarius for the day. Then, throughout the rest of the day, every few hours, the landowner would again find more people hanging around in the marketplace and give them work in the vineyard for the rest of the day to be paid in verse 4 “whatever is right” and they went without question. Even at 5 in the afternoon when a lot of the working day was already behind them, he continued to hire those who were without a job. Everyone agreed to work for the landowner on the terms given to them, to some they were promised a fixed amount, and to others it would be up to the landowner but they all went to work for him without second thought or further question.

At this point, you can probably see already what might be going on, as time progresses, the Lord who is here depicted as the landowner is constantly going out looking for more and more people to come and work in his vineyard, serving in the Kingdom of God based on the promise of a fair wage regardless yet of what it may be.

In verses 8-12 things start getting interesting. First the workers hired last came to the owner and were given 1 denarius and then those hired at 3 in the afternoon and so on until we got to those who were hired early in the morning probably at around 6am. I can imagine how they felt at that time seeing everyone before them getting paid the same amount regardless of how much they had each been working, and then them, having worked all day were still only given 1 denarius even though that was still a full day’s pay!

To us even today this seems completely counter cultural, everyone getting paid the same great salary regardless of when they started work and how long they worked for. Here, we see that the landowner isn’t emphasising reward through merit and no one was underpaid, but everyone received outrageous generosity. God’s economy of grace is not the same as the natural order people expect.

A few days ago I finally finished my degree in Maths at the University of Southampton but one of the areas of service in the Christian Union that I was heavily involved in was a weekly outreach mission called Text a Toastie. I had the privilege of leading Text a Toastie for a time where each week, students from Southampton could text us with questions about Christianity and we would then deliver a toastie to their location and just have the opportunity to discuss the questions they have.

It was an incredible opportunity to share the gospel to non-christians all around campus but at times it felt like week by week I was being involved in more and more service in the Christian Union especially through Text a Toastie and yet not getting rewarded accordingly at all for it, or just not getting the credit I felt I so seemingly deserved.

Whenever we are in a position of serving, I think it’s easy for us to go along with the wrong heart and attitude towards the work that we are doing and why we are doing it.

So, in the first part of the story, we learn that the landowner, God calls each of us to work for him in his kingdom.
After the parable of the wedding banquet a couple of chapters later, it ends with “Many are invited, but few are chosen”, we are all invited into God’s service but few of us actually hear the call to serve him in his kingdom.

“He who has ears let them hear” – Matthew 11:15

He calls us at any age whoever we are regardless of status or gender to service, not just his close disciples or ‘those who work in the church’ but all of us.

Next in the following few verses where they are getting paid, I’m reminded of this counter cultural completely fair pay scale of the kingdom of God, like almost an upside down kingdom where we aren’t paid on a scale of merit or how much we have done, but out of the grace of God. And we don’t work for the reward, instead we work out of our heart of love for him not his gifts. Imagine if all of today’s society lived by this kind of system.

Finally, we get the explanation at the end, to those who were grumbling about not being rewarded more than the rest he said this: “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired the last the same as I gave you.” God is a just god and he knows exactly what we deserve both the good and the bad.

If we are getting caught up in what others are getting or even what we’re getting, then our hearts aren’t in the right place. If we’re jealous for others for what they receive then our hearts aren’t in the right place.
This story was prompted by the disciples who claimed to have left everything to follow Jesus and yet expecting some kind of reward for their service but the message goes much deeper than that.

The landowner goes on to say: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” This question is the translation of Greek phrase literally meaning “Is your eye evil because I am good?”. An “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggests a deeper problem than meets the eye, where earlier on in Matthew 6:22-23 Jesus taught that “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, again (ophthalmos poneros) so, if you have the “evil eye”, your whole body will be full of darkness”.
In this account, the idea of having an “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity, and again here we see that Jesus is teaching us the importance of having the right heart in your acts of service not that of jealousy for others, wanting more credit or a greater reward, but of love and thanksgiving for God.

Colossians 3:23-24 – Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

So in response.

Firstly, are we responding to the call? The call to service in God’s Upside down kingdom? – In Matthew 9:37 Jesus, speaking to his disciples says: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” referring to those who needed to respond to the call of his service and bring more to their number. A lot of service nowadays just involves first turning up!

Secondly, do we accept this call to service on our terms or God’s terms regardless of the promise for reward we may deserve? God’s economy of grace is not the same as the natural order people expect and we are his servants, ready to accept his call to service without any reward.

Finally, If we are serving, is our heart in the right place in our service, looking not to do better than our colleagues out of jealousy? As Christians we need to examine our hearts and know that we already have been saved which is more of a gift than we could ever ask for and that our service should be that of love and thanksgiving towards the one who made us, for there is no limit to his outrageous generosity and we should be living by that example, not out of jealousy.

Are we accepting God’s call to service in his kingdom?
Are we prepared to accept this call to service on his terms not ours?
And where are our hearts when serving him?