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Generosity, Jealousness, and the Issue of Fairness

September 23, 2023 |Generosity, Jealousness, and the Issue of Fairness|

Matthew 20:1-16

JD Cutler

For the sermon audio, click here

Last week we looked at the parable of the unforgiving servant. Given by Jesus in response to a question from Peter after the Lord describes the process for dealing with sin between brothers and sisters in the local church.

The question-

Jesus answers not seven times but seventy-seven times, or to say it another way, as many times as he asks. He goes on to give the parable of the unforgiving servant to show us that those who receive mercy should be merciful.

After this, Jesus leaves that area and goes to the region of Judea. Large crowds follow him and he heals them. The Pharisees come to test him again, this time about divorce. The crowds begin bringing children for Jesus to bless, which much to the surprise of his disciples, he does. Then a rich young ruler comes to him wanting to know what it takes to gain salvation. After he leaves, upset by Jesus’ answer and a brief conversation with the disciples, he gives them another parable, commonly called the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. We find this in Matthew chapter 20 if you want to open there now.

This is an interesting parable because it challenges some of our ideas and assumptions about what is fair, which is a huge concern in today’s society, right?

We want to make sure that wages are fair in the workplace for both men and women. We want to make sure that the education system is fair for both the privileged and the underprivileged. We desperately want to figure out what is fair for both those seeking refuge in America and those already living here. Our society demands fair treatment for everyone, no matter one’s background, race, religion, or preferences.

I mean America is founded on this idea, right?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are en- dowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Now, we will not get into how well we are doing that, only that the principle of equality and fairness runs deep in our society. But what about in the kingdom of Heaven? Is it fair, is God fair? These are the questions that our parable prompts in us this morning, questions I pray that we answer together today as we look at this parable given by our Lord.

The parable before us

‘Laborers in the vineyard’

Purpose of the parable- 1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like… to inform us in some way about the kingdom of heaven

Setting- a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

A master of a house and owner of the vineyard (common designations for the day) Needs to hire day laborers for his vineyard, most likely harvest time and there is a large crop to harvest. So he goes to the market early in the morning and hires laborers after agreeing with them for a fair pay, they are sent into the vineyard.

The story-2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour (9am) he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour (12pm) and the ninth hour (3pm), he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour (5pm) he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages…

The twist- beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.

That hardly seems fair, does it? Jesus builds tension into the parable to cause us to think about what is happening.

Every worker got the same wage…

…regardless of how long they labored. …regardless of the conditions of their laborer. And obviously regardless of what they produced for the master in terms of return on his investment.

That’s not fair, at least not in the sense we are used to applying it.

The first hired also thought so.

11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 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.’

Grumbled- of those who confer secretly together; of those who discontentedly complain

Equal to us- root word has to do with seeing, I think the idea is ‘your actions have shown that you view them as equal to us’

Their reason is that they have done the most work and in the most undesirable part of the day.

9 hours to our 12 is one thing, even 6 to our one, but 1 hour in the cool of the day to our 12 is too much!

The master’s response- 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

Notice the way he addresses him. Friend. There are no hurt feelings, no anger. He reminds their spokesman that they agreed on a price. He says, pick up what belongs to you and go, do not worry about what belongs to me and what I do with it.

Then Jesus gives, in the words of the master of the house, a warning to his disciples.

Do you begrudge my generosity? You may have a margin note or a study note in your bible beside that phrase with the words (‘Or is your eye evil because I am good?’) This is a more literal translation of the Greek words.

In Hebraic sayings, to have an evil eye is to be jealous. Are you jealous because of my generosity towards others?

What a question!

(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) Doesn’t God have the right to give gifts? Are we envious because he is generous?

Every worker got the same wage…

…regardless of how long they labored.

…because of the generosity of the master.

…which is not unfair according to the master, because no one got less than they deserved.

Is God fair?

There is a sense that God is absolutely fair. He will never withhold what someone deserves. The problem is no one deserves eternal life, but rather death, separation from God. All have sinned, none do good, all have strayed. There will be no person on the day of judgment that can stand before God and say that he owes them anything other than punishment for their sins.

Is God fair? Yes.

Does he always treat everyone equally? No.

God is always fair, but he does not treat everyone the same. Just like the master of the story, he is free to do, with what is his, whatever he likes.

This is the part we do not like, isn’t it?

The reality is that none of us deserve reconciliation with God, none of us deserve anything other than punishment, and yet we know some experience God’s generosity and grace in salvation. If God extends mercy and grace to some, is he obligated to extend it to all? No.

(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) When we sin, the Lord is not obligated to pursue us or to forgive us.

To compare it to our parable, the landowner was under no obligation to pursue day laborers or to bring them into his vineyard, not the first hired up to the last hired. Every invitation to come into his vineyard was an act of grace towards those who needed employment, but deserved nothing.

God is in charge of who receives his grace and mercy. That’s not from John-Daniel Cutler, that is from God’s own words.

(ESV) And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

Paul reminds us of this in Romans 9 where he talks about God’s sovereignty in election. In choosing some over others.

Romans 9:14-15 (ESV) 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Shouldn’t the first hired be grateful for the opportunity and thankful for the day's wages?

Couldn’t they celebrate the graciousness of the master for the way he treated the other laborers?

No, because somewhere between the morning agreement and their turn at the table, their thinking shifted.

It is a subtle shift, but a dangerous one.

As they started watching the unexpected and unearned generosity of the master, they began to presume that he owed them more, that they should be benefactors of his generosity by right and not by his choice.

They literally presumed upon his generosity. The word they ‘thought’ in the sentence they thought they would receive more, is they supposed. The root word comes from the word for the law, or a precept.

They took the generosity of the master and applied it to themselves as a right.

In their minds, if he was generous to one group, he was obligated to be generous to them as well.

Do you see why the master says, is your eye evil? He says, friend, you are viewing my grace, my generosity, and my goodness, through broken lenses.

Whenever we begin to presume upon God’s generosity or mercy or grace, or demand it, or begrudge him for showing it to someone else, we are in a dangerous place because our view of God is warped.

Which is where Jesus ends the parable, and then makes an application statement for his disciples, which is where we will turn now.

The application given from it

Matthew 20:16 (ESV) 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

So- ‘in this manner’ or ‘likewise’. In what manner? In the manner of the parable Jesus just told.

The key teaching is easy to see because it forms bookmarks for the parable.

Matthew 19:30 (ESV) 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This whole parable is designed to illustrate this one point.

Who is the last in the parable? The last ones hired.

Who is the first in the parable? The first ones hired.

How are the last ones first in the parable? They received the same pay, benefiting from the master’s grace and generosity more than the others.

How are the first ones last in the parable? They received the same pay, benefiting from the master’s grace and generosity less than the others. What are we supposed to do with this application related to our understanding of the kingdom of heaven?

The landowner, the master of the house is obviously God. We are reminded that he can do what he chooses to what belongs to him. What belongs to him? Everything.

The first thing we have to wrap our minds around is that every breath, every moment, every opportunity, every good gift, comes from God’s gracious interactions with man. No one can claim to be owed anything from God.

Not breath, not life, and certainly not eternal life. God owes us nothing.

The second thing we have to wrap our minds around is that God does not treat every person the same.

Jesus has a way of showing this over and over again, doesn’t he?

The parable of the talents. One got 5, one got 2, one got 1

The parable of the rich man and his bigger barns. Presumed God owed him more time.

The parable of the weeds. Wheat/weeds

The parable of the net. Good fish/bad fish

All of this is summed up in what God said to Moses (ESV) And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

The landowner is God, then who he calls into his vineyards are believers.

If that is the case, there are certainly some implications to be seen here for us. I want to share with you three.

Let us begin with an encouragement for someone who has not yet come to Christ.

The last workers hired- You have wasted over half your life living for yourself, being idle in the marketplace of the world. If God calls you, be encouraged that you can answer that call regardless of how you spent the first half of your life. There is no sin, there is no background, there is no history that excludes you from answer his gracious call today.

It may be that you are in the 11th hour of your life, know that God still calls those in your position, because he is a gracious and merciful God.

There is not only encouragement for someone who comes to Christ today, there is a warning for those of us who have already come to Christ.

The first workers hired- Do not lose your awe at the generosity of our God. Do not begin to place yourself and others in separate categories before God. Do not elevate yourself above others because God called you sooner than them.

Finally, there is not only an encouragement and a warning, but a reminder for all who have and will come to Christ.

God does not owe you anything. No matter how long you follow him, or how well, you will not have indebted him one cent to yourself.

Working backwards from our parable, we have already noted that its conclusionary statement and its introductory statement are the same, just rephrased accordingly.

Matthew 19:30 (ESV) 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Matthew 20:16 (ESV) 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

But as we keep working backwards we get to the reason Jesus gave the parable in the first place. In verse 27 over chapter 19 we find a question from Peter, let’s look at the…

The question behind it

Matthew 19:27 (ESV) 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

What will we get?

The parable Jesus gives is in reference to this question of Peter’s about rewards, the greatest of which is inheriting eternal life, entering the kingdom of God, entering the kingdom of Heaven, entering life, or as the rich young ruler asked it, what must I do to have eternal life. All referencing the same thing, here represented to us by the denarius that all the laborers got.

Here is what I think is Jesus' response to Peter’s question.

What will you get Peter? You will get eternal life by following me. But be careful of comparing yourself to others, because God gives where and how he decides.

That’s the primary reminder I think Jesus is communicating in this context by saying the first will be last and the last first.

Some of you may follow Jesus for 60 years, some of you may do great things for the kingdom, some of you may only get the privilege of following Jesus for days or months, some of you may not seem to have a very great impact at all in the kingdom.

But never make the mistake of thinking that your eternal life hinges on how long you follow Jesus or how much work you do for him.

It’s true the Bible talks about rewards in heaven, it talks about our assurance that not even a cup of cold water given to a disciple will go unnoticed, but what reward could possibly rival the gift of salvation?

They may very well make eternity all the sweeter, although I can’t fathom how, but, if they do, it will because God chooses in his grace and mercy to reward us, not because we indebted him to us. It simply doesn’t work that way.

Is God fair? Yes

Does God treat everyone equally? No

Does God reward those he chooses to be gracious to equally? Yes.

Grace makes us equal recipients.

Because God does not measure in the same way we do.

Not by time spent in the field or area covered.

Not by abilities or talents.

Not by the amount of work done.

God rewards those who faithfully answer his call to follow him with eternal life because he wants to and because the demands of sin and death have been answered in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Jesus teaches us that the first will be last and the last will be first.

There are many more possible ways we can see this work itself out in the kingdom of God, but today, I want us to focus in on just those aspects as they relate to the topic at hand. Eternal life for those God calls into his kingdom.

Here is my prayer for you as we finish this morning.

May God help us celebrate his mercy when he saves those who society doesn’t think are worth it, the low, the least, and the last.

And second.

May God help us to see that no matter how long we follow him, how long we labor for him, we never earn his amazing grace.

So that we can all stand before him in awe and worship of His gracious love and mercy.

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