The Quality of Equality
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ “They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’ “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. “And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. “And 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.’ “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? ‘Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”
Worst chapter break ever! Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement but it’s pretty bad because although Matthew builds on itself, continually, this chapter break is particularly questionable because Jesus is clarifying his words at the end of chapter 19 with this parable. Notice the conjunction, “for,” as the first word–and the conclusion that is the same as the last chapter. Which reminds me:
Much like Matthew builds on it’s context, my missives also build on themselves, making it difficult for the first-time reader to understand the way in which I write. If you have stumbled upon my missives for the first time, welcome to you, you have found the home of the CAGED method. CAGED being an acronym for Context, Author’s Aspirations, Genre, Examples and Divide Rightly the Word of Truth. The good news it is 100% free, the bad news is that I came up with it therefore it isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, it can help in our struggles with understanding the Bible. Here in the West we have been blessed by many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers who have presented the Scriptures as a whole, teaching truth to their proverbial sheep, much like the disciples did. However, over time, the culture of the American Dream has corrupted our churches to the point where many modern pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers, can’t consider the context or string two verses together, “teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.” Not seeing the sublime string of the Bible, they seek to justify our culture by mishandling the Bible, stringing a piece of a verse here and half of a verse there, distorting the Divine context.
Therefore, let’s look at the context of the end of Matthew 19, where Jesus is answering Peter’s question, “Then Peter answered and said to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?'” Peter’s question is in response to the discussion that Jesus had with the “Rich Young Ruler.” Therefore we see that like any other piece of literature that tells a story, the story of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, builds on itself.
My faithful followers are most likely wearied of these words; the Bible is not written like a manual to a 2006 Toyota Corolla. It’s not a cook-book or a how-to manual but a literary masterpiece spanning a thousand years and in multiple genres, with many authors, all of which tell of Jesus and his relationship to men. Half the problem we have with reading the Bible is our approach. We treat it as though one, single, solitary, scintilla of a verse, has literal meaning and fulfilment. Let me present two examples, one funny and one absolutely horrifying.
In one particular, long-running, primetime TV cartoon, a certain man was reminded of a Bible verse by the Reverend character. In response and in order to sound smart, assuming any Bible verse would do, the man responded, “well you remember Matthew 21:17.” To which the Reverend qouted in the form of a question; “And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and lodged there?” It’s funny on many levels. But it shows particularly that much of the Bible is narrative, it tells the story.
And now for the horrifically sad: A mega-church pastor, with a 24 hour radio station, preached on laughter, saying that it’s the best medicine (I am not slamming laughter, I love to laugh and believe that the Lord does too). Which in and of itself was a contradiction of his previous sermon. Nevertheless, the man spoke to thousands in attendance and thousands listening on the radio about laughter, for 28 of the 30 minutes allotted, without ever cracking open the Bible. But when he finally did, he said that God has a sense of humor and laughs, citing an ever so small sample of Scripture. He said, “‘He who sits in the heavens laughs,’ that’s Psalm 2:4” Problem: that’s only half of Psalm 2:4 Bigger problem: it’s a mere 1/19th of the context. Biggest problem: the context is the exact opposite of what he claimed. Consider the context of Psalm 2. “Why are the nations in an uproar, And the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand, And the rulers (leaders) take counsel together Against the LORD and against His Anointed: Let us tear their fetters apart, And cast away their cords from us! He ~who sits in the heavens laughs~, The Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger And terrify them in His fury: But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain. I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware.’ Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges (leaders) of the earth. Worship the LORD with reverence, And rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!'”
Unless you are learning for yourself, you only know what you have been taught. This leader leads his thousand upon thousands of followers to read their Bibles, much like I do. And he also demonstrates to them how to read their Bibles, much like I do. Problem: that’s where the similarities end. He teaches a method of taking a tiny bit of a verse here, then maybe add another piece of a verse from there, if it fits your narrative, and take it to literal, and not so literal, extremes, leading thousands astray. I teach that context is king, remembering; “let not many of you become teachers for in so doing you will incur a stricter judgement.” And I think about this as I write, to the two of you.
With that stated, let’s consider the context. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.” The first thing we must un-see is the chapter break because the context continues. Chapter and verse breaks help us with ease of reference but now that we have found our place, forget them. Also, words and their usages are important, it’s our primary way of communicating. Therefore, when we see the word “for,” we understand that this passage is linked to the prior passage. We must also notice that this is a parable, used to teach or explain a greater truth but not to be taken literally. Nevertheless, we still need to closely examine the context of the parable to see the intended meaning.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.” In this parable, in which Jesus is explaining what he said about the first being last and the last being first, answering Peter’s question, he compares the kingdom with a landowner who has hired men, early in the morning to work in his vineyard. One must observe the obvious: the men are hired early and agree on a price. This is not doctrine, but an example. We don’t take this literally but we must see the symbolism as Jesus intended. The laborers who were hired early in the morning, to work all day, agreed to the wage.
“And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.'”
Throughout the entire day, the man keeps finding more and more laborers and hiring them to work in the vineyard, so that some have worked a very long time, some a moderate amount of time and others have worked but a short time–this causes some tension, notice: “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. And 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.’”
The men who have worked all day in the scorching sun, believe that they should be compensated for more than the original price. They take offense to the fact that those who only worked for a short time are compensated the same amount for much less work. In a way, we understand their griping. After all, they did work much longer in the scorching sun. However we also understand the landowner. He says; “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?”
It’s entirely true that they agreed to work for the day for a day’s wage. We remember reading, “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.” Why then would the laborers expect more? We also remember that this parable is a response to Peter’s question, “what then will there be for us?” Even though Jesus promised them twelve thrones on which they would judge the 12 tribes of Israel, metaphorically speaking, he also tells Peter this parable to point out that “the last shall be first, and the first last.”
Looking at examples enlightens, let’s take some Vitamin E and search for an Expository Exegesis of Examples. We have read what Jesus said about John the Baptist previously, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Jesus then claims that John was “Elijah, who was to come.” Jesus elevated John not only as a prophet, but even more than a prophet, and as the greatest man ever. Yet, Jesus says, “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Let’s look closely at the aspiration of Jesus when answering Peter’s question. What is Jesus telling Peter by teaching him this parble? Remember that Matthew writes to a first-century, Jewish audience and not us. Also remember that Jesus was speaking to Peter and not them. We have to ascertain what the aspiration of Jesus was to Peter, and understand that the meaning remains the same to the first-century Jewish audience and to us–it doesn’t change or morph meanings. We also must remember that the context continues and builds on itself, this is not the final word of Jesus on this subject. Lord willing, we will continue to see what Jesus has to say about “rank” in the Kingdom. Please come again. Nevertheless, we see clearly that Jesus is continuing to challenge and change the way in which Peter thinks–earthly.
Like the long-day laborers, Peter is grumbling. Peter tips his hand (a poker metaphor) to Jesus by asking the question, what do we get in the Kingdom, what’s our reward? Not that Jesus needed Peter to tip his hand, but Jesus, being the ultimate Teacher, seizes upon the opportunity to change Peter’s thinking. Although he appears to be thinking heavenly, Jesus shows him, them and us that he is not. Peter wants a reward and according to the context, he’ll get a reward, plus persecution. We will see this more in the context to come. However, Jesus presents this parable to teach Peter, and in turn, Matthew’s first-century audience and us, that our ways of thinking are wrong.
Peter was one of the first disciples called, along with his brother, according to Matthew and the first one named. He was with Jesus from the beginning, becomes, arguably, the most prominent miracle making man in history, writes New Testament books, and is even the first pope! Ok, just seeing if you are still with me. Peter becomes possibly, the most prominent person in history to the spread of the Gospel. You may argue that it was Paul and that is a valid point but there would be no Paul without Peter. And, notice: this argument goes to the context and our earthly way of thinking.
Paul writes, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother…then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. And it was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain…But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me. But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.”
Remember the poor, the least of these, the last–they will be first. According to the slick, smiling, mega-church pastor, the poor are only poor because they think poorly, because they don’t speak favor on themselves. They don’t have big enough buckets to fill, which begs the question; why was the one thing that Paul and the “pillars” agreed upon, “remembering the poor?”
Don’t change your mind to believe the mega-church pastors, change your mind to think kingdomly, to think heavenly. There is no greater earthly thinking than to expect riches and reward. This is what Jesus said to Peter with the parable of the wealthy landowner and laborers. Our reward is not in this earth and the last will be first. I am 100% good with that. I know my sins and the Lord knows more. I have been blessed in this life, I will gladly stand in the back or sit down at the kiddie table to watch those who have suffered incredible persecution and poverty cast their crowns at the feet of Jesus. Make no mistake, there are rewards in heaven to the humble and burning to the boastful. However, in this context, Jesus is speaking to the earthly thinking of Peter. The laborers are equal.
Children, Rich Young Rulers, wealthy landowners, all point to Christ and his Spirit that works within us. It’s the man who humbles himself in the sight of the Lord that will be elevated. Consider the context seeing the sublime string.