Employed By Grace

A friend of mine–who knows I enjoy puns–sent me this testimony about a fellow who tried to find work:

“My first job was working in an orange juice factory,
but I got canned because I couldn’t concentrate.

Then I worked in the woods as a lumberjack,
but I just couldn’t hack it, so they gave me the axe.

After that I tried to be a tailor,
but I just wasn’t suited for it. The job was only so-so anyhow.

Next I tried working in a muffler factory,
but that was exhausting.

I wanted to be a barber,
but I just couldn’t cut it.

I attempted to be a deli worker, but any way I sliced it,
I couldn’t cut the mustard.

My best job was being a musician,
but eventually I found I wasn’t note worthy.

I studied a long time to become a doctor,
but I didn’t have any patience.

Next was a job in a shoe factory; I tried,
but I just didn’t fit in.

I became a professional fisherman,
but discovered that I couldn’t live on my net income.

I managed to get a good job working for a pool maintenance company,
but the work was just too draining.

After many years of trying to find steady work,
I finally got a job as a historian, until I realized there was no future in it.” [1] 🙂

This quest for work reminds me of the plight of some characters in a parable that Jesus Christ told. This story in Matthew 20:1-16 illustrates God’s gracious way of rewarding His people.

The landowner [God] calls people into His kingdom and employs them in accomplishing His will. The maxim that precedes this parable is illustrated in it: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt. 19:30). In the story some were employed at 6 am with the agreement of being paid a denarius (a coin equivalent to the average worker’s daily wage). However, the landowner also repeatedly went to the marketplace and found others to employ. These were sent to work at 9 am, noon, 3 pm, and even 5 pm. Notice how the workers were compensated: “When evening came, the owner said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ So those who were engaged at five o’clock came up and each man received a silver coin. But when the first to be employed came they reckoned they would get more; yet they also received a sliver coin each” (Matt .20:8-10, J. B. Phillips).

At first glance this seems unfair. Assuming their income was based on merit, the longest-working ones should get more than the late-comers. Yet the parable purposely unfolds with the ones who worked longest witnessing the the payment given to the late-comers: “As they took their money they grumbled at the householder and said, ‘These last fellows have only put in one hour’s work and you’ve treated them exactly the same as us who have gone through all the hard work and heat of the day!'” (Matt. 20:11,12, Phillips). If God’s rewards and salvation were based on human merit, these 6 am workers would have a point, however, the landowner’s answer sets the record straight: “But he replied to one of them, ‘My friend, I’m not being unjust to you. Wasn’t our agreement for a silver coin a day? Take your money and go home. It is my wish to give the late-comers as much as I give you. May I not do what I like with what belongs to me? Must you be jealous because I am generous?'” (Matt .20:13-15, Phil). So the ones contracted at 6 am had no valid reason to complain; the equality of reward simply demonstrated the generosity of the employer.

The apostles had previously asked about their reward (Matt. 19:27) and the Lord Jesus used this opportunity to teach more about His grace. J. W. McGarvey summarized the moral of the story: “The main object of the parable is to show that longer labor does not necessarily, as the apostles and others might think, establish a claim to higher reward. Degrees of difference there no doubt will be, but they form no account in the general covenant of grace in which the one great gift is offered to us all [Eph. 2:8-9].” [2]

F. B. Meyer noted the generous way of God’s dealings with us: “He gives ‘of His own’ to these labourers who have been faithful to their opportunity, whether the hours were longer or shorter. ‘His own!’ [ Matt 20:15]. His own Love! His own Joy! His completed satisfaction!” [3]

The meaning of this parable was especially relevant in its first century context. The Jewish people had benefited from a covenant relationship with God for over a millennium. (They started “early”–like the workers employed at 6 am). This heritage would make it difficult for them to accept the gracious working of God whereby He saved Gentiles and gave them equal privileges in Christ’s church: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one,… so as to create in Himself one new man [the church] from the two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace” (Eph 2:13-15; Cf. John 10:16).

The complaint of the early hired workers reflects a merit-based view of rewards. This expectation wouldn’t be far off under normal circumstances, but in the distinctive situation and culture of this parable the complaint overlooks the Landowner’s generosity. His rewards go beyond fairness; they are based on His grace. We learn that rewards in God’s kingdom apply to the quality of ministry, not just the quantity of it.

This principle of gracious rewards also applies to the way God freely saves people whatever their age or degree of sin. McGarvey commented,

“As the gift can be no less than eternal life [Rom. 6:23], there must of necessity be a difference in the ratio of service which is rendered for it [in response to it], since it will be bestowed on the octogenarian and the child, upon Paul who made good the confession of his faith through years of toil, and the dying thief who passed to his reward while his voice of confession was, as it were, still ringing in the ears of those who heard it.” [4]

Another lesson we take from this parable is to avoid envy and comparing. The early workers compared their situation to others and murmured. By contrast, we should be grateful for God’s pardon of our sins, the gift of eternal life, and the opportunity to grow in our relationship with Him. God’s people have tremendous diversity–varying spiritual gifts, personal talents, intellectual capacity, physical health, financial resources, family situations, and ministry opportunities. These differences must never be a source of division or an occasion for envy. Rather, we should be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). So we are wise to heed Paul’s example: “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).

For example, remember how our Lord prophesied that Peter would be martyred for the sake of the gospel (John 21:18). Peter would glorify God in his death; his calling was simply to follow Christ (John 21:19). But Peter’s reaction was typical of human nature: “Then Peter, … seeing him [John], said to Jesus, ‘But Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me'” (John 21:20-22).

God’s Word describes the qualities of service He calls us to.

  • We serve because we are saved, not in order to be saved.
  • We serve out of gratitude, not out of mere legal duty.
  • We serve by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by self-effort.
  • We serve through love, not through fear.
  • We serve as friends of the Master, not as slaves of the Master.
  • We serve with His indwelling life, not just with His example.

In view of God’s grace, let’s gladly live under His lordship, “knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:24). With this perspective we can anticipate the judgment seat of Christ when we will cast our crowns before the throne of the One who has saved and employed us. [5]



[1] “All My Jobs,” submitted by John Adams

[2] J. W. McGarvey, Commentaries, in Online Bible by Ken Hamel www.online-bible.com (Matt 20)

[3] F. B. Meyer, Our Daily Walk, p.243.

[4] McGarvey, Commentaries. (Matthew 20)

[5] “the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying ‘You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created'” (Rev 4:10-11; Cf. 2 Cor 5:10).

Copyright 2001 by John Woodward. 2nd edition. Permission is granted to reprint this article if credit is given to the author and GraceNotebook.com.

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