“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When it was about nine o’clock in the morning he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard, too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard, too.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1-16 (NET)
Up to now I’ve dealt mainly with what could be referred to as entry-level problems that lead to the Christian blues. I didn’t cover every one of the bases but I tried to draw attention to many of the things that cause us to slip off the narrow path into ravines of depression. It’s time to move forward and start looking at difficulties that can arise sometimes decades down the road in our life as a disciple of Jesus. In doing so it behooves us to remind ourselves that being a Christian is no 24/7 picnic. The prosperity preachers on TV mean well but they aren’t doing anybody any favors by suggesting that following in the footsteps of our Lord leads to an easy existence without a care in the world. It just ain’t true due to two big factors: Our old sinful nature and the despicable prince of this planet. Thanks to that dirty duo we’ll know struggle in this life so we’d best crack open God’s owner’s manual, the Bible, as often as possible to better defend ourselves against their attacks. We know our former selves quite well but a surprising number know little about the devil. He’s as real as rain and he dogs us just like he dogged our Savior. After Christ rebuked him at every turn during the temptation in the wilderness Satan left him “for a season,” not forever. The evil one lurked about in His shadow all the way to Calvary and he does the same to us. That’s not being paranoid, that’s being realistic. And, as believers, we dare not forget to wear the “full armor of God” that the Holy Spirit provides for we never know when the devil will pounce and try to devour us. Since that creep never slacks up it’s all the more vital that we don’t, either. Though you may have gotten off to a splendid start way back when by accepting the gospel as truth beyond question, surrendering your will to that of our Heavenly Father, reading His Word daily and taking careful note of the pitfalls that can toss a Christian into the throes of the born again blues you’re still vulnerable. If you don’t grow in spiritual wisdom day by day you’re destined for disaster. In John 8 Christ taught the multitude, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” While acknowledging the crowd’s admirable leap of faith he was also urging them to continue to grow in spiritual wisdom lest they become like the seeds sown in shallow topsoil. In other words, don’t expect to graduate from the University of Christianity on this side of the Pearly Gates.
As far as the parable goes, it’s one that many Christians would rather ignore (along with that stuff about loving people you feel justified in hating). Worse, they may interpret it wrongly and think it means they can do as they please until they face the grim reaper at the last hour and then, with their last breath, say “I believe!” A bishop named Ryle said of the criminal crucified next to Jesus, “Few are ever saved on their deathbeds. One thief on the cross was saved that none should despair; but only one, that none should presume.” The fact that many folks die in the blink of an eye should be enough to make such a risk foolish to take. Another mistake is to think of the tale as a wide open allegory that can be manipulated into pertaining to a myriad of situations. Not so. Christ was pointing us to one great truth only, that being the unfathomable grace of God. The story is a continuation of what went down in Matthew 19 when, after the rich young man walked away from the Lord dejected, Peter pipes up and says, “Look, we have left everything to follow you! What will there be for us?” While most would’ve shot Peter a scowl, Christ displayed patience with him and answered, “I tell you the truth: In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And whoever has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Then came the kicker. “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I can envision Peter smiling and nodding right up to that last statement that caused him to cock his head like an old mule staring at a new gate. I suspect that Peter then hung his head as his Master related the parable of the vineyard workers, realizing that it was aimed right at him and his stinkin’ thinkin’.
The message, the doctrine and the principle the parable encapsulates is that in the Christian life it’s all about grace from A to Z. Previously I borrowed from this parable to show that it’s never too late to turn to Jesus for salvation and those who surrender to Christ in their later years can take comfort in that. But the true emphasis is centered on disciples who’ve been in the fold for many years and Jesus doesn’t mess around. He’s talking directly to those of us who get complacent and start thinking it’s all about us, a theme arising throughout the Epistles in such phrases as the one in Galatians 5 that says “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?” Our failure to keep up with our Christian growth is a major problem because if we get lazy we’ll find ourselves wallowing in our old nature faster than you can say “relapse.” This parable cuts deep. Why did the men who were lucky enough to get hired in the morning end up flaking out at the end? First of all, their attitude about themselves and their work was screwed up. It’s important to note that they reached an agreement with the landowner regarding the terms of their employment. Those hired later were simply told they’d be treated fairly and when the paychecks were handed out those who put in a full day of toil suddenly wanted to amend their agreement. They’d been keeping track of what they’d accomplished. Running a tab, if you will. Should any of us indignantly get our dander up over that we need to see that we’re just like those guys. We all commit the sin of being too aware of ourselves and our service. Secondly, they were not just neck-deep in their own business but everyone else’s, too, and Jesus is stressing the error in that behavior. Peter brought up the bargain he felt he’d made with his Master and then started making demands. “I have my rights!” we often say. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “What is so pathetic and tragic about this is that it brings a man into trouble at the very point where our Lord is most gracious in His dealings.” The grumbling workers’ (and Peter’s) greedy hearts were exposed for what they were. Because they chose to ignore the grace they’d been given they felt entitled to compensation for their labor in accordance with their notion of fairness. Admittedly, they were using their human logic. They were saying, “I worked harder and longer so I should get more and, now that I didn’t, I’m angry. I want justice!” Want to see someone jettison everything they’ve learned about being a Christian in a split second? Just make them feel they’ve been cheated or taken advantage of. Check out how the newly-freed Israelites acted during the exodus if you don’t believe me. That’s why Paul wrote in Philippians 2, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world…” It’s a shame that we can so quickly become miserable gripers instead of rejoicers when we forget what God’s grace has done for us free of charge.
Yet the downward spiral doesn’t stop there. Resentment leads to contempt for and jealousy of others. In a flash we can become like the elder brother of the prodigal son and allow a grudge to negate all the good work and faithful witnessing we’ve done in the name of the Lord. The original laborers in the vineyard had turned selfish and self-centered but that still wasn’t the worst of it! They harbored and nurtured an inner conviction that the landowner was an unjust jerk even though he’d held up his part of the deal and that’s another tool the devil uses to get his foot in the door. He’ll whisper, “Look at how hard you worked and for what? To get paid the same as those lousy bums who hardly lifted a finger? What an outrage!” Before you know it we become suspicious of God’s “righteous” reputation and start to not trust Him and that’s when we so easily fall away. Satan lies, we listen, and a conniving sense of entitlement sprouts in our hearts. That’s why Christ told us this story, to unmask the ugly sin of selfishness that lurks in each of us. It’s also why this parable makes us so uncomfortable.
So what’s the cure? It lies in wrapping our brains around the controlling principle that tells us this: In the realm of the Heavenly Father everything is essentially different from how we think things ought to be. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!” We must accept that we can’t live according to our old standards, our old self-assured ethics and our old concepts anymore. We now adhere to God’s rules, not ours. And that means we must be willing to adjust. First of all, striking bargains and asserting our rights are out the window. The spirit in us that argues that if we do this or that or the other we’re due a reward must be defeated and silenced. If not, disappointment lies ahead. Many fine Christians truly believe if they pray hard enough for something God is obligated to give it to them. I call this “vending machine Christianity” and it is wrong with a capital W. We should never approach God with an if-I-do-this-then-you-have-to-do-that mentality. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if every believer got everything they prayed for! God’s not a genie in a bottle and we must rid ourselves of that perception pronto. The great I AM does everything in His own time and in His own way and, truth be known, we have no right to ask Him for favors. Or anything concerning ourselves, for that matter. His grace is enough. We can quote scripture regarding judgment and rewards from 1 & 2 Corinthians and Luke 12 all we want but they still point to God’s inexhaustible grace as the source of all blessings. To think that fairness has anything to do with it will only shine a light on our blatant unworthiness.
Christ’s parable also says that if you make a deal with God you’ll get that deal and nothing more. The men at the outset of the story agreed to a wage and they got it. The others who made no deal got more than they expected. The lesson is that if we Christians will cease in making demands and rely on His grace alone we’ll get more than we ever imagined. Jesus said of the Pharisees who demanded respect from the common people, “I tell you the truth, they have their reward.” They got the superficial things this world offers and nothing more. This leads us to the next principle. Stop listing all the wonderful things you do and note only the things the Lord does for you out of the sheer goodness of His heart. Leave the good deed bookkeeping to God. Scriptures in Matthew put it succinctly: “But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” Why waste time keeping track of what you do for others when the ultimate CPA is on top of it? Simply perform your Christian duty as instructed and prepare yourself for some cool surprises in God’s kingdom. Expect the unexpected. The first will be last and everything will be turned upside down because there will be no ego, no puffed up pride, no animosity or selfishness to get in the way. I can’t wait.
Here’s an example of what happens to me when I decide what’s fair. As a leader at Celebrate Recovery I’ll present one of the ministry’s 25 lessons at our large group meeting and, because I’ve sprinkled in a pinch or two of my own brilliance along the way, I’ll expect the place to be packed. Yet I’ll find myself addressing a near-empty room and wonder if God forgot to remind the flock that I was scheduled to orate. Then I’ll give a lesson on a night when it’s raining kittens and pups and freezing cold and it’ll be standing room only. I never know but God does. When I’m full of myself I’m made a fool and when I have doubts He displays his power. That’s the way it should be. He’s in charge and He knows what He’s doing. And, if we’ll trust him without reservation, he’ll delight us with surprises. Recall what Jesus said in Matthew 25 about the self-righteous ones who’ll come to Him at world’s end expecting a reward but will get nada. However, to the meek He’ll say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Their humble response will be “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” Our king will say, “I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.” What a surprise that’ll be! Our pitiful ledgers will be of absolutely no value. We’ll be standing in God’s kingdom and subject to His accounting system which is chock full of grace.
We should not only recognize that it’s all about grace but we should rejoice in that fact. That was the tragedy of the first laborers in the vineyard. They witnessed a full wage being given to those who came in at the eleventh hour of a twelve hour shift and instead of feeling happy for them they spat, pouted and called the landowner names. I love Jesus’ convicting one-liner, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Often we are. The key to my knowing a joyful Christian life is to realize how marvelous grace really is for all of God’s children, not just me. That’s what Christ implied in Luke 17 when he said, “…When you have done everything you were commanded to do, you should say ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.” That’s the key to contentment and He didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk. He didn’t focus on himself or His own interests. He set aside His own divinity in order to save us. He humbled himself and made the glorification of his Father and the revealing of God’s loving nature his mission. I quote Lloyd-Jones again, “That is the secret. Not watching the clock, not assessing the amount of work, not keeping a record in a book, but forgetting everything except the glory of God, the privilege of being called to work for Him at all, the privilege of being a Christian, remembering only the grace that has ever looked upon us and removed us from darkness to light.” The solid truth imbedded in that profound statement should be more than enough to chase away any born again blues generated by us feeling we’ve haven’t gotten a fair shake. The Christian life is initiated by grace, sustained through grace and ends with grace. We believers have everything we need to experience a joy that has no limits and we should eagerly share that joy with all who get saved, no matter when they join the body of Christ.
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book, “Spiritual Depression.”)