You are here

19. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard #2


Chapter 19

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Part 2)

The Principle of First and Last

Matthew 20:1-16

Eric H. H. Chang

Montreal, January 11, 1981


We continue to study the Word of God, and especially, the teaching of our Lord Jesus in Matthew 20:1-16. Previously, we studied the unique character of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. We saw that this parable is remarkable in that it is a diagnostic parable, that is, a parable that diagnoses our thoughts and the attitudes of our heart.

I will summarize very quickly. We looked at the expositions or inter­pretat­ions of this parable by various authorities as they are commenta­tors, and we saw that these interpretations as suggested by them simply don’t meet the understanding of this parable, because we saw that there was something inadequate whichever way they explained it.

This parable is not about the goodness of God

Some suggested that the parable speaks of the goodness of God, and we found that this exposition is really quite inadequate, because if this is supposed to explain the goodness of God, the extent of God’s goodness is highly limited. It is limited in fact, to the average wage of the laborer, to one denarius, and that is hardly a very large sum to express the bounty and goodness of God. The goodness of God is seen much more, for example, in that person who owed a million dollars and was freely forgiven. There we can speak of the goodness of God in His forgiving love.

But in this parable, when we are talking about a mere denarius, we are hardly in a position to speak much about the goodness of God. And even less is the goodness of God to those who came first. We saw that if this speaks of the goodness of God, then it is a diminishing goodness of God. That is, the goodness of God is at least considerable to those who came last, but it diminishes as we proceed to those who came first. For them, there was nothing to speak of at all, regarding the goodness of God. In fact, they felt themselves to be very unjustly treated.

This is a diagnostic parable exposing your thoughts and attitudes

So, we went on looking at various expositions or explanations of this parable, and found that really none of them answered the questions that come to our mind. And the reason was because, all alike had failed to see the remarkable character of the Lord Jesus’ words here, that it is a diagnostic parable diagnosing your thinking. This parable does exactly what Hebrews 4:12 says, the Word of God is sharper than any other two-edged sword, and penetrates into your mind, and into your very intentions, and there, discerns what is normally indiscernible between your thoughts and your intentions. It examines the motives of your heart and of your mind, laying bare your heart before God and before yourself, if you have eyes that are willing to look at your true condition. So this truly is a remarkable parable!

I also said that it is truly a fact that no one ever spoke or taught as the Lord Jesus has spoken and taught. He was able to use teaching in a manner that not even the greatest teachers in this world have ever been able to use it. And he has been able to do this in so remarkable a way that we find our pretence to God utterly exposed, showing us what we are really like. When you study his teaching, often, you cannot but feel uncomfortable, because you know that his words are addressed straight to you, and you almost wish that they will speak to the next person. And you realize that even if you try to be hypocritical, it is most difficult to run away from the force of his words.

Summary of this parable

This parable has to do with the owner of a vineyard, who found it necessary to employ more workers as the day proceeded, with the approach of the harvest. Those of you who are from China will know that the Chinese agricultural calendar is astonishingly accurate. When the rainy season is going to begin on that day, it surely begins on that day. The weather is so much more predictable in the East than it is in the West for some unknown reason. I don’t know whether recent underground tests for nuclear bombs have altered the predictability of the weather in any way, but I am amazed at the accuracy of the Chinese calendar. This also holds true to some extent in Israel, hence people were quite aware when the rainy season would set in. And those who want to harvest their crops, whether it is wheat or fruit, would try to beat the deadline of the cold or of the frost.

As the day proceeded, the owner of the vineyard saw that the job would not be finished without hiring more people for the work, and so he did. The first group of people was hired to start work at five or six o’clock in the morning. The second group started work about nine o’clock in the morning, the next group at twelve, the next group at three in the afternoon and the last group at five, the day finishing at sundown, six o’clock.

The master begins the payment from the last group. He gave those who had worked only one hour one denarius. And so the next group thought they were going to get more, and they got the same. And the next group thought that they were going to get more, and they still got the same. And when it came to the first group that had worked the whole twelve hours, they also got only one denarius. That is why I said it is so unsatisfactory to speak about the goodness of God there. When the first group were paid last, they felt justified in expecting a much larger payment than those who were already paid, but they got the same. Then we saw that their reaction was one of bitterness. They were very upset about being paid the same amount of money as those who had not worked the whole day.

Now the whole parable is to teach us something very important. Last time, I asked you right at the beginning, what do you feel as you read this parable? Do you feel that God is rather unjust? God is rather arbitrary? Or do you feel that He is rather kind? What you feel depends on which group of people you identified with. And it is a matter of fact that the majority of people identify either with the first group, or with one of the earlier groups. Very few, if any, identify with the last group.

Our “Me first” attitude

And what does this tell us? This tells us something about our attitude, our mentality. What is our spiritual outlook? Our outlook is one of “Me first—my interests come first. The first group of people were upset. Why should they feel upset? As the owner of the vineyard said, “You agreed with me for one denarius for the day’s work, and I am giving you what we agreed on at the beginning of the day. Our contract stipulated that you will get one denarius, and here is your one denarius. What are you complaining about? Legally speaking, they had no claim. It is true they had agreed on one denarius. That is what they got.

Why then are they upset? It is because they felt it is unfair that these people who worked one hour, got one denarius, and they worked twelve hours and still got one denarius. On whose definition is it unfair? Fairness or unfairness depends very much on where you stand, and how you look at the matter. Those who came last were not complaining about unfairness, but those who came first regarded the payment as unfair. Why? Because there is an attitude of envy.

What causes this envious way of thinking? As we also saw previously, attitudes are most important. And before we start analyzing the new kind of attitude that we should have, we must know that it is not difficult to understand, but impossible to implement, because we are all by nature, camels. We are all by nature groaning, and grumbling, and mumbling that God is unfair to us. And because of that, it is easier for the camel to get through the eye of the needle than for us to get through, unless God transforms us radically.

What is the vital essence of being a Christian?

What does it mean for a person to become a Christian? I come back to this again and again, because the Lord Jesus comes back to this again and again. He wants us to understand clearly what it is to be a Christian. How do you understand what is being a Christian? Are you still thinking of being a Christian in terms of going to church, of reading your Bible, of getting baptized, of subscribing to a certain creed, of believing this and believing that to be true? Now all this is part of it, but this is a very secondary part of being a Christian. What we must understand is, what is the vital essence of being a Christian? It is true that Christians get baptized; it is true that they read their Bible; it is true that they go to church. But these are the things that they do correctly only if there is a real change in their lives.

Being a Christian is not merely doing all of those things. It doesn’t depend on how large is the Bible you hold. It doesn’t depend on how often you go to church. It doesn’t depend on any of these things, not even that you were baptized. What does it depend on then?

1. A complete change in thinking and attitude

The Lord Jesus says it depends on a complete change in outlook. A change in the way you think, a change in your attitude. That is what a true Christian is about. If your way of thinking has not changed, then it doesn’t really matter whether you were baptized or not as far as God is concerned. He is not interested in that in the first instance. Baptism is not even meaningful until it is the outward expression of that inward change. If there has not been an inward change, your baptism is not going to help you at all. It means you have got the name of being a Christian but there is no reality inside of you. Nothing has changed inside of you.

Let me read to you again Romans 12:1-2, which touches on this very point that being a Christian involves this kind of transformation. This is a very well-known passage, but the point is not whether we know it well, but whether we have applied it. You are not going to be saved because you know the Bible. You are going to be saved only because you practice the Bible. And dare I say that there are going to be quite a number of theologians in hell. Because it is not, as the Lord Jesus says, whether or not you know the truth, the question is whether you do it. “Blessed is he who knows these things and does them,” the Lord Jesus says (Lk. 11:28). Knowing it is not enough. In fact, because you know it and you don’t do it, so much greater is the condemnation. If you did not know it, you might still have some excuse. Knowing it and not doing it puts you under the severity of God’s Judgment.

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom. 12:1-2)

If you say that you are a Christian, let me ask you, is your mind renewed? If not, what kind of a Christian are you? I don’t ask, do you know it, but have you done it?

2. Know the will of God

Romans 12:2b says, “that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Christians often come and talk to me about one of their greatest problems, and that is, they don’t know what is the will of God. Why don’t you know the will of God? Because your mind has not been changed. It has not been renewed. There is no use for me to tell you what the will of God is, because I don’t know what God’s will is for you in your particular life. You have got to find out what that will is. And the only way you can find that will is by your mind being changed, so that God can speak to you. There is no use giving a session on how to know the will of God, until the person’s mind is changed. But when your mind is changed, you don’t need lessons about knowing the will of God, because you will know the will of God. So we must begin at the right place.

3. Not conformed to the world

Paul tells us here that becoming a Christian has to do with not being pressurized into conformity—thinking in the world’s way of thinking, but being changed in one’s thinking. How difficult that is!

The Word of God is sharp, and shows us how much we are conformed to the world. We may have changed, but our thinking is still conformed to the general pattern, which non-Christians think to a great extent. We can rightly say to a Christian, what is the difference between you and a non-Christian in the way you think? In fact, is that not the very thing that non-Christians say, “You Christians think in much the same way as any non-Christian does”? That is also why you behave in the same way as the non-Christian does. When your attitudes do not change, neither does your conduct. You still behave in the same way as the non-Christian. Little wonder that the non-Christian says, “Why should I become a Christian when you think in the same way as I do, and so you are just as selfish as I am?” To that of course, there is no excuse.

The Christian should not be the same as the non-Christian. His thinking should have been changed, which results in a change in his behavior. A complete change is the fundamental thing about being a Christian.

4. Become a new person

That is exactly why Paul says that becoming a Christian is to become a new person in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17). How can you be a new person when you think in the same old way that you thought before? How can you be a new person when you still behave in the same way as you behaved before—as rude, as bad-tempered, as selfish as you were before? There is no meaning in saying that you are a new creation, is there?

Little wonder that the world looks at us and says, “If that is Christianity, I don’t need it! I am doing very well as it is.” And they are right. The Christians have changed little or not at all. And if that is so, we have a church full of Christians who are nominal “Christians”.

Now this is a parable that the Lord Jesus uses to show us how little we have changed. As his hearers are listening to him telling the parable, he asks, “How do you feel? How do you react to this parable?” “God is unfair,” they replied. “Right! God is unfair, isn’t He? Now you know how you think.” Why do you say He is unfair? It’s because you have the same way of thinking as these people. If you had another way of thinking, you would not think God is unfair. But because you are thinking as you do, you think God is unfair. The Lord Jesus is saying to you, “I have let you see your own condition. You should realize that you have not changed much.”

5. Unselfish, happy thinking

What should be the new way of thinking? What should the new attitude be? If you had a new way of thinking, even if you identified yourself with the first group who worked for twelve hours, you would have felt very happy for those who came after and received the same pay as you.

It is not natural to feel that way, is it? Of course, it is not natural. If you were in the first group, you would not naturally rejoice with those who worked only one hour. But if your mind had been renewed—a changed mentality, you would not have had the selfish unhappiness, because it is the selfishness that made the first group unhappy. If they were unselfish, they would have been happy that those who could not find a job earlier could now take home the same pay, so that their wives would have something to cook for the family to eat. You would feel happy if you had that mentality, but we don’t have that mentality, do we? We are envious. Don’t say you are not envious. If you are not envious, then you have really changed.

Let us take an example. If someone greets you warmly when you come into church, you will feel very happy. But if two of you come in, and he greets your friend very warmly, leaving you in the cold, you will stand there thinking, “What kind of guy is this?! When is he going to greet me? Doesn’t he see me? Am I invisible?” And your blood pressure is rising. Why are you upset? He did not take notice of you; he only took notice of your friend. Well, you will say that is natural. Of course, it is natural. That is the whole point. You are a natural man. You have not become a spiritual man yet. The day you can see your friend receiving the honor and not you, and still rejoice in it, you have become a spiritual man.

Now if the first group of people had that mentality, they would not have worried at all. But we cannot think that way, we are natural. What does natural mean? Natural means self-centered; the natural man is self-centered. He is always “Number 1” in his own eyes. He is king of his little world, and his little world is where his skin is. Within the limit of his skin, he is the king, at least to some extent.

Or let us put it another way. Your parents prefer your brother or your sister, not so much you. “Huh! I am really jealous and bitter! I am as good as my brother and my sister, my parents are really biased. Maybe my brother is a little more good-looking than I am, maybe he is a little taller than I am, so what? But they are always favoring that one, and don’t look at me. I get half his pocket money! I am really unhappy about this! It is not fair!” You will say, “Of course, it is natural for me to feel like that!” That is the whole point—it is natural.

6. Born of the Spirit of God

Becoming a Christian is to become supernatural—to be born of the Spirit of God. You have become a spiritual man the day you see your parents being kinder to your brother or your sister, and still be happy about it. No one ever said that being a Christian is to be natural. It is to become supernatural.

What does it mean to be born of the Spirit, to be born again? It has no meaning whatsoever unless it means that we think in a totally new and different and unexpected way, because God has done His work in us. We are truly Christians when we behave in an unexpected, extraordinary manner. That is what ought to make a Christian stand out in his generation, because he doesn’t react in what is called “the natural, selfish way.” But we cannot do this because we are by nature selfish.

God comes into your life and makes you a different person altogether

Christianity is about God coming into your life, and making your whole reaction different, making your thinking different. It makes us a different person altogether. Unless Christianity is supernatural, then what point is there in being a Christian? Why should I be a Christian at all if I behave like any non-Christian? What is the point of my being a Christian anyway? Just so that I can get extra security? Or a nice comfortable feeling that I have been to church today? That is not what Christianity is about.

Christianity is about a transformation, a total change of attitude; and this cannot be done by man. That is what “we are saved by grace” means. It means that you simply cannot change your thinking. It is God’s power coming into your life and changing you. When you are changed in this way, you become extraordinary—you stand out from the crowd; you’ve become a Christian. If you have been changed, you become light because your behavior is different. It is absolutely astonishing to the world that anyone thinks or behaves like this. They cannot understand this. That is why the Lord Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”

Happy when others gain

When your friend who worked only one hour gets the same pay as you, you congratulate him and say, “That is wonderful! I am so happy for you!” Your friend will say, “Do you mean it? You can’t be serious!” And you will say, “Oh, I am serious! I really thank God that you have the same pay as I have!” I bet you don’t think like this. You will pull a long face and think, the boss is unfair! I am going to take him to the union! I am going to sue him in court! This treatment is not fair! That is the natural man. But when you behave in the spiritual way, people just cannot comprehend it. They are so astonished that their mouth drops open. This can’t be! He behaves like this?!

Grateful for criticism

When you are criticized, when you are judged, do you feel: “Nobody understands me! All these people gang up against me! They are bad, unfair, small-minded, selfish people!” Do you feel like that? Or is it ever the case that when someone criticizes you, or speaks to you about your faults, and you know that they speak out of love, that you feel so thankful and think, “They care for me so much as to tell me my faults”?

I am not talking about speaking behind people’s back because that doesn’t help them at all. That is slander. You don’t help anybody by talking about him behind his back, because he cannot do anything about it. He doesn’t even know you are saying these things about him. That is vicious. But do you ever thank God for the people who come up to you and tell you your faults with love, maybe with grief, suggesting that maybe you could improve? Do you feel grateful, or do you feel offended, angry, bitter?

Just read the book of Proverbs, and you will see that the spiritual man’s reaction is entirely different. When you tell him his faults frankly, he is so grateful. He will say, “I am so grateful to you because you care for me so much as to tell me my faults. You took the trouble to show me all my failings. Thank you for being so kind to me!” Do you react like that? If you do, then you are a spiritual man. I have yet to see many of these spiritual men. When you tell people their faults, they would say, “Ah! You misunderstood me. No, that is not what I felt. That is not kind to me at all.” That is the way we react. You see the character of a person and his attitude in the way he behaves. You cannot even punish a spiritual man because every punishment to him is a blessing. He is so grateful to you for this kindness that you have done to him. It is really wonderful. We must learn to become spiritual.

Thank God enemies who maliciously slander

Learn to grow in the grace of God to think in a new way, to thank God for those enemies of ours, who have even maliciously slandered us. I tell you the truth, I learn to thank God and to pray for those who have spoken evil of me every day. I know that they did not mean it in a bad way. Perhaps they have been taught doctrines in that way, but we must be understanding, patient and kind to them. And that is very hard to learn because we are always wanting to justify ourselves. Our natural man is like this.

Some of you may know one of the best-known church leaders in Taiwan, Wu Yong Zhanglao (Elder Wu Yong). He was in Montreal in these last few days, and he asked to see me, and a meeting was arranged whereby we were able to spend a couple of hours of fellowship together. He had heard of some of the problems in western Canada, and he wanted to ask me what was behind these problems. After listening, he felt that these things were not right, and he wanted to effect the reconciliation. I said to him, “Brother, just leave me where I am. I don’t want to be lifted to those heights again, where everyone sees you as a great church leader, and gives you deep respect. I felt that those things were spiritually bad for me. I’d like to learn to be last. I want to be low. Just leave me where I am, and don’t go around saying good things about me. God has blessed me so much through these tribulations. It has been such a blessing that I would like to stay just where I am.” I really mean this. This is not a question of humility. I have come to see the goodness of God, the greatness of His divine purpose, even when people malign me.

How much more should we be grateful when those who love us enough to tell us our faults—and who has not got faults? How much more should we be grateful when those who love us take the trouble to deal with us for our good, that we might truly become men and women of God that God would have us to be?

Identify with others in their joy and sorrow

Being a Christian means an utterly new way of thinking, a new mentality that can rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. In the parable, the laborers who worked only one hour and got one denarius were certainly dancing for joy! But could the first group rejoice with those who rejoice? No. But that is what a Christian should do. In Romans 12:15, Paul says exactly, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We cannot rejoice with those who rejoice, because we only rejoice when something good is done to us. Why should we rejoice when something good is done to others? We cannot think in this kind of way. Why can’t we think in this kind of way? We don’t identify with other people because our self comes first. This is the great problem both in the church and for every Christian individually. If our thinking changes, our attitude will change. When we become true Christians, we would have no trouble at all rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Let me give you an example like this, if somebody praised your wife, would you feel very jealous? “You praised my wife, but you didn’t praise me? This is completely unfair!” Do you feel like that? No, unless your marriage has broken down. If someone praises your wife’s cooking, she feels happy, and you feel happy too, if you love your wife. Why? Because she is part of you! Praising her is praising you, isn’t it? You have identified fully with her, so you rejoice with those who rejoice. Now if your marriage is in trouble, of course, praising your wife does nothing to you. You would say, “Who says her cooking is good? Rubbish!” How you react to her depends on your relationship to her.

Would the wife feel jealous because someone praised the husband? Of course not, she is so happy that her husband is praised. Why is it that somebody did not praise you, but praised your husband, and you feel happy? It is because your husband is part of you; you identify with him because you love him.

Or have you ever seen a parent who got jealous because somebody praised the child? If the parent did get jealous, there is something wrong with this parent. Certainly, the father is so happy that the son or the daughter is praised. And of course, you feel grieved when someone says something bad about your son. You grieve with those who grieve, and you rejoice with those who rejoice, if you identify with them.

Let us return to the example of your friend. How much do you love your friend? If somebody greets your friend, and talks warmly with him, and forgot that you existed, well, you wouldn’t worry that much if you really loved your friend. You would feel happy. You would rejoice with your friend. If someone praises your friend, why should you feel jealous? You feel jealous if you did not love him. But if you loved him, you identified with him, you would not feel jealous. That is the difference in mentality.

But our love is limited to our husband, our wife, our children; we cannot love beyond them. If we did, we would begin to have this new way of thinking. You would not be jealous. If you really loved your friend and he got double the pay you got, why should you be jealous? You are so happy. “I love him so much, and he got double the pay that I got! It’s so marvelous!” Why? When you love a person, you cease to be self-centered to that extent that you love the person.

This parable explains “Love your neighbor as yourself”

As you can see from Matthew 20:1, “For the kingdom of heaven,” the first word, “for” connects Matthew 20 to Matthew 19. So this parable is all part of the explanation to the rich young ruler’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in Matthew 19:16. Do you remember what was the Lord Jesus’ answer in Matthew 19:19? His answer was, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is the very foundation of New Testament teaching, going through the whole New Testament. It occurs twice in the Lord Jesus’ teaching in Matthew alone, not only in Matthew 19:19 but also in Matthew 22:39. The apostle Paul uses it again, in Romans 13:9 and Galat­ians 5:14. The apostle James does the same thing in James 2:8. Virtually the whole of the First letter of John by the apostle John is exposition on this very teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself, even laying down your life for your neighbor (1 Jo. 3:16). This is the foundation of New Testament teaching.

The Lord Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “You asked me what you must do to inherit eternal life. I will tell you what you must do. Go out there and love your neighbor as yourself.” And we saw how little did this rich young man understand it. He said that I have done this since my youth. He has never begun to do it let alone since his youth. He did not understand what the Lord Jesus was saying.

The fact is that you cannot by nature love your neighbor as yourself; you cannot do it. That is why it is not a teaching of salvation by works, whereby you go out and love your neighbor. Try it and you will see you cannot do it. The Lord Jesus’ teaching is showing this rich young ruler that his whole mind and mentality has to be changed, as Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2. The Spirit of God has to come into his life, and changed his whole character until he becomes a new person, who can look at a brother and a sister and love him and her as himself! That is the marvel of being a Christian!

Warning of parable: “Me first” will not enter God’s kingdom

Remember well, unless God so changes you, you will not enter the kingdom of God, you will not inherit eternal life. That is the Lord Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Lord Jesus replied, “You ask me what you must do. I’ll tell you what you must do. Love your neighbor as yourself. Sell what you have and follow me.” As we have expounded in detail, becoming his disciple is the fulfilling of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Can you do it? No. Can I do it? No, I cannot do it. Without God’s transforming power, none of us can do it. What must we do then? We can only kneel down and say, “Lord, have pity upon me. Come into my life and change me.”

You are helpless, but God’s grace can change you

What is the definition of grace? Grace is God’s transforming power to change you when you can do nothing for yourself, when you are weak and helpless. That is grace. You can see that definition of grace in Titus 2:11, and I would like to read that to you because we often don’t understand what grace means. I have pointed out to you many times, that grace is not just some kind of a free gift that you put in your pocket, and walk away with. If you understand grace like that, you have not understood the Bible at all. Many preachers imagine that grace is a sort of life that is given to you as a gift, and you store this package away, and you are saved. That is not grace at all. Grace is something active, something powerful. It is God’s power coming into your life and changing you. Titus 2:11 says,

“For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world.”

Notice, what does grace do? Why do we need grace? Grace trains us. Transformation is a process of training. It doesn’t mean that overnight, you immediately find it very easy to love everyone. Now the definition of grace is: the power of God that trains us to live a godly life in this world. I repeat, it is not some kind of present that you can simply take and stuff into your pocket, and forget it until you get to heaven. It is not a one-way ticket to heaven that you can just collect, no matter how you behave. No, grace is something that comes into your life, training you to renounce ungodliness, and making you holy and righteous.

Selfishness hinders God’s grace

By this time, I hope we really understand this parable. As I said right at the beginning, there is nothing hard to understand. The difficulty begins when we try to do it. We find it impossible to do because of our self-centered nature. Every day, we observe how selfish is the Christian, how disgraceful is the Christian. Would to God that we understand what it means to be a Christian!

If somebody is interested in a girl that you are interested in, how do you feel? Do you say to him, “Are you interested in my girlfriend? Go ahead.” Instead, you will say, “No! I will roll up my sleeves, and show you who is the better man! The better man wins!” How difficult it is to change! If two guys love the same girl, the spiritual man says, “Go ahead. I am not in this race. You take her.” Or if two girls are after the same boy, what a spiritual girl it is who says, “Go ahead, you take him.” And the spiritual person will say, “If God so pleases that I should have this boy or girl, let Him provide. If not, let the other person take him or her.” Do you think it is easy to be a Christian? That is Christianity!

First will be last: Learn not to put your own interests first

This is spiritual thinking at every level: learning not to put your own interests first. That is what we need in the church today, but how difficult it is to practice. And this is exactly what the parable is about. Once you understand this way of thinking, this parable is very clear. It shows you what this attitude is, and how a Christian should change.

But we are realists, aren’t we? We understand that human nature does not change so easily. I think one of the saddest passages in the Bible that I know, that I read again and again, is Philippians 2:19-21. Paul wants to send a co-worker to the church in Philippi, but he cannot find anyone to send except Timothy. The tragic part is what he has to say about the so-called “Christian workers” that are around.

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare. They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ, but Timothy’s worth you know.”

What I regard as one of the saddest verses in the Bible is verse 21. He could only think of sending Timothy, out of his long list of co-workers. Why? Because the others put their own interests first, to a greater or lesser extent, not those of Jesus Christ. And a person who doesn’t put the interests of Christ first won’t put your interests first. That is for sure, because his interest is paramount. His self is first: “Me first.” How few people there are who seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteous­ness! We all know these verses. Which of us practice them? That is the question. We all know that we need to be changed. Which of us conduct ourselves as changed people?

When I associate with Christians, I marvel only at this, how right Paul is. We don’t need to make excuses for ourselves as Christians. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves because if we look into our hearts, we can see that our own interests are always primary.

Let us bear in mind the warning that the Lord Jesus tells us here. Those who put their own interests first will be last in the kingdom of God. They will not even find a place in the kingdom of God. That is the warning.

Be last to experience the joy of God lifting you up to a first

By now, you have seen very clearly, that those who put their own interests first are the people who are always grumbling. That also means Christians who put their own interests first are always unhappy. They are Christians who don’t know what it is to have peace and joy. Many people say to me, “But the preacher told me if I become a Christian, I will have peace and joy.” Well, the preacher did not tell you the whole truth.

Only when you become a true Christian, only when your whole attitude changes do you have peace and joy, because everybody else’s joy is your joy. You are happy not only when your wife is praised, or when your children are praised; you are happy when this brother is praised, this sister is praised, because they are all your brothers and sisters. You rejoice because you have identified with the whole body of Christ. A person who has this kind of attitude is virtually invincible. You cannot get him down, because such a person may sometimes be discouraged, but you cannot knock him out. Why? He has so much to be happy about—his heart is big!

He is the kind of Christian who knows what it means that God works everything for good to those who love him. Every disaster becomes a blessing. God will turn every last to a first. He will turn everything upside down to your benefit and to your glory, because in your being glorified, He is glorified. Isn’t that remarkable? That is why God wants to glorify us. You read that in Romans 8:28-30, “For whom He did foreknow, He did foreordain to be conformed to the image of His Son, ...He also glorified.” When you put yourself down, God lifts you up. When you lift yourself up, He brings you down. “The last will be first, and the first last.” (Mt. 20:16)

Two kinds of “first” “last”: Inward, external

Observing from all this, we must understand that there are two kinds of first and two kinds of last. There is the first which has to do with external circumstances, and there is the first which has to do with internal circumstances. He who knows this masters the world.

What do we mean by this? You may be first by reason of circumstance, or you may be last by reason of circumstance. It makes no difference. What really matters is whether you are first or last internally in your attitude. He who knows what it is to be last spiritually, will be first spiritually. That is, no external circumstance can bring him down.

Let us return to this parable for a moment if you don’t understand what I am saying so far. Take these laborers who were in the first group; their external circumstance was that they were first. But had they had a new and different attitude, and learned to rejoice with those who came last, would they not have been first again? What I mean is this: their attitude prevented them from receiving the goodness of the master of the vineyard. Don’t you see it?

Think what would have been the attitude of the master of the vineyard, had these people who were first saw those who were last receive the same pay as they did, and rejoiced in it? Had they congratulated the people who were last that they got the same pay, praised the owner of the vineyard for his excellent wisdom and goodness, what do you think the owner of the vineyard would have done? You don’t have to guess very hard what he would have done. It is their grumbling, rebellious, hard attitude, that made it impossible for him to extend his goodness also to them. This is what the Lord Jesus wants to teach us.

God will change your circumstance if your attitude is right

What our external circumstance is, really doesn’t matter. You may be born in a rich family; that is your external circumstance. Or you may be born in a poor family; that is your external circumstance. But you who have the right attitude inwardly never become a slave to circumstance. The rich person who behaves arrogantly, who thinks he is first because he is rich, is a fool. And he who behaves with an inferiority complex because he is poor is also a fool. The greatness of a man has nothing to do with his external circumstance.

The spiritual greatness of a person depends on his internal attitude. He who is poor, and yet knows that in his poverty he is rich in Christ, is a spiritual giant. He is truly great. And he, who is by external circumstance rich, but behaves in humility, is also great. The external circumstance really doesn’t make any difference. As Christians, we are never victims of the external situation. We may be first, or we may be last outwardly, it doesn’t matter. But what matters is whether we are first or last inwardly, because if you are always right inwardly, your external circumstance will be changed by God. If you are last in this world, God will make you first. If you are poor in this world, God will make you rich in His kingdom. God is sovereign. Through your right attitude, you make it possible for God in His power to transform your circumstance.

Yet there are people who, although their outward circumstances are good, behave in utter poverty. They are real beggars inside of them. You know what I say is true. There are millionaires who are nothing but beggars, and there are poor people who are exceedingly rich in their inner person.

In China, I have seen Christians, who were absolutely destitute, who lived literally on bread and soup, who had a joy, and a peace, and a power, that I have never seen in the well-to-do people. They had the true freedom! They knew really what it is to be first even though they were last, because they learned the secret inwardly.

When you understand the Lord Jesus’ teaching here, you will know that no external circumstance can bind you. Every circumstance can be reversed. Every circumstance where it is a first can become a last, and where it is a last can become a first. That is the glory of being a Christian! That is the power of being a Christian! That is the joy of being a Christian! You cannot be defeated, because God’s power will always operate on your behalf to turn things upside down.

God’s power works for the changed attitude

Who changes the first to the last and the last to the first? God can reverse every situation. He can turn everything upside down. In this parable, the Lord Jesus is telling us by what principle God’s power comes into operation. Have you experienced God’s power to change circumstances? Oh, He can! God’s power can change everything, but it depends on your attitude.

Why is it that some Christians constantly experience the miracles of God’s power? It’s because they have learned the secret of the changed mind, the changed attitude. They constantly experience the miracles of God’s power. Throughout my Christian life, I have experienced miracle after miracle after miracle. It is a life of miracles. In every area, whether it was in healing the sick in all kinds of sicknesses, whether it is in financial areas, whether it is in spiritual areas, I have constantly experienced God’s power. Why? Am I better than anyone else? Of course not! It is because I tried to learn one thing: to implement the Lord Jesus’ teaching into my life; to obey his teaching; to fulfill that teaching; to seek to be the kind of person God wants me to be. If you do that, you will see that God is the living God.

First does not automatically become last. Last does not automatically become first. Somebody has to do it. It is God who changes it. God turns everything upside down. He turns the whole world upside down through His servants, and we can be His servants if only we let God change our whole way of thinking. Once you do that you don’t have to defend yourself. You don’t have to be jealous. Why should you be jealous? Your God will set everything right for you.

When somebody slaps you across your face, do you have to hit him back? Oh, foolish man! Why do you have to hit him back? It is because he is first; he slapped you across the face; he is glorified. And you are humiliated; your face is red with his fingerprints; you are last. Why do we want to fight back? Because we don’t know God. It is as simple as that.

Did he slap you across the face? Poor man! Wait till you see God’s fingerprints on his face. When you know God, you will say, “Lord have pity upon him. Don’t hit him too hard.” Do you know God as your Father? If you hit somebody’s child, you have to reckon with his father—six foot six! “How dare you hit my son!” The son doesn’t have to fight with you. He cannot fight with you; and even if he can, he doesn’t have to fight with you. His daddy will settle the account. That is the point of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, when you ask, “What is this teaching that when somebody hits you, you turn the other cheek?” It’s because God is my Father, so I don’t have to hit you back. He will straighten the account. Did you say something bad about me? That’s all right. You’ll have to reckon with my Father. He will settle the account. I don’t have to quarrel with you.

God’s grace is abundantly sufficient for loving my neighbor

This is the whole attitude of the Christian. The first will become last. God is the One who changes the whole order of things. God will make things right again. That is the living God. If you don’t believe in the living God, why do you want to be a Christian? I have complete confidence in God. Therefore if this fellow worked only one hour and got one denarius, hallelujah! That is great! When I am in need, my God will not leave me in need. He will take care of my need just as He took care of that man’s need. Why should I be unhappy? I think God is so good! He is so kind! He is so gracious! That is what it means to be a Christian.

Why do we find it so difficult not to be envious? Why don’t we love our neighbor as ourselves? The answer is very simple—because we don’t know God as the living God. If I knew God as the living God why should I not love the neighbor as myself? The question is turned the other way around. It is not why should I? The question becomes why should I not? When I know God as the living God, I have more than enough for myself. God’s grace is so abundant, that I have got enough to love my neighbor, too. My whole attitude changes.

Then this change becomes progressive. The more you do the Lord Jesus’ teaching, the more you’ll see how great is God’s power. The more you see how great is God’s power, the more you will do the Lord Jesus’ teaching, and so it goes on. The Christian life is wonderful indeed! May you experience it! May we understand this parable.


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church