I recently read a parable in Matthew 20 that if we are honest with ourselves probably exposes two things within us: our selfish natures and our tendency to rely on works. A summary of the parable is thus: In the morning, a landowner went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hired some workers and promised to pay them a denarius for the day. The third hour he hired more workers and said he would give them what was right if they worked in his vineyard. He does the same at the 6th, 9th and 11th hours. At the end of the day, the landowner has his foreman pay the wages from the last workers hired to the first workers hired. The 11th hour workers are paid a denarius. When the first hired are also paid a denarius, they get upset, 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 landowner responds, saying, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, 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?"
Before Jesus told the above parable, Peter had basically said, "We left everything to follow you, Jesus. So what will we get?" Jesus tells him that the disciples will be rewarded, but also says that many who are first will be last and last first. He then tells this parable and concludes it, saying, "So the last shall be first, and the first last."
As I read the parable, it hit me that the workers hired at the beginning of the day do two things. First, they focus on themselves as they compare themselves with all the other workers. When generosity is given to the 11th hour workers, they are incensed. It is unfair, they think. Those workers have not done as much so they should receive little. I should get more. But the landowner has not treated them unfairly. He has given them what he promised to give them.
Second, the first workers are looking at their works to measure what they should get. We have been here all day in the heat! We have worked all day long. That means we should get more! They are measuring themselves and the other workers by the works they have done.
I asked myself how this applies to us. The obvious interpretation is that those who are saved early in their lives and those who are saved later will both receive heaven. Receiving the gift of salvation is not dependent on works, but on the generosity of the landowner, the Lord.
But I believe we can view this parable also in light of our earthly lives. Jesus starts this parable by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." And he has been preaching that the kingdom of heaven is here. He has been telling the disciples all throughout Matthew that they should be humble servants in the kingdom.
If we are honest, we might admit that we often look at others, comparing what they have to what we have. And if we are even more honest, we might admit that this thinking can turn on God, accusing him of being unfair. "God, I have done this and this and this for you. I have given up this and this and this. But that Christian over there? She hasn't done this and this and this. And look at the way she lives her life. She doesn't act like a Christian. How could you give her this and so?"
Walking in works does not happen just in regards to salvation. We can make works the avenue through which God "owes" us something. We can grumble and whine and complain that God give us what we think is equal to our works. When we do so, we act in selfishness and what we are truly doing is getting upset at the generosity and grace of God towards others. Hear that again. We are upset that God is generous and gracious. We don't want him to be generous and gracious to those who are "worse then us." It isn't fair. But, Christian, grace is not fair. If grace were fair, you would not get it at all.
I think this parable can serve as a catalyst for us to scrutinize our own lives, to ask if there are people we are jealous of because God has given them so much. To ask if we have made our relationship with God quid pro quo. To ask if we are upset that God has kept his promise to us, but has not given us all the extras we think we deserve for being so faithful. To ask if we are angry at God's grace and generosity. And if we are, to expose our attitudes, repent and change.