December 10, 2023

Do You Begrudge My Generosity?

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Topic: Sovereign Grace

Last Sunday, we learned how Jesus’ kingdom is upside-down to the way we often think. The weak and helpless get the kingdom, while the rich and confident walk away. The last are first and the first last.

In 20:1-16, Jesus reinforces that truth. But he does this by way of parable. Parables are short stories that call forth a response;[i] and important to parables is what some have called an encounter mechanism. When the kingdom of heaven encounters the kingdom of man, man must change some things—a lot of things. The encounter is that part of the story that grabs you by the collar and says, “Listen up!” It leaves no room for neutrality before the King of heaven. In parables, Jesus means to change our perception and reverse our values and world view.[ii] His kingdom doesn’t operate like ours.

As you listen to Jesus’ parable today, be looking for that encounter mechanism. When you encounter Jesus’ kingdom, what about your life suddenly appears upside-down to the way Jesus thinks? How is Jesus seeking to change your perception of the world? What reversal in your value system might he want transformed, so that your life better reflects his gracious rule? Let’s read his parable together and find out how Jesus’ kingdom encounters us. Beginning in verse 1…

1 For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.” 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.

The Connection to Peter in 19:27-30

To understand how this parable confronts us, we should first see how it confronted Peter (and the other disciples). You might’ve noticed how verse 1 begins with the word, “For.” That word looks back to verse 30: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first. For the kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus now illustrates for Peter what he means by the first being last and the last first.

You’ll also notice how 20:16 closes with the same words of 19:30, only reversed: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Those are the bookends of this parable; and they serve as clues to that encounter mechanism I mentioned earlier. “The last will be first, and the first last”—that’s where Jesus confronts us. That’s also the emphasis of the parable. The parable mentions five groups of laborers. But did you notice how verse 8 narrows the focus only to the last and first. Whatever else we might observe—this parable serves Jesus’ point about the first becoming last, and the last first.

In some ways, we experienced that with the children and the rich young man in 19:13-22. The low and helpless children end up blessed by Jesus’ kingdom while the high, moral, Bible-belt guy walks away from the kingdom. That’s opposite to the way we normally think. But it’s the way Jesus’ kingdom confronts the world.

Peter needs to remember this (as do all Jesus’ disciples). You seem, Peter watched the rich young man walk away from Jesus. The man was unwilling to give up his possessions for Jesus’ sake. Not Peter, though. Peter says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus then reassures Peter of his reward in verses 28-29. You will judge with me. You will get a hundredfold in return. You will inherit eternal life. Then Jesus adds this: “But [notice the contrast] many who are first will be last, and the last first.” It’s spoken like a check on Peter’s attitude.

I think this goes back to the subtle shift in Peter’s focus. When Peter says, “What then will we have?” It seems like Peter begins shifting the focus from the grace of God to his own worthiness. Jesus finished on the note of God’s grace. Salvation is impossible with man—19:26. “But with God all things are possible.” “If you’re in, Peter, if you can sell everything and follow me, it’s all owing to God’s grace.” Peter shifts the focus: “Look what we’ve given up! Don’t we deserve something for this?”

It’s almost like Jesus responds, “Yes, Peter, these rewards will be true of you. But check yourself. As you consider these rewards, remember how the first will be last and the last first. These rewards should never puff you up and make you think how deserving you are.” Jesus then tells the parable. So, I think one major point is to show Peter that, even when it comes to rewards, kingdom people focus on God’s grace not their own worthiness.[iii] If you focus on your own worthiness, you become like those who think they ought to be first. But the kingdom is upside-down to that kind of thinking. So, watch out, Peter. Watch out, church. Keep your focus on the grace of God.

Part 1: Hiring the Laborers

That brings us to our parable. Part one of the parable sets the stage with a wealthy landowner hiring laborers. “The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” A vineyard was a familiar metaphor applied to Israel in the Old Testament. God would illustrate his activity in the world with how a farmer cared for his vineyard. Jesus draws from this imagery to illustrate God’s activity in the world. God’s activity is like that of a wealthy landowner who seeks out laborers for his vineyard.

But as the story goes, we notice something peculiar about this landowner. He keeps returning to the marketplace to hire more laborers. Five times he does this. First, around 6:00 in the morning—verse 2. Given a twelve-hour workday—sun up to sun down—the “third hour” of verse 3 means he did it again at 9:00 am. Verse 5 tells us he did it again at noon, then again at 3:00 pm; and the last group he hires at 5:00 pm.

Some might say he hadn’t planned very well. But that’s not where Jesus is going. Notice how the master has his foreman pay the last group first in verse 8. He seems more intentional about his business. Consider, too, the sorts of people he seeks out, it’s those in society who are lower. Day-laborers were worse off than most slaves. Slaves had a job. Day-laborers didn’t and needed one to eat. The master searches for those without employment to provide them with work and pay.

Not only does he give them work, but he also promises a just wage. In Jesus’ time, a denarius was the going rate for a day’s worth of work. The master promises the first group a denarius in verse 2. In verse 4, though, he tells the second group “whatever is right, I will give you.” He does the same with groups three, four, and five.

Also, the whole parable is heading to God’s generosity in verse 15. All that to say, the point isn’t that the master of the house is a bad planner. He’s compassionate. He returns repeatedly to provide for more and more people in need of employment. There’s intentionality. Already, we get a glimpse of the master’s generosity.

Part 2: Paying the Laborers

That generosity becomes even more apparent as we move to the second part of the parable, where he pays the laborers. Now, the parable has set us up with some expectations. In verse 2, the master makes an agreement with the first group to pay them a denarius. In verse 4, he promises to pay the later groups “whatever is right.” We’re assuming proportional pay. If the first gets a denarius for twelve hours, then those who work nine get three-quarters a denarius. Those who work half a day get half a denarius, and so on. That’s how we figure things in the kingdom of man.

By the time you get to the last group, you’re even scratching your head about this guy’s business practices. Verse 6 says he hired them at the eleventh hour. What can they get done in an hour? Also, these were the folks that no one else seemed to hire. Surely, they’ll get very little—one-twelfth a denarius at most. That’s what we’re thinking. The parable intentionally lets you run with that way of thinking. We’re most inclined to think that way: “If I see them getting this, I deserve more. I do more, I get more.”

In fishing, you’ll often let the fish run with the bait a few seconds. Then you set the hook. Verses 8-9 set the hook. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” That’s a strange way to prioritize things. The last up to the first? Why wouldn’t he prioritize those who worked the most?

Verse 9 shocks us even more: “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” They got the same amount promised to the first group who worked all day. The last group did hardly anything compared to the first. Yet they get a full day’s pay. You can imagine them all waiting in line. They see what the last group received for their work—twelve times more than what they worked for. Then they start doing the math. “If they got a denarius for an hour, surely that means we’re getting twelve for a whole day.” That’s the way verse 10 presents it: “When those hired first came, they thought they would receive more…” Notice, how the parable doesn’t mention the other groups. They were paid too. But Jesus focuses on the last and the first.

The first group “thought they would receive more, and yet each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” They’re not happy. They were fine earlier. They made an agreement with the master. But now, not so fine.

Their focus shifts away from the generosity of the master to their own worthiness, what they thought they deserved. “We worked more. We bore the greater burdens. We suffered in the heat.” When that becomes your focus, you don’t like it when others you perceive as lesser are made equal to you. Isn’t that part of the rub? “You have made [this last group] equal to us?”

This is where Jesus’ kingdom confronts our own. This is where Jesus’ parable encounters us, because which group are we more likely to sympathize with? The first group. We read what happens on pay day and say, “That’s not fair. The first group worked more, they deserve more! You can’t treat the first group that way! That last group did nothing!” All the while, what’ve we missed? What have we lost sight of? What have we started to value more? The kingdom of man hardwires us to think like the first group.

Our selfishness wires us to think like the first group, and we end up relating to God on our own terms instead of on terms of his grace. Our flesh wants to say, “We’re better because we did more,” and grace says, “Not so fast.” Grace says, “Let’s review what you really deserve.” Our flesh wants to tell God, “When I do more, you owe me more,” and grace says, “Not so fast. Let’s review who you’re talking to here.” That’s why we need the kingdom of heaven to change us.

Part 3: Revealing God’s Generosity

That’s why Jesus tells the last part of the parable. In part three, Jesus sets us straight by revealing God to us. As I said before, the vineyard imagery recalls God’s activity in the world. The master of the house represents God, and how God chooses to deal with the first and the last. If we are to think rightly with kingdom of heaven, then we must first remember that God is just.

The master replies to one of them in verse 13: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.” The first group doesn’t lose anything. He hasn’t slighted them by giving the last group more.

God neglects none of his disciples when it’s time to reward them. Every reward that God distributes will be right: “whatever is right I will give you.” We must trust him. We shouldn’t worry that God will overlook anything. Jesus is telling Peter (and us), “Don’t be among those who view themselves as deserving more of God’s grace than others. Don’t relate to God like he’s doing you an injustice when he’s good to others.”

We don’t deserve anything more. The only thing we deserve is wrath because of our sin. But in Christ, all we get is grace. Be happy the Master sought you out in the first place. Be thankful the Master brought you into his vineyard at all. God is just. He won’t slight you or overlook anything. Whatever you get will be right.

God is also sovereign. The master says in verse 14, “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” God is obligated to no one. He is never in our debt. Nor can we tell him how to distribute his gifts. They belong to him. God will decide what he wants to do with them. If that means a guy like the apostle Paul (with decades of faithfulness) gets eternal life as equal to the thief on the cross (with minutes of faithfulness), we can’t object and say, “How dare you! That’s unfair!” It’s God to give. He is sovereign. It’s not the place of the worker to tell the master what he must do with his gifts. The vineyard is his.

Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Who are we to tell him, “You can’t show that last group so much grace.” But how often we can sink into such attitudes, especially when we think too highly of ourselves. We must remember that God is just, and he is sovereign. He gives his grace to whom he pleases, when he pleases, and as much as he pleases.

Finally, he is also generous. Verse 15, “Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Literally, “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” Jesus used the same imagery in 6:22, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Their eye is bad. Their spiritual outlook is warped. Instead of standing in awe of the master’s generosity, the first group grumbles. The whole point is to show how the master gives these laborers more than they deserve. He’s generous.

The ones we think least deserve his grace—the last—end up getting an abundance. But when your values are shaped by the kingdom of man, how quickly we can become envious like this first group. God’s generosity toward the last should make us happy, not envious. We should stand in awe of his generosity, not begrudge it. The kingdom is about God’s generosity, not the worthiness of the laborers in it.

A Few Implications

Which brings us round to where we started with Peter. Peter had shifted the conversation away from grace to what he’s owed. But Jesus warns him about where that shift will eventually take him. Peter needs to remember what God’s kingdom is like. He needs to remember that God is just, God is sovereign, and God is generous. When God’s kingdom encounters the kingdom of man, the last will be first.

For just a minute, Peter needs to see himself in the first group and where that leads. Many who view themselves as first, as more deserving of God’s gifts because of what they’ve done, will be surprised to find themselves last. And many who are viewed as last, as less significant, less deserving, they will surprisingly end up first—and all by God’s generosity. So, don’t pride yourself on your deeds, as if you have a claim on God’s rewards. Everything in the kingdom is owing to God’s generosity.

Also, watch out for a bad eye. Beware of the kingdom of man and how our culture’s values shape the way we think about spiritual matters. The kingdom of heaven so often clashes with our value system. Man measures success by numbers, but the kingdom measures by faithfulness. Man links greatness to power and status, but the kingdom links greatness to serving. Man welcomes the moral and self-sufficient, but the kingdom welcomes the broken and helpless. Man looks for the mighty, but the kingdom looks for those like children. It’s upside-down from the way we often think.

It’s also upside-down from how the first group of laborers think. The first group of laborers haven’t shaken the mindset of the kingdom of man—“Bless those who deserve it;” “Reward those who earn it;” and “Never treat those who did less as our equal.” But the kingdom of heaven operates on different principles where the last become first. The Lord blesses those who didn’t deserve it. He shows extravagant generosity to those who never earned it. And even those with a lesser standing receive equal blessing.

H. B. Charles puts it this way: “God gives generously to throw off religious bookkeepers who are preoccupied with what their pay is going to be. As you review your time-cards, God brings ragamuffin latecomers to the front of the line at the pay window.” We must tune our hearts to rejoice when God offers a place to the last.[iv]

You know who else struggled with God’s generosity? The older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He was angry about his father’s generosity. He, too, made the focus his own deeds. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat…” The father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

God’s grace doesn’t match our expectations. We expected the last group to get the least in pay. But God surprises us. He gives them what they don’t deserve. He searches out and finds the least qualified and gives them everything. He finds the outsider, the straggler, the latecomer. He searches among those society tends to ignore and overlook. He offers them an equal place among all his disciples in the kingdom. He shocks them with abundant grace.

As Psalm 103:10 would put it, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” He lavishes his kindness on us in the Lord Jesus. He offers up his only Son in our place. He takes away our sins. He brings us to himself. He gives us a seat as his table. He crowns us with steadfast love and mercy. He gives us everything we need from day to day. By his Spirit he dwells with us. He seals us for the Day of redemption. He preserves us till the end. This must be our focus—God’s generosity—not our own worthiness.

God is generous to latecomers, and we should be the first to celebrate, not grumble. The kingdom is his, after all. It’s not for us to tell God what to do with his gracious gifts. It’s for us to celebrate that he distributes grace at all, and he’s in the business of giving it to the unlikeliest of people, the last. Why? Because God is generous, and that’s what his kingdom is all about.


[i] Andreas Köstenberger and Richard Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2011), 426.

[ii] Köstenberger and Patterson, Invitation, 429.

[iii] David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (Downers Grove: IVP, 1989), 116.

[iv] Wenham, Parables, 115.

other sermons in this series