Bargaining with God (Matthew 20:1-16)

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a story about a landowner who hired laborers to work his vineyard for a day. Jesus was responding to Peter’s question about what kind of reward he and the other disciples would have since they had made such great sacrifices to join Jesus in his mission (19:27), in contrast to the rich young ruler who had just walked away from Jesus because he couldn’t part with his riches (19:16-22).

After hiring the initial laborers and promising them a denarius as their wage, the landowner continued to hire more workers throughout the day, promising each group that he would pay them what’s right. When the day came to a close he lined up the workers, beginning with those who had only worked for an hour at the tail end of the afternoon. When he surprisingly paid them a denarius, those who had worked the full day assumed that they would receive an exponentially greater payment than they had initially been promised. But as their time came, they too received a denarius. When they grumbled, the landowner responded with penetrating insight.

Ken Whitten recently preached in chapel at Southern Seminary and shared a number of wise insights and practical proverbs from this passage that are worth being shared beyond the walls of chapel. It does appear that the passage has layers to it, but Pastor Whitten brought out some very helpful thoughts from a practical angle.

  • Jesus didn’t tell stories for entertainment.
  • Matthew 20:1-16 is not mainly about wages, rewards, or recompense, but attitude.
  • Don’t bargain with God. You’ll always cheat yourself.
  • One set of laborers worked based on contract (law and distrust). The other set of laborers worked based on covenant (grace and trust).
  • The problem with legalism is not that it doesn’t get what it wants, but that it gets exactly what it wants.
  • Christians love to ask their pastors, “Should we tithe on the gross or on the net?” Well, do you want a gross blessing or a net blessing?
  • Come to God as a hireling and he’ll treat you like a hireling.
  • Don’t bookkeep with God.
  • Two things happen when you compare with others: you covet or you complain.
  • Get your eye off the clock and on the store.
  • Peter was counting up his sacrifices — fishing business, boats, nets, friends. But when you do the bookkeeping, you will overpay yourself and underpay yourself. You’ll overpay yourself with pride and underpay yourself in rewards.
  • Human fairness does not equal divine justice.
  • Another man’s blessing is never your loss.
  • Seniority does not rule in the kingdom of God; servanthood does.
  • Starting late is better than quitting early.
  • Some of you are young and active and intense and passionate, and you’re going to heaven if you don’t overshoot it.

Then there are the words of the landowner himself, which are yet more powerful and authoritative:

  • “You go into the vineyard… and whatever is right I will give you” (v. 4)
  • “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (v. 15)
  • “Do you begrudge my generosity?” (v. 15)
  • “The last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16)

4 thoughts on “Bargaining with God (Matthew 20:1-16)

  1. A related thought from another commentator is that “working for His kingdom is the cure for our unfulfilled and nonproductive lives.”

  2. I am looking at a new ministry start with an uncertain salary situation. This comforts me greatly…


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