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Are You Serving God for a Reward?

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

by David A. DePra

     One of the most important issues in the life of any Christian is that

of the relationship between their works and their reward. This

question is answered in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard

which is found in Matthew 20. But the answer may not be what most

of us have been taught.

     In order to properly understand this parable we must discover

WHY Jesus told it. For that, we need to go all the way back into

Matthew 19. There we find an account of a rich young man coming

to Jesus and asking, "What do I need to do to have eternal life?"

(see Matt. 19:16) Jesus told him, "Keep the commandments."

     Of course, Jesus knew no one could keep the commandments.

But He wanted this young man to see this as well. That is why

Jesus faced him with this impossible answer. He wanted the young

man to reply, "But Jesus, no one can keep the commandments."

He wanted the young man to realize that the grace of God was his

only hope. But no. Rather than confess his inability, this young man

claimed he had kept all the commandments. So Jesus had to dig

deeper. Jesus told him that if he really wanted to be perfect, he

needed to "sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come and

follow Me." (see Matt. 19:21)

     How discerning of Jesus. He recognized that this fellow had

convinced himself that he was righteous through his works. So

Jesus went right to the heart of the matter. He put His finger, not on

the issue of works, but on the issue of motivation.

     See the difference? It will lead us into the parable. This young

man probably DID do lots of good works, and had probably tried

very hard to keep all of God's commandments. Just like some of us.

But he had yet to see that there is something wrong with each of us

which goes far beyond what our good or bad works can show. We

don't realize that the root of sin is much deeper. The root of all sin

is the disposition of belonging to, and owning, ourselves. Even in a

very RELIGIOUS way. For this young man, his self-ownership was

expressed in the fact that he was rich. But also in the fact that he

thought of himself as being spiritually rich in the eyes of God. When

Jesus told him to sell all and follow Him, Jesus was exposing the

core of what was wrong. He was trying to set this fellow free.

     The young man was not willing to do this. He was willing to try to

obey God, and to take credit for doing so, but not willing to pay a

price to follow Christ. He sort of wanted God -- after all, he DID ask

the question about eternal life. But he wanted God, and eternal life,

on HIS OWN TERMS. Not on God's terms.

     This is a lesson for us. This young man symbolizes one of the

most common deceptions in Christianity. Thousands of us have

ourselves convinced we want God -- that we want Him no matter

what. But subtlely, we fence off areas which are "off-limits" to God.

We SAY we want God. We may even have a track record of faith

and obedience. But we want Him on our OWN TERMS. We want

God for what WE expect to get out of it. Eventually, however, God

must face us with the same choice that Jesus gave this young man.

He must say, "Sell all YOU have, and follow ME." Only if we sell

what WE have -- spiritually -- can we receive what HE has for us.

We must LOSE our lives in order to find them in Christ.

     This exchange with this young man ties directly into our parable.

For as Jesus conversed with this rich young man, there were others

there -- listening and trying to grasp what it all meant. Who were

they? The disciples. They saw and heard the whole thing. In fact,

after the disciples witnessed what Jesus said to the young rich man,

Jesus turned and said to THEM, "How hard it is for a rich man to

enter the kingdom of heaven." The disciples were astounded.

They pleaded, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus said, "With men

this is impossible. But with God all things are possible." (Matt.


The Question

     It is at this point that Peter steps forward and asks this question:

"Behold, we have forsaken all, and have followed You. What shall

we have because of it?" (Matt. 19:27)

     Now, all of this build up to Peter's question is necessary to see.

It is necessary because we must understand what was in the mind

of the disciples, if we are to understand where Jesus was coming

from in the parable -- a parable told to correct their thinking.

     The disciples thought Jesus was preaching about an earthly

kingdom -- a kingdom to be established in their lifetime. And they

knew they were going to be at His side -- the Messiah's side. So

they assumed there were going to be "perks." They would be rich,

powerful, and famous.

     You can almost imagine the disciples whispering to each other

behind Jesus' back, "What does He mean when He says that it is

difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? I thought we

were going to BE rich once He started the kingdom? This doesn't

make any sense. If we aren't going to be rich and powerful, then

what are we going to get out of all of this?"

     Note the dilemma here: The disciples had assumed that they

would be rich BECAUSE of the kingdom. Jesus had now told them

that being rich could keep them OUT of the kingdom. Precisely the

opposite of what they expected. They were stunned!

     Enter Peter. It seems that Peter is always the one to speak up.

He emerges out of these whispers and shaken hopes to speak for

the group of them. He doesn't mince words. He asks, "Lord, we

have given up everything for You. Now we must know: What are

we going to receive in return? What are we going to get out of all

of this -- as a result of following You?"

     An honest question. It is perhaps a question that each one of us

have asked God at one time or another: "Lord, I've suffered. Lord,

I've obeyed. Lord, I've believed. I've followed you at great cost.

And it seems like NOTHING has come my way as a benefit; as a

reward. What am I going to get out of following You?"

The Problem With the Question

     Jesus answers Peter's question immediately. He tells them,

You who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son

of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, you also shall sit upon

twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone

that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother,

or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an

hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. (Matt. 19:28-29)

     That is the direct answer to Peter's question. There IS a reward

for following Jesus -- if you want to call it that. No matter what the

cost is for following Jesus Christ we will never regret it. What God

has for us far exceeds anything we could lose.

     But that does not end Jesus' answer. There is yet another issue

here which He must address. That issue is this:: WHY the question

was asked to begin with.

     We have already seen WHY the question was asked. Those

who were following Jesus were following Him because they wanted

a reward. That is exactly what Peter implied in his question, "Lord,

we have given up everything for You. What are we going to get in


     Jesus must now address this motive. He must show the disciples

that to follow Him for what they will get in return is wrong. In fact, it is

downright dangerous. Such a motive can destroy us spiritually.

     The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, therefore, does NOT

answer the question, "What are we going to receive for following

Jesus Christ?" No. Jesus answers THAT before He tells this

parable. Rather, the parable is a correction to those of us who

would ask such a question -- to those of us who are following Jesus

Christ merely for what we expect to get out of it.

The Kingdom of God

     There is no better way to learn the lesson of this parable than to

read it. Jesus opens this parable in the way He opens so many of

His parables. He says, starting in Matthew 20:1,

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder,

which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard.

     Note the phrase, "the kingdom of heaven is like......" Jesus was,

of course, referring to the kingdom as HE meant it, not as the

disciples understood it. And how did HE mean it? Again we find the

answer in Luke 17. There, Jesus says,

The kingdom of God comes not with observation. Neither will they

say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within

you. (Luke 17:20-21)

     Always, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom, He spoke of it as the

kingdom within US. Not physically. But spiritually. Jesus is talking

about how the kingdom of God functions NOW, in us, in our growing

relationship with God.

     This is important to grasp. As Jesus launches into this parable,

He is not describing a literal scene of the final judgment. Of course,

all things DO eventually lead there. But rather than a lesson which

points to the future, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God NOW.

He is showing how the kingdom works in us NOW, and what we

need to do to be in God's will.

The First

And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he

sent them into His vineyard. (20:2)

     The householder of the parable went out in the morning to find

laborers to work that day in his vineyard. Here, in verse 2, he calls

the first group of laborers. Jesus emphasizes the fact that these

laborers "agreed" to work for a penny a day. No other group does

this. Every other group, instead of agreeing to a stated wage, goes

into the vineyard trusting the householder for "whatever is right."

     This is an important premise. Jesus did not draw this distinction

for no reason. He is showing us that the motivation of the first called

was different from the rest of the laborers -- right from the beginning.

Indeed, right from the start of their relationship with the householder,

these first laborers were working for a stated wage. They were

working, as it were, for what they would get out of the agreement in

the way of PAY.

     Of course, in the secular world, there is nothing wrong with this.

But again, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God. There, it is

NOT ok. We cannot take the ways of this world and impose them

upon God. He does not operate the same way.

     This motive for working for a stated wage is contrasted to those

who simply trusted the householder for "whatever was right." There

is no escaping Jesus' implication here regarding the grace of God.

To enter into our relationship with Jesus Christ -- trusting God for

"whatever is right" -- is a relationship based on FAITH. It is one

where I do many good works and service -- but not for a reward. I

do them because of love. I put the motivation of earning a reward

or wage aside, leaving it in God's hands.

     Those who were first called, however, did not enter into the

vineyard trusting the householder for "whatever was right." They

instead "agreed" to a set wage. This motive for working sets the

stage for everything that is yet to come. It gives us a hint of what

makes these first called "tick," and tells us why they would later

react the way they did.


       There is a direct relationship in the parable between the ORDER

in which the laborers where called, and the terms each agreed to.

Those FIRST called insisted upon a set wage. Those called later

did not. They were willing to trust the householder for "whatever is


      Here we see that the NEED determined the TERMS. Or, to put

it another way, the more desperate the need was for a job, the more

willing the laborers were to TRUST the householder.

     This is how it works with us. The more we see our need for God's

grace -- and the more we see we cannot earn anything for Him -- the

more willing we are to leave all of that up to Him; to His grace. But

the more we think WE have to offer, the more we will demand in


     Those called first were not desperate. The day was young. In

fact, they probably thought they could have their pick of jobs. Even

turn down any job they didn't want. And they could insist on a set

wage. But those called later WERE desperate and needy. By the

time they were offered the job in the vineyard, they were willing to

take ANY job and trust the householder to pay them what was good.

     It is like this with us, spiritually. It is when we are brought to see

our desperate need that we are ready to trust God. It is when there

are no other options or hopes before us -- and we know it -- that we

joyfully enter into the presence of God by faith. No longer do we try

to bargin. No longer do we expect anything. We simply desire to

enter into His vineyard and are willing to let the outcome up to Him.

     Jesus is trying to show us in this parable the danger of living in

our relationship with God under the motivation of reward. He wants

us to understand that our greatest asset is our NEED. When we

see that Truth -- that we are nothing without God -- we will surrender

to Him. Any reward God has for us will then become a GIFT. We

will leave that up to HIM.

     So we have two groups: The first called, who entered the

vineyard without need, and consequently without trust. Then we

have the last called, who entered the vineyard in great need, and

who trusted the householder for whatever wage he deemed right.

The motives for following Jesus Christ could not be more clearly

defined for each one of us.

The First Shall Be Last

Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last

to the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh

hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came,

they supposed that they should have received more; and they

likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received

it, they murmured against the goodman of the house. (20:8-11)

     Now we come to the crux of the matter. At the end of the work day,

all of the laborers, from last to first, lined up to receive their wages.

Amazingly, those who had done the least work were told to go to the

front of the line. Those who had worked all day had to wait, despite

already putting in those long hours under the hot sun. Why?

     Jesus surely doesn't mean to imply that the less you do, the

better. No. Neither is He saying that the less we are responsible

for, the more we are entitled to. Hardly. Rather, He is illustrating

that in eyes of God, that doing less is EQUAL to doing more -- if both

are THE WILL OF GOD -- if BOTH are done to God's glory, and not

our own. And the fact is, in the example Jesus gives, those who did

less were actually FIRST in the eyes of God. They had the correct

motives. Those who did more were LAST in God's eyes. They

missed the boat completely.

     God has a will for each life. And as with the parable, WE do not

decide the time of our calling. WE do not decide the amount of

responsibility God chooses to give us. HE decides that. Ours is

simply to surrender to God and to do His will -- whether our calling

is to much, or to little. And if we do the will of God by faith, then, in

the eyes of God, the "amount" done is not what matters. It is the

fact we have done it by faith. Faith is therefore the great equalizer.

It makes all that is done in the will of God pleasing to Him.

Receiving the Wages

     If nothing else, the fact that "the first" were LAST in line, made it

possible for them to witness what everyone else got paid. When

they saw that those who had worked only an hour got a penny -- the

exact amount to which the first had agreed -- they started making

comparisons. This would not have been possible if they had been

first in line. They would have taken the penny they agreed to, and

never known what those which worked only an hour received.

     Their reaction is understandable. Sure, they had agreed to a

penny. Fair and square. But when they saw that those who had

done very little work got a penny, they figured that the householder

was in a generous mood. So they expected much more, because

they had done much more work. But when their turn came to get

paid, they received exactly what they had agreed to work for: A

penny. No more and no less.

     Notice what is going on here. The householder, we find later,

WAS in a generous mood. But those called first had chosen NOT

to trust Him. Thus, they could not benefit from that generous mood.

Instead, they got only the penny they originally demanded. Only

those who trusted Him benefited from the fact that He was generous.

To those called first, this was unacceptable. Their reaction was

one of feeling cheated:

But when the first came, they supposed that they should have

received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.

And when they had received it, they murmured against the

goodman of the house, saying, "These last have worked by one

hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the

burden and heat of the day." (20:10-12)

     Let's ask something here. Did the goodman of the house cheat

these workers? No. They received EXACTLY the amount to which

they had agreed. Their wage had NOT been changed at all.

     So what changed? Not the amount of the wage. It WAS a penny.

Not the householder. He was the same householder. The only

thing that changed was the value which those first workers placed

upon the penny. What they originally demanded as a fair wage,

they now despised. What THEY originally determined was fair,

they now considered UNFAIR.

     In effect, what changed was THEM. THEY weren't the same.

They had changed with regard to the wage, and they had changed

with regard to the householder. Nothing else changed. THEY had


     Why? Why had they changed? This is, after all, the issue in the

parable. It is a WARNING. Jesus is saying, "If you follow Me for the

reward, your heart will not be right towards Me. Consequently, when

you see that your many works can earn you no more than the few

works of others, you will despise me."

     These workers found out that what they had worked so hard to

earn was freely given to those who had trusted the householder.

To them, this was unacceptable. They believed that they deserved

more. This, despite receiving exactly what they had agreed to

as a wage.

     This kind of attitude is always the outcome of placing more value

upon what I do for God, than upon what He has done for me. It is

always the outcome of thinking God owes me for my obedience,

my works, my suffering, and my faith. I will end up unable to value

the very thing I wanted in the beginning.

     The root of all of this goes back to what we saw earlier about

NEED. I value what I know I need. If I don't need something, I won't

value it.

     The more I see my need for God -- and fall upon the mercy of

God's grace -- the more I will trust Him. But the more I think I have

something to offer God -- the less I will value His grace.

The Same Reward

     We see, in the parable, that the motivation under which each

group entered the vineyard, carried through to fruition at the end

of the day. The motivation for following Christ for a reward bore

fruit unto accusing the householder of being unfair. The motivation

for trusting the householder resulted in receiving all that even

those who worked all day received.

     What does this say to us? One thing it certainly says is that we

determine, not the value of our reward, but the value WE place upon


     Get that. The reward is the SAME for all. But not all place the

SAME value upon it. Those paid first placed great value upon it.

Those paid last now despised it. The reward had not changed. But

they had changed. Thus, their ability to value and enjoy their

reward was affected.

     But don't misunderstand. We don't need to push all of this fruitage

fruitage off merely into the future. It will affect that, certainly. But this

is all happening right now -- in my present walk with Christ. The Truth

is, if I am trying to earn anything from God, then RIGHT NOW, I am

not placing upon it the value it deserves. I am already acting like

those called first in the parable.

     We must see this. It's not that if we work for a reward that we will

won't be able to value it. No. We ALREADY don't value it! We

would not be trying to earn it, or make ourselves worthy of it,

otherwise! If we are following Jesus Christ for what we expect to

get out of it, then we already do not value what He has done for us.

     The moment I think anything I do, or anything I am, in the slightest,

entitles me to something from God -- or obligates God to reward

me -- I am making the worth of what I have to offer equal the worth

of what God has done through Christ. As mentioned before, this

both exalts ME, and belittles the priceless things of God.

     Not only that, but I certainly cannot have any sense of NEED

before God. A sense of great need, and the notion that I can earn

something from God, CANNOT and WILL NOT co-exist. It is a

moral impossibility for me, on the one hand, to try to earn from God,

and on the other, to see I am so needy that I have nothing to offer

Him! You cannot have it both ways.

     These complaining workers, right from the beginning, did not

value their calling. They thought that what they were doing for God

was as important as what He was doing for them. They had no

sense of need. This carried over right to the end of the day. May

God show us that we need to take heed to Jesus' warning, lest we

become as they became.

An "Evil Eye"

Did not you agree with me for a penny? Take what is yours and go

your way: I will give unto this last, even as unto you. Is it not lawful

for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I

am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be

called, but few chosen.

     There are many people who have walked with Jesus for years.

They have done many good works, and have perhaps suffered for

the sake of the kingdom of God. But they feel cheated. No, they

would never tell anyone that. But they have, in their heart, a gripe

against God. They continually rehearse all of the things they have

done for God, all of the sacrifices they have offered, and all of the

suffering they have experienced. And then they add, "And what did

I get for my troubles? What did I get out of all of this? Nothing. It

did nothing for me."

     The problem here is the same problem those called first had

when they received their wage. They looked at it and felt cheated.

Why? Because they had given away the value. They were too

focused on the value they placed on what THEY had done.

Now, of course, the question is bound to arise as to why it is so

wrong to follow Christ for the benefits. Isn't it right to want eternal

life? And a reward? Well, you see, again, we are operating from a

wrong perspective. It isn't that it is wrong to want eternal life. But we

must see we NEED eternal life. And there is all the difference in the


     If we could only see it, we would realize that God is everything

and we are nothing. God is the Giver, and we are the receivers.

There is NO bargining in any of this. You cannot obtain the things of

God by striking a bargin with God. You don't have anything to

bargin WITH! That is that is wrong with trying to earn. When you

try to earn, or think you deserve, you have not seen this. You have

missed the whole point. You are deceived.

     This is the most simple Truth imaginable, and because it is, we

toss it aside and claim that we already know it. But we don't. We

simply know the teaching, or doctrine. We have to LIVE it. We have

to live in a relationship with God which reflects the fact that we have

nothing we haven't received from HIM. There is nothing we can

bargin with before the Lord.

     This is actually serious business. And if we would just get this

one Truth straight, it would turn our life upside down -- or better said,

it would turn it right side up!  This is a foundation Truth of God.

     We can see the seriousness and terrible consequences of not

seeing the Truth of our need, and of God's provision, in the words of

the householder to the complaining workers. He says, "Is your eye

evil because I am good?" Notice again that the problem is NOT

with the wage, or with the householder. It is with the workers. It is with

their "eye," or moral perspective. They have an "evil eye," that is,

they SEE things from an evil perspective. They view God Himself

as being unfair.

     Actually, there is nothing an "evil eye" sees as more unfair than

the grace of God. Why? Because the grace of God exposes us

ALL as equal. It levels the playing field and completely negates

all human merit. It states that since we have all freely received, we

should ALL freely give. And freely DO. This leaves us with nothing

but dependence upon God, and thankfulness to Him.

     If you want to know how to develope an "evil eye," God is giving

us the recipe in this parable. All we need to do is bargin with God.

Instead of surrendering to Him without conditions attached, we need

to treat Him like an employer. Instead of allowing Him to expose

our great need for His grace, just focus upon God's great need for

our works. If we will just do that, in the end we will become those

who resent the grace of God. We will resent God for giving to others,

free of charge, what we worked so hard to earn from Him.

The Reward

     It is actually quite amazing that any of us could think that there is a

single thing we could do -- even to the greatest sacrifice -- that could

merit anything from God. Especially once we realize that we cannot

even get into the vineyard to begin with unless God calls us there.

Do we really believe that it is possible for us to do more for God

then He has already done for us in Jesus Christ? To the point where

we could possibly merit a reward? Or have any merit at all?

     It is almost impossible for a human being who has NOT yet seen

the Truth to conceive that we have NOTHING to offer God. Most of

us, even those of us who have been Christians for years, still cling

to the notion, howbeit subtlely, that we do have something. Maybe

we think that our surrender to God, for instance, while necessary,

is somehow so self-sacrificing and commendable that it entitles us

to a reward from God.

     If the boat you were in had sunk, and you were floating on the

sea without a life jacket, and someone came along and threw you

a lifeline, would you say to them, "What reward do I get for grabbing

this line, and letting you save me?"? No. That would be insane.

You would be in no position to bargin, and you would know it. But

then WHY do we take that attitude with God. We are much worse off

without God -- except that we are more easily able to convince

ourselves otherwise. The point is, we are perishing without God.

He has given us Jesus Christ -- and everything found IN HIM. How

can we turn to Him and say, "Ok. I let you save me. And I've agreed

to follow you. What do I get out of this?"

     We are recipients. We are beneficiaries. Period. We are dead

otherwise. The fact that we are able to be faithful over what God

gives us, and the fact that we are able to choose to deny self and

pick up our Cross and follow Christ, does not negate the fact. Who,

after all, benefits from doing all of that? Not God. He can just find

someone else if we refuse. WE benefit. If only we could see how

arrogant we are -- how NEEDY we are. And how great He is.

Coming to realize these Truths is necessary if we are to be able

to VALUE what God has for us. We must decrease so HE can

increase. There is simply no other way.

     God doesn't get bigger or grow smaller. He is always the same.

But WE get bigger or smaller -- in our own eyes. And the value that

we place on ourselves, and upon what we have done for God, is

going to directly affect our moral vision. It is going to affect how we

see and value all the things which God has freely offered us in


     So here, in this parable, we have a QUESTION. It is asked of

Jesus. Probably one of the most basic questions between man

and God: What will we get out of following you? Jesus answers,

"Your question betrays your blindness to the Truth. When you stop

asking what you are going to get out of following Me, then we will

be making progress."

     Jesus wants us to see that ALL things are freely given to us by

God. But we have to be adjusted for them. And the only way this

can happen is if we freely give our whole selves to Him without

conditions attached. Freely we have received all things. Freely

we should give. Then, and only then, will we begin to understand

what the grace of God in Jesus Christ is all about.

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