Expect the unexpected with God

Imagine this…

Imagine the looks on the faces of early Church leaders if God had told them that Saul of Tarsus was the one He chose to spread the gospel, plant many churches throughout the Roman empire and write most of the New Testament letters.

I could hear the response: “Lord, we don’t mean to question your judgment, but have you heard about how this man has been opposing you and persecuting believers in Christ?”

We actually know about their hesitation and fear. After his dramatic conversion to Christ, Paul came to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples, but, “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).

It’s not surprising that there was confusion and doubt about Saul’s conversion? He was (on the human level) the least likely man for the calling! So how could it be that God would choose this man to be his foremost evangelist and church planter?

Here is an occasion when people say, “It can’t be done” or “He’s too far gone.” I am sure they thought of Saul of Tarsus as a hardened unbeliever who was the chief antagonist to Christ. And, he was… until…

In his own words,

  • “I persecuted the followers of this way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the council can testify” (Acts 22:4-5).
  • “I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe… And when the blood of Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:19-20).
  • “I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did… I put many of the saints in prison and when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. I tried to force them to blaspheme and in my obsession…I even went to foreign cities to persecute them’ (Acts 26:9-11; cf.Acts 9:1-22; 22:6-16; 26:12-18; Galatians 1:11-16b).
  • Paul referred to himself as “once a blasphemer, a persecutor and a violent man” and “the worst of sinners” (1Timothy 1:13-16).

Paul was a violent man — a man of outrageous disregard for the rights of others. This pictures a man with seething insolent anger. These words offer a very dark picture of the man who, before Christ apprehended him, arrogantly considered himself “blameless” as a Law-keeping Pharisee.

The descriptions of paul as a blasphemer, persecutor and violent man form a picture of an enemy of God. And Paul fully acknowledged that he was God’s enemy (see: Romans 5:8-10.) He wasn’t a pretty good guy or a sincerely religious person. He was a blasphemer, persecutor and violent man!

Expect the unexpected! 

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus to become the apostle Paul and a follower of Christ is one of the most amazing conversions in the history of the church—if not the most amazing. Few events were more unanticipated in the book of Acts than the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus.

Expect the unexpected with God! Get ready for the predictable to give way to the unpredictable! Stand in awe at the ways of God!

How often God delights in reminding us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

That God would take this man to plant churches in every region throughout the Roman Empire and to pen most of the books of the New Testament (in just three decades) stretches human imagination and credulity! But it is so much like our God!

Paul’s salvation story

Acts 9 tells the story of Paul as a man obsessed with ecclesiastical authority in pursuing Christians to persecute them. But Christ stopped him and took hold of him. A light brighter than the sun appeared — blinding Paul (Saul of Tarsus) and Christ confronted and claimed him! Paul’s short biographical description of his conversion said it well: “I was apprehended by Christ Jesus” or “Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12).

In another short summary, he told the dark side of his past and then said, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy …. “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly ” (I Timothy 1:13-14).

Praise God for His mercy and grace! Remember to expect the unexpected with God! Don’t be surprised when the predictable gives way to the unpredictable! Stand in humble awe at the ways of God!

Steve Cornell

* For more on Paul’s salvation story, see – Romans 9:2-4; 1 Cor. 9:1, 16-17; 15:8-10; 2 Cor. 3:4-4:4, 5:16; Gal. 1:11-16; Eph. 3:1-13; Phil. 3:4-11; Col. 1:23-29; Acts 22 and 26.

Judgment according to works?

Every passage of Scripture describing a scene of final judgment makes works of righteousness done in this life the basis for judgment (e.g. Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46;II Corinthians 5:10;Revelation 21:11-15).

Yet, according to the gospel, eternal salvation is given as God’s undeserved gift and is “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).

How do we reconcile works based judgment with the fact that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Final Judgment 

Let’s first be clear about the fact that, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
 every tongue will acknowledge God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:11-12).

Judgment based on works

One of the clearest Scriptures connecting eternal destiny with human works comes from Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46.

After Jesus pronounced judgment on two different groups of people, he gave the basis for the judgment by using the “FOR“- each time.

The setting

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

The sheep

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. FOR I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:31-36).

The goats

“Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. FOR I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me'” (Matthew 25:41-43). Conclusion: v. 46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Evidently, “Sins of omission are judged as harshly as overt sinful acts.” (K. Snodgrass)

Unexpected outcome

The first group is surprised at the verdict because they were unaware that what they did was actually done for Jesus himself.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37-40).

A matter of motive

Their surprise was not that they didn’t realize that they were serving the Lord. But their surprise excluded the idea that their deeds were being done to win salvation. In their surprise, Jesus used, “a literary device indicating that the service rendered was not done for recognition or reward.” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p. 560). For those who have been forgiven by God, acts of mercy toward others will not be a means to an end but as a response to God’s redeeming love.

Those who do merciful deeds to score points with God or hoping to make God beholden to them miss the point Jesus made in the surprise of the righteous.

Excellent observations

“The narrative is a piece of the gospel, but not its whole theology in miniature. To debate the implications of ‘for’ for a theory of salvation taught here is to push the passage beyond its intent. It warns that judgment will be determined by acts of mercy, but does not address whether this mercy is the result of redemption or its cause.”

“To raise the problem of works righteousness is to foist on Jesus and Matthew a concern that is not theirs. Their concern is a discipleship that is evidenced in love and mercy. The judgment evidenced in this narrative does not ask if a person has accumulated x number of merciful acts but asks ‘what kind of person are you?’ The point is that a person cannot claim identity as a disciple of Jesus without evidencing it in acts of mercy” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent).

Judgment as validation or verification 

Our eternal destiny is settled in this life and judgment will verify (by means of our works) our identity as redeemed or unredeemed. Judgment will expose the connection or lack of connection between our profession and our practice. As Jesus said, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

All of this presupposes that saving faith is life changing faith. Something is expected in the lives of those who encounter the true and living God and receive His gift of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Steve Cornell

Troubled dust, but dust that dreams

As he struggled with the exasperating enigma of existence, Scottish agnostic, Richard Holloway, couldn’t escape the feeling that there must be more to life than this world. 

  • “This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”

From dust to glory 

Jesus broke the grip of the curse of dust! “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13).

  • “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of death… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15). For “God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot (decay) in the grave. God raised Jesus from the dead… Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us” (Acts 2:32-34, NLT).

God did this “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25). Yes, “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:8-9). 

Security in an uncertain world

Paul emphatically and unequivocally states that no experience in this life can alter the certainty of God’s love for us.

  • “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Rest securely and confidently in what God has done for you in Christ! And remind yourself often that, 

  • “When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Steve Cornell

What did Jesus teach about entering heaven?

Did Jesus preach the gospel?

Is there a difference between the way you invite people to receive salvation from God and the way Jesus did?

Is there consistency from the gospels through the epistles regarding how one is to be reconciled to God and assured of heaven?

Audio Resource: Listen to part 7 of In Step with the Master Teacher here.

Entrance requirements of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew

  • 5:20 – surpassing righteousness
  • 7:21 – doing the will of the father
  • 18:3-4 – childlike humility
  • 18:8-9 – amputation of sinful offenses
  • 19:16-24 – love of riches as an obstacle
  • 25:21, 23 – the faithful servant entering the joy of the Master

Five verdicts of the gospel

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving of God’s judgment         (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).                                                               
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Romans 3;Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ took the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Cor. 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

Romans 5:6, 8-11 – “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Steve Cornell

 

Therapeutic vs. True Gospel

 

The word gospel refers to good news about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. But when the gospel is shaped by a therapeutic emphasis, it turns out to be so much less than the true gospel. The therapeutic gospel emphasizes a Jesus who meets my felt needs in a way that keeps me at the center of life? It’s a kind of Jesus who is there to serve you. I wrote about this in my previous post.

 

The true gospel will not reach us until we see the “me at the center” life as our effort to take the place that belongs to God. I must acknowledge how I want the glory that belongs to God when I focus on myself — on my feelings and desires as the most important issues of life. 

Jesus Christ died for my sin and the most vivid expression of my sin is my willful preoccupation with myself. A gospel message that invites me to stay at the center is not the true gospel.

Listen closely to the emphasis when you hear someone invite people to follow Jesus. If the emphasis is on a Jesus who gives you peace and meaning; who gives you better relationships and takes away your feelings of guilt, you’re hearing a distortion of the gospel. Worse yet, you’re hearing a sales pitch rather than the true gospel.

But doesn’t Jesus give peace, meaning and forgiveness? Doesn’t Scripture emphasize God’s love for us? “Yes” to both questions. These however are the benefits of the gospel not the gospel. God’s love is so amazing because it’s demonstrated toward sinners. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He died for undeserving, self-centered people like you and me.

“The emphasis of scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sin. Every sin is a breach of what Jesus called ‘the first and great commandment,’ not just by failing to love God with all our being, but by actively refusing to acknowledge and obey him as our Creator and Lord. We have rejected the position of dependence which our createdness inevitably involves, and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we have dared to proclaim our self-dependence, or autonomy, which is to claim the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards; its essence is hostility to God (Rom. 8:7), issuing in active rebellion against him” (John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 90).

If I don’t accept the verdict of Scripture about my sin and the judgment it deserves, I cannot hope to experience benefits of the gospel such as peace, meaning and forgiveness. 

If the bad news is muted or left out, the good news of the gospel is also removed. For the gospel to be good news, I must fully acknowledge the following verdicts:

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving God’s judgment (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot by any effort of my own improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ bore the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Corinthians 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

The only grounds for acceptance with God is faith in Christ alone.

Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas exposed the error behind the therapeutic gospel. 

“We confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desperately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning, and purpose to their lives, and loving acceptance. We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God. Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things they must be seeking after God. People do not seek God. They seek after the benefits that only God can give them. The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God himself. We are, by nature, fugitives.”

People do not seek God unless His Spirit works in their hearts and Jesus revealed the kind of work the Spirit would accomplish. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, he would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (see: John 16:8).

All of this emphasis fits with the way Jesus repeatedly called people to deny themselves to follow him. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Matthew 16:24).

Steve Cornell

The therapeutic gospel

When you hear a pastor or teacher invite people to come to Jesus, listen carefully to the emphasis on what Jesus will do for the person who comes to him.

There is a subtle but dangerous distortion of the gospel that has become popular in many Churches.

A growing number of pastors are inviting people to come to Jesus on terms that are not consistent with our Lord’s own invitations to follow him.

Question: Are we bending and twisting the gospel around the felt needs and expectations of a self-absorbed culture?

The therapeutic gospel leaves one with the distinct impression that, “Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches” (David Powlison).

Most pressing felt needs?

Dr. Powlison summarizes the felt needs that the therapeutic gospel addresses. 

  • I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
  • I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
  • I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
  • I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
  • I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving. 

“In this new gospel, the great ‘evils’ to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve.”

These felt needs “are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to a new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word ‘Jesus,’ but he has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.” (David Powlison).

Questions

  • Isn’t Jesus the greatest therapist one could ask for?
  • Does the Savior do any therapeutic work in our lives when we turn to him?
  • How does the therapeutic gospel differ from the true gospel?
  • What are the primary needs met in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I’ll address these matters in my next post.

Steve Cornell

 

 

The workers in the vineyard

My current series on the teaching of Jesus brought me to the parable on the workers and the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

(Audio version here)

This is considered one of the more difficult parables to interpret but it reaches deeply into the human heart at a level that connects with all people. It exposes a common tendency to resent the blessings of others whom we think don’t deserve them (certainly not as much as we do!).

As with many of Jesus parables, he starts with the familiar and turns the story in unexpected and provocative directions. We could even say that Jesus turned stories in ways that were intentionally disruptive to established cultural assumptions. He did this to expose prideful and self-righteous hearts. It reminds us that God is willing to allow disruptive events to get to the true condition of our hearts.

In this parable, Jesus is also explaining what the Kingdom of heaven is like. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1).

The topic of kingdom was big for the disciples. Israel chaffed under pagan Kingdoms for centuries. They longed for a deliverer to lift the power of Rome off of them. Even after the Lord was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). I am sure Jesus stirred their curiosity when he said, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).  Not long after Jesus gave this parable, two of the disciples requested prime positions in Christ’s kingdom, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).

Jesus’ early disciples did not have the right perspective of Kingdom. They viewed it as an opportunity for personal advancement based on rank and merit. They pursued the highest places of honor not the lowly positions of service. They had a lot to learn about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. They argued repeatedly over who should be considered greatest among them. Jesus had to repeatedly correct their misguided and self-serving way of thinking. It was in stark conflict with the entire mission of Jesus (see: Luke 22:24-30Philippians 2:3-11).

This is the background for many teachings from Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like saying, “This is what God’s rule looks like this…” Or, “This is the way it works in God’s kingdom…”

Five parts to the parable of the workers in the vineyard 

  1. Kingdom introduction v.1
  2. Hiring the workers vv. 1-7
  3. Paying the workers vv. 8-10
  4. Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12
  5. Answer from the owner vv. 13-15
  6. Concluding proverb v.16 

Take a moment and read the entire parable

Kingdom introduction v.1 and the hiring the workers vv. 1-7

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

Paying the workers vv. 8-10

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.

Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12

When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

Answer from the owner vv. 13-15

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Concluding proverb v.16

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Context

It is helpful to read the larger context for this parable. It deals with status, wealth, greed and discipleship in a context that reverses the expected values of the world (Matthew 19:13-20:34).

Looking more closely

The story is not unfamiliar to Jesus’ listeners. One day an owner of a vineyard goes into the market to hire day laborers. The pay offered was also typical pay for such workers (a denarius for the day). It was also typical and even commanded in the OT to pay these workers at the end of the day. Some of them depended on each days wage to survive for the day.

The work day pictured was also typical (12 hours).  But the parable breaks from the expected in some provocative ways. It would have been unusual, for example, that an owner would make five trips to hire day workers (unless perhaps the vineyard was close to the market place). Such a miscalculation of needed workers, let alone hiring some to work for a mere hour, would have been exceptionally unexpected.

Why then does Jesus picture five separate hirings? Some take this to be an allegorical way of picturing the five successive stages of history:

  1. Adam to Noah
  2. Noah to Abraham
  3. Abraham to Moses
  4. Moses to Christ
  5. Christ to the Present

While this is possible, it is certainly not clear from the parable. The same is true of the efforts to spiritualize the parable in the following construction:

  • Vineyard – the Kingdom
  • Owner – God the father
  • Forman- Jesus
  • Workers – believers
  • Pay – salvation
  • Work day – the believer’s lifetime of service
  • Evening – eternity

This seems to make the parable say more than Jesus intended and upon closer examination, the imagery breaks down in significant ways. All such efforts remind us to exercise caution when interpreting parables. Although parables intentionally invoke imagination and discussion, it’s generally not wise to make them say more than would have been understood in their original context.

Basic considerations in the parable of the workers and vineyard

  • No one deserves to become a worker in the vineyard but no one receives a free gift of grace.
  • Each worker and receives a wage, some more than expected; others less than they feel they deserve based on comparison with others.
  • There is not a significant emphasis on generosity in the parable because the wage is not unusual. The goodness of the owner is contrasted with the evil eye of the first workers.
  • The first workers would not have complained without comparison with the late comers.

Who is Jesus aiming for in this parable?

  • Opponents – If Jesus had the religious leaders in mind, the parable emphasizes tax collectors, sinners and Gentiles entering the kingdom (those called last to work).
  • Disciples – If Jesus was focused on his disciples, the parable warns against envy based on perceptions of rank and comparison as well as misplaced notions of merit.

What we know with more certainty

  • By emphasizing who gets paid first (those who came last), and how those who joined in the middle of the day would receive “whatever is right or just,” Jesus exposed the condition of the hearts of the others.
  • Jesus issues a clear challenge to human standards of ranking and merit (first and last). 
  • The contrast is between the goodness of the owner and the complaint of those who felt they should have received more. 
  • The first workers would not have complained without a comparison with others.
  • God’s treatment of people and justice cannot be measured by human standards.
  • We continually compare ourselves with others and judge fairness based on our perception of what we feel is due to us. Or, we think justice means equal pay for equal work and that no one gets an advantage.

Questions worth asking

  1. Why is goodness toward others often an occasion for envy and resentment?
  2. Is it possible to allow someone else’s advantage spoil your gratitude, contentment and joy? 
  3. Does God allow things like this to happen to challenge and expose our hearts?
  4. Why do we find it difficult to rejoice over the good things that happen to others?
    • I Corinthians 12:26 -If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
    • Romans 12:10 – “take delight in honoring each other.”

5. Why do we tend to always calculate ways we feel slighted in comparison with others?

Deeper reflection on envy

“Envy is resentment of someone else’s good, plus the itch to despoil her of it. Its natural corollary is what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of someone else’s despoilment. The envier not only sorrows over another’s good fortune and wants it to change; he also rejoices in another’s misfortune and wants it to persist. Hence an envious conservatory student may feel privately delighted at the memory lapse of a rival during her recital performance” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to be, Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).

Envious people find sadistic pleasure in the downfall of others. Worse, they will appear publicly sympathetic while privately gloating.

“Envy (and its gloating subsidiary, Schadenfreude) shows us human antagonism in one of its basest and most unheroic forms. Wherever we find envy, we find the wreckage of human and Christian community. Envious people backbite. They deliver congratulations with a smile that, in another light, might be taken for a sneer.” (Plantinga).

“The envier gossips. He saves up bad news about others and passes it around like an appetizer at happy hour. The envier grumbles. He murmurs. He complains that all the wrong people are getting ahead. Spite, bitterness, discord which undoes all friendships, accusation, malignity—all these things flow form envy and together turn friendship and good fellowship into a rancorous shambles” (Plantinga).

Scripture warns: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). Remember this: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Alternatively, love “…does not delight in evil” (I Corinthians 13:5-6).

The history of envy begins with the ambition of angels (“I will make myself like the Most High,” Isaiah 14:14) and leads to the suspicion of Eden (“You will be like God…” Genesis 3:1-6). 

Envy emerges in the first human family as an insidious motive to the first act of homicide (Genesis 4). Cain, “who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother” (I John 3:12), allowed envy to be a prelude to homicide (Genesis 4). But envy was also the motive behind the most vicious crime of history: “the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy” (Mark 15:10).

It’s particularly sobering to consider how envy is fueled by the all too common sins of ingratitude and discontentment. It feeds on a surveying spirit of resentment with the lethal potential of becoming hatred. Envy vandalizes joy and joyful community.

Steve Cornell