We hear children —and adults — argue, “It’s not fair!” Sometimes we are not treated fairly. But, as Matthew 20:1–16 tells you, don’t address those words to God!
Beware of self-righteousness. This is a parable of the kingdom. A parable, you remember, is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus specifies what the parable is about. His language reflects imagery that the Holy Spirit had used in the prophets, such as Isaiah 5. The central point of the parable is not economics. The parable has been used as a justification for socialism—everyone ought to receive equal pay. But that is not the point of the story Jesus told. Others have argued exactly the opposite point from the parable: the householder asks, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” A contract freely entered into, such as between the owner and the first workers, is binding. While that may be true, it also misses the mark. It’s not the reason Jesus told this parable. The actions of the owner tell you about God’s dealings in the kingdom of heaven. The parable is introduced specifically with: “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner….” As in many of the parables of the kingdom the activity of a central figure tells you something about how God works in his kingdom. The owner reaches an agreement with the initial group of laborers to work in his vineyard for the standard wage of a denarius for a day’s work. At three hour intervals he hires additional workers, who are willing to trust his “I will pay you whatever is right.” Finally he hires some more men at the 11th hour. Perhaps it was harvest time, and the grapes had to be picked right then. At the end of the day, to their surprise the men who worked only one hour received a full denarius, as did each of the other laborers.
A young man and woman may meet casually, but later see the relationship develop into a life-long commitment. If you enter the military, you undertake a commitment to serve for a certain number of years. What kind of commitment does the kingdom of God require? Matthew 19:16–30 records Jesus’ teaching.
Give up everything! This rich young man was searching for some good thing to do. A man came to Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Matthew is sparse in the details of introduction, but does tell us that the man was young, and we find out that he was wealthy. Jesus responds to the question with another question, implying that there is something basically wrong with the man’s approach. His focus should have been, not on some good thing he could do, but on the One, the only One, who is good. The man is seeking eternal life, verse 16. Later in the conversation this is described as “entering the kingdom of God,” verse 24, and being “saved,” verse 25. God’s good character is reflected in his commandments. Jesus points the man to his Father’s revelation of his will. God has not left us ignorant of what he expects of us. In response to the man’s question as to which commandments, Jesus quotes portions of the law dealing with our relationship with those around us, and concludes with the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The man has an inflated view of his ability to obey. His response is glib (yet he still senses a need). When you appreciate the deep nature of God’s commands, as Jesus had pointed out earlier (Matthew 5:17–48), you cannot claim that you have earned favor in God’s eyes by your obedience. Note that in that context Jesus requires that your obedience exceed that of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Matthew 5:20.
“You’re not old enough for that. Wait until you grow up.” Those words, while appropriate in some cases, can be discouraging for a child. And, as Jesus points out in Matthew 19:13–15, they are horribly wrong if they are used to keep little children away from him and to exclude them from the kingdom of heaven.
Don’t forbid the little children. Both Jesus and the parents were interested in children. Children were being brought to Jesus. The active parties were, presumably, their parents. Matthew describes those being brought as little children. Luke uses the word “babies.” Jesus had left Galilee, and was traveling through parts of Judea. People who had not had the opportunity to be around him were trying to bring their children to him. The parents wanted Jesus to put his hands on the children (apparently in blessing) and to pray for them. They were part of the covenant community. Jesus was aware of the children in the marketplaces. He knew of their games, Matthew 11:16,17. Jesus had called a child to stand among him and his disciples as the responded to their question about the greatest in the kingdom, Matthew 18:2. He said that you need to become like little children to enter the kingdom, and warned severely against causing these little ones to sin, Matthew 18:3,6,10. Clearly Jesus had a genuine interest in and concern for children. They were not a bothersome interference in more important work.
There is something about fallen human nature: establish a principle, a rule, or a law, and people start looking for ways to get around it. We try to come up with reasons why we are the exception to the rule. In Matthew 19:1–12, Jesus, when questioned about how broad or narrow a certain application of the law was regarding divorce, takes you back to the beginning of human history and points you to what the Creator did at the beginning.
Understand what the Creator did. God created mankind male and female. Jesus has left Galilee, traveled south with his disciples to the area of Judea, but on the east side of the Jordan. He has been busy healing the crowds that followed him. Some Pharisees were testing Jesus with a question about divorce. The motivation was to test Jesus, not to gain his wisdom. Yet Jesus does provide a substantive response. The question involves a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4. The question reflected the division between the followers of Hillel (who allowed divorce for virtually any reason) and Shammai (who limited it to marital unfaithfulness). The first century attitude towards divorce seems to be reflected in the casual way marriage is often treated in our culture. Jesus reminds you that marriage is a creation ordinance. Jesus refers to God specifically as “the Creator.” Note how Genesis ties the fact that God created mankind “male and female” with mankind being his image. God is not a sexual being (he is neither male nor female–but is Spirit), but the rich, full communication that takes place in a good marriage grows out of and reflects the kind of communication that takes place within the Trinity and between God and his creatures.
Someone does something to you that makes you really upset. But he asks your forgiveness — so you do forgive. But a few days later the process is repeated. And then it happens again. How long do you have to go on forgiving? Jesus gives an answer in Matthew 18:21–35 and then drives the point home with a parable.
Quit counting! Seven times may seem like a lot. Peter had grasped something of what Jesus had been teaching. He understood that it was important to seek reconciliation with your brother. An obvious question arose in his mind: how often should I forgive my brother? Forgiving seven times seemed to Peter like going well beyond the call of duty. Perhaps you have had to forgive someone repeatedly. Four or five times seems like many, not to speak of seven times. Indeed, it is not easy to forgive once, much less repeatedly.
Keep on forgiving. Jesus’ answer requires repeated forgiveness when your brother repents. His words could be taken to mean “seventy-seven” or else “seven times seventy.” In either case Jesus apparently did not intend the figure to be an absolute minimum (as though you can refuse to forgive the seventy-eighth or the 491st offense). If you are counting the number of times that you forgive, there is something basically wrong with your approach. The tally you keep has your focus on yourself, on your magnanimous character. Behind Jesus’ words may be a reflection on the song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23,24), in which the murderer sings a boastful song, exulting in vengeance. Your goal must not be vengeance to the seventh or seventy-seventh degree, but forgiveness to the nth degree. Forgiving involves, not forgetting, but rather refusing to use the offense against the person again. Forgiving does not mean avoiding justice. As a good example, look at Rachael Denhollander’s victim impact speech. She forgave, but she argued strongly for justice.