His face fell. He turned and walked away. To put it together from the three Gospels, he’d been excited – fell on his knees before Jesus; was zealous for God’s law – “I’ve kept all these!” he’d said. But when Jesus’ “follow me” meant “leave everything else behind, sell everything off, focus on me,” the man was very sad for he was very rich. I like how one translation framed it out:
23As he watched him go, Jesus told his disciples, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom? 24Let me tell you, it’s easier to gallop a camel through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.”
25The disciples were staggered. “Then who has any chance at all?”
26Jesus looked hard at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27Then Peter chimed in, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?”
There’s always a question when reading a Bible of how to interpret fairly. I don’t think that translation is unfair with Peter’s question, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” You know why I don’t think that’s unfair? Because Jesus follows it up with this parable that deals with how people think about what they get out of working for the Lord…
In the parable that Jesus tells, the master of the vineyard called many, “You too go and work in my vineyard!” He called workers at the beginning of the day – agreed with them as to their pay – and they went. He called more, later and later and later in the day. Until finally some worked only 1hr and then it was time for pay. And, beginning with those called last, those who had worked least, he paid them the full day’s wage, in the sight of the rest. Who, when their time came, expected more but received the same. And, as Jesus tells it, “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men 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.’” We don’t like what we’re getting out of this deal. This is unfair!
Jesus calls to us too, this morning. He says, “Go and work in God’s vineyard!” He calls us to consider how it is as you work in God’s vineyard, as you live lives of faith: as you conduct your affairs as husbands and wives, or serve in a church, or take care of an ailing parent, or follow speed limits and pay taxes and faithfully do your homework? How is it especially as you stand with the first workers and consider your works over against the work of others? I mean your hard work and having to find new job after new job vs. your friend’s happy-go-lucky advancement and rewards; your perseverance at homework for A-’s and B’s vs. your friend’s late-night, last minute efforts that bring stellar praise; when you give attention to God’s Word and persecution from family, friends, and others vs. the one who ignored faith altogether and came late and has had the best experience since. These estimations and comparisons aren’t always fair or true, but they are the kind of thing we’re tempted to. And, though each of us would never say that with God we earn our way by what we do, what we do is a significant part of our way and it can influence what we say – namely, “What do we get out of this?” and maybe, “Is that it? This is unfair! Our work is greater, more faithful, longer, harder, more intense… and the rewards are less? Or the same?”
Jesus calls out our temptation to evaluate what we expect to receive for serving God according to this world’s “first and last” measure: those who work most receive best, are first. God’s kingdom works like this: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Mt. 19:30) We may think it’s our steadfast service that drives our questions like Peter’s – What do we get finally? But Jesus warns that it may instead be our own envy – as he said literally – that we have an “evil eye” as we look out and compare with what others receive; a selfish eye and a lack of trust in God’s good grace. As we go to work in God’s kingdom, if we’re tempted to work for rewards, be warned. The landowner sends away with their “reward” those who work for themselves, who grumble in unbelief at his gracious ways. And he can send us away too.
Jesus calls to us, this morning. He says, “Go and work in God’s vineyard!” He calls us to be about being his disciples; to consider what we think is right against the God who gives what is right. For the parable really is about the landowner and his ways. The landowner who makes an agreement with some for what is right – to pay them and he follows through. The landowner who goes out again and again and again to find more and more to work in his vineyard. The landowner who gives to each generously – from just as agreed, to far more than for what was done. What he wants is to give and to give generously so that the last will be first and the first last.
As we work in God’s vineyard, this kind of inconceivable grace is at work. That word always makes me think of the movie The Princess Bride. Do you remember it? The story of a farmboy-turned-pirate who encounters numerous obstacles, enemies and allies in his quest to be reunited with his true love, the Princess Buttercup. Throughout the movie, the Sicilian villain Vizzini repeatedly characterizes things as “Inconceivable!” whether how the dread pirate relentlessly advances after them, or that the pirate could defeat Vizzini’s Spaniard swordsman – “Inconceivable!” he cries. And, by nature, we cry it too of God’s ways – by ourselves and from this world’s perspective they are “last become first” insanity. They’re reward for work not done in a world that is all about what you do. They’re unfair; unbelievable, not capable of being grasped on our own.
And the LORD agreed through the prophet Isaiah long ago when he said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Inconceivable – that the LORD of burning holiness would have mercy on the wicked and freely pardon – freely because human payment is impossible. Inconceivable – that grace would come in his Son, our Savior, perfect and holy, to shed his own blood and die and win forgiveness and life for those who cry for “justice & fairness” when justice would have been their destruction and avoiding it was impossible. Inconceivable – that this Savior deigned in his wisdom to teach weak and worrying disciples the lessons of heaven and still does through his Word; that God would reach out again and again to this world through his prophets and apostles and others, to call more and more and more, later and later and later into his vineyard to work for him by faith – what by man’s designs is impossible. Inconceivable – that men and women over time would turn away from this world’s rewards and say with Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” – which the world would call impossible and ill-advised. Inconceivable – that God has the right and the might to do anything and, of all things, he desires to give freely to you regardless of who you are – be it forgiveness of sins, or comfort of his love, or good in this world, or as he promised to the disciples great rewards and thrones in heaven for faithful service, or just the eternal joys that wait us there. Truly, with him all things are possible – even the inconceivable.
In fact, by his work, God’s Spirit has conceived this very thing in your hearts and minds. Jesus calls you today with Peter and John, James and Jude, with millions of followers from centuries before and after to think of all this as it really is – there’s no need to question what we’ll get out of all this but to rejoice in what we have, inconceivable grace; the place where you may freely work because he generously gives.
 Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Mt 19:23–27). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.