We Indians are good at bargaining. We learn this from a young age as children. We see our parents go to the vegetable shop and ask ‘How much for 1kg potatoes? The shopkeeper says ‘80 rupees’. Then our parents say ‘Tell me the real price of 1 kg potatoes’. And for the rest of our lives, we learn to bargain for everything – for clothes and cell phones we want ‘offer’, for education we want a discount. Why do we bargain with people? Because deep down we don’t trust the other person. We think that if we don’t bargain they will cheat us or take advantage of us.
In the parable of the ‘Workers in the Vineyard’ in Matthew 20, we see the Lord teaching us an important lesson about this. Prior to teaching this parable to His disciples, there were two ‘bargaining’ sessions that take place in the narrative. The first is with the rich young ruler, who enters into a back and forth with Jesus on what he must do to inherit eternal life, however, this encounter results in a disappointed young man who leaves Jesus without eternal life (Matt. 19:16-22). The second ‘bargaining’ session takes place immediately after this encounter, and it’s between the Lord Jesus and His disciples. They remind the Lord that they ‘left everything’ to follow Him, so ‘what will you give us?’ Jesus replies that they will indeed sit on twelves thrones and rule the twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, He adds ‘And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ Matt. 19:23-30 Jesus is saying ‘You disciples are last because for my sake you have left everything, so you will be first…..but don’t bargain with Me over what you should get’. Right after this conversation, Jesus begins to teach the parable.
In the parable, the master of the vineyard goes to the marketplace early in the morning (before 6 am) and finds a group of workers. It’s important to realize that he negotiates with this first set of workers. He ‘agrees’ with them on an acceptable wage. They agree to work for a denarius (the standard daily wage at the time) and begin to work. However, realizing he needs more workers he returns to the marketplace at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm and 5 pm. Notice that with the second group of workers there is no negotiation – he merely tells them to work and promises that he will give them something. And the workers respond in kind, they agree to work without bargaining, trusting in the master. At 6 pm the master calls each worker beginning with the ones who joined last, and he pays each a denarius. When the first set of workers get the same wage as everyone else, they complain, but the master gently reminds them that He had agreed to give them what they had agreed upon.
There are two principles that I believe that is the point that the Lord is trying to make:
1. Don’t Bargain with God
The first set of people are the people who want to be first but will be last. Some people make pre-emptive bargains with God by obeying to get God’s favour. Students read their Bible and pray only on the days before exams. People who are employed give more so that God will give them a promotion. Others try to bargain with God before agreeing to serve Him. For example, a sick person will say something like ‘Lord if you heal me then I will dedicate my life to serving You.’ A businessman won’t give to the church unless God blesses his business. A young childless couple will promise God ‘Lord if you give me a son I will dedicate him for ministry.’ People in ministry might pray for success in ministry and say ‘Lord if you want me to join the ministry you must give me a church with at least 200 people.’
People who bargain with God are trying to inch their way to first place, but Jesus is telling them that if you do this you are actually on your way to being the last. This is the upside-down principle of the kingdom of God. The way to become rich is to give it away. The way to greatness is by becoming a servant. The way to exaltation is through humility. The way to become first is by becoming last.
So how are we to serve Jesus our Master? Serve Him faithfully without preconditions. Why is bargaining with God so wrong? Because it shows that you don’t trust Him. You think if you don’t set terms with God first He might cheat you. When you bargain with God it is actually an implicit assault on God’s character.
2. God rewards His servants with far more than they deserve.
This is the positive aspect of this parable. In the parable, the ones who are last are the ones who don’t bargain with the master. They end up being ‘first’, starting with the workers who came at 5 pm. Here we see the grace and generosity of God. God doesn’t owe His workers anything, the fact that anyone is called by God is itself an act of unimaginable grace. God would be sovereignly just in not calling us to Himself, yet He does so because of His grace on His elect. And if that weren’t enough, He rewards us for our faithful labour to Him, and His reward is greater than what we deserve or expect. He does this because He is a God of grace and generosity. Many Christians wrongly put expectations of God’s generosity in this life, claiming Old Covenant promises that are not applicable to them. But as Christians, our hope should be set on the day when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
The gospel gives us the power to serve Christ without preconditions. When we look at who we were before God revealed Himself to us – we were dead, a spiritual corpse with no hope for anything except for damnation. Then God in His infinite mercy to us, sent His only begotten Son Jesus to live a perfect life for us. He never bargained once. Instead, He came to serve God and do His will unconditionally. He says in Heb. 10:7 “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” He was first, but He became last. He left everything, His glory, the worship of the lakhs of angels, His home in heaven. Then He suffered for us, bore the full wrath of God of our sin, every time we blasphemed God and tried to manipulate God through our works or blatantly disregarded them altogether. He died on the cross for us, the most humiliating of all deaths, a cursed death. And three days later He rose from the dead to show us that His death was effective, that our sins are truly forgiven if we repent and believe. And every day this same Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. After Jesus has done all this for us, will we still try to bargain with Him? No! A true Christian, when He remembers the gospel, will not. He will repent of the sin of bargaining and fall on His face before God and say ‘O Lord I will serve you unconditionally we are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’.
Because of the abounding grace of our Master, He will reward us for our faithfulness so much more than we deserve. He shows us grace when we are justified, He shows us grace when we are glorified. He is our God of grace. Let us faithfully serve our gracious Master without preconditions, so that one day we can hear these words ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash
Benjamin George serves as one of the pastors of Bangalore Bible Church, Bengaluru, Karnataka. He is married to Miriam and they have three children.