The other day I was reading a book to our children. In the story, a grandpa and grandma were driving with their grandchildren in their car when they saw a stall on the side of the road selling ice-creams and balloons. The grandpa suggested to his grandchildren that they stop and buy an ice-cream because, he said, they deserved it.
At that point, the first time I read it, I actually paused for about a complete minute. I couldn’t help wondering, why did they deserved the ice-cream?
I know it’s only a children’s book, but it struck me that from a young age our culture is teaching us that we deserve good things, but for no particular reason. It is a message that we hear throughout the media and is a very effective marketing tool. If we are told that we deserve something good, which could include anything from a chocolate bar to an overseas holiday or new car, then we are more inclined to buy the product.
This way of thinking is a double-edged sword. If we convince ourselves that we deserve good things, then we also have to acknowledge that when we do wrong, or fail to do good, then we deserve bad things as well. We tend to focus on the good we think we deserve and ignore the bad, but the reality is that if we want to live according to what we deserve, then we need to accept the bad as well as the good. Just about every worldview, religion, philosophy or way of thinking that I have come across in my life is based on this idea that we should get what we deserve. In the end we are trapped between the good we like to think we deserve and the bad we deserve because of the wrong we do.
Jesus’ parable at the start of Matthew 20 offers us a different way to live. The person who was hired to work at the start of the day was upset because he felt like he deserved more than the workers who only worked for an hour. From a human perspective he has a valid point. If life is based on getting what you deserve, then the person who put in more hours of work deserves to get more than the person who worked less.
The scandal and the beauty of this parable, however, is that God’s Kingdom does not work from a human perspective. At the beginning of the story, the owner of the vineyard promises to pay the workers a ‘normal daily wage’ (v2 NLT). He then promises the other workers he hires during the day that he would ‘pay them whatever was right’ (v4 NLT). At the end of the day, he honoured his pledge by paying them what he promised, not what they deserved.
The key to the story is in verse 14 where the vineyard owner says, ‘I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you’ (NIV). I have used the NIV here because it is closer to the Greek text which uses the word ‘give’ rather than ‘pay’ (NLT). What the vineyard owner gives to the workers at the end of the day is not based on what the deserve, but on what the vineyard owner wants to give.
This is where we see the generosity of the God we meet in Jesus. God gives us what he wants to give us, not what we deserve. This is a God who takes pleasure in giving because it is God’s nature to give. We see this most clearly in the person of Jesus. As the Apostle John tells us, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3:16 NIV). Jesus himself is the clearest and fullest expression of God’s giving nature as God gives him to and for the world. We see God’s giving nature as Jesus gives his life for us on the cross, and then gives his resurrected life to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God also gives us forgiveness, love, mercy, joy, hope, and so much more. God gives us an identity as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased for the sake of Jesus (Matthew 3:17). God gives us a place to belong as we are made members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) and the family of believers (Galatians 3:26,27). God gives us a purpose as he calls us to be part of God’s mission to bring the good news of the Kingdom to the world (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46,47). God promises to give us every good thing we need for life in this world and the next, not because we deserve it, but because he is by nature a giving God.
This faith changes our perspective on everything. I was talking with someone last week who told me that she enjoys having a beer at the end of the day’s work because she feels like she deserves it. I offered a different way of thinking: that when we get to the end of the day we can give thanks to God for whatever beverage we might enjoy because it is his gift to us. It will be the same beverage, but one way of thinking gives me the credit, the other gives the glory to God.
So basically there are two ways we can live. If we live according to what we deserve, or what we think we deserve, we will have to acknowledge at some point that we also need to accept what we deserve for the wrong we do. However, this parable of Jesus offers us an alternative way to live. This is the way of grace, where God doesn’t treat us as we deserve. Instead he gives good things to us just because it is in his nature to give. The first is the way of works, the second is the way of faith.
From a human perspective it’s not fair, but that is what makes it so good…
More to think about:
- Do you like the idea of getting what you deserve in life? Why / why not?
- Do you agree that if we think we deserve good, then we also need to accept that we deserve bad for the wrong we do? Explain why you think that.
- If you were one of the workers who was employed at the start of the day, how would you feel when you saw those who had worked only an hour being paid the same amount as you? How would you have felt if you were one of the workers hired at the end of the day?
- What do you think of the idea that God doesn’t give you what you deserve, but what he promises? Explain what you like or don’t like about it.
- At the end of the day, how would you prefer to live – according to what you deserve? or by what God promises to give you?