The lessons on service and humility can, and usually are, difficult to learn for us even when we are trying our best to live for God. Jesus often encountered attitudes of pride, arrogance, and powerfulness, all of which are counter to his personality. Often enough we see that even those closest to him (e.g. the disciples) were struggling with these feelings, and Jesus had to show them in his teaching and lifestyle what a true kingdom servant was like. Thus, we come to an important lesson on servanthood in Matthew 20:1–16. Here Jesus tells a very interesting parable about the servants complaining about getting the same pay regardless of their longer work in the vineyard. The story goes that the owner went out and hired workers to work in his vineyard, some he hired early in the morning, some he hired toward the end of the day. All worked until evening, and then the owner does something interesting; he pays the workers who came last before the ones who had been working since early in the morning. Of course, those workers who had been there all day expected more payment after seeing that the owner paid everyone else what had been agreed on by the first workers. Their statement echoes this idea of superiority, “When they received it [the same pay as everyone else], 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.’ (NIV). Their attitude is quite clear in that they expected more of a reward than the others because of their longer work and toil. Yet, the owner reassures them that everyone was paid what was agreed upon before the work began.
So what is Jesus’ point here? He is telling us that everyone will receive the same rewards in heaven? Not at all, but rather Jesus is telling us this story to show us that those who think that they deserve more for their work will often be disappointed by their lack of superiority. Why? Because in the kingdom rank and status are not earned by hard work and determination, it is gained by a life of service and humility. Prefacing this story is the example of Jesus stating that in the kingdom, those who have left everything to serve God will not be forgotten, but will be rewarded. Yet, not on the merit based system of the world, but by the standards of their service; or in Jesus’ words, “many who are last will be first.” What a promise to know that our blessings and rewards are not tied up in the standards and qualities of this world, but that they are noticed by a kingdom where service is honored. It is in these acts of servanthood that we build up favor and rewards with God, not because of how long we have served but by our acts of service. Additionally, it is a great thought that God views all of us on an equal and unbiased scale, where we all are invited off the streets to work for the same cause. What a privilege to be asked to be a part of this endeavor, yet what a tragedy when people don’t get the message of God’s grace.
Now one would think that after this story the dynamics around Jesus would change, but just three verses after the parable we are thrown back into the rat-race of position in the kingdom. We see James and John asking for preferential treatment by sitting on both sides of Christ in heaven. The narrative almost makes me wonder if they were really listening, because they couldn’t just hear Jesus’ words and then jump up asking for position. Yet, Jesus, in his typical way, gently corrects them and gives us forever a model to follow. He says to them and to us today, “whoever wants to be first must be your [servant] —just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:27–28, NIV).
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It's always interesting that we who pray "Lord, I want to be your servant." get upset when someone treats us like a slave.
The reality is, one who desires to serve, as the the scriptures describe "servant" know nothing of rewards, favor or honor. If there is anything in it at all for the servant: Are they really serving? or are they subtly serving themselves?
A rhetorical question; maybe you could rewrite it with this in mind: the one who is serving others will not flinch when a spear is thrust into their side, they are dead already. Dead to themselves, alive to God. There can be no resurrection life until there is first a death. Just a thought.