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One of Jesus’ most famous ministry encounters was with the rich young ruler, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels. The ruler came to him asking what he must do to earn eternal life. Jesus showed him the futility of trying to earn life and, at the same time, pointed out that following him is a call to forsake everything. Since he would not forsake his riches, he was in no position to follow Christ.

As they watched the ruler walk away a spiritual pauper, they wondered aloud whether they should expect eternal rewards, given their commitment to abandon everything they had formerly owned in order to follow Jesus. They had done precisely what the rich young ruler would not. What would they get in return?

Jesus directly answered their question (19:27–30) but then told a parable to warn against the attitude of serving him only motivated by reward (20:1–16).

In the parable, a wealthy farmer went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. The labourers agreed to work the full day (normally 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM) for a denarius, which was a fair wage for a day’s labour in that field of employment. At various points in the day (9:00 AM; 12:00 PM; 3:00 PM; and 5:00 PM), the farmer hired more labourers. At the end of the day, he gave each labourer the same reward.

The earliest workers were incensed. It was simply unfair for them to receive no greater reward than the later labourers. The farmer replied that he had not cheated them, that he had given them precisely what he had agreed, and that it was all his to begin with. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (vv. 15–16).

The parable, you will remember, had flowed from Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question following his encounter with the rich, young ruler. The reward or wage, therefore, represents the eternal life of which the ruler had asked. Jesus’ point is that the reward (or gift, really) for believing in him is eternal life, regardless of how and when you come to believe. It seems that the disciples needed to be warned against thinking that they deserved a greater reward because they were the first disciples who heeded the call to follow him. Every disciple of Christ will receive the same gift of eternal life.

Here is the surprising thing: If you read the parable without considering its context, you might consider the grumbling labourers to be ungrateful Pharisees. After all, they were the ones usually grumbling against grace when he showed it to tax collectors and sinners. But the context suggests that the first labourers represent the disciples. It was not the Pharisees objecting to mercy, but Jesus’! They were very Pharisaic in their attitude in this text. As Doriani puts it, “We have remnants of the Pharisee in us. We are recovering Pharisees.”

The text can appear somewhat perplexing. On the one hand, Jesus did not rebuke his disciples for asking about their reward. On the contrary, he quickly answered that they should be sure that they would, indeed, be rewarded for their faithfulness. They needed to be warned, however, that the reward must not be their driving motive in serving the Lord, lest the reward become more precious to them than the Lord himself.

This is a lesson we do well to learn. Anyone who has been involved in serving others knows that it brings us satisfaction to do so. We are often more helped by serving than by being served. But the satisfaction—the reward—for serving can sometimes be a stumblingblock. If we serve only for the reward, ministry can easily become an idol, replacing the Lord himself as our first love.

As we reflect on the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, let it speak to us about our motivation in ministry. Let us be content to serve the Lord because of his gracious promise of eternal life and not fall prey to the trap of thinking that we deserve more than what he promises because of our faithful service. May God deliver us from the idolatry of ministry to serve him in sincerity and truth.