“Can I buy that with my one dollar?” asks the five-year old while pointing at a Lego set worth roughly double the value of my pickup.
“No, sorry…you don’t have enough money for that.”
“Well, are there money-jobs I can do when we get home?”
“Maybe. How do you feel about putting on a new roof?”
We begin living out our economics at an early age, so it’s no surprise that several of Jesus’ most helpful parables take us to spiritual truths through economic realities. This morning, using A. B. Bruce’s The Training of the Twelve, our session considered three of Jesus’ parables that center around the ideas of working and wages. Taken together, these three parables are a great comfort and even a challenge to our sinful ways of relating to God.
The first is the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27. Here Jesus relates the story of a businessman who goes away after giving his servants each ten minas to use and invest for his sake. The first one returned ten more minas and received his due praise, while the second returned only five minas and received only faint praise and the last returned the original minas and was condemned for his lack of faithful work. Bruce draws the following principle from this work-and-wage parable: that the Master judges our work based what’s possible.
The second is the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. This time the travelling master gives varying amounts to different servants. When the servant with five talents returns five more, he is highly praised, as is the servant who received two talents and made two more. But when the servant who received one talent merely returned the one talent back, he is condemned for his lack of faith. The basic wage-and-work principle taken from this parable is that the Master judges our work based on whether it is commensurate with the abilities He’s granted.
The third is the parable of the vineyard laborers in Matthew 20:1-16. Following the promise of those who die to themselves for Christ’s sake receiving “a hundredfold”, Jesus gives this story to stave off the mindset of sacrificing only for the reward instead of sacrificing for the Master. In the parable, those who work all day are paid a fair wage while those who work only the last hour are paid the same as the all-day workers. The all-day workers seem rightly offended until the Master rebukes them for standing in judgment over his generosity. Then Jesus repeats, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” The principle Jesus seems to be laying down is this: even though the worker will be paid his wage and even though the sacrificial will receive a hundredfold, don’t work for God with selfish calculations, but work with zeal as a continually unworthy servant.
Taking all three of the parables together, we are reminded of important truths, that God does reward our sacrifice and labors in his kingdom, that He does expect us to be working hard to return to Jesus work that accords with our abilities and possibilities. But at the same time we shouldn’t be driven by reward–like the older brother in parable of the prodigal son who did all his duties just so and then was crushed at the realization of the father’s mercy toward his wayward brother. Yes, God does see and reward our labors (labors which, by the way, we are only able to do through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, so don’t take any credit…). But as soon as we start calculating our paychecks with God, we’ve fallen off the track somewhere.
So, Bruce says, beware of the danger of self-righteous sacrifice, of giving your all for God and thinking yourself better because of it. Beware the danger of your sacrificial spirit degenerating over time into bitterness as you see God’s mercy toward others. And beware of reducing the Christian path of self-denial to a system like so many ascetics. By all means, delight and rejoice in how God returns a hundredfold for your sacrifice! But don’t work to buy things from Him–work because you love Him, die to yourself because Jesus is worth it!