Singapore is a largely meritocratic society. Basically, everyone has a chance to succeed if they can produce the desired results. Therefore, Singaporeans are motivated to work hard, whether in school or at work, so that they can succeed and progress. However, when incentives are taken away, we often notice that motivation to work drops to zero. Therefore, we see in school that points are given for everything: we get points for projects, co-curricular activities, community involvement projects etc. Otherwise, there would not be any motivation to do those things!
Does Christianity work the same way? Do Christians get rewarded based on merit? Should we be rewarded based on merit? In Matthew 20:1-16, we get some insights into that matter from Jesus’ parable concerning the labourers. In the parable, we see some labourers were hired to work in a vineyard in the morning. They agreed to be paid one penny. Later in the day, the owner continues to hire more labourers, even up to the last hour. When it was time for everyone to receive their pay, we see that everyone receives one penny. What do you think was the reaction of the first labourers?
The early labourers complained that they received the same amount of pay as the late labourers, given that they had worked longer hours (v.11-12). These early labourers could represent the Jews. The Jews were the first to be part of God’s family, and they had been God’s exclusive people for almost 2,000 years prior to Jesus’ time. God promised them blessings and salvation. Suddenly, God welcomes the Gentiles also. The Jews had difficulty accepting them. Sometimes we also expect that we should receive credit based on the amount of effort we had put in. If we had put in more effort to help organize an event, we may expect that more recognition be given. If we had been a Christian for a longer time, we expect to be given more respect and credit. Such thinking will only cause much jealousy and conflict within the church, as we see in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:3).
The owner of the vineyard reminds the labourers that he had done nothing wrong. After all, they had agreed to be paid one penny! Furthermore, the money belonged to the owner, so he had the right to do whatever he wanted with it (v.13-15). God has the sovereign right to grant salvation to whomsoever He wills! Really, none of us even deserved it to begin with, because of our sin (Romans 6:23). However, by God’s grace, we can obtain salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). Instead of being resentful towards others, we should be happy that others can receive God’s gift also. In fact, we want to help as many people as possible to receive God’s grace also! Therefore, this spurs us to preach the gospel to all men (Matthew 28:19-20). Furthermore, we rejoice when we see our brethren succeed; we do not want to see any of our brethren stumble and fall from God’s grace (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Jesus ends the parable by saying: “so the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (v.16). Although the Jews were the first to be God’s people, unfortunately many fell because they did not believe in Jesus. Such a pity because they should have been the first ones to believe! (Galatians 3:24). Even Christians today who had believed and obeyed Jesus can give up and fall away also. Some have lost interest; some were discouraged; some were distracted (2 Timothy 4:10).
Being first is not the most important thing. It does not matter how long we had been a Christian. What matters more is how strong we finish! The moment we give up, that is when we lose everything! To give up halfway is to be like a pig that had just been washed clean, but it jumps back into the mud… what a waste of washing! (2 Peter 2:20-22). Therefore, we must endure and run this Christian race with patience (Hebrews 12:1-2). We must endure to the end, because only when we are faithful unto death that we can receive the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).
If the early labourers had known that they would receive the same pay as the late labourers, what do you think they would have done? I can imagine they would just sit down and relax; let the late labourers do the work now! Sometimes Christians are tempted to recline and slow down. Why work so hard… anyway we’re all going to the same place in the end right? We’ll still get to Heaven. Let’s just do the bare minimum to get by.
However, God warns Christians not to grow lukewarm. Jesus rebuked the church at Laodicea: “because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth… be zealous therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:16, 19). The Christians are Laodicea were called to snap out of their mediocre service and be zealous! Christians ought not to be contented with mediocre service; God expects us to give of our best (Matthew 22:37). For the Christian, there is no such thing as rest and retirement, because as long as we still have breath, our labour for the Lord does not stop until we enter our final rest (Hebrews 4:11). When we have endured in our labour for the Lord, then on that final day, we can be like the apostle Paul, who confidently said:
“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)