Take Your Eyes Off the Prize

September 24, 2017

Take Your Eyes Off the Prize

It has been said that God’s grace is not an excuse to sin, but rather, a reason to love and serve Him more fully.

In today’s reading, we enter a crowded marketplace in Israel in the time of Jesus. In order to support their families, men would gather there around 6 o’clock in the morning in hopes of being hired by someone to work for the day. Each man knew that if he did not get hired, he would have to go home to his wife and children empty-handed, without the means to support them. He would have to see the hunger in their eyes and the worry on their faces. He would have to try to explain why no one had found him fit to hire. It would be a stressful, disappointing, and degrading experience. So the men would stand there until they were hired, all day, if necessary, to avoid this situation.

The passage we read today shows us how an average man would have to try to make a living in the time of Jesus. A master came to the marketplace looking for men to hire, making a very clear agreement, or verbal contract, with the first ones he saw: work for this long, get so much pay. They eagerly accepted the contract and set off to work, knowing that, for today, their income was assured. Their families would eat tonight. The same master, coming out to the marketplace at the end of the day saw men still in need of work. He knew the uncomfortable, worrisome spot they were in and had compassion on them. He knew that these men just wanted to work. They simply needed to be hired so they could say that someone had wanted them, someone had given them an opportunity to show what they could do and earn even a little to bring home. They needed a reason to hope that things would be ok. So the master hired them, even as the work day faded into evening. He needed work to be done, even a little work done by willing men was valuable to him. That master, in the end, much to the irritation of those hired early that day, paid the late-comers the very same amount as those who had labored all day. When those who had worked longer complained about the unfairness of the master and how he had decided to pay all of his workers, they were told that not only were the last paid the same amount as the first, but those who had been hired last would be the first to be paid and those who had been hired first would be last. This parable is clearly a portrayal of God, the kingdom of heaven, and those who serve God. The master is God, who needs people to do His work and commit their lives to Him, whether it is early in their lives or late in their lives. The workers who were in the field all day counting on their agreed payment are people who believe that it is the sum of the good works that they’ve accomplished in their lifetimes that will earn them God’s favor and a larger reward in Heaven. The workers who entered the field at the end of the day, happy to be called, are those who serve God because they love God and wish to do His bidding because of that love, or even those who come to Him in their dying breath because they realize that God still wants them as His children and will welcome them and rescue them.

In this parable, we see God’s generosity and the importance He places on the motives of those who serve Him.

The master in the parable gives to all the same compensation regardless of amount of work just as God rewards us all for our commitment to Him regardless of when we made the commitment or how much we have accomplished in service to Him. He values you if you come to him on your death bed just as much as if you've been working for Him for your entire life. Someone who comes to Him late will be greeted in His kingdom like the father greeted the prodigal son who returned home empty handed and remorseful: with boundless joy and gifts. Someone who has served Him faithfully will be greeted as the father of the prodigal son responded to the son who had stayed with him:”You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

What matters to God is that we make the commitment to love Him and live in a state of humble thankfulness for our salvation. It would seem that our works would cause Him to reward us with a greater position in His kingdom, but they actually serve as a means to bring us closer to Him in performing them. We are rewarded for our service in the performance of it for we will always be with Him and all that is His is ours. 

No matter when people enter into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, whether it is at first or at last, each soul is equally important to Him. All men and women, boys and girls are equally precious to God. Jesus promises that we will know the benefits of a relationship with Him if we accept Him as our savior. That’s it. That’s our contract, our covenant with God. The love of God, forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, faith, the Kingdom of Heaven, anything God gives us is not given because we’ve earned it. There is no step system, no seniority, no bonus program for the years or difficulty of service. It doesn’t work that way. We aren’t capable of working hard enough to deserve what God blesses us with.

In the book of Titus 3:4-6 reads as follows:

“But when kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having hope of eternal life.”

It is because of the generosity of our God that He blesses us with salvation. It is not because of our works but because of our God’s amazing grace that we are saved.

If it doesn’t matter how much or how long we serve God to be the beneficiaries of his grace, why will the last come first and the first come last? We will find the answer if we look closely at the two groups of hired men in our parable. Those who were hired first were promised a certain rate of pay. They accepted that arrangement and went to work counting on receiving that amount at the end of the day. At the end of the day, they were offended that those who had worked only a fraction of the time received the same compensation and argued with the master who had seen fit to offer them work. They somehow thought that they were being treated unfairly. Did the fact that the others were paid just as much hurt them? No. Why did it bother them? It’s because when they agreed to do the work for the day, they were focused on the pay they would receive based on the hours of work they had promised to perform, not the satisfaction of being asked to work, not the acceptance, the opportunity given by the master.

If we run around working in soup kitchens, collecting for the poor, attending church services, serving others in any variety of ways, just because we want to be recognized as a righteous person, as a philanthropist, as a really great person in the eyes of others or the eyes of God, we’re not serving God, but ourselves, our egos. If we serve others assuming that we’ll saunter through the pearly gates, walk on the streets of gold and be greeted with an enthusiastic, “Well done good and faithful servant!” issuing from the mouth of our Lord, we’re doing the service but for the wrong reason! We’ve done what we’ve done thinking that we can earn God’s love and favor, not because we love God and want others to know that love.

Yet, if we run around working in soup kitchens, collecting for the poor, attending church services, serving others in a variety of ways because we can feel the love of God in our hearts and want nothing more than to share it, because we truly want to be the hands of Jesus bringing healing and hope, regardless of what we expect to receive, but rather, knowing what we’ve already received because of God’s grace, we are in the service of God for the perfect reason. We are acting as God’s children because we ARE God’s children. We may be those who spend time at the side of a sick person, those who clean up after a church function, those who go into the homes of the sick and dying just to offer a new face to look at or voice to hear. We are very likely those who are kneeling and working at the feet or bedsides of others rather than those held up in headlines.

As New Testament interpreter William Barclay wrote:

“We are not Christians if our first concern is pay. Peter asked: ’What do we get out of it?’ Christians work for the joy of serving God and serving others. That is why the first will be last and the last will be first. Many in this world who expect that they have earned great rewards from God, will have a very low place in the kingdom because rewards were their sole thought. Many who, as the world counts it, are poor, will be great in the kingdom, because they never thought in terms of reward but worked for the thrill of working and for the joy of serving. It is the paradox of Christian life that those who aim at reward lose it and those who forget reward find it.”

The following is a quote by Oswald Chambers, an early twentieth-century Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement evangelist and author.

“Have you ever realized that you can give things to God that are of value to Him? Or are you just sitting around daydreaming about the greatness of His redemption, while neglecting all the things you could be doing for Him? I’m not referring to works which could be regarded as divine and miraculous, but ordinary, simple human things – things which would be evidence to God that you are totally surrendered to Him.”

Have you been serving because you thought God would keep track of how much good you’ve been doing or have you been serving so God will know that you are totally surrendered to Him? Have you heard His call to come and serve Him and run into the fields eager to do his bidding simply because He’s called you? Can you let God’s love flow through you like the blood in your veins, giving you the energy and the ability to get up each morning filled with the desire to do God’s work at every opportunity regardless of how hard, dirty or menial it might be? If you can feel that pulsing in you, it is a force that is impossible to resist. It will feel as though your blood has been replaced with sunshine and you go through your days yearning for the opportunity to show love, to care, to help, to serve Him and others because that feeling IS the love of God. Let us feel His love, hear His call and serve others and let’s do it for the right reasons. Let us serve in His fields because we are totally surrendered to our God and we want Him to know it.

Norma Goff