The first really hard lesson I learned in the Christian life was to let God be God; to accept his sovereign right to rule my life and so be ready to accept as from his hand whatever circumstances came my way.
The second hardest lesson I learnt was to love Christ more than my life and therefore be ready to surrender my life to being his servant.
My perfect life, my perfect Christian life, had always looked something like ‘live in a nice house, with a good career, a reasonable pension, a happy marriage, successful kids and a fulfilling Christian life.’
Part of my struggle in learning to love Christ more than life was in putting aside my own interests, time and resources in the service of others. Being his servant didn’t just mean battling sin and buying commentaries. It meant the needs of others before my own.
Where this bites then is not in service but in sacrificing in order to serve. Giving up stuff I want and preferring to serve others.
How can we be the church, a community of God’s people, where each of us is set free – in the heart — from a life of self-concern and self-promotion to live lives of self-forgetfulness in which we delight to serve one another for Christ’s sake?
How can that ever be the life I want to live?
On Sunday morning, preaching at City Church, I preached for the first time on the parable of the workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20 and what we learned is that the secret of serving others comes when we;
Refuse to compare yourself to others
The parable is a story designed to change your perspective on your life and it works on you by rooting out of your heart and mine the problem of envy.
What stops us giving our lives in wholehearted service of our King? What stops us from pouring out our lives in the service of others? Isn’t it that we are continually comparing ourselves to others, competing with others? We continually assess how we are doing, continually looking at levels of accomplishment. It’s what we find Jesus’ own disciples doing just a few verses later! And envy stops you from serving others.
You will never be free to serve others until you are free from comparing yourself to others
Maybe we should note well what Jesus says both immediately before and at the end of the parable – 19:30 and 20:36. In the kingdom of heaven, in the gospel we can stop comparing ourselves to others.
How the parable works
It’s harvest time and a farmer is looking to hire people. At the beginning of the day he hires men and agrees to pay them a day’s wages. In v.3 he returns to the market place a couple of hours later and hires a few more men. Come and work for me and I will v.4 ‘pay you whatever is right’
Our farmer goes out again at the 6th, 9th and 11th hour hires more workers and then at the end of the day the farmer gives them their salary.
Starting with the last he pays them something they haven’t earned, something they haven’t deserved a full day’s wage – a denarius. You can imagine what the other workers are thinking at this point, wow this farmer pays bonuses I wonder what we’re going to get!
But as each worker steps forward he pays each of the others exactly the same wage – a denarius. You can imagine what they are thinking now, after all a day’s farming in the heat of the Palestinian day was really hard and so getting the same wage (v.11) they began to grumble against the landowner.
What’s the issue for them?
They complain to the farmer, v.12, ‘you have made them equal to us’. Here is envy at work, building resentment!
No doubt under an EU directive such behaviour would have been illegal. They would have been on the phone to their union representatives. As one commentator writes ‘Little seems more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals!’
How do you react to this parable? Do you have some sympathy with the workers? Of course we do because it looks like an injustice on the part of the farmer?
Here’s the point of the parable: our natural way of looking at life leads us to compare ourselves with others and find fault with God.
After all the only reasons the workers complain is not because of what they receive from the farmer but what they receive from the farmer in comparison to others!
To the hard workers he says, v.13, I gave you what was fair, harking back to v.4. If he had employed everyone for a day, and given a day’s wages everyone would have left satisfied, happy with their lot.
It’s not that he has been unfair to them, but that he has been more than fair to others that bugs them. But why can’t the landowner do as he pleases with his wealth. He rightly says ‘Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?’
He chooses to be generous, gracious, to the last group of workers. Without giving the late workers a full days wage their families would have gone hungry.
Here is what happens when we live our lives comparing ourselves with others
The landowner says, v.15, ‘are you envious because I was generous?’ Literally, ‘is your eye evil because I am good?’
When we act in church out of selfish ambition, vain conceit, when we refuse to serve others we act from an evil eye. When we resent God’s generosity to others we are saying ‘I can’t be happy when I see God being more generous to others.’
The owner is good because he gives generously, the workers complain because they are jealous. Jealousy, wishing that you had what they had, leads us to blame God rather than praise God.
What is the solution?
To recognise that God has been good to me in calling me into his service and rewarding me for his service.
God has been more kind to me than I deserve and if I don’t deserve anything from God what business is it of mine how God treats others?
You will never be a servant of all until God sets you free from envy of others. You will spend your time comparing yourself to others and asking ‘does this person deserve my help?’ Full of resentment, anxious about what you have received you will divide your energies between those you think deserve your attention and those who don’t.
What set’s you free from comparison is focusing your energies, your prayers and your thoughts on how extraordinarily good God has been to you.
Here are 5 questions (adapted from a sermon by James Boice) to focus your thoughts:
- Why is God’s goodness to others often the occasion for anger in us?
- Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice with others over the good that enters their lives?
- Why do we spend our time calculating how we have deserved better?
- Why are we never satisfied with what we have received from God?
- Why do we always think God owes us more?
How can you actually become a servant of all?
Let the gospel change your perspective on God’s goodness to you and others
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