Bait and Switch?

What’s in it for me? It’s a common question. We are used to a world that pays wages for work and uses rewards to motivate people to excel. A conversation between Jesus and a wealthy young man set Peter questioning along the same lines.

In answer to the young man’s inquiry about obtaining eternal life, Jesus told him to liquidate his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. The young man was unwilling to make the sacrifice. Peter, who had left his fishing business, home, and family to follow Jesus, wanted to know, “What then will there be for us?” (Matt. 19:27) Presumably, he expected Jesus to expand upon the rewards of eternal life and the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:16, 24). And Jesus did just that; He promised authority and eternal life but also hundredfold returns on what they had sacrificed, even in this life (Mark 10:30). So far, so good. But then Jesus took everyone by surprise—including us.

“Many who are first will be last; and the last, first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. . . .” (Matt. 19:30-20:1)

Mark and Luke skip the vineyard parable; Matthew includes it as Jesus’ illustration of what it means to reverse first and last. The fact that it starts a new chapter means we tend to miss the connection, but chapters and verses were added long after the Bible was written.

The parable forces wrong-thinkers to rethink. Perhaps it felt like bait and switch to Peter. Those who followed Jesus simply to hear His teaching, witness amazing miracles, or get a laugh as He silenced the religious leaders had to reconcile with a parable that spoke of hired laborers. The kingdom is like a business. There’s work to do. But the King will pay whatever is right (Matt. 20:4). Naturally, those who work all day can expect a fair day’s wage (Matt. 20:2).

But the shift in thinking continues. The landowner does the unexpected (pays those hired last, first), and the unthinkable (pays the last a full day’s wage). No wonder those who worked through the heat of a twelve-hour day grumbled. Like us, they expected wages in proportion to work. The kingdom of heaven is different: the King is not a cheat (He paid the agreed day’s wage); He is generous (Matt. 20:9-16). That forces another change in our thinking.

We must set aside the systems we are accustomed to. In God’s kingdom, rewards are not proportional to effort. Generosity has high value. Because God’s provision for our needs is unlimited it is unnecessary to work extra to get more. There’s no need to compete with each other. In fact, although the New Testament mentions many things that will be rewarded, it reveals little about the reward except that it is life in the kingdom. The parable of the talents even suggests that the reward for faithfulness is increased responsibility (Matt. 25:21, 23; Luke 19:17, 19).

All this points to a new kind of motivation in the kingdom of God. Eternal life in the kingdom is the fully satisfying reward because it revolves around our unhindered relationship with the King. Serving alongside King Jesus in His fruit-bearing business is reward enough: Experiencing His guidance, His multiplication and prospering of our tiny efforts, the joy of His presence, sharing the influence of His reign, knowing the security of His generous provision—these are the true rewards of followers, first and last.

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