Do you ever wonder why God chooses to bless some people in certain ways and not others? There are often people who get things that we may feel we deserve more than they do! We may strive and pray for certain things, then see others who seem to receive much more than we. Those things we agonize over come so easily to others. Or the opposite may be true — we may be the ones who are receiving what seems to be more than our fair share. Why is that the case? How does God actually reward His children?
The question of “what will my reward be?” is often asked in the Christian life. In fact, Peter himself asked Jesus that. Matthew 19 details a familiar story of a rich man who comes to Jesus. While this man is very confident in his good works, his refusal to sell what he has and follow Jesus revealed that he cared too much for his earthly goods. This leads Peter to ask a question: what will he and the other disciples receive for a reward? After all, they have left all and followed Jesus. Jesus’ answer in verses 28-30 is both comforting and intriguing:
And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
So everyone that has sacrificed for Jesus receives not only eternal life, but rewards in this life as well. That’s great news! But there’s a little phrase here that has always stuck out to me: “but many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”
What does that mean? Jesus gives us a parable to explain. Matthew 20 contains the well-known parable of the laborers. I would encourage you to read it for yourself, but let me recap the events of the parable for you:
A man has fields that need to be worked, so he goes and hires men to work for him. He hires these men for one denarius, which would be the standard wage for a day’s work. He then goes out to hire more laborers at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. Every three hours, this man goes out to hire more men. He does not agree on a wage beforehand with these men; he just promises to pay them whatever he deems right. Finally, he goes out at the eleventh hour, when there’s only one hour of work left, and once again hires more men.
The workday ends, and the master gathers the men together. He first pays the men who have only worked one hour. What does he pay them? One denarius! Wow! What generosity! Those men that worked all day are getting excited! The master just paid a whole day’s wage for one hour of work! Imagine what those who worked 12 hours in the heat of the day will get!
Yet when the master comes, he gives them…one denarius. The same that the other workers got, although they did far less! They begin to murmur and complain. Can’t you understand why? Imagine that you had a coworker who did the same job as you, yet only worked one hour per day, and received the same salary. Would you be happy with that arrangement?
The master has an interesting response; he essentially tells them, “Look, I paid you what I said. We agreed on it. I haven’t been unfair to you. Why would you complain about me because I decided to be generous to someone else? Can’t I do what I want with my own money?”
No, the master wasn’t unfair to them. No, it doesn’t make sense to be angry at him for being a generous man. Yes, he does have the right to do what he will with his own money. Yet there is something in all of us that just hates the idea of someone having more than us! “That’s not fair,” we cry! We want fairness. We demand it!
But the truth is, God isn’t fair; He’s good! The parable illustrates that God rewards his servants according to His own pleasure and grace. This is what Jesus means by “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. The way the master rewards doesn’t always make sense to us! You may suppose that perhaps the “eleventh-hour” workers worked much harder than the others. Maybe they did something to earn their reward. You may suppose that, but you’re missing the point. The point is that the master rewarded them because he is a generous, good man, and it pleased him to do so.
The reality is, God doesn’t dole out rewards based on how hard we work for Him. That’s how man rewards. At a job, those who produce more receive more; but God operates according to grace. That means that there are times when we may see others receive rewards that we don’t think they deserve; and we may be right! But that’s a reason to praise God, not murmur against Him. Will we praise God for being gracious? God forbid!
There’s a few truths to learn from this parable. First, we don’t actually want God to reward us fairly. All we truly deserve is God’s wrath and judgment. If God were to truly reward me fairly, I would have nothing but pain and judgement. I’m glad that God actually gives me infinitely better than I deserve!
Second, when it seems that others have more than us, they really may have more than us; and that’s ok! God has given us so much; why should we do anything but rejoice if He chooses to give one of our brothers or sisters more?
Lastly, don’t forget that Jesus gave this parable in response to Peter’s question: “What will we get for following you?” The answer, for Peter and us, is that we can trust our gracious heavenly Father to reward us what He deems right. This is a wonderfully comforting thought, because our God isn’t fair; He’s good!