Whose Hands?

MATTHEW 9 of 12

We’re in our ninth of twelve weeks reflecting on the gospel according to Matthew.  During this series, we’ve been trying to pay close and careful attention to Jesus, because through these written words—through text on page—we are being invited into a new kind of life. The life of heaven here on earth. What Jesus calls “the kingdom of heaven” here in Matthew.

Matthew is the only gospel-writer to record a particular saying of Jesus. Jesus says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11v28-30

And it sounds really nice, huh? An easy yoke? A light burden? Rest… Rest for our souls. Can I have some of that, Jesus? This is what Jesus is always inviting us into. That’s what all of Jesus’s talking and teachings hold before us:

An easy yoke. Lightness. Rest.

Even teachings that sound hard—in reality, they’re an invitation to find rest. To find refreshment. To be resurrected. We already have burdens that we’re carrying: Anxieties. Anger. Fears. Frustrations. The things we think about—the feelings we feel—all the time. These are actually heavy burdens… and most of the time we don’t even realize we’re carrying them. And to all of us—to each of us—Jesus is calling.

“Come. Listen. Learn. There is such a thing as rest. I will give it to you.”

What might that look like to find this rest? What might it look like for us to take up this easy yoke? Jesus tells a story in Matthew 20 that I think might give us some clues. Another story that only shows up in Matthew’s gospel:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

Matthew 20v1-2

So all of these guys have agreed to go work for what was a denarius—a normal day’s wage. These guys are committing to hard work for twelve hours—they’re going to put in twelve hours of energy–but they know that when evening comes they’re going to have an envelope of cash

Then the story keep going:

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

Matthew 20v3-12

This is may be the most reasonable, sane complaint in the entire Bible. As you’re paying your workers—handing out denarii—giving out envelopes of cash—you’re going to give the people who just got here the same thing? They LITERALLY just got here. An hour ago. They got here just in time to help us clean up. They have not done the hard work. They have not put in the energy. They haven’t even broken a sweat. And they get the same as us?

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Matthew 20v13-15

The landowner points out to them: “You’re not getting the short end of any stick.” You’re still getting exactly what you agreed to work for. You’re still getting exactly what you were thrilled about earlier. Here it is. Here’s your denarius. Here’s your cash. I’m not being unfair to you, friend. What I’m giving someone else doesn’t take away from what I’m giving you. Take your pay and go. I can do what I want with my own money. Are you envious because I am generous?”

To which we would all reply, “This is not fair. Of course I’m envious! I deserve more than them. Just come smell my shirt. That’s twelve hours of energy and effort and dirt and sweat. I’ve worked hard. I’ve earned this. I deserve this. And they—them—you just include them at the last minute and they get the same? You’re just being crazy with your money. You’re irresponsibly generous with your gold! They have not worked hard. They have not earned this. They do not deserve this. Of course I’m angry—of course I’m envious—this isn’t right!”

I think this story captures most of our lives. If you’re anything like me, much of my own discontentment, and anger, and envy, and dissatisfaction in life doesn’t really come from my own life. My discontentment comes when I look at other people’s lives. That moment when I get done mowing my own lawn, and stop and smell the grass and look around—that’s consistently a really good moment in life. My life is really good. My family’s life is really good. I mean, we’ve got our own struggles, our own issues, our own weeds, our own difficulties. But when I stop for a moment and see the lawn—when I stop and smell my life—it’s really good. Discontentment doesn’t come when I stand back and look at my own lawn, my own life, my own garden.

Discontentment comes when I look over the fence:

“Hey—wait a minute! Look at their lawn! Look at their life! Look at their garden! I’m working harder than them—I’m putting in as much or more energy—and it looks like we’re getting the same thing.”

Or sometimes during a hard season when things aren’t working, when money is tight, when our family is struggling, when disaster strikes, the grass really looks greener over there. And they’re not putting in any of the sweat and energy and effort that we are! But if there’s anything that Jesus teaches us—through his teachings, through his life—it’s this:

God isn’t paying us for what we do.

In the story, nobody is getting paid for what they contributed. God is just crazy with his gifts. He’s irresponsibly generous with his goodness. Nobody is getting paid for what they contribute. Sometimes envelopes of cash come to the people barely showing up at all. And the story is about true life—real life—life under the reign of God (v1). Nobody is getting paid for what they contributed. Nobody is getting back the energy they put in.

In this story, the landowner wants workers, sure. But he also seems to want to make sure that everyone goes home with gold. You barely have to agree to anything, and he’s giving you everything. And that has one of two effects: It fills us with either envy or ecstasy. It either maddens us or makes us marvel.

Jesus tells us what this story is about. Right after he finishes the story he says:

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20v16

And right before he told the story—literally right before—Jesus had said:

But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Matthew 19v30

That’s what the story is about. By the end of this story, the only workers who are miserable are those who were there first. And those who were last—who hadn’t been included—who nobody had hired—who barely showed up at all—are flying high. Those people are ecstatic. I think the primary difference between these two groups is one group trusts the work of their own hands and the other group trusts the landowner’s hands.

The life of an easy yoke—the life of light burden—the life that gives our souls rest—is ultimately a question of whose hands we trust most deeply. The question is this:

Whose hands do we trust?

Do we believe that our lives hinge on what our hands can do? That our world, our security, our very existence—it all comes down to what we can do. I think we believe this most of the time. And so our hands are clenched from work—working spreadsheets, wiping diapers, hammering away at our career.

We say: “Look at what I’ve done, built, achieved, earned. Look at me—I’m getting closer to first.” But all the time our hands are clenched. Our lives are exhausted. Our souls are weary. We’re so exhausted from trying to hold it all together, trying to earn our place, trying to justify our existence.

Being first is a crushing burden. Our lives are weary because we trust our hands to make us first. Are there ways in which you’re angry or exhausted or confused. And really, at the heart of it, you’re frustrated at the landowner. Your hands—your energy, your effort—just can’t get you where you want to be. (And we all want to be in first.) And then we become distant from others—envious of others—angry with others—because we trust our own hands and we want to be first.

What might it look like—in your family, in that relationship, in your hours of work—what might it look like to listen to Jesus? Because Jesus is inviting us into something different. Into a new kind of life. The life of heaven. Jesus invites us into a life where our hands aren’t clenched—where our hands are open. Where we’re learning to receive—just receive—everything: our lives, our families, our health, this next breath, everything for what it really is. A gift.

Can you imagine a life where you don’t have to be first? Where you don’t have to secure your life. Where you don’t have to earn a thing. Where you don’t have to justify your existence. That’s what Jesus invites us into. The life where we trust the merciful hands of God to give us good gifts. 

We can give up on being “first”—and what a blessed relief! Not being first is actually an incredible gift. If we’re not in first, we don’t have to stay in first. Imagine a life where we’re not trying using our hands to be first. “Last”—now there’s the place to be. “Last” is a gift. “Last” is the place where we can forget about ourselves and actually be with other people. I mean, all of us want to be first but it’s the loneliest place in the world.

But when we loosen our death-grip on being first, we’re suddenly free to be with others. We can celebrate that the grass is greener over there, and their garden is growing, and their family is healthy, and their lives are beautiful. What God gives someone else doesn’t take away from what God gives me. This is all a miracle. The landowner is irresponsibly generous—isn’t it wonderful?

And “last” just happens to be—this is the gospel, by the way—“last” just happens to be where we find the meaning of life. Where we find God himself.

The gospel is never interested in us being in first; the gospel is interested in us being fully alive. And there’s a huge difference. Jesus himself—God in flesh—the human being most fully alive—says that he is gentle and humble in heart. God is always serving all of us—giving himself to all of us, getting beneath all of us. That’s what God is like: God makes himself dead last. That’s why we worship him… why we make him first.

That’s what we celebrate at this table. As we come to the table this morning, as see a bit of cracker and some juice—as we remember God himself giving us his body and blood—may we recognize that God himself makes himself last so that we might live. That’s how irresponsibly generous God is. He doesn’t give us wages… what we earn. God is always sharing the mystery of his life with us as a gift.

God shows us what true life looks like. It looks like forgetting yourself and winding up forever alive. It looks like last place giving to others and winding up forever happy with others. That’s the way the life of God always is. That’s the way the life of heaven always is.

So may we find rest for our souls as we learn to follow Jesus. May we be freed from the burden of chasing first. May we find the true happiness of joining God in his irresponsible goodness. May we open our weary hands and learn to trust that the landowner is crazy with his goodness… and will never stop giving.

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