The Prize Independent of Performance

By J. Randal Matheny, editor


The Olympic Games have begun. Watching the athletes compete in the various sports excites people around the world.

The athletes are judged and awarded medals according to their performance. The games work by this principle applied to most areas of life.

In a section of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus shows that the kingdom of God doesn’t work this way.

Between a pair of declarations that form a frame around the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus proclaims that he has turned the world’s principles on their head.

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30 NET).

“So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:16).

1. Salvation by grace is for all.

In this parable, nobody wins a gold medal. Everyone receives equally.

By Jesus’ use of the vineyard figure, the Jews understood immediately, from the pronouncements of the Old Testament prophets, that Jesus spoke of the people of God. He was talking about them.

Jesus’ basic message proclaims that the Gentiles can enter the kingdom as well as the Jews. He chooses to be “generous” toward all, calling other peoples into his “vineyard” to become a part of his family.

The Jews guarded their place as God’s people with intense zeal. But God had other ideas about the make-up of this people. He wanted to include all. The invitation would be extended to all.

God has flung open the doors for every tribe, nation and people to enter, those who are willing to obey his will and follow Jesus Christ. As vineyard workers, in that field which is the world, we must deliver in the hands of all the invitation to enter with us into eternal bliss.

Also, no one can complain that they are not being awarded a prize according to their performance. What matters is not the level of production nor length of service, but participation in the kingdom, the acceptance of the invitation to be a part of God’s people.

2. No such thing as length of service in the Kingdom.

The point above reminds us of another truth: no one deserves a medal for length of service. Can’t you just imagine an athlete asking for a medal for having participated in more Olympic Games?

Reaching a greater level of maturity deserves praise. The examples of those older and wiser in the faith inspire us. The Christian walk over the years brings wonderful experiences from which we can benefit greatly.

But nobody deserves special recognition in the kingdom for having more years under his belt since his baptism, or for having baptized more people, or for having attended more church services or gospel meetings.

The Jews were called first to the kingdom of God, but because of their rejection of the Messiah, came in last (meaning, left behind, left outside). What matters for the eternal reward are not dates and numbers, but the willingness to submit to the Lord.

3. The Lord is just.

The main issue of the parable seems to be the justice of God (v. 13). The world is unjust, and we should expect it to be so. But, to borrow the words of Abraham, the Judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25).

When the Lord acts with generosity and goodness (v. 15), we should not get jealous. We should rejoice that he wants to bless all. We should give thanks to him for having been included in the kingdom as those who started after noon. We should work with him so that others may enter after us. We should gladly receive our reward and celebrate those who receive the same.

Bottom line

Labor unions wouldn’t like this principle, but those who seek the face of God rejoice that he doesn’t award the prize based on performance.

Obedience is essential, but it still qualifies as the accepting “yes” to the Lord’s invitation. As such, everyone can accept, and all can receive the prize.

Different than the Olympics, everybody can win.

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