From the day after Christmas until New Year’s day, five of us from SAM were in St. Louis for Urbana, a missions conference held every three years by Intervarsity.
We rubbed shoulders with over 10,000 college students, high schoolers, thousands of additional Intervarsity staff, and thousands more representatives of missions organizations and seminaries around the world. The five of us attended sessions and seminars, and staffed a booth where we met with individuals interested in serving overseas in South America.
Though there was no shortage of big-name speakers and challenging teaching, what spoke most deeply to me came from our morning Bible study in the book of Matthew.
One morning, a few of us from the SAM Urbana team met to study Matthew 20:1-16, a parable Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses a parable not to be cryptic, but because the reality of heaven is so beyond our comprehension that we can only understand even the smallest facets of his Kingdom by comparing it to something we already know.
In this parable Jesus tells of a landowner who goes early to town to hire workers for his vineyard. They agree upon a salary and get to work. A few hours later, the landowner sees more workers milling about, and offers them a job in his vineyard. He does this two more times during the afternoon. Towards the end of the workday, the landowner goes into town once more and, seeing yet more empty-handed workers, he offers them a job in the vineyard as well.
At the end of the day, the vineyard owner goes to pay his workers. He tells his foreman to first pay those hired last, and each worker gets his wages. The catch is that all the workers are paid the same—the rate agreed upon by those hired first. The ones who worked all day are understandably indignant, but the landowner gently reminds them that they had already agreed on their pay, and that it is his own choice to pay the other workers generously.
Usually I identify with the first workers. After all, I have been a Christian since birth. Surely that counts as an “early in the day commitment.” Those who live life without God, coming to the Lord late in life are the late workers. But today the story read a little differently.
Urbana Director Tom Lin, our opening speaker, encouraged us to stop thinking about how to tell our own story, encouraging us to participate telling God’s Story. This Urbana centered around the question, “Whose story will you tell?” If we take up the Great Story as we read this passage, could this parable not be greater than my own puny fable? Greater than the span of one lifetime?
What if we read the parable of the workers within the context of church history?
I am the late worker. I have come to the field in the cool of the evening to put away tools and help carry bunches of grapes and bundles of weeds laboriously cut by those who worked since dawn. I did not choose the tools of the Biblical Cannon or sharpen the knives of reformation and doctrine. I did not cultivate swaths of land untouched by the gospel. Perhaps I have laid a hand to the few remaining patches or gleaned those few fruits left behind. But I certainly have not risen before dawn and missed the comfort of bed and meals. I have not labored in the heat of persecution, and any sweat marking my brow is from shaking off the lethargy and ease of the morning. I only lend the smallest aid and take part in completing what began long before me.
Yet in my small perspective I like to think that I am an early worker. I like to suppose that I deserve a full day’s pay, looking with condescension on those late workers arriving a step behind me.
But we share more than simple chronological similarity with the late workers. We share the attitude. We spend our extended youth and adulthood waiting for a personal invitation from the landowner, unwilling to step forward with the other groups, or finally “ready” to work long after the true start of the workday. The landowner stands calling workers, but we assume he is talking to someone else. The landowner stands calling workers, but we wait in uncertainty for a personal address and a more appealing offer.
“I’d go Jesus, just make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is me you are calling and not the guy standing next to me. Make me an offer I cannot resist.”
At Urbana, OMF Director Patrick Fung recounted to us how Jesus invited Matthew to leave everything, including a wildly lucrative business and “Come, follow me”. He observed that as terrifying as it would have been to obey the call, it would be much more terrifying to sit in uncertainty as the Son of the Living God turns to walk away.
“Make me an offer I cannot resist, Jesus, then I’ll know you have truly invited me to work in your harvest.”
Christ has called us. The landowner is calling all workers to the field. Are you listening? Will you choose as Matthew did to follow the one who calls us into storm and glory, or will you risk waiting too long and being left in the dust.
Never is it too late. Even late in the day workers are embraced and given their wage. You are not guaranteed a personal call. You are not guaranteed ease and comfort. But you are guaranteed the company of the author and finisher of The Great Story.