I love being a baseball and softball mom. Every weeknight this past summer, you could find us setting up camp at a game. As crazy as it made the month of June, I loved watching my kids out on the field. Our oldest son Camden was in coach pitch this year, which meant their tournament was in the middle of the season. I use the word “tournament” rather loosely because they don’t keep score (nor did they all season) and no one wins. At the end of their second game, each player on every team gets a participation medal. No matter how many outs or runs, whether they stopped a ball or played in the dirt, they got a medal.
This idea of participation medals can be a bit controversial. In our house, we try to teach our kids that they must work for what they get. Sometimes, they get special things just because, but overall, we try to teach them that hard work produces results, not just showing up. The whole concept of participation medals sort of goes against that idea. This topic can stir up a whole mess of arguing, comments, and criticisms from both sides. That’s not really what I’m going for though. You see, when I read Matthew 20, it gave me a whole new perspective on the participation medal.
In it, Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who needed workers for the day. At 9:00, he went into the marketplace and hired several men. Then at noon, he saw more men in the marketplace without work, so he hired them. At 3:00, he did the same. Even at 5:00, he noticed more people standing around, so he hired them, too. The first group of workers had already been in the vineyard for eight hours when he hired the last. As the workday came to a close, the vineyard owner brought the men back to pay them, beginning with the last to go out (the five o’clockers). He gave them each a denarius which was the common pay for a day’s work. Now remember, these men worked eight hours less than the first group of workers, yet they were paid first and given an entire day’s worth of wages. The nine o’clockers were probably standing in the back of the line grinning from ear-to-ear thinking they were likely to earn double that. However, when they went to receive their earnings, they, too, were presented with 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.’ 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 20:11-15).
Now, I have to admit, my “you work for what you get” attitude kicks in, and I have to agree with the men who worked all day. I kind of want to join in with the whine of “it’s not fair.” After a little more thought (and a review of the study notes in my Bible), I see what Jesus is saying. Whether those men worked all day or all of one hour, they got a participation medal. This parable isn’t about the work or the wages, or even the vineyard. Instead it’s about making a decision for Christ. The believer who was saved as a child at summer Bible camp and the 60-year-old man who committed to Christ and believed for the first time on his deathbed get the same participation medal – eternal life with their Savior. I may not be a Bible scholar, but I love studying and reading God’s word. I have not found any evidence that the longer or harder we work “earns” us eternal life. In fact, we aren’t even capable of earning it on our own. It is a free gift given to us, a participation medal hung around our necks the moment we accept Christ as our Savior. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). We don’t earn this medal. No matter how awesome we play or how many points we score here on earth, we cannot earn heaven. As Paul explains in Ephesians 2:8-9, it is “not from ourselves,” “not by works,” “it is a gift from God.”
Though heaven is not a medal that we earn, we do have to make a choice; we have to choose to participate. We have to choose to play on God’s team. How do you accept this gift of salvation? How do you choose to participate? You believe. It really is that simple. All through the New Testament we see God’s truth revealed that when you believe, you are saved. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Romans 10:9-10). Friends, claim your participation medal today. Admit that you are a sinner, in need of a savior. Believe that Jesus is God’s son who died on the cross and accept that His death, a free gift, is enough to pay for your sins. Then, confess. Tell the world, show the world that you are a follower of Jesus Christ. When we accept Jesus as our personal Savior and submit to God’s will, we can live as saved children of the King. Children with the most beautiful participation medal ever awarded.
Father, I know that I am a sinner; I prove it on a daily basis. I know that I am utterly undeserving of your love and forgiveness. But I also know that you willingly sent your Son to the cross, so that I might be redeemed. Thank you for the free gift of salvation. Help me to hang on to the truth in your word that eternal life with You is not something I have to earn. Lord, I claim my participation medal today. I pray that the Holy Spirit will give me courage to share my story and Your love with the world. Let there be no doubt that I have chosen Your team and live for You.