The Workers in the Vineyard

Scriptures: Psalm 105; Matthew 20:1-16

As we continue our series on the parables of Jesus, this week I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that either I’m really talented at picking the tough ones … or maybe they’re just all tough. That’s why they teach.

As we listened to the liturgist read that parable this morning, it’s hard not to sympathize with the guys hired at the first hour. In fact, we feel for them. We can almost hear their complaint echoing in our own minds.

To our American ways of thinking, it doesn’t seem fair. It strikes against our sense of equal pay for equal work. If modern unions had existed in ancient Israel, there probably would have been protests. There might even have been a strike called against the landowner, and none of the grapes would have been harvested in time.

This parable rubs us the wrong way. I’ve even heard Christians say this parable offends them. Listen to what four different Bible scholars, writing in four different centuries, have to say about this parable. One commentator from the 19th century wrote: “This parable is harder to interpret than any other which our Savior uttered.” Another from the 16th century says, “We are confronted here with the most puzzling of all the parables.”

A third, from the last century, writes that this parable “irritates the modern listener because it goes against sound human logic.” And most recently in 2001, a fourth writer says this parable, “more than any other, is likely to offend the modern readers’ sense of equity.”

We struggle with this parable and its interpretation. What we have problems dealing with, even though we acknowledge it with our mouths, is that God is sovereign. God can do as He wills, and it is right. His perfect wisdom and knowledge preclude error.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of the difference between justice, mercy, and grace. If you remember, I said justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace it getting benefits or blessings you don’t deserve.

Given the definition of justice as getting what you deserve, let me suggest to you that mercy and grace are “non-just,” but they are not “unjust.” Let me say that again. If justice is getting what you deserve, if you don’t get what you deserve, then that’s “non-just.” If you get blessings that you don’t deserve, then that’s “non-just.” But it’s not unjust.

When God demonstrates grace or mercy, He does not act in a way we define as just, but He does not act wrongly either. In fact, 1 John 1:9 speaks of God showing justice by forgiving us, which certainly involves both grace and mercy. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

So there is nothing evil about God giving grace and forgiveness to sinners who do not deserve it. That would be you and me. There is also nothing evil or wrong about God giving just punishment to sinners who deserve it. That would also be you and me, if God hadn’t extended grace. And it is confusing.

A pastor named Dan Raymond said the following, and though I know I have heard it before elsewhere, he said it so well I am going to quote him:

This parable is not an isolated incident. The gospels are filled with stories where the expected order of things is tossed aside, the unlikely is embraced, the unexpected happens and things just don’t seem to add up. From our way of accounting, God seems really bad at math. Why would you ever pay the guy who works 1 hour the same as the guy who works all day? When does it make sense to leave 99 sheep to save only 1? How do you justify spending your retirement nest egg to wash someone’s feet? Since when does two cents amount to more than thousands of dollars?

These are the scandalous mathematics of grace. This isn’t economics. This is kingdomnomics. It’s not what we deserve, but it is what we need. It’s not 2+2=4. When God is your X-factor, then me plus you times X equals more than you can ask or imagine. In kingdomnomics, God dispenses gifts, not wages. In kingdomnomics, value is not measured by what you deserve, but by how much you are given. In kingdomnomics, heart counts more than the so-called bottom line. In kingdomnomics, even one is worth everything. In kingdomnomics giving up everything is the way to win it all.

I want to set a little context for our parable today that I found interesting and may help us. It’s preceded by the story of the rich young ruler, a guy who had it all. He did everything the way you are supposed to do. He honored his parents, he observed the Law, he gave to the church, and everyone thought he was just one heck of a guy.

But Jesus – who had compassion on him and loved him, by the way – saw his secret sin. That sin, at its most basic level, was greed. He was owned by his stuff, rather than him owning his stuff. After the young man left, Jesus warned his disciples about the temptation of wealth. Only with God’s power can people be saved.

He finishes chapter 19 with this little phrase: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Does that sound familiar? That’s also at the end of this parable. “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” This phrase becomes a “bookend” for the parable he tells.

I suggest that this phrase being used as a bookend this way means that it must be important, that somehow “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” is portrayed through this parable.

You know, for centuries, this parable has been called the parable of the workers in the vineyard. I labeled it that way in my sermon title. It was that way in the title of your pew Bibles. But it would be more accurate to call it the parable of the generous landowner.

Jesus isn’t teaching a lesson on economics. This isn’t about fair labor practices. This is all about the generosity and goodness of the landowner. Ultimately, ir’ about the generosity and grace of God.

Despite the offense taken by the first hour workers, they were paid a just and sufficient amount. It was the commonly accepted wage. It was the wage for which they had agreed to work, and it was a sufficient wage to supply their needs and provide for their families for that day. He paid them what they needed to be paid.

However, he also gave the other workers what they needed as well. Not what they deserved, but what they needed. Anything less, and they would not have been able to feed their families. Imagine the guy hired at the last hour, trying to make do with only one twelfth of the daily wage. You don’t buy a lot of bread with a nickel these days. The landowner, because he was so generous, gave him what he needed.

This parable challenges us in a number of ways, and thus has meaning for us even today. The first seems to me to be obvious. Are you grateful for God’s mercy shown you in your salvation? Again, our automatic response is most likely “Of course!”; but do we really, when we examine ourselves honestly, take it for granted, or feel we in some way deserve it, because we have been faithful? Faithful in church, faithful in participation, faithful in our devotions.

The second challenge is: Are you working for God, and why? God is calling us to serve, no matter what stage of the day it is for us, or how close it is to the Day of the Lord, that final day of judgment when Christ comes again. Do we serve?

If so, do we do it grudgingly, out of fear or resignation, or do we compare ourselves with others and somehow judge whether we are better because of our service, feeling complacent? Do we do it to please others so we will be liked or respected (at least that’s what we think), or simply to please God because we are so grateful for both His mercy and His gracious blessings? Why do you serve?

A third challenge (and again, this phrasing was worded by another pastor, but was so apropos I decided to use it): “Are you living your life in such a way to be first in this life, or the next”? It is a question that must be asked, since Jesus makes the same point right before and right after the parable.

Somehow this is a focus of the parable. It goes along with challenge number two, but is slightly different in its implications. Number two deals with motivation, number three with communication. Does your life communicate the kind of message you want it to?

Does our very human desire to be comfortable here, and in power, and “first,” bleed through and show in how we live our life? Or is the Spirit’s presence and humble heart leading us to be other-centered, serving them here, and gaining crowns in heaven?

The fourth challenge of this parable (and I believe that this goes with number one in the same way that three goes with two): Are you envious of the grace shown to others? Do you feel that you should have gotten some blessing that others receive?

Not that you wish they didn’t get it, but why couldn’t you have had it as well? Or, “it isn’t fair that they got it and I didn’t.” Remember, neither life nor mercy are “fair.” And when we are jealous of others’ blessings, it blinds us to our own.

We look at other people and gauge what their blessings are, and the more unreasonable it seems, the harder it is. For example, if someone who is on death row for killing one or more people converts to Christ and they are saved and we read that they’re going to go to heaven, and we have been raised in the church and we have kept ourselves from all kinds of evil and wickedness, and we see them blessed by peace and joy, then we’re in turmoil. Are we jealous, feeling that we deserve that same peace? That we at least deserve that blessing.

So what do we do about it? Because when we do that, when we focus on them, we have become blind to what God is currently blessing us with. Well, it may be simple. but that doesn’t make it easy. It may be obvious, but that doesn’t make it clear. Still, let me suggest some traditional yet practical ways that we can work with the challenges of this parable today.

The first thing is we must truly accept God’s sovereignty. He owns the vineyard; He decides who works, where and when. After all, it is His plan. The rewards are His to give out, and we must focus on our own need of His mercy and be thankful for His grace to us.

Don’t worry about what others get. Try to see where God is calling you to work today, and what opportunities He has for you and me. If we see them and move on them, then God will provide us what we need to accomplish them, even as the vineyard owner supplied what the men who worked needed for their families.

In God’s Kingdom, life does not always appear to be fair, and we can actually be thankful that what God values is different from what the world values. God’s values is the reason why we can crucify God’s Son and be forgiven, why we can rebel against God, spitting in His face, and be forgiven, and why a thief or a murderer can confess in the final moment of their life and be forgiven.

We can thank God that His kingdom is run on grace, and that we are saved by grace and not by anything that we can do. The last words of Jesus on the cross were “it is finished.” All that ever needed to be done to pay the penalty for man’s sin and to purchase pardon and salvation for all men has already been accomplished by the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You just need to accept his sacrifice, believe in his resurrection, and take him as your personal Lord and Savior. Make him the owner of your life.

In God’s economy (or “kingdomnomics”), relationship replaces work, and His generous provisions replaced wages. His unmerited grace overrules all. Likewise, we need to focus on relationships, and not just work. It is not that the work is unimportant. Through this parable, God honors work and the desire of people to provide for others, without a doubt. But the greater part of the serving should be the building of relationships.

Whether serving in the food pantry or the Clothes Depot or with Journey or with some of the other outreaches we have, such as reading to the kids (that one especially, I think), you need to focus beyond the task at hand, on the people you serve. Be open to making connections, which can lead to relationships with those who come in.

Ultimately, it is those relationships that reflect God’s love and care that will lead to rewards, rewards that I believe happen in this life as well as the next. If we are a part of God’s economy, we also need to show grace. Forgiveness isn’t what comes naturally to us; mercy isn’t the way to get ahead in the world’s systems. We need to make a conscious, constant effort to trust in the Holy Spirit and His power and provision for us, and use that to accomplish what isn’t natural and worldly.

When we do this, when we show that grace, when we’re able to forgive, when we can have that generosity, we show the same character that God does as the owner in the vineyard. And we witness to the same grace and love that we have received, being faithful in reflecting the image of God within us. That in turn fulfills God’s call for us, and brings Him glory and praise.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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