TITLE: Everybody Wins SCRIPTURE: Matthew 20:1-16
The parable is offensive to us; it challenges our sense of justice. In a vivid and even abrasive story, the radical and offensive nature of grace is depicted, inevitably leaving the reader with the questions, Was the owner really fair? Don't the laborers who worked all day have a legitimate beef?
This parable is similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son/ Elder Brother (Luke 15).
In both parables, the grace shown to the undeserving person offends those who think of themselves as deserving. However, the prodigal son is so engaging that he steals our hearts. When we read that parable, we are glad for the mercy shown to the returned prodigal and are offended at the elder brother's outrage.
Not so with the Parable of the Workers. We share the offense of the all-day workers.
Divine grace is a great equalizer which rips away presumed privilege and puts all recipients on the same level. We don't want to be on the same level. We want to be on top! We don't want mercy (what God gives freely) but justice (what we have earned) PLUS mercy.
This parable starts wonderfully well. A landowner goes out early in the morning to find laborers for his vineyard (v. 1). Even though he has a manager (vs. 8), he goes personally to the marketplace. He hires those who are available for work after securing their agreement to a fair wage (a denarius), and they go to work (v. 2).
As the day progresses, the landowner, makes four additional trips to the marketplace to hire workers. He makes his second trip at nine o'clock. He makes additional trips at the sixth and ninth hours (noon and 3:00 p.m.), and makes his final trip at the eleventh hour (5:00 p.m.).
Those hired early have a clear contract. They are to be paid a denarius, the usual wage for a day's work (v. 2). For those hired at nine o'clock, noon and three o'clock, the landowner promises only to pay what is right (v. 4). For those hired at five o'clock, there is no mention of money (v. 7).
"When evening came" (v. 8). The Torah (Lev. 19:13 and Deut. 24:15) requires that the laborer be paid at the end of the day.
"Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first" (v. 8). Jesus has said that the last will be first (19:30) and will say it again (20:16). Here, in this parable, we see it happen.
The last are given a denarius, a full day's wages, even though they worked only one hour. We hear no complaint from the other workers. They smell generosity, and can hardly wait to see their paycheck.
Jesus makes no mention of the wages received by those hired at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m., but presumably each receives a denarius. If so, they all enjoy a bonus, but note, the bonus becomes progressively smaller as the manager moves to the earlier groups.
"Now when the first came" (v. 10), the all-day workers also receive a denarius, one day's wages exactly as contracted with no bonus added. At that point, they complain (vv. 11-12).
Their complaint is not that they should receive more money but that "you have made (the latecomers) equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat" (v. 12). The early risers competed hard in a competitive world, and expected to end up ahead of those who didn't. They got in line early and worked through the heat of the day, and are upset to find themselves lumped in with the five o'clock scum. "They say, It's not fair!" We agree!
The parable is upsetting because its purpose is to challenge and reverse conventional values, including the sense of justice and fairness among Matthew's religious readership, and this is one reason why Matthew chooses to preserve it and insert it here.
The religious elite (including Peter and the rest of the Twelve ) must learn that ordinary disciples will also receive a full measure of grace. They must also understand themselves as recipients of grace rather than as workers who have earned a great reward. Human kind is expected to give them-selves over unreservedly to God's will, and God on his part lavishes grace on us to a degree that cannot be merited.
But how hard the doctrine of merit dies! How proud we are of our 'works'! How blindly we offer our legalities in protest against God's free grace! How loveless we are toward the sinner!
But perhaps Jesus' story is fairer than it seems at first glance. Is it really such a great coup to be hired late rather than early -- to spend the greatest part of a day, or a life, waiting fruitlessly?
Is even laboring during the heat of the day, or bearing a scorching wind..., really worse than having one's hopes of a meal fade with every degree the sun descends in the sky? If you have ever spent days in a labor hall waiting for your name to be called, you know how soul-killing it can be. Better to sweat in the hot sun all day!
And so we must ask whether it is better to live most of one's life without Christ -- without faith -- without prayer -- without hope -- and to pay the cost of discipleship only in one's last days?
To imagine that those who find Christ on their deathbed have struck a better "deal" suggests that we do not really value our relationship to Christ -- that we value the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow rather than the joy of knowing Jesus.
Such discipleship is like valuing great art only for its price tag -- failing to appreciate the way that it enriches life! The person with that attitude lives a shrunken life!
A part of our problem in accepting the grace of this parable stems from our experience in a world where scarcity prevails. While it might be possible to insure that everyone can enjoy a daily bowl of rice, it is not possible to give everyone a luxury car -- or a waterfront home. At some point life is a zero-sum game. There is only so much waterfront land, and you and I cannot own the same waterfront lot. Either it is mine or it is yours.
Knowing that some of our desires will go unmet, it is difficult for us (1) to rejoice at our neighbor's good fortune and (2) to shift from this-world-thinking to kingdom-thinking.
But Jesus has just said, "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life" (19:29). The ultimate reward of faithful discipleship is eternal life and of that there is no scarcity.
The kingdom of heaven is not a zero-sum game. When Jesus offers eternal life to the less deserving, he takes nothing from the more deserving. In God's kingdom, we can all have "a mansion just over the hilltop," as the old song says. There is no need for spiritual competition, because our reward is as good as it can possibly get. That is a hard lesson for competitive people to learn.
"Friend, I am doing you no wrong" (v. 13). The landowner calls the complainers "Friend." While they might be ungrateful, he does not call them ingrates. He has shown grace to latecomers, and now he shows grace to those who came early as well.
They contracted for the usual wage, and received exactly that. The landowner has not shortchanged them, but has paid them fully in accordance with their agreement.
"Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you" (v. 14). There is no harsh judgment here -- only grace. The landowner does not punish the early workers for complaining, but acknowledges that the denarius that they received is their property. They are free to take it and leave.
What they are not free to do is to dictate what the landowner will do with the rest of his money. If he chooses to be especially generous to the eleventh hour workers, he will do so -- and he does.
Then the landowner asks, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (v. 15). These two questions go to the heart of this parable. The answers are obvious.
First, the landowner is clearly allowed to do what he wants with his money.
Second, the all-day workers are envious. They paid the price to get ahead. They got up at the crack of dawn and worked through the heat of the day, but the landowner refused to acknowledge their diligence by elevating them above the latecomers. They were playing by the world's rules, but the landowner was playing by kingdom rules. It's not FAIR! That was Jonah's complaint -- and the elder brother's -- and the Pharisees.
It's not FAIR! That is our complaint too. We, too, want to bargain with God -- to tell God what we need -- to negotiate a favorable deal. If you don't believe that, examine the content of your prayers. By spelling out details, we hope to persuade God to give us what we want. However, while bargaining with God, we short-circuit God's grace, so that we only get what we bargain for. We live by trying to strike merit-pay bargains with God, ...and in the dealings... we prevent the richness of God's grace.
Suddenly we see plainly the true poverty of the first-hour workers. Everybody in the parable is tendered with the wealth of the kingdom.... (but) there these first-hour workers stand, drenched in God's mercy, an ocean of peace running down their faces, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more. If we look carefully, we might see our own faces in that unhappy little crowd.
We are fools if we appeal to God for justice rather than grace, for in that case we'd all be damned.
Jesus ends the parable as he began it. This is the Grand Reversal. Lasts become firsts by grace; firsts become lasts by arrogance.