Text: Matthew 20:1-16 (Liturgist Text: Ex. 16:2-15)
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to recognize, embrace and share God’s generous grace.
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“God is so good; God is so good; God is so good, is so good to me.”
This gem of a song captures the simple truth of the parable which we just read. In the same way that the landowner gave generously to those who arrived late at the working site, so God generously gives life to all who receive it. It is a truth expressed many ways throughout scripture. As long as breath endures, the opportunity of ‘coming alive in God’ remains fresh and available. As wave upon wave washes the shore, grace upon grace washes the soul. Whether we trust in Christ from our cradle or deathbed, we receive the gift eternal life. The assurance that it is never too late to repent and be forgiven is a cause for celebration.
Why, then, do I not feel like celebrating? I confess that I feel a bit uncomfortable when I read this parable. There is something about it that goes against the grain of my self-reliant sense of what is fair. No matter how much Jesus insists that the landowner was charitable in his dealings with the workers, his behavior feels unfair to me.
Let’s look at the story together. An estate manager is responsible for the harvest of a vineyard. It is likely that the grapes would have been harvested in September. The period from sunrise to sunset in Israel during this period, so I am told, is approximately 6 am to 6 pm. Typically, day laborers worked ten-hour days excluding rest periods.
Apparently, the manager wants the grapes harvested on a single day, for he goes to the Marketplace in search of help no less than five times on the same day. Perhaps the Sabbath is coming, and he wants to be sure the grapes are picked at the optimal time. If ripe grapes are left on the vine too long, the sugar content will be too high for the creation of vintage wine.
Whatever the reason for the manager’s multiple trips to the employment agency, he hires workers at approximately 6 am, 9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm and 5 pm, the eleventh hour by Jewish reckoning, and one hour before quitting time. The manager and the early morning employees agree that a denarius will their wage for the day’s work. Those who are hired later trust in the manager’s integrity to pay them a fair wage for the time they serve.
By day’s end, the foreman gives a full denarius to each who began working at 5 pm, one hour before quitting time. He pays the other workers as well, ending with the early morning working crew. They expect a bonus of some kind, because they worked so much longer that the late-hires. However, they, too, receive a single denarius for their full day’s labor.
Now, if I was one of the workers hired at 5 pm, I would indeed celebrate the manager’s generosity! But if I was one of the workers who began at 6 am, I would be hard-pressed to celebrate, because none of his generosity was extended to me, save perhaps the single fact that I had been hired in the first place. We celebrate when we receive a Christmas bonus—not when we receive our customary paycheck!
We want to argue with the manager, with Jesus, with the Bible. We believe in ‘equal pay for equal work.’ Everyone knows the early bird gets the worm, not the ‘johnny-come-latelys!’ We are frustrated that God might think otherwise. Why would God be generous to some and not to others?
In response to that question, I might point out that the manager is under no obligation to hire any of the workers at all. He could have found help elsewhere. Apart from the manager’s grace, the early morning hires might have waited all day without gainful employment. And who can deny that the needs of those hired last were any less than the needs of those hired first? Do they not have families to support as well?
When I was five, I felt God’s call on my life. By the age of six, my goal of pastoral ministry was in place. I tried to do everything right. You know as well as I that I did not achieve my goal, but for a time, I impressed myself if not God. I believed I was a good Christian, a hardworker and a loving person, most of the time. I expected God to bless me for my efforts. I thought God should reward me for my faithfulness, and inwardly resented others when they seemed to have been given bigger and better gifts than me.
I resented those who had an instinct for prayer and Bible study when I had to work at it. It frustrated me to see how musically talented some kids could be after a few months of practice when I slaved for years to be half-as-good. I envied those with self confidence who could teach, preach or heal with ease. I wanted to be a preacher; why wouldn’t God give those gifts to me? I was an early morning worker in God’s vineyard who couldn’t stand to see eleventh-hour hires receive as much or more than I had—until one day, that all changed.
I woke up one day, while a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, looked honestly in my mirror of self and saw the stark hypocrisy of my life. I confronted my judgmental attitudes, my prideful sense of privilege and my selfish motives. It occurred to me that I had been working in a vineyard, but it wasn’t God’s vineyard. It was one of my own making for the purposes of self-glory. For the first time in my life, I realized I was an eleventh-hour seeker myself, hoping God would be merciful. Would God give me a new start? Would God redeem my life, broken as it was? I would not be here, of course, if the answer had been no.
When Jesus said the last will be first, and the first last, he was challenging our understanding of the way God works. In the kingdom of God, repentant sinners do not get what they deserve. They receive grace, prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, which renders them whole, first in the heart of God. Those of us who try to do it ourselves—pretending we aren’t in desperate need of God’s help—find ourselves the tail and not the head. It takes spiritual bankruptcy to awaken our senses to God’s way of doing things. How do we respond when God says to us, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own resources? Or are you envious because I am generous?”