Matthew 20:1-16 (CEB)
Workers in the vineyard
20 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion,[a] he sent them into his vineyard.
3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Enough Grace to Go Around
I grew up in a family of five kids, and although we grew up with all the basic things we needed, there was one thing that was always scarce. The biggest treat in our household was ding dongs. We loved ding dongs. But my parents would only spring for one box of our beloved chocolatey treat with every grocery store trip. And it just seemed like there was never enough to go around. In fact, it seemed like as soon as my mom bought them they would be gone. Well, it turns out – that was true. As soon as my mom bought a box of ding dongs they were gone, because one of my brothers stole the whole box and hid them in his room. He was hoarding them for himself.
Sometimes, we operate from an attitude of scarcity – where we feel that there is just not enough to go around. It’s because we live in a world where scarcity prevails. Someone wins and someone loses. Either it is mine or yours. Only one person can get the job. Only one person can win the election. And so knowing that we can’t have all the things we want or even need, it causes us to grumble instead of rejoice at our neighbor’s good fortune. We become jealous. We want justice. We have rights. And our motto becomes, “that is just not fair.”
But the kingdom of God operates in ways that are very different from the world. And that is exactly what Jesus is teaching his disciples in this parable about the workers in the vineyard. You see Jesus is sensing some unhealthy ambition in the disciples. If you read chapters 19 and 20 of Matthew you will read some things about the disciples that are pretty unflattering – you will see them seeking positions of authority and asking Jesus what they will gain from following him.
And so let me paint the picture of the vineyard for you again.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early one morning to hire some workers for the vineyard. There is a lot of work to do in the vineyard, and he hires a few workers early in the morning and agrees to pay them a denarion. Now a denarion is a small silver Roman coin equal to a day’s wages for an ordinary worker, so let’s just say maybe $100 today. And so these workers go out and work all day. It’s hot. The work is hard and by the end of the day they are worn out, and they are ready to get paid and go home. But during the day the landowner had decided he needed a few more workers, and he goes back to the marketplace and hires some more workers telling them not to worry he will pay them what is fair. More people are hired throughout the day and some work longer and harder than others. But get this. The landowner tells the manager to pay the last to be hired first. You get the picture – the ones who have barely worked at all are called up to the front of the line to get their money first.
And you know what happens. The ones who have worked the least get paid the same $100 that the landowner promised you. So imagine if you’ve worked all day – you’re exhausted. You’ve worked your heart out, and now these guys who haven’t even broken a sweat get to go to the front of the line and get the same $100 that you were promised. Well, I’m thinking at this point maybe you wouldn’t begrudge them the $100, because I bet you would be thinking, man if they got $100, I’m going to get a bonus, too. I bet I’m going to get $200! Because I’ve worked a lot longer and done a lot more than they did.
But when the last in the line are finally paid – they get the same $100.
How is that fair? And so they grumbled against the landowner.
Of course they did! And they thought, “We deserve more.” And what they are really saying is, “Those others deserve less.”
Jesus, however, turns selfish ambitions upside down with this story. The landowner says: “Friend I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. Don’t I have the right to do what I want. In my world things are different.”
In my world things are different. In God’s world things are different.
We know that Jesus is telling a parable. It is a story that is meant to give us a deeper meaning – it gives a deeper meaning for how we might come to experience God’s kingdom on this earth and in heaven. And Jesus encourages to think in a whole new way – a way that is contrary to the world view of scarcity that we live in – a viewpoint where there is not enough to go around. But in the kingdom of God, there is always enough to go around. There is more than enough grace for all of the workers in the vineyard.
One writer explains this story in a few short sentences, saying: “Jesus strips away the notion that we must earn our way into heaven. And he strips away the notion that our heavenly rewards will be proportionate to our Christian service. And he strips away the notion that we are competing with other Christian saints for heavenly rewards. He leaves us wholly dependent on the generosity of a merciful God who is eager to surprise us with undeserved blessings and to lavish on us joys that we would never have conceived.”
When I read the story, I put myself in the position of the workers who were hired first – the hard workers, those who deserved a big reward. But I finally realized, that in reality we are the workers who are paid much more than we deserve. When I dug deeper into this scripture and considered the power and majesty of God compared with my flawed and selfish nature, I realized that I am wholly dependent on the generosity of a merciful God, who has and does indeed surprise me with undeserved blessings and lavish on me joys that I would never have conceived. The grace poured out on me is abundant, and I am called to respond.
Not only is Jesus giving his disciples a tough lesson about their heavenly reward, he is giving them a lesson about the abundance of grace that God has available for each of us. Grace is the undeserved and unconditional love that God has for each of God’s children. It’s the kind of love that provides for us in overflowing abundance when we show up at the last minute and don’t deserve it at all. With God there is an unlimited supply of grace—scarcity is not a part of God’s kingdom, and so we have no need to grumble or hoard.
I came here today with a limited amount of ding dongs. In fact, I knew that if a lot of people showed up for church today, somebody wouldn’t get a ding dong. If the whole town had shown up today, somebody would have missed out on the ding dongs. But God is full of grace. God has so much grace that everyone can get some. The people who show up first thing in the morning at the marketplace looking for a job – can get God’s grace. The people who roll out of bed at the end of the day hoping they might get a job can get some of God’s grace. The people who already had jobs in a nice air-conditioned vineyard office can get some of God’s grace. And even the people who don’t have jobs and really don’t care if they work at all can get some of God’s grace. It’s free for the taking, and its supply is unlimited. And it is not dependent on how much we work, how successful we are or how good we are. It doesn’t depend on our race or skin color, it doesn’t depend on our wealth, it doesn’t depend on the age we come to Christ, it doesn’t depend on how many good acts we carry out at the church or how often we come in the door.
Some of us have been in the vineyard working for God for a long time. Some of us came to know Jesus when we were little children. Others of us, not so much.
Some of us are still struggling to find God.
And some come to faith with their last breath on this earth.
And we all end up experiencing life eternal. And yet, let me ask you—if you have known Jesus for a long time, would you have it any other way? What a blessing – what a charmed life it is to live with the joy of the Lord in your daily life. Every single day lived with Jesus is better than not having the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’s presence in your life. Am I right?
And I think those of us who already experience the abundant grace of God — have a responsibility. We are called to soak up God’s abundant grace and to share it with others.
Jesus was full of grace and truth. We see in the life of Jesus the ways that he offered the grace of God to people. In fact, it almost seems like he offered it most often to people like these late coming workers in the vineyard. Jesus offered grace to sinners – to prostitutes and to tax collectors to adulterers and to people considered unclean because they had leprosy. Jesus offered grace to children and to women. Jesus offered grace, unending grace, overwhelming grace. Grace that would make your jaw hit the floor – because it was scandalous and shocking! Jesus loved everyone, and he called his disciples to live in the same shocking way. He called them to put aside ambition and live as servants sharing God’s grace in ways that shocked the world. He called them to give away what they had for others, not to hoard it for themselves.
Jesus is wooing and calling you to come to God – to just open yourself up to the idea that God wants to give out just a little bit of grace to you, too. In fact, I will be so bold this morning as to say that Jesus has a whole lot of grace to pour out on you. But it’s not just because Jesus loves you. It’s also because Jesus loves your neighbor and your enemy, and Jesus wants you to spread some of that grace around through you. Because God’s people are meant to be conduits of God’s grace.
And I promise you, when we open our eyes to this offer of unconditional love that we see lived out in Christ Jesus, it changes everything. Our grumbling and hoarding doesn’t just get on our family’s nerves, our grumbling and hoarding starts to get on our own nerves, and we change. When we realize the love God has poured out on us – even us – the undeserving ones who came at the end of the day, our whole view of our role in the vineyard changes. And we realize that we are only God’s workers, and there is someone else in charge – someone who is good and trustworthy. And the funny thing is when we start to experience this inexhaustible supply of love that God has for even us sinners, we start to see the other workers in the vineyard differently, too – we start to see people differently. We start to see the other workers the same way the landowner did – as equals – as beloved children of God who are all loved so much that we would all get paid what we don’t deserve. In fact, we start to realize that even if we worked all day and got paid the same as the late comer, God still gives us so much more than we deserve. Because when we bring our lives into the presence of this mighty and loving God who pours out this grace in abundance we realize we are not worthy to even be around such a God. And our grumbling is transformed into grace. And hoarding is turned into generosity. Because you see, when we receive God’s grace over and over and over again when we don’t deserve it, we figure out we better change – we begin to see the other workers in the vineyard differently – we begin to see them through the eyes of God. And God’s grace poured out in us finally pours out of us and into others.
We begin to look at children with the eyes of God. We begin to look at those who suffer from addiction with the eyes of God. We begin to look at the elderly through the eyes of God. We begin to look at the prisoner through the eyes of God. We begin to look at people who are different from us with the eyes of God. We begin to look at our own families with the eyes of God. We begin to do crazy things like notice injustices and unfairnesses that should not stand in God’s kingdom. We begin to stand up for people being bullied and mistreated.
The kingdom of God is like a vineyard – it’s a place where things might not always seem fair to us using our human eyes. But it is a place where all kinds of people are called to work side by side. Instead of a place of scarcity, it is a place of lush and abundant fruit. And we can experience the power of God in our lives when we allow God’s abundant grace get into us and then to flow out of us. It is a place where our grumbling is replaced with grace. The kingdom of God is not a place of scarcity. The kingdom of God is a place of glorious abundance — where there is enough grace to go around.
Let us pray. Holy, mighty and grace-filled God, we do want to be the workers of your vineyard, we do want to pour out expressions of your grace to others. Fill us with the power of your spirit. Open our eyes to see in a new way. Give us courage to love with abundance and heal our hearts of our tendencies to grumble and hoard. Lord, teach us to joyfully give the abundant grace that you give us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.