This may be one of the toughest passages in all the scriptures for us to get our heads around as residents of the 21st century. It’s just so contrary to the way we understand what is fair – what is involved in treating people equally.
We understand why the man who left church one Sunday after hearing a sermon on this parable by Jesus said to his minister: “You know, preacher, there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to abide, and other parts that aren’t. The story you preached on today is one that I find totally offensive! It’s just not fair to pay everyone the same wage when some have worked hard and some have hardly worked. Jesus was just wrong about that. I think you should have preached on something less offensive.” (1) The minister reported that he preached on the Prodigal Son the following week.
It’s important that we don’t discount this parable because of the way it clashes with the way we normally think about such things. Remember: the purpose of a parable is to compare something we know something about with something we’re not as familiar with to help the unfamiliar become known or understood. We know what it means to get paid for working in a field. We are not quite as sure about what followers of Jesus Christ will receive as a result of believing and working on behalf of the kingdom of God.
The intent of today’s parable is not to revise the economic system of America. It’s not a mini-course in labor management. Its intent is not to influence what fair labor laws should be or to bust unions. It’s simply an illustration about how God works when it comes to giving kingdom-living status to us. So, let’s look again at this challenging parable.
The people listening to Jesus that day understood the scene he was describing. They knew about landowners, vineyards, harvesting, and day-laborers. They knew how important it was for grape growers to hire grape pickers. They knew that when the grapes were ready they had to be picked promptly because the weather could change quickly and the crop would be ruined. It made sense to them that the grape growers would get more and more anxious as the day wore on and the picking wasn’t finished. It made sense to them that the owner would hire more workers even one hour before quitting time because of how desperate he was to get as much of the crop off as possible.
When Jesus talked about the landowner going out early in the morning to hire people to work in the vineyard, the crowd could picture a marketplace with people standing around waiting for the invitation to go to work. They knew the people Jesus described in his parable were people in need of work – people who really wanted to work.
Those listening that day knew the desperateness of the temp-service-like pool of people who were seeking to be chosen to go to work. They knew that their standing in line for work meant they were living very close to the starvation line. The disciples and the others listening to Jesus could picture the scene – how the mood of the crowd changed from quiet and reserved to excited and expectant when they saw the grape grower arrive and heard him announce: “The grapes are ripe! There’s plenty of work for everyone who wants to work! Let’s go!” Jesus’ audience would have had no problem picturing the scene of the unemployed rushing to the grape grower to hear his pay offer and they could visualize the first shift enthusiastically hustling into the vineyard and the same being true for each of the groups hired later who didn’t get hired by anyone else during the day.
Yes, the crowd listening to Jesus that day probably were nodding their heads to acknowledge that they understood the scene Jesus described. That is, until payroll time rolled around. Confusion had to be the look on their faces and questioning glances toward one another had to accompany the ending of the telling of this parable by Jesus. “Last ones hired being paid first? Everyone receiving the same pay? What in the world was Jesus talking about? That wasn’t the way things normally went down on the farm.”
I think there are at least two messages Jesus wanted to convey when he shared this parable. One of them, and it is the primary one, is that God is a God of grace. Some people believe that God’s love and forgiveness are things we have to earn. They believe it’s all about saying the right prayers – giving a certain amount – performing an adequate number of good deeds. Some people believe there’s no room for talk about God’s love and grace – that the primary message should be to “scare ‘em out of hell.” It’s important for them to be able to determine who is in and who is out based upon a bunch of rules and regulations.
Very simply put: this parable challenges all such thinking – radically alters such concepts about how God works. It portrays for us – describes for us – a God of limitless grace. God’s grace is awesome, incomprehensible, extravagant, amazing, accepting, outlandish. Jesus told this story because he wants all to know that there is not a one of us who are beyond the grace of God. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, what we think about ourselves, what others think about us, or what others tell us we should think about ourselves, God loves us, cares about us, offers us grace.
I think the parable offers us a second related message though, and that is that we need to be careful how we think about where we are on this faith journey. We need to guard against thinking we deserve more – deserve special treatment, special places of honor - because we’ve been at this Christianity thing longer than others or because we’ve done more or given more. Length of time we’ve been a believer does not earn for us special grace – special places in the Kingdom of God.
Matthew created the backdrop for the parable Jesus shared by telling about three things that happened in Jesus’ life just prior to him resorting to this story. The implication being that this parable was necessary because of these things.
First, some people brought some children to him for him to lay his hands on them and to pray for them. The disciples tried to put a stop to it. Jesus rejected the attitude of his disciples. He said instead, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he blessed them and they went away.
I think it’s important to note that Matthew didn’t report that the children were in need of some special dispensation by Jesus because of something they had done wrong or some decision they made. They were blessed by Jesus simply because they were children and because of Jesus’ understanding of God’s grace it was his to impart.
The second story Matthew used to set-up this parable had a rich young man approach Jesus inquiring about obtaining eternal life. He sought information about what “good thing” he needed to do. Jesus told him to obey the commandments. The young man asked him to be more specific. Jesus was, and the young man said he kept all of those.
And then, sensing that he still wasn’t in, the young man pressed Jesus: “What else, Jesus? What else do I need to do?” And Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect that he should go and sell all he had and give the money to the poor and then come and follow him. The wealthy young man sadly turned away, implying that giving up his riches was too big a price tag. Then Jesus commented about the difficulty the rich have entering the kingdom of heaven.
His statement astonished the disciples. It caused them to ask: “Well, who then can be saved?” And Jesus, knowing they didn’t quite catch the connection between the scene with the children and this encounter with the rich man answered, “With this man it’s impossible, but with God all things are possible.” “Salvation is not something we can earn or buy – it’s not something obtained by our own action or efforts.” “Only God provides salvation – and it is only through God’s grace that it is provided.”
The final scene Matthew uses to prepare us to hear the parable by Jesus has Peter expressing the concern Jesus’ response created in the disciples. “Jesus, we have left everything for you! What then will there be for us?” “Jesus, if these insignificant little children can obtain your blessing and this rich guy can’t obtain it with all he has to offer, where does what we have done and who we are fit? What do we earn for having given up so much?”
Ready? Jesus responded with: “Peter, you are going to receive salvation, eternal life, a place in the kingdom of heaven, but, it’s not because of what you’ve given up. It’s because of God’s grace. Oh, and Peter, everyone else throughout history who desires it will receive the same thing you do no matter when they come on board and no matter how much they get done for the kingdom, nor how many they bring to me.”
Again, a second message from this story from Jesus’ lips is that we need to be careful on this journey of faith.
We need to guard against envy – against believing that we deserve something more than others simply because we have been a member of the church longer, been a Christian longer, read our bibles more often, invited more people to church, guided more people as they’ve sought to become followers of Jesus Christ.
The painful reality is that despite Jesus’ cautionary words, there’ve been numerous people through the years who have misunderstood what Jesus said. All of us probably know a horror story or two of times people have become overzealous about roles or positions they’ve held in the church. Some have felt they have earned the right to speak on behalf of the whole church because of how much they’ve given or because of their family ties or because of the length of time they’ve been a member. They think they can dictate policy and they are very reluctant to even listen to new ideas from newer members. The point Jesus is making is that we should be on the lookout for such temptations in ourselves.
I’d like to close with a story by John Sumwalt in which he retells this infamous parable utilizing a setting that we’re all familiar with in the life of the church. The setting has to do with a circumstance that developed in a particular choir. Happily, the story doesn’t reflect any experience in any choir I've been associated with during my career, but it does help us visualize, maybe even recall, how it happens in groups in the life of the church.
Sumwalt writes: “Boyd Dillard joined the choir on his 75th birthday, a week after he became a member of the church. He had been an active barbershopper for years and he belonged to the local chorus guild, but this was his first experience in a church choir. His rich baritone voice was a welcome addition, and he readily joined in the merriment and camaraderie enjoyed by the men in the back row bass section.
“Ann Hershner joined the choir in late October, shortly before the start of Christmas cantata rehearsals. She had just moved to town from out of state to take a position in the music department at the local college. Several choir members commented on her beautiful alto voice at the end of her first practice, and they told her how glad they were to have her in their group.
“The very next week, the choir director handed out the music for the Christmas cantata. It was an old, familiar work, much loved by everyone. The director then announced who would be singing the solos and their special parts. Boyd and Ann were to sing a duet which everyone recognized to be the key musical climax in the cantata. Both Ann and Boyd seemed pleased to be chosen for these important parts, but no one else was smiling. ‘It’s not fair!’ someone was heard to mutter down at the end of the alto section. ‘She just joined the choir. Why should she get to sing the best part?’
“There was also some grumbling among the men in the parking lot later, after Boyd had gone home. ‘It’s not right,’ one of the tenors said. ‘Some of us have been singing in the church choir for years and years. I think we should be shown some consideration.’
“The following week, as the choir director was about to begin rehearsal, Harold Redburg asked if he might be permitted to lead the choir in a brief devotion before they started to sing. Harold was the choir’s senior member. Only a few months earlier they had celebrated his 50th anniversary with the chancel choir. The director nodded his assent, and everyone waited expectantly to hear what it was that Harold had to share.
“Harold opened his Bible to the 20th chapter of Matthew and he began to read verses 1-16: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard . . .” (2)
Some have labeled this parable one of “. . . the greatest and most glorious of them all.” It’s indeed a marvelous one for it at one and the same time offers us a word of hope and a word of caution – a word of encouragement and a word of warning. Through this parable we sense God’s outlandish grace working in our lives and we hear the invitation for us to do the same as we encounter others.
Grace, friends, God’s grace – is awesome – is outlandish – is amazing – is God’s way of dealing with us. Let us resolve anew to accept its renewing power in our lives – to believe that God really loves us and forgives us no matter from what our circumstances. And, let us also resolve to do all we can to live a life of grace-giving so that others will come to know God’s saving grace as well. Let’s get to cheering for the good fortune of one another, rather than jeering the unworthiness we believe we see in others while marveling at our own good fortune in spite of our unworthiness.
Let us pray: “Lord, we have nothing, we are nothing, we can do nothing – except by your grace. Take us, Lord, as we are. Accept us, even in our weaknesses. Forgive us for our failings. Above all, help us to accept the amazing truth that you love others as much as you love us. The forgiveness and grace you extend to us, is also offered to our sisters and brothers.
“Lord, help us to celebrate your extravagant grace and not to resent when it is the extravagant grace offered to all. In the name of the one who revealed unto us your graciousness, even Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen."
1.Johnny Dean, “Exasperating Grace” (www.esermons.com).
2.John Sumwalt, “Preaching to the Choir.”
((There are probably a few more references I used than the ones I noted.))