Today, our gospel message comes to us from Matthew 20:1-16, “The parable of the vineyard workers.”
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last” (ESV).
Heavenly Father, you sent your Son to reveal your will for our lives and redeem us from sin and death. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, inspire us with confidence that you are with us in the midst of the storms of life, bring peace to our troubled souls, and lead your church throughout the ages. Enable us to live as your redeemed saints, that our lives may witness to our faith. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
“Is God fair?”
As you read the gospel lesson, what was your first reaction?? What emotion came into focus in your heart and soul?? How did you react to the master of the house? How did you react to those who worked all day and then grumbled at the master of the house?
For many, this parable is challenging because it seems the master of the house is not being fair or just. How can he pay those who worked only one hour the same as those who worked all day? Did the workers have a right to complain?
Let us look at that story again, slowly, part by part.
In Jesus’ day, those who wanted to work would be in the market place ready for someone to come and hire them. It was not unusual for a farmer or landlord to go and find help for the harvest of his vineyards. So, early in the morning, he goes to the market place and hires some workers for the day. Notice what he tells them, the text says: “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into the vineyard.” They had agreed upon a wage for a day’s work. It was a fair wage, a typical salary for that day, a just wage.
But then the third hour, 9 o’clock, he goes back to the market place and sees some more men still waiting to be hired. He says to these men,”’ You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.” He does this again the 6th hour, noon, and the ninth hour, 3:00 in the afternoon, and even at 5:00, the last working hour, he goes to the market place and hires workers to work in his fields.
Please, notice an important point here with these men, the master of the house tells them he will pay them whatever is right; they trust him and go into the fields. They do not know how much they will receive. They go, they trust.
At 6:00, work was over, the foreman calls the workers together and begins to pay them. But a strange thing happens, he starts with the ones hired at 5:00, and he pays them a denarius for their hour work, the agreed-upon price for a whole day’s work. Each worker comes and receives his pay. The ones hired at 3:00 pm, at noon, at 9:00 am and at 6:00 am all receive a denarius. Those hired at 6:00 am, when their turn came, hoped they would receive more because they worked the hardest, they had been in the field the longest, working under the hot sun all day long, but they also received the agreed-upon price for their labors, a denarius.
They grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” This wasn’t fair; this wasn’t just. They worked harder and longer than the Jonnie-come-latelys; they deserved more money.
But the master of the house turned to them, saying, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for us denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go;” The master of the house was saying, “We agreed upon the wage you would receive for a whole day’s work. You agreed, it is an honest and just wage, so don’t complain. I did not cheat you; I paid you the agreed-upon wage!!”
The final statement of the master of the house sums up his feelings and thoughts about this matter. He says: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
How do you feel now as you listened again to this story?? Is it fair and just that the Jonnie-come-latelys get the same wage as those who worked all day?? What would you say to the master of the house??
The key to understanding this parable lies in the first verse where Jesus says: “FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.” For the kingdom of heaven, that is the key, we are not speaking about things of this earth, we are talking about the kingdom of heaven, we are speaking about God, and there, things are different. This parable speaks about God’s way with human beings, not the way of human beings with other human beings. This parable is about God, period. This parable speaks about God in many different ways.
In his book “The Divine Trap”, Richard Hoefler says, on pg.78, “God is first of all an absolute master, He does, the parable tells us, what he desires to do with what is His. The Kingdom of God is no democracy where we decide by a majority vote the way things will be done.” To our human nature, God’s way is not our way. But that is true, isn’t. Don’t we want God to be more than we are??
Jesus was addressing not only His disciples as He told this parable, but also the Pharisees, who had gotten the notion that the kingdom of heaven was their possession. As Richard Hoefler continues on pg. 79 saying: “The Pharisees had forgotten this. The kingdom of God belongs to God, period. Jesus met them head-on. He said in effect, “You are good men. Right? Everybody knows this and respects you for it. That is the wage you bargained for. That is what God gives you. As for these others, the sinners and the poor have their own unique relationship with God. He will do with them as he wants, for you are all only workers in His vineyard. And of this vineyard, God is master. He has absolute authority to establish wages and pay rewards according to His will and His will alone.”
But, aren’t we the modern-day Pharisees by saying, “How can a person on their death bed receive the same rewards of heaven as me who has been working with Jesus my whole life?” or, “How can that bum be allowed in the church, he smells bad, looks bad, surely he cannot be a believer?” or, “How can that person maintain, he is a believer when he shows no fruits of his faith, he is poor, there is trouble in his life, and he is even deaf. Surely God wants something more for his kingdom!!!”
We want God to be just, righteous, fair, by our standards. God has to judge the way we do. But if God really did what we want him to do, think about what would happen??
Michael Sherer says this about a just God on pg. 51 in his book, “And God Said...Yes!!”, “A just God would have started over or just folded up creation and gone fishing.”
Thank God, he is not “fair” not “just”. Thank God He is larger than our categories. Thank God that when we are asked to labor in His vineyard at 5 minutes until quitting time, he doesn’t quibble over salary or ask us why we didn’t punch the time clock sooner in the day.”
Think about it, if God were fair and just as we would have Him be, none of us would have a hope, or a prayer, of eternal life, because no matter how foolishly we think we somehow are helping God save us, we aren’t. God does the work; we don’t. Thank God He does.
“The point Jesus is making about God and his call to live and work for him is that God is more than fair. Our God is the God of grace, and life in his kingdom is lived under his grace. His call issued to us is not the offer of a contract but the bestowal of a gift. It is a gift far greater than the payoff we might falsely think would be to our advantage, for the world of which we are part is a world captive to sin, and we are sinners in it. So he closed his parable with the owner asking those he had called earlier than others: “Do you begrudge my generosity?” The original Greek says literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I like that. Are we starting to give dirty looks out of the corner of our eyes because it seems we have been working hard and long while others have not?”
God’s grace is seen in the following:
“A sinner was found lying in a deep pit. He was unable to save himself from its mire; he was unable to climb from the pit. Now it happened that Confucius came along. He peered over the edge of the pit and said: “Poor fellow, I feel extremely sorry for you. Why were you such a fool as to fall into that pit in the first place? Let me give you a bit of advice: If you get out, don’t get into it again.” Later, a Buddhist priest came along and saw the man in the pit. He said to the sinner in the pit: “Poor fellow, I am very much pained to see you in there. I think if you could get 3/4 of the way out of this mire, I would be able to lift you out the rest of the way. But the man was helpless. And so he continued to lie there. Later, when Jesus came that way, he saw the man, said not a word, but lowered a cross down into the pit, climbed down, hung onto the cross beams, and reached out a hand to the man. He grabbed the man and lifted him up onto his back and carried him and the cross out of the pit. He placed the man on the edge of the pit, bound his wounds, and invited him to follow him during the rest of his pilgrimage on earth. For the first time during this whole rescue, the man said something, he said, “Yes, Jesus, I will follow.”
God is gracious with His love, with what He possesses. And those of us in the Kingdom should rejoice and be filled with joy that He does give so generously. Why do we feel anger, unfairness at the Johnnie-come-latelys? Each received their reward!! Each received the reward of heaven!! Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that worth shouting about??
Are we jealous of God’s grace?? Do we begrudge God’s generosity?
Maybe, we need to be more like those who were called last?? Remember, they were trusting, not worried about how much they would make, whether it would be fair or just. They were just glad for the chance to be called to work.
Can’t we just be glad that God has called us to be in His kingdom and given us His generous grace? Can’t we just let God be God and let Him handle His kingdom his way? Can’t we rejoice that one more person, even on their death bed, has been called into the kingdom? Can’t we be excited over our own work in the kingdom, be pleased with our status with God, and let the rest lie with God?
Can’t we rejoice over the generosity of God’s grace as seen in the following:
As it says in Interpreter’s Bible on Matthew on pg.30:
“Why did the earlier workers not rejoice that the man who had waited long in the marketplace was now at peace, with money to take home to his family? Why did not the older brother rejoice that the prodigal was now restored, set free from the rags and hunger of that far country???
If only we had but a tincture of God’s love, would we be glad, as heaven is glad, that the lost sheep is safe in the fold, delivered from briars and wolves??
“Or are you jealous because I am generous?’ God asks.”
Do you rejoice, or are you jealous??
Prayer: Generous God, In the beginning, when the world was still on the edge of beginning, you took the clay of the earth and shaped us in your image. You filled us with your life-giving Spirit and set us in the Garden of Life that we might delight in all that you had created.
Yet from the beginning, we have forgotten that you are the Creator, and we the created. That we are created in your image, but you are not created in ours. Like Adam and Eve, we hide when you draw near, forgetting that you do not judge as we do, that you are the source of our ability to forgive and begin again.
Like the Israelites, hungry and lost in the desert, we, too, grumble when life gets hard, forgetting that your vision is bigger and broader than ours, that you are always calling us to places of freedom, even when it means we must first traverse parched land.
And we are not so different from the workers hired early in the morning, frustrated that life does not feel fair, focused on making sure we get what we deserve, forgetting that you do not operate the way that we do.
Expand our vision, holy God. Remind us again and again that you are the Creator, and we the created. Break open our assumptions and direct our attention away from ourselves and toward those who remain on the corner, waiting to work. Recalibrate our vision so that we can celebrate the times when your generosity makes a mockery of our notions of fair and just.
Giving God, we live in a world where it is easy to forget that you call us to all that is good for the sake of the world. When storms rage and earthquakes topple cities, we give thanks that we are safe, and forget that others have lost everything. When diseases ravage, and death takes hold, we list the ways in which we are different, and thus not at risk of losing so much. When economies fail, and jobs are lost, we give thanks that we are secure and forget that what we might give could mean the difference for others. Help us, holy God, to transform our gratitude into generosity that all that we have been given might be a gift for others. In the name of the one who came and gave the gift of life itself, Amen.
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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
Sermon contributed by Tim Zingale.
In light of the trauma in the world, how can we call God fair? Or is that not the right question?