Summary: The way into the Kingdom is by response to an invitation to come – not by justice (working for your wages). All people, regardless of background, can respond to God’s invitation and be rewarded with eternal life.
In a rather shocking story that Jesus told to a crowd of people, he shared with them that the ways of God’s relating to people are actually quite a bit different from our rules of fairness, justice, and good economic principles.
Listen now as I’ll tell you a story like Jesus told it – it comes from Matthew 20:1-16, but I’m not going to read it word for word. Listen as one in the crowd around Jesus would have heard this story…
Let me tell you about the way God’s Kingdom works. It’s like the employer in this story. A man owned a vineyard and needed some laborers to come and work in the vineyard. So he went to the marketplace early in the morning to find some workers. He found some workers eager to find work in those early hours and he invited them to come work for him. Before they started working, they agreed upon a fair wage – a denarius – for the day’s work. They immediately began doing the work the employer had hired them to do.
Around noon he went back to the marketplace, saw some people standing around and invited them to go work in his vineyard. He told them “I’ll pay you what is right for your labor.” So these went and got to work.
At 3:00 and at 6:00pm he did the same thing two more times, each time finding some people lazily standing around. He asked them “Why have you spent the day just standing around?” “Because no one has hired us, they replied.” Now the owner of the vineyard had been there earlier and knew they weren’t even looking for work, but nonetheless he invited them to get to work, too.
When the sun got so low that work in the vineyard had to come to a close, the owner of the vineyard gathered the workers, and began to pay them for their labors. He started with those he had hired right before the end of the day. He pulled out a denarius and handed it those who had only worked an hour or so.
He did the same with the workers who came at 3:00 and at noon.
Each group of workers started grumbling more than the last, seeing that everyone was getting the same wage, regardless of how long they had worked.
When those who had worked since early in the morning came to receive their wage, they spoke up and said “This is not fair! You’ve paid equally to those who only worked a little bit and we worked all day long through the scorching heat.”
The landowner replied, “Friend – am I not doing right by you? You are getting what you agreed to work for – a denarius. But I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. It’s my money after all! Don’t I have the right to do what I want with it? What is it to you if I choose to be generous with my money?”
This is an interesting story, isn’t it? If you’re like me, you identify yourself with that worker who was responsible. You were there looking for work early in the morning so you could be sure and provide for your family. You worked hard all day long. Your back hurts, and your fingers have been rubbed raw from working all day long. You are hungry and thirsty. But at least you’re going to get paid. There will be food on the table tomorrow again, and that is a good thing. As you stand in the line to get your wages, you see the joy and the surprise in the faces of those who worked only 1 hour as they walk away with their denarius. You immediately begin doing the math in your head. You think to yourself, “Wow – if that’s what they are getting, this could be like winning the lottery for me!” In fact you start to think about what you have coming to you. You actually deserve much more than that denarius, if that’s what the owner pays for only one hour of work.
In that time you’re standing in line everything changes. You’re no longer grateful for your wage, you’re steaming mad. Not only are you mad at the land owner – you’re also resentful of those lazy workers who got the same as you. It just isn’t FAIR!
And that is EXACTLY what Jesus wanted to get across to people. The Kingdom of God is not a Kingdom of Just Desserts. It is not a place where you earn certain rewards depending upon how long you served God. The Kingdom of God is built upon the principles of grace and generosity, not justice and fairness.