Summary: God gives his gifts, not based on our merit, ability of achievement, but based on his generous grace.
It’s hard to miss the hype of a TV show like American Idol. I haven’t really paid much attention to it in the past three seasons, but it caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. It has a lot of interesting elements: the fairy tale ‘rags to riches’ angle; the off-beat personalities; the actual talent that is sometimes good; the hopes and aspirations that are either encouraged or smashed. It’s an interesting cultural exercise to watch. But I also found myself observing some spiritual lessons as the show unfolded. What I concluded is that, in some very significant ways, American Idol represents the opposite of the character of God. Not that its unholy, necessarily. In fact, its not just one TV show. The show really simply reflects our whole society’s obsession with talent and achievement. Merit is praised and failure is scorned. If you have it, you’re instantly popular. If you don’t have, you’re a loser. That American ideal shapes and infects much of how we think about ourselves, and sadly, it colors our whole understanding of who God is and what he is like. I think, if you interviewed the “man on the street”, most people think that God is a lot like the judges on American Idol: he rewards those who are good and who measure up. But, in fact, the Bible reveals that God is a generous God who rewards us, not on the basis of our merit or achievement, but on the basis of his grace.
The fact is, ability doesn’t matter to God. Many people make the mistake of thinking that merit or worthiness counts with God. Jesus told this story to correct that notion.
Notice the statement in 19:30 - just before the story: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”. Now look down at the end of the story (20:16). You see a repetition of the same statement: “so the last will be first, and the first will be last”. Those two similar statements act as bookends, marking off this story. So its pretty clear that those statements define what this story is about, and that this story explains what Jesus about the "first" and the "last".
Another thing to notice: Jesus said this in response to an encounter his disciples had just witnessed. Back in ch 19:16: a man came to Jesus to inquire about salvation. This man who was definitely one of those people society would consider “first”. He was a man who was wealthy at a young age - he had everything going for him materially. Another account of the same incident says: he was a ‘ruler’ - he had political power and social status. As Jesus talked to him: it became apparent that he lived a good, moral life - he had kept the commandments since he was young. But this man, who had it all going for him, left Jesus’ presence (19:22) saddened. He was not able to embrace the salvation Jesus offered, because he could not bring himself to surrender things that mattered most to him.
On the heels of that encounter, to help explain what just happened, Jesus told this parable. Verse 1: it illustrates what the kingdom of God is like. In other words, how God operates or how things work under his rule.
The gist of the story is simple. All day long the landowner hires men to work in his vineyard. Some get hired first thing in the morning. (2): they agree to be paid a denarius for the day. That’s the basic wage for a day laborer: let’s say $50. Others come to work at 9:00, some at noon. Some don’t start until 3:00 and some don’t even come down until 5:00. They’ve been waiting in line all day hoping to get work. They just work one hour.
Here’s the twist: the landowner decided to pay them all a full day’s wage. They all got paid $50 regardless of how long they worked. In (8): the last ones hired got paid first as the all-day crew watched. The story is told this way to put the focus on the ones hired first, because this raised their expectations. They thought: if that guy got $50 for 1 hours’ work, maybe would would get a lot more! But (10) they all got paid the same! Of course, this raised the question of fairness in the minds of those who had worked all day long. How was it fair, they grumbled (12): for them to get the same as the guy who only worked one easy hour?
To draw an analogy, it would be like: you worked really hard to prepare for your audition. You’re an experienced vocalist with a lot of talent. You go in front of Randy and Paula and Simon and you knock ‘em out. They announce: You’re going to Hollywood! But when you leave your audition, you find out to your surprise that every single person who auditioned that day is going to Hollywood, too - the whole crowd! Some of them are pretty bad: they’re off key, can’t carry a tune. But they’re going on to the final round the same as you! How do you feel?