Summary: No matter the person or their history, Jesus is saying, "It's not too late for you or anyone else! There is more than enough room in God's purposes for everyone!" God makes no distinction, and we shouldn't either.
For six years when I was in junior high and high school, I tried out for the East Tennessee regional clinic band every year. For those of you who are not familiar with how these clinic bands work; they are put together through an audition process, and they consist of the "best" young instrumentalists in the region. The audition consists of a prepared piece, which the young players receive in advance and have time to practice. They also have to play some scales, which ones are determined in the audition room, and then they have to sight-read a piece of music. Based on the performance in each of those areas, every person who auditions is given a score, and then those instrumentalists receiving the top scores in each section are awarded with a "seat" in the band.
Needless to say, it's a great experience; an opportunity to play with some great young instrumentalists, to meet some new people, learn some new music, and to work with some fine conductors -- among other things. But the audition process is pretty rigorous for a young person. It doesn't matter if you are the top player at your school. It doesn't matter if you've been taking private lessons for years. It doesn't matter if you have the most expensive instrument out there. When you walk into that room to begin your audition, you are in the same boat as every other kid that has been in there that day, and every other kid that has yet to audition; everyone has an equal opportunity to make that band.
I'm sure that many of you have had similar experiences; maybe it was in sports, or on a test, or perhaps a job interview. There come times in our lives when we are put on par with everyone else, and it is a level playing field.
So it is, in a sense, in our scripture reading this morning. A handful of laborers have been working in the landowner's vineyard; some of them have worked all day, some of them half the day, and some of them only an hour. But when the time comes to pay the laborers, the playing field is leveled, and everyone gets paid equally; one denarius for twelve hours, one denarius for one hour. It seems so unfair, doesn't it? Today's Workers' Unions would have a field day with this one! "Why bother getting a full-time job when we can work quarter time or less and still get paid the same?" we wonder. This is very strange behavior exhibited by the landowner, and the manager just goes along with it.
But we have to remember that this is a parable, and Jesus' parables take real life examples that people can relate to and modify them a bit to teach us something about God and God's Kingdom. It doesn't take too much thinking to realize that in this parable, God is the landowner, Jesus is the manager, and we are the laborers. But that presents as many problems as it does solutions. We believe God to be a God of justice -- so why would God engage in such unjust behavior as to give equal reward for unequal work? Well, God is a just God, and there are parables to show that. But this parable isn't about God's justice. Much like the parable of the prodigal son, this parable is about God's grace, and God's grace puts us all on a level playing field.
Hard-working, "good" people have always asked: what kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it, and those who have not? And this is quite nearly the question the disciples have asked Jesus prior to the telling of this parable. The disciples thought that because they were among Jesus' closest followers, they would receive special benefits in God's kingdom. They want to know what reward they will receive for dropping everything to follow Jesus. They want to know who will be greatest in the kingdom. This parable is one of Jesus' many answers to that question. And I don't think I have to tell you that this was a difficult answer for Jesus' followers to swallow because it went against the accepted standard -- more work means more pay. But God's kingdom stands in contrast to the values of the world. No one receives special favor because they are a closer friend to Jesus or because they have been following Jesus longer. This parable makes clear that there is a radical equality before God. And as Christ's followers, we are called to model that radical equality of God's kingdom, this is another (and very important) way of being a truly hospitable church.
As we gather here for worship week in and week out, as we go out and serve meals to the homeless, or engage in regular Bible Study, it's easy to assume that we are somehow favored. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God's inner circle. But in reality, God is not satisfied with just us, or just the folks at Fairview (Grace) or Dallas Bay or Calvary Chapel (Abba's House) or any other church. God is always out in the marketplace, looking for more "workers;" seeking out the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everyone else) with God's generous grace. God does not will that anyone's life should be wasted, so God extends the invitation indiscriminately and repeatedly, in order to gather as many people as possible into his vineyard, his kingdom. God shows no partiality among persons; all are equally deserving--or undeserving--of the opportunity to work, so the reward for all workers is equal as well.