Summary: Third in this series. The Parable of the Workers reveals the scandalous nature of God's grace.
We throw the word “scandal” around a lot in our culture today so just for the fun of it I Googled that term earlier this week and, not surprisingly, got a number of hits on recent events that have been labeled scandals by the news media – the IRS scandal, the Benghazi scandal, the “Fast and Furious” scandal and of course the latest scandal involving Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey that has been labeled “Bridgegate” by most and “Fat and Furious” by at least one commentator. I guess the best way to tell if something is truly a scandal is to see if someone has coined a term that ends with “gate.”
So perhaps I should have titled my message this morning “Gracegate”. But I decided instead to stick with “The Scandal of Grace.” In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey wrote these words about grace:
Grace does not excuse wrong, but it treasures the wrongdoer. True grace is shocking, scandalous. It shakes our conventions with insistence on getting close to evil and touching it with mercy and hope. It forgives the unfaithful spouse, the racist, the child abuser. It loves today’s AIDS-ridden addict as much as the tax collector of Jesus’ day.
True grace is indeed shocking and scandalous and the parable that we’re going to look at this morning demonstrates that quite well because the parable itself is quite shocking and scandalous. I’m going to warn you right now that most of you really aren’t going to like this parable because it offends our sense of fairness. Perhaps that is why this seems to be among the most ignored of all Jesus’ parables.
In order to get a proper understanding of this parable, we need to place it in its proper context so go ahead and turn to Matthew chapter 19. There we will find the account of the event that occurs just prior to Jesus telling the parable that will be the focus of the message this morning.
Beginning in verse 16, we see that the rich young ruler had just refused to follow Jesus because he wasn’t willing to give up his material riches and Jesus had just commented on how difficult it was for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. This apparently caught the disciples off guard, so, as he often did Peter spoke up and asked a question on behalf of the entire group:
Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
(Matthew 19:27, ESV)
In essence the disciples were saying to Jesus, “We’ve followed you from the beginning. We’ve remained faithful to you even when others have turned away. What’s in it for us?” And if we’re honest, most of us have probably asked a similar question from time to time. I’m going to come back to Jesus’ answer to that question a little later as we look at the parable. But for now let’s skip ahead and look at the event that occurs right after Jesus tells the parable.
Turn over to Matthew chapter 20. Beginning in verse 20, we find the account of the mother of James and John who come to Jesus to ask Him to give her sons a place of prominence in His kingdom. We read this account today nearly 2,000 years after it occurs and because we can see the big picture much better, we bristle at what this woman was asking for. But again, in light of the values of this world what she is asking for isn’t all that outlandish. Her sons have been faithful to Jesus and she just wants them to be rewarded for their faithfulness.
It is between these two events where Jesus’ followers are asking to be rewarded for their faithfulness that Jesus tells the parable that is the subject of today’s message. As I think you’ll see this is one of those places where the Bible translators have probably put the chapter break in the wrong place, so I’m going to begin reading this morning in Matthew chapter 19, verse 30.
Here’s how I’m going to approach this passage this morning. We’ll read a few verses at a time and I’ll make a few comments on each section of the parable that will provide us with some needed background. Then we’ll draw some conclusions about why grace is in fact a scandal. And finally we’ll close by looking at some implications for our lives.
But many who are first will be last, and the last first. “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.
(Matthew 19:30-20:1, ESV)
We need to keep in mind that this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. This parable is not about business practices or workers rights. Jesus is describing how His kingdom operates and more particularly how grace operates. We can’t take this parable out of that context and try and use it for some other purpose.