Summary: God's blessings don't come as a result of the work we put in, but rather are totally dependent on God's grace.
Matthew 20:1-16 “Workmen’s Compensation”
We all have a gut reaction when we perceive what we believe to be unfairness or injustice. Mention illegal aliens and blood pressures will rise as you talk about how they’re using our health and educational systems without paying anything for them. Others may get acid indigestion when they see that millionaires and billionaires pay only a fraction of a percentage of what their employees contribute in taxes, because of tax breaks and loop holes. Yet they want to keep their tax breaks while middle class Americans balance the budget by cuts to Medicaid and Social Security. It just isn’t fair!
Now you can imagine the angst felt by those who worked in the vineyards all day when others, who worked only one hour, received the same wage. Anyone who listened to Jesus as he told this story would have felt a sense of outrage. Yet, Jesus’ purpose of telling this parable was not to insight anger or even to stir emotions, but rather to reveal characteristics of God and of God’s kingdom.
Jesus has been busy turning the world upside down. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children—the weak, worthless and neglected. He told a rich young man that keeping all of the commandments wasn’t enough, and that what the young man really needed to do was to sell everything he had and follow Jesus. A relationship with Jesus was far more valuable than worldly riches. The chapter ends with Jesus proclaiming that the first shall be last and the last first.
Many of the early Christians to whom Matthew wrote his gospel were experiencing severe persecution. Some were being martyred. Others were making great sacrifices for their faith in Christ. Some Christians, though, broke under the torture and persecution and recanted their faith. Later they had a change of heart and wanted to renew their commitment to Jesus and to live in the Christian community. The Christians who had persevered and suffered had to decide what to do with their weak brothers and sisters in the faith.
The parable that Jesus tells is fairly clear cut. Obviously, God is the landowner who has a vineyard and hires workers. The workers are people like you and me. Different people will identify with the different groups of workers. Some will identify with those who worked all day. Others will identify with the 9:00 workers, and still others the 12:00 noon, and 3:00 hires. A few may even see themselves as the “Johnny-come latelies” who started working at 5:00. The land owner only negotiates a salary with the first work group. He doesn’t pay them a great wage, but a good, fair wage. The other workmen are simply hired by the landowner with the assurance that he will pay them an acceptable wage—“whatever is right.”
We don’t know why some of the men didn’t show up until 9:00 or noon. They may have had to watch Regis and Kelly before they sauntered off to the “jobs wanted” site. Others may have had a hard night the night before and couldn’t get themselves out of bed until later in the day.
Neither do we know why the landowner hired as many men as he did. Perhaps he needed the men—it was a critical time for the grapes to be picked. It might also have demonstrated the practice of some generous landowners who would hire workers even when they didn’t need them in order to help out their neighbors or towns people.
OUR REACTION TO GRACE
The actions of the landowner turn the parable into a story about God’s grace. The listeners understood that the wages paid the workers were not directly connected to the amount of work that they did. Rather, the wages each worker received was simply an expression of the grace of the landowner—God.
Those who “worked” for their wages complain that they should be paid more, and that it wasn’t fair for the landowner to pay those who worked only an hour a day’s wage. The land owner points out that he paid the first workers exactly what he had promised them. While the workers are still grumbling, the landowner asks them a question, “Shouldn’t I be allowed to do what I want to do with what is mine?
Ah, the graceful truth leaps out at us. Everything is God’s. None of us have any claim on it—even those of us who are conscientious, good, hardworking people. And God will give his grace to whomever he wants to give it and in whatever amount he wants to give. Grace is just that—grace. Grace is a no-strings-attached gift from God. Grace is an expression of God’s love.
The reaction of the workers tells us a lot about ourselves, though. How often we find ourselves envious of the blessings God bestows on others. “Why did the Wilsons get to go on that fantastic vacation?” we ask ourselves. “We were more deserving.” It is hard honestly to say the words, “It couldn’t have happened to a better person,” because we know it could have—it could have happened to us.