God is Generous!
[Read Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV]
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’ clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.
11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
What is the kingdom of heaven like? We often wonder what it will be like to live in the reign of God. Who will be first and who will be last? I am sure that you have thought about that question.
The disciples wondered who would be first and who would be last. James and John asked Jesus if they could sit on his right and left in the coming kingdom of God. They wanted to be first.
Some of us may think that the Kingdom of God is no different than the way things are done in the kingdoms of the world. We know what the kingdoms of the world are like.
Kingdoms of the World
The kingdoms of the world are built on the backs of ordinary citizens. Citizens like you and me who work our entire lives to make a living. In our country we believe in the principle of hard work and being rewarded for hard work. We get what we earn. Those who do not work get what they deserve.
We live in a world of competition. A few people will rise to the top while the majority of others will look on with envy. Those at the top have more things and get more things. They have more financial security and bigger homes. They have expensive cars and boats. The competition to be first is fierce.
We want to be first and work hard at being first. When we come in first it is because we earned it. Sometimes we do not come in first. When we are not first we may grumble that someone did not play fairly. When we see others receiving rewards ahead of us then we are envious. When we see others doing well we are jealous. This is the world that we live in.
Jesus gives us a different vision of the way things will be in the Kingdom of Heaven. The kingdoms of the world function on rewarding an individual for what they do. The Kingdom of God functions on God’s grace. Grace is a free and unmerited gift from God. God’s grace helps us accomplish what we cannot earn. What does the Bible say about God’s grace and the Kingdom of God?
The Kingdom of God has already been initiated by Jesus here on earth through the calling of his disciples. Disciples are the people who freely choose to be obedient to God’s will. As Jesus travels with his disciples he teaches them an important lesson about grace. When it comes to entering the Kingdom of God or being saved, it is not accomplished by what we do but by what God does.
Rich Young Man
The parable told before the Workers in the Vineyard sets up the contrast between the kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God. Jesus and the disciples meet a rich and devout young man. The rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (Matt 19:16). The young man asks about eternal life as if it were a commodity to be purchased or earned. Jesus asks the man if he has kept the commandments. The rich young man tells Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since he was a boy.
Jesus has compassion for the rich young man. Jesus tells him if you want to enter the kingdom of God, go and sell all of your possessions, give them to the poor, and follow me. The young man is heavily invested in the world and cannot let go of his many possessions so he turns away from Jesus.
Confusion about Salvation
Now the disciples were confused. Here was a devout and rich young ruler who had everything. He followed the law and seemed to be rewarded here on earth because he was devout.
They asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus told them, “With man it is impossible but with God all things are possible.” Salvation or being saved is not a human achievement. Salvation comes from God’s grace.
Peter then asked Jesus what would be their reward for giving up everything to follow him. All of the disciples were listening. Jesus told them that they would be rewarded many times over but many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first. Just because Peter and the other disciples had given up much to be a follower of Jesus did not mean he would be first in the Kingdom of God!
Jesus then explained that the Kingdom of Heaven would be radically different than the kingdoms of the world. He illustrated this point by telling them the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard.
At first glance the parable of the vineyard workers is difficult for us to understand. We think that we will be rewarded by God based on our works. This is called works righteousness.
Surely those who have followed Jesus for the longest period of time will be first in the Kingdom of God. Let’s take a closer look at today’s scripture to learn more about God’s grace and the Kingdom of heaven.
The Landowner represents God
The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard opens with a landowner seeking workers for his vineyard. He goes out early in the morning, about 6AM, and finds workers gathered in the marketplace. These are day laborers. They do not have permanent jobs. They do not have unemployment benefits. They do not have a union to protect them. They live from day to day off of their labor.
The landowner and the workers agree on the usual daily wage and the landowner sends the workers to work in the vineyard. The usual daily wage was a denarius which was enough money to live on for a day. The workers understood that they were to be paid at the end of the day. The Law of Moses demanded that the landowner pay the workers at the end of a day’s labor.
The owner goes again to the marketplace at 9AM and finds more workers standing around. He agrees to pay them what is fair. They go to the vineyard to work.
The owner goes again to the marketplace at noon and three and does the same. Finally, the owner goes to the marketplace near the end of the day at 5PM and asks why the workers are not working. They say it is because no one has hired them. He hires them and sends them to work for one hour.
At the end of the day the landowner calls the manager to pay the workers beginning with the last and then going to the first. This is no ordinary landowner. The last workers are paid a denarius.
The workers hired first see that the last are paid one denarius so they expect to be paid more. When they are paid a denarius they grumble against the landowner. They complain about fairness. They say, “The last workers only worked one hour while we worked all day and you have made them equal to us.”
The landowner explained that he was doing nothing wrong. He paid them what was agreed to at the beginning of the day. He then asked if they were envious because he was generous. What does this story tell us about God and human nature?
God’s character is revealed
In the parable, the landowner represents God and the workers represent us. God’s true nature and character as well as ours are revealed through the actions of the landowner and the laborers.
The landowner is loving and compassionate. We know this because the landowner is more concerned about the workers than the vineyard. Think about it for a moment from the owner’s perspective. Under ordinary circumstances the owner would only hire enough workers to do the job. No more would be hired.
But, we are not told how large the vineyard is or how much work is required. The landowner does not discuss these details or anything about profits and losses. The landowner is mainly concerned about hiring the idle workers gathered in the marketplace. The landowner does not hesitate in hiring more workers for his vineyard. He does not say, “Sorry we have all we need.”
Then the landowner does something extraordinary. He hires the laborers that no one else wants. When he approaches the last group he asks why they are standing around. They reply that no one has hired them.
These people represent the last kids on the ballfield that no one has picked. They are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Yet he graciously extends an invitation that says he needs them also.
The landowner, just like God, is compassionate to the first hired as well as the last hired. No one deserves to be hired. No one has earned the right to be hired. Yet the landowner hires them all. This is grace.
The landowner is generous. The last workers do not have a contract and yet they are given a denarius which is the usual daily wage. They did not earn it. They did not deserve it. Yet the landowner gives all of them what they need to live.
The Idle workers are us
Now let’s look at the workers. The idle day laborers are us. Those workers that were hired first operate on the principles of the world. They negotiate a contract with terms. They ask to be paid a denarius at the end of the day and that is what they get.
The next group relies on good faith. The owner tells them that he will pay them whatever is right. The last group does not negotiate all. They simply trust and obey. When the last are paid first they receive a full days pay for less than a full days work. They are given grace.
The first hired are also given grace but they do not see it that way. They are contract workers and bargainers. They think that life is all about deals and negotiations. They even negotiate with God. They measure life by their good deeds and time cards. When they speak they use phrases like, “Where’s my just rewards?” or “I deserve what I have earned.”
Goals of the First and Last
What is the difference between the first group of workers and the last? It is their attitude which is measured by their goals. (1) The first workers are working for a denarius while the last are working for the landowner or God. (2) The first place their trust in rules and a contract. The last place their trust in the landowner or God. (3) The first are disgruntled when they get what they bargained for while the last are happy with the owner’s or God’s generosity. The last hired have an attitude of gratitude. What is your attitude towards God?
The landowner’s speech at the end of the parable gives us a clear view of God’s kingdom. (1) God owns everything and we are only stewards. (2) God is generous and we should be thankful. (3) Finally, only God is holy and we are not.
God owns everything
We think that everything on Earth belongs to us. In reality, everything on Earth belongs to God. We were created by God not to have ownership of creation but to take care of creation. We are God’s servants.
God is generous
God is generous. God has invited us to be good stewards of God’s good creation. What God does with the Earth and everything in it is God’s business not ours.
God is Holy
God is Holy. We know from scripture that only God is good and holy. We are lowly sinners. We may have a sense of fairness but our sense of fairness is based on our limited knowledge. God’s sense of fairness is beyond our comprehension.
Sinners and fairness
We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. The wages of sin are death. But God has mercy on us even though we are all sinners. If God played by the rules of the world and we all got what we deserved then we would all be in trouble.
The Good News is that Jesus, who was without sin, died for us to take away our sins. This is God’s sense of what is fair. We are not saved from our sins by what we do. We are saved by what God does through the love of Jesus. This is grace. What is our response to this good news?
Our response to God’s good news is to worship God and give thanks to God for all the many blessings we have received through God’s grace. The Kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of the world. Thank God! Our God is a God of love, compassion, and generosity. Since God is generous towards us we must do the same towards others.
God will reward you
We must learn to forgive those that we think are unworthy of forgiveness. Answer God’s call to work in God’s vineyard. Show forgiveness even to those who are last on your list. Share God’s generosity with others.
We must learn to have mercy for those we think are unworthy of mercy. Answer God’s call to work in God’s vineyard. Show mercy even to those who are last on your list. Share God’s generosity with others.
We must learn to put aside our pride in ourselves. Answer God’s call to work in God’s vineyard. Set aside your pride and submit to God’s will. Share God’s generosity with others.
Finally, we must learn to put away our envy of others. Answer God’s call to work in God’s vineyard. Set aside your envy and be satisfied with God’s generous blessings. Share God’s generosity with others.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen
Boring, M. Eugene. “Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII. Nashville,TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.
Long, Thomas. Matthew. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Our concept of fairness is playing by the rules. The rules of our world assume that there is a level playing field. We assume that everyone has the same access to education, health care, food, water, and shelter. A level playing field assumes that there is no discrimination.
What is your attitude about serving others? If we are honest with ourselves, we prefer to be served rather than serving others. We live in a culture where we expect to be compensated for serving others.
Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We have all been affected by the temptation to sin. Our wills have been turned inward towards ourselves and away from God.
We cannot save ourselves. Jesus saves us from our sins by becoming human and yet remaining sinless. We are saved from sin and death through the cross. We are saved by grace through faith and not by works. We do not merit or earn God’s grace. It is a free gift for all.