Just imagine for a moment that the Church hired people to help clean up the grounds and paid them the living wage, and then ended up paying those that had turned up for an hour so the same as those who had been at it all day. If you had turned up at 9am and worked until 5 in the afternoon, would you feel OK about it?
Somehow, I think the majority of us probably wouldn’t.
This story from Matthews Gospel would have been clearly understood by the audience. After all we are talking about people who lived day to day on a subsistence level. They knew how much they ought to be paid, how much they needed to be paid. Their continued existence would have depended on it.
Jesus wasn’t talking to the equivalent of City Millionaires here, he was talking to the working classes; even the Pharisees would not have been rich. Money in 1st Century Palestine was like today, held by the few; i.e. the rich and powerful.
So, there is something decidedly wrong with this parable from our perspective. Nick Page one of my favourite authors has this to say about Jesus’ parables. He calls them “chocolate covered chilli peppers…..without the chocolate”. Not the cosy stories we are brought up with then. And this one is no different.
To fully understand it, we need to see how it is encompassed in the Gospel by two verses. Ch. 19:30 “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last with be first”, and Ch.20:16 “ So the last will be first, and the first will be last”. Note the irony with which Jesus turns those two phrases on their heads. The parable is designed to show what the verses mean. We also need to see of course to whom this parable is aimed at.
Just before the story, Jesus answers a query from his own disciples who ask him “Who then can be saved”. So Jesus at this point is talking to his disciples; people who have given up a lot to follow him. A feeling that is voiced by Peter, who says, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” It is difficult not to hear the critical tone in this question to Jesus. And this is from one of his inner circle. Peter is speaking on behalf of the others, who have obviously invested a lot in following Jesus and are wondering perhaps if their investment is starting to look a little dodgy. Don’t forget a non-violent Messiah, who would sacrifice his own life for the sake of others was not on the menu.
So who is Jesus talking to? It would appear that he is aiming this particular “chocolate covered chilli pepper…without the chocolate” at his own disciples. They had heard many before at others expense. I wonder if they may have been a little unsettled when Jesus started giving them one of his “parables”.
Let’s take a look at it. The kingdom of heaven is like….not a place or an area but what someone does. i.e. we live out the Kingdom. We see the landowner going out early in the morning, he is active, he certainly isn’t lazy, and he keeps going out all through the day looking for workers. In this image we are shown that God never rests, he is always seeking and calling people to work in his vineyard.
And then the landowner, God, gives those who have just turned up the same wages as those who have been toiling all day! Ouch. That just doesn’t look or feel right does it. So what’s going on here? Jesus obviously feels that in light of the challenge raised by Peter, that he needs to lay down some basics about the Kingdom of Heaven, and choosing an economic model, he makes it very clear that in the Kingdom, things work very differently than the normal model we are used to. It is a clear challenge to those who feel they are owed anything because they have stuck around. Jesus is saying to them that is doesn’t work like that. They/We have been called to work in the vineyard. God’s wage (if you can call it that) is fair to God. He gives us salvation. You can’t give more. Notice that the later workers do not get more than the 1 denarius. In fact they get “whatever is right” v4. Jesus makes clear in v 15 God’s motives. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my money? (for money replace gifts) Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Grace then is the topsy-turvy world of economics in Heaven. Grace is undeserved. We can never earn it or be good enough by what we do. Notice how the early workers are ungrateful – a word that reflects a lacking of grace.
I wonder how the disciples felt afterwards. I am not too sure they really got the message because shortly after the mother of James and John made a request for special status for “her boys”, which caused a row amongst the twelve – stressy times – and Jesus has to take the twelve aside and give them a talk about servant leadership. They finally twigged what he was talking about at the last supper when he washed the city detritus off their feet.
In Summary then, the rules of Grace run counter to the rules of justification. It doesn’t matter how hard we work, we can’t buy or earn salvation. It is a gift. Of course, the outlandish size of the gift has the effect on most of us of wanting to repay such love by working even harder for the kingdom. Even so, those who do, need to remind themselves that they won’t be gaining preference or special status for their efforts.
So the parable retains it impact today, still hotter than the average chilli pepper. How often do we consider ourselves saved because we are Christians. Those troublesome non-Christians eh? I mean we’ve got Jesus right? Err Maybe not. Let’s not be too comfortable.
Our work is to show the light of the world in the darkness. We are not to act like a self-satisfied disciple, on the contrary, we are to be Jesus to everyone we meet. For the last will be first, and the first will be last. As mature Christians we should not look down on those new to the faith. We are not more saved than they are in God’s eyes, for if it wasn’t for Grace, we would all be lost.
So what does Jesus mean when he said “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. He said it twice so it’s got to be important. Well, when can the first be last and the last be first? Perhaps when there isn’t a first or a last. It is when we are equal. Remember Paul wrote, “So in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Again there is no hierarchy here. No race is considered better than other, no status in life, gender is not to be considered a source of power.
Philip Yancey had this to say about the parable of the vineyard.
“Jesus’ story makes no economic sense – and that was his intent. He was giving a parable about Grace, which cannot be calculated like a day’s wages. Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is about not counting……..if paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell”
We are all equal in God’s eyes, we are all equally in a desperate need of Grace and God washes everyone, good or bad, Christian or non-Christian. If we accept the gift and choose to live with him then we are saved. If we refuse to accept the gift of salvation and reject God then we are on our own and without God will perish. So choose well!
If you think today that you have been nudged by God to enter the vineyard, then there is not better day than today. We will have people by the cross and in the foyer who will be happy to pray with you after this message, so let us end in prayer before God.
Father, we thank you for your outrageous gift of Grace without which we would all be in Hell.
Thank you for the life and the example of your son Jesus, who lived a life that reflected Grace at every turn, even when it caused him pain and distress.
Father come alongside us now with the Holy Spirit, convict us of our need for you, show us that we are all equal in your eyes, show us that you do not have favourites.
Help us to come to your today to recommit our lives again to work in your vineyard for the salvation of the world, for the resurrection of creation, for the salvation of your children.
In Jesus name