Pentecost 16 A 2020  

Matthew 20:1-16 ‘All You Get Paid is a Gift of Grace’

            In the Name + of Jesus

            I wouldn’t be impressed.  

I wouldn’t be impressed if I were one of the people who worked all day.  It’s not quite right, or fair, or equitable, after all, that others should earn in one hour what I am earning for twelve hours of labour.  And we are all dong the same job.  It’s not like the folks hired at the eleventh hour are basketball stars or corporate lawyers, whom you expect to make a killing.  They are simply fellow vineyard workers like me.

            What about equity here?  What about equal pay for equal work?  What about encouraging honest labour and responsibility?  And discouraging idleness or slothfulness?  

            Never mind the emotion of it all.  Picture yourself as one of those labourers hired in the marketplace at six o’clock in the morning. You were glad to get a job.  Working means you get paid – a denarius for the day is the going rate, the assumed fair wage – so you and your family can eat and live another day.  This parable’s vineyard is not located in Canada, where you could collect CERB or EI, or at least welfare benefits, to keep you going.  It’s more like Nicaragua, where if you don’t get some work, you might not be eating either.  So getting work is good.

            But it’s also hard.  Especially by high noon when the sun is beating down on your head, and you are out in the vines with no shade, and you are thirsty, and can’t wait for the day to end.  I remember that feeling, ever so slightly, being in the middle of tobacco field picking endless leaves at one in the afternoon, just wishing the day would be over…

            As the long day passes, new workers are brought into the vineyard – some at nine in the morning (you can understand that), some at noon (that’s a bit of a late start), some at three in the afternoon (which makes it hardly worthwhile to start), and some at five o’clock (which is just plain crazy because there’s only an hour left in the day). The day was pretty much over at the eleventh hour…

And the day does end.  When evening came – about six o’clock – the owner and his foreman bring everyone out to get paid.  But there’s a surprise here. The master of the house doesn’t start with you, who have put in a long, brutal, twelve hours.  No, he starts with those who started just an hour before.

            And they get a denarius! They get a whole day’s pay for that hour! 

            So maybe you start thinking there’s a different wage scale at this vineyard; maybe you will get more than the denarius that was agreed upon. But then the guys who started at three get the same, and the guys at noon, and the ones who’ve been their since nine in the morning.  And, last of all, you open your weary, sun and work worn hand, and the foreman puts one denarius there too.  It is what you agreed on, but it sure seems like a rip off!

            I would be grumbling at the master, saying, ‘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.’   No doubt about it.  I’m like that.  

            Of course, you don’t hear what the folks hired at the eleventh hour have to say, the ones who received an unexpected full day’s pay.  Did they say ‘THANK YOU!!!?  Did they look at the early morning crew and yell out ‘You suckers!’?  Did they just go home happy to have the money and buy some supper for their families? This parable can raise a few unanswered questions.

            But it is a parable, a down-to-earth story with a meaning bigger than you see on the surface.  So what gives here?

            First, a couple things we should note in the actual parable.  One is that the first group hired agreed to a denarius – a day’s pay – for a day’s work.  Sure, the other option was no work at all, but they aren’t getting ripped off.  The master of the house is fulfilling what he promised. 

            And another – those others hired through the day WERE standing in the marketplace.  They were waiting for work.  You can’t really blame someone who is willing to work but has not yet been hired for not working.  They are idle only because they have not been ‘put into gear’, so to speak.  And they go to work only with the promise that the master will be fair, and pay them what is right.  The guys at the eleventh hour don’t even have that promise; they just go the vineyard to work.  

            And one more thing – the landowner in this parable is extraordinary, beyond the pale of our reality.  If you went to a bank for a loan with this kind of business plan, they’d laugh you out the door.  If you ran your business this way every day, no one would bother working for you until five o’clock in the afternoon, the eleventh hour.  Commercially, this man is a fool. You can’t just give everything away and stay in business….

            Unless you are Jesus 

            This is not a story to be told at business school.  This is a story for the Church, and of the Church of Jesus.  Jesus starts the whole story with: For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning… 

            This is what the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God in Jesus Christ, is like.  The story is about Jesus.  He is the Lord and Master of the house.  Jesus is the Lord Who comes not from any old house, but from the Father’s right hand, from the home of heaven, to enter into the market place.  He has come to call allwho are standing around the marketplace of this world to work in His vineyard – to come into His holy church, to have a place in His kingdom – and to receive the reward of an eternal day’s pay.  

            Of course, Jesus didn’t show up looking like the master of the house.  He came as a Baby, cared for by the Virgin Lady of the house.  He entered into our labour; Jesus learned the hard work of His step-father Joseph.  He landed in the world as a day-Labourer Himself.  And even more, He took on our labour of being human creatures of God, listening to the Lord’s will and doing that will in love for others.  

            In essence, Jesus did ALL THE WORK.  He’s the only One Who really could put in the whole twelve hours, living all of His life in perfect love and holy service and magnificent obedience to God His Father.  AndJesus did overtime on top of that, in a big way.  

            For all of us, who really never get done all that we were created to get done, who spend more time standing idle in the marketplace of this world than we care to admit; for us who grumble and complain that someone else got as much from God as we did, even though we think they didn’t deserve it –

            FOR US, Jesus did the overtime of His passion, for us Jesus bore the heat of the day hanging naked on the cross, for us Jesus did the work of dying in our place.  

            All that we could ever be paid by God is a gift of His grace.  We receive from God His mercy, His daily forgiveness, His promise that we who are dying will live forever in Christ, His salvation that is worth more than a billion days’ worth of pay, only for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ

The parable has a promise for us: You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ What is right is not what we have worked for, prayed for, struggled for.  It’s not about our labour, even though we are all called to labour in Christ, to serve with Him, even suffer with Him.            

What is right is what Christ Jesus gives to us.  Whether we start in His vineyard first thing in the morning or with only an hour left to the day, what He gives is only by His grace.  When we now say, ‘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‘, we will also add a ‘Thanks be to God’!  In His kingdom, under His gracious reign, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, OR early or late-comer.  He makes us all equal in Christ’s forgiveness.  He MAKES us those who belong to His kingdom.

So the parable also has a warning for us, when we think that others shouldn’t be getting the same mercy that God gives to us: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 

            Within this warning, this accusation, is a call to repentance – and an invitation to experience this strange and great wonder: the kingdom of God is for all who will come, whenever they come!  Jesus did not come to call the righteous but sinners.  He didn’t come for the healthy but the sick.  He calls the early risers, but He also calls those who join us at the eleventh hour.  Thanks be to God!

            In the kingdom of Jesus, no one earns their place.  It comes freely, graciously, mercifully, even surprisingly, as a gift.  This gift changes our hearts from grudges to gratitude.

            We are all made equal in His grace right now.  It’s not just an ‘equality of opportunity’, but an ‘equality of outcome’ – the absolute equality of Christ by which we are all paid the same.  Equal now, by His grace, we will be seen in that blessed equality on the Last Day, the eternal Pay Day.        In Jesus’ mercy, Amen.