15th Sunday after Trinity:
Matthew 20.1-16 – The Labourers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.]
I suspect we can all identify with the grumbles of the workers who put in a full day’s work, when they were paid the same pay as those who worked significantly less hours. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers and the employer’s strange unfair behaviour seems baffling.
Let’s look at the parable more closely
A landowner went out early in the morning to hire labourers; he then went out again at 9.00, 12 noon; 3.00 and 5.00, each time hiring those standing around waiting for work. The landowner seems to set the rates of pay at a whim.
Nowadays of course we don’t see people standing around all day on corners waiting to be hired, well not in Blaydon. Though there is still a gig economy, with no employment contracts, just day work now and then and in some cases the rate of pay is less than the legal equal pay rate. People are so desperate for work, they dare not complain.
But the charge of unfairness against the Landowner was not grounded in a cry for justice as they had been paid the agreed payment rather this was around an assumption that they were entitled to more. They had toiled longer and deserved more than others.
The “problem” with this story. Is that this is not about the injustice of a mean and cruel landowner. The problem is the scandal of a gracious and generous landowner.
The point of the parable us that God dispenses gifts, not wages and as is so often the case with parables, this has several possible meanings.
Firstly the parable tells us that in the kingdom of God, there is no such thing as merit! God’s grace is granted according to His pleasure. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.
There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
Like a gift, the only thing we can do with grace…is to receive it.
Secondly Remember James and John seeking establish their superiority by asking Jesus to let them sit at his side in the kingdom. Well this reminds us that nobody can claim a special place, either because they’ve worked hard, or because they’ve given up so much, or because they were in it from the beginning.
Thirdly we know that God’s covenant was with the Jews first and the gentiles last. The parable tells us that the Jews who came first and were God’s chosen people, are not loved more by God than the gentiles, all are God’s people and all receive his grace as he decides fit.
Let’s go back to the workers who were not hired until 5:00 p.m.
They had probably stood watching and waiting whilst other workers were hired or perhaps they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. All day long they had been passed over they did not expect to get paid that day or to have any food to eat that day, and then they were offered work.
These workers were the leftovers; people had passed them by, who in their right mind would pick them! This story reminds us of Jesus passion for the forgotten.
The workers’ complaint is; “The last only worked an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”. The workers aren’t complaining they had not been paid the agreed amount, they had. They’re upset because they felt superior to the other workers.
In other words, they were not only dissatisfied with what they had received; they were also envious of what had been given to the others. They had borne the burden of the work in the sweltering heat of the day; and they were worth a lot more than the latecomers. Competitiveness is part of the human condition.
The parable tells us that God’s grace is about mercy, not about fairness. We might think it would have been fairer to pay the late workers less than the daily wage rate or those who had worked all day should have been paid more than the daily wage. But God loves us all equally and mercifully gives us more than we deserve.
No one is first, and no one is last. I’m not better than you and you’re no better than me. You’re no worse than I am and I’m no worse than you are. We’re all covered by the grace of Christ.
That’s why I think Jesus used such radical language in verse 16 about the first and the last. He says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” And if we look back at the last verse of chapter 19, the verse immediately preceding this parable we hear: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
The order changes, the first and the lasts, lasts and firsts all blur together. It’s as if Jesus is trying to make the point that first and last doesn’t matter in the kingdom of God. Grace is not about finishing first. It is not about finishing last. It’s about not counting at all. It’s about not keeping score.
This story reaches out to us today, where our culture applauds those who manage to push themselves to the front; and sadly, this can spill over into the life of the church.
So we need to learn again and again that there are no superior or inferior Christian’s. Only Christian’s like you and me, who for five minutes or fifty or more years serve God, we are all offered a fresh start through God’s grace.
This parable reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways; that is a theme right through the Bible. God shows mercy when people shout for judgement makes suffering a privilege and does not weigh his love by merit. His Kingdom calls for a radical change in our human values.
Jesus was always quite clear, it was always God’s plan to humble the exalted and exalt the humbled.
Let us pray
Gracious Lord, thank you for the love that is not measured, which brings sinners into the blessed company of saints. Help us to be humble enough to take whatever place we are given, and an enthusiasm to work wholeheartedly for your glory where and when you call us. AMEN