“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ 9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20: 1-16)
Jesus was not the only Jewish rabbi to tell parables, that is, stories with a moral and spiritual lesson. Jewish tradition records many wise and wonderful parables that the rabbis told, going back well before the First Century. One goes like this: A landowner needed help with fieldwork on his large estate. So one morning he went to the center of town to hire the day laborers hanging out there, waiting for work. He promised a certain amount for the day’s labor, let’s say, a denarius, the usual day’s wage. By noon, the landowner realized that he was going to need more help to get the work done by sundown. So he went back to town, and found a few guys still hanging around. He hired them for the second half of the day. A few hours before sunset, the landowner realized that he still needed a few more hands to wrap this all up, so back he went and returned with a few more hangers-on. The work done by sunset, the landowner called the laborers together to give each of them their wages.
Does that sound familiar?
It was familiar to Jesus and his fellow Jews, because Jesus told it, too. As Jesus drew the story to a close, I bet that people were nodding their heads, pretty sure of what was coming next, thinking to themselves, “Preach it, Jesus! Assure us again of the justice and fairness of God, the righteous recompense that God gives according to what we have done and earned in this life.”
Because that was how the old familiar story always ended. The laborers who worked all day got a denarius. Those who worked half a day got half a denarius. Those who worked only a quarter of a day got pocket change, worth about a quarter of a denarius. And the moral of the story is that we can trust God to be at least as fair and just as was that landowner who paid all the day laborers according to the amount of work they had done.
Here’s where we come to the first question in the sermon outline: What did Jesus do with that old, familiar story? Just when Jesus had that audience waiting and ready for that old, familiar, comforting ending, he pulls the rug out from under their expectations and substitutes this shocking, surprising twist at the end: every laborer gets the same treasure at the end of the day, no matter how long they worked, or not. The coin in their hand is at least much a gift as it is a reward. Again, to answer the question, What did Jesus do with an old, familiar story? He substituted the normal, expected ending for a strange and baffling one which challenged everyone’s normal notion of fairness and justice.
Now, if Jesus’ parable is meant to tell us something about God, well, Isn’t God fair and just? Isn’t God even the source of fairness, justice and equality? Doesn’t the Bible say that we shall reap what we sow? Why would Jesus substitute one ending, which celebrated fairness, equity and equality, with a surprising reversal that blows those categories out of the water?
Yes, God is just. But thank God, our sense of justice is not the whole picture. Jesus’ probing, perceptive and penetrating question, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” confronts us with the other side of the coin: God’s extravagant and unmerited mercy and generosity, and our inability either to earn it, or control it. In Jesus’ parable we meet a God who is not only “fair” as we usually calculate fairness, because he is just as concerned about what we need as he is about what we deserve. And when it comes to what we need for eternal life, God is more than fair, God is surprisingly, scandalously generous.
But Jesus’ question, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” confronts us with our own mixed feelings and ambivalence about God’s extravagant, unmerited generosity. We’re typically all for God’s generosity whenever it comes our way. What a relief! But not always. How humbling, as well. It’s humbling to admit that we might ever need more than just our just desserts. Like pitiless, merciless, relentless Inspecteur Javert, in the book, the movie and the musical, Les Miserables, who tirelessly tracked down the escaped convict Jean Valjean throughout the whole story. When Jean Valjean saved Javert’s life, Javert could not accept the grace and the extravagant goodness that came to him so undeservedly from his sworn enemy. Such unmerited grace and mercy violated the unbending code of justice that ruled Javert’s life and justified his existence. His sense of justice still required that someone be punished, if not Valjean, he thought, then himself. And so Javert took his own life. The unmerited and unlimited grace of God is not only liberating; it can be humbling.
We’re more accustomed to the worldly mindset of scarcity. That’s the first law of economics: scarcity. In the markets of the world, unlimited, infinite human demand, desire and need are ever seeking a limited and finite supply of goods and resources. And you have to compete to earn them, or merit them, by hard work, smarts, creativity and competition. You could just as easily lose as win. So Fear drives the economies of the world’s households and countries: the fear of scarcity, the fear of losing.
But what’s true for the world’s marketplace is not true for the kingdom of God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, the reverse. In the kingdom of God, God’s unlimited, unmerited, infinite and inexhaustible riches and resources, to give us faith, hope and love, for this life and the next, which we call “grace,” are abundantly, freely available through Christ Jesus, like the denarius coins that fell into every worker’s hand. But human demand and desire for the riches of God’s grace and goodness are so limited and scarce. In light of God’s unlimited, unmerited, infinite and inexhaustible grace to give us meaning, value and virtue, Faith, not fear, is what drives the economy of God’s kingdom: faith in God’s willing and reliable generosity and extravagance of grace through Jesus Christ.
And not just for ourselves, but for every citizen of God’s household, in any time and place. Which brings us to question number two: Why Jesus would change the old familiar story the way he did? The first reason, subpoint A, is that Jesus was teaching and preparing his disciples for their apostolic and evangelistic ministries after he ascended to heaven, and empowered them with his Holy Spirit. Their ministry would go forth to both Jews and Gentiles. It would also draw in people whom they would consider unclean and unfit for God’s kingdom, like repentant tax collectors and prostitutes. To all the newcomers, latecomers and other surprise, last-minute guests entering the kingdom of God, the disciples would need to show and share the same kind of caring, compassionate, uncalculating and unconditional generosity as the landowner in Jesus’ surprising version of the old, familiar parable. After all, God had shown the same kind of caring, compassionate, uncalculating and unconditional generosity to them. Again: this generosity would focus more on people’s needs, than on their just desserts.
Or would Jesus’ disciples forget that, and be jealous because of how generous God was to those who had not borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day as they had, in their first years with Jesus? Like soon after Jesus’ resurrection, when Peter and the other apostles were overstretched, organizing food distribution for widows and the poor, keeping track of the charitable contributions, preaching, teaching and praying, while more and more needy people got overlooked. And so they organized the first ever deacon board to do the hands-on, benevolent work, according to Acts chapter 6. And soon those deacons were multiplying their ministry toward new places and new people. Those seven deacons were actually the first to “go into all the world to preach the gospel to all nations,” while Peter and the other disciples stayed in Jerusalem.
Was Peter then tempted to say, “Hey, wait a minute! I was in on the ground floor of this movement, and not them! I was out there on the road with Jesus when we didn’t know where our next meal or our next bed would come from half the time! And these Johnny-Come-Latelies are getting all the opportunities among the Samaritans and with the Ethiopian eunuch, and all the publicity for it?” Or did Peter rejoice to see “the last becoming first,” and praise God for expanding the ministry beyond himself and his in-group?
And when Peter later met, talked and prayed with the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and saw the Holy Spirit fall on him and his other Gentile friends and family members, did Peter think to himself, “Now this is getting out of hand! How long will it be before everyone in the church is Gentile, and no one in the church knows how to keep a kosher home and do the proper Sabbath prayers?” Peter instead seems to have said, “Hallelujah! Just like Jesus said, ‘the last shall be first,’” and, “Praise the Lord for doing all that his prophets foretold!”
This is an important lesson for us to remember in the Global North, in our supposedly Christian country, as the weight of the world church shifts to Africa, Latin America and Asia. At the current rate of church growth, in about ten years, China will have the largest Christian population of any country in the world. Will we in the Western church be glad and grateful for these answers to the prayers of our parents and grandparents who sent missionaries and Bible translators there, and then prayed for them during the worst years of the Communist Cultural Revolution? Will we receive them as brothers and sisters with as much to give us as we have to give them? Or will we try to hold on to elder brother and sister status, control, privilege and power? Should our two countries ever approach the brink of war, will the Christians of both countries remember which kingdom claims their primary citizenship?
For a positive example, consider the story of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. It started over a hundred years ago from two Mennonite groups in Illinois, and grew to become the mission agency that now coordinates and supports the work of Bible teachers, linguists, leadership developers and other church workers across six different African countries with help from five Mennonite denominations in the US, Canada and France. The headquarters and its staff used to all be in Elkhart IN. But things started changing about twenty years ago. Now the president of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission is a Congolese pastor, Rev. Benjamin Mubenga, working out of the DRC. Other staff and board members are native church leaders in Burkina Faso, Sierra Leonne, South Africa and North America. They do a lot of their work by internet and email, also by Skype and occasional visits. That sharing and multiplying of power worldwide is an example of the kind of generosity of spirit that Jesus was teaching his disciples through this surprising twist of his story. And yes, they’re the outfit who are organizing the learning tour I’ve been talking about to Burkina Faso next year. That’s the first reason why the disciples needed to hear this version of the story. Jesus wanted them to be glad, gracious and generous, not resentful, jealous nor superior, toward those who would join the kingdom of God and their ministry much later than they, and who would receive the same grace and gifts and callings from God as they did.
Here’s the second reason, subpoint B of question number two, about why Jesus would change the old familiar story the way he did: Jesus also wants his disciples, and us, to identify with the undeserving latecomers who received the landowner’s surprising generosity, well beyond any question of merit or fairness. He wants us to be like the latecomers whose jaws drop in wonder and joy as they see a whole denarius drop into the palms of their hands, even though they know they didn’t really earn the whole thing. He wants us to understand and remember that we are also, equally, the beloved and blessed recipients of all the extravagant richness of God’s mercy toward ourselves, instead of calculating who has earned what, and why I am more worthy than they of God’s grace.
However long we have known and loved and served the Lord, however long our ancestors may have known and loved and served the Lord, God will never be anyone’s debtor. Jesus’ surprising and shocking version of the story calls us to leave all calculations of worth, merit and deserving among mortals up to God, and be grateful for the grace and the gifts of God we have received and can share. For they have more to do with the goodness and the merits of the Giver, then they do with the goodness and merits of those who receive. That’s why we call it “grace.” Jesus gave this old familiar story that shocking, scandalous twist at the end so that we might live in gratitude, awe and wonder at the extravagant, unmerited gifts we have been given. Chief among these extravagant, unmerited blessings is the very fact of existence itself, that we’re even here at all, and on such a beautiful planet. The unmeasurable treasures of life and love have been dropped into our hands even before we could speak, give them names, or say Thanks. The most amazing, wonderful thing of all is that there is anything at all.
Let’s take those two lessons with us into the service of communion that follows: First, that we share the loaf and the cup, and all that it conveys about God’s grace today, in solidarity and common kingdom citizenship with churches and disciples of Jesus all around the world, many of whom came to this table much more recently than did we or our ancestors. No one earned a place here; it’s pure gift. So, let’s celebrate everyone’s addition into our family of faith, and their contributions to it.
Secondly: Let’s be grateful, not calculating, knowing ourselves to be just as much the recipients of unmerited, unlimited grace upon grace as anyone else. Otherwise, where would we be if God was only just and fair?