Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 24, 2023

Matthew 20:1-16 Commentary

Jesus’s questions, on the lips of the vineyard owner, hit like bricks: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” That second question’s literal translation is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Though the “evil eye” image is unfamiliar to us, the juxtaposition of evil and good is quite damning.

We love this story because it paints this gloriously beautiful picture of God’s extravagant grace. But as soon as we start to rewrite it with our own experiences, Jesus’s accusations of what we think we deserve careen towards us with the force of conviction: we do not see ourselves as equals to others, we do not allow God’s grace to rewrite our definitions of God’s justice, and quite frankly, we can’t let go of our own sense of fairness to even consider that justice is not ours to control anyway.

All of the workers that the vineyard owner sends to his field started their day the same, waiting for someone to hire them. Those thought to be the best workers would be snatched up first, at the beginning of the day; the owner promises them the daily wage. The vineyard owner then goes back to the workers-in-waiting four more times, every three hours or so. Each time he goes, the text underscores the basic sameness of those who are waiting: they are standing idle, waiting to be picked. At the last round of pick-ups, the narrative reveals why some are still there. No one, it seems, has thought them worthy enough, capable enough, good enough, to be put to work. Except our vineyard owner, of course, who with each trip to the marketplace, sends a new group out with the promise that they will be treated fairly.

Each of these workers, no matter at what point of the day they started, has the expectation of compensation. Reasonably, they would all expect a sliding scale based on a full day’s work. So when the time came for the pay to be sorted, can you imagine the excited anticipation of those workers who had been out in the field all day as they watched those who had only been there for an hour receive a full day’s wage? Surely that meant they were in for a bonus! Economically, it is what is right and fair!

But that’s not what happens. The workers are correct in their complaint: the vineyard owner has made them all equals even though they haven’t been equal in work. (verse 12) Just to show how much we struggle with the way God’s grace transforms the rubric, there is an interpretative tradition that economically justifies the vineyard’s actions by arguing that the other labourers must have completed more work in an hour or two (and stuck around for the rest of the day). In other words, these interpreters try to say, they must have all worked the same amount!

But that misses the point of the parable. When it comes to what is God’s, namely God’s grace and justice, God determines the wage. All belongs to God, and God is keen to see participants in the kingdom—no matter when they take the invitation. And the way God’s grace and justice flows in God’s kingdom, everyone gets what they need. There’s a sense of equality in value and presence that often rubs against our own human norms.

Sometimes, our cries of “It’s not fair!” are justified. But often, it’s the pout we voice when we want something for ourselves, think more highly of ourselves than others, or have worked ourselves up into a frenzy about what we think we deserve. Even in the Christian faith, to put it in extreme caricature to make the point, surely the grace of the faithful old granny who lived her whole life devoted to Jesus should be greater than the grace for the guilty felon who converts on death row.

Just prior to telling this story and in response to a conversation prompted by the rich young ruler, Jesus tells Peter that there is a very good place for those who devoted themselves to him, saying that those who have sacrificed “for his name’s sake will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” In other words, the “pay” will seem more than worth it because those who lose their life for Christ’s sake actually find their life. But then Jesus caveats what the experience will be like, creating an inclusio for the parable: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (verses 28-30)

When we listen again to Jesus’s parable with that caveat, the parable becomes an invitation to Peter and the other disciples, to every Christian who takes up the Spirit’s invitation to be part of the kingdom that is the vineyard, and we are given the opportunity to check ourselves. If the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus came back, would Peter view Christ’s acceptance of him like the full-day labourers viewed the one-hour labourers? Instead of celebrating the lavish grace that gave everyone what they needed, regardless of how much they “deserved” it, would Peter and the other disciples question and cry foul?

This parable unearths our human tendency to turn everything into a measure of effort and earning. But grace cannot be earned. And the result of God’s justice is that everyone part of the kingdom stands as equals before the judgement seat because of Christ—not because of how long we’ve been part of the kingdom.

But perhaps there is a great reward for a life of long faithfulness. For like the workers who started their labours first but were paid last, we will have the opportunity to see more and more of the goodness of God in the land of the living. We will see and be able to celebrate every act of grace by which God gives a brother or sister exactly what they need. We will have a lot of time to learn how to be glad for God’s generosity to all.

Textual Point

This parable only appears in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is sandwiched between two references to the first and the last (which does appear in the other Gospels). This story undeniably shows that the first will be last, the last will be first, and God makes us all equals.

Illustration Ideas

I love Wayne Forte’s painting, “Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Law and Grace) #1.” The workers’ faces tell the story.

To help his congregation understand, Augustine compared believers from the Old and New Testament as the workers in the vineyard. Likening the daily’s wage to our resurrection, Augustine rightly points out that those who have already died have to wait longer than those of us who are still living—just like the workers who started the day in the vineyard wait longer to receive their pay at the end of the day. (Sermon 87)


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