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The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

July 14, 2019

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 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.”

If you’ve been following the Democratic primary of late, and in particular, watched the Democratic primary debate, then you were likely introduced to Andrew Yang, a long shot candidate running for president and tech entrepreneur. Now before I go any further, let me be crystal clear, I will never endorse a political candidate running for office from the pulpit, to me that would be an unhealthy use the pulpit. So be rest assured there. Anyway, the reason that I tell you about Andrew Yang is that he has a very unorthodox policy idea and that is to enact what he calls the Freedom Divided, that is, to legislate a universal basic income, giving every American over the age of 18 an extra $1000 a month, every month, no questions asked.

Now, what do you think about that idea? I realize you’ve had about 2 seconds to digest it, but what do you think? Depending on your background or financial situation or your political affiliation, you may think it’s a fantastic idea, others of you might think it’s the worst idea you’ve ever heard, others of you feel completely neutral about it. And maybe others of you are thinking to yourself, “That’s not fair.”

Which brings us to our parable today. In our story today, different people work for different lengths of time but yet are all paid the same amount. And you can just hear the ones who have worked all day shouting, “That’s not fair.”

This summer we’ve been doing a summer sermon series on the parables, stories that Jesus tells where he uses the everyday stuff of life to communicate a greater spiritual truth. And this morning, as we look at the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we read about a story where a landowner goes out 5 different times of the day looking for workers, and in a shocking turn of events, ends up paying them all the exact same amount.

Now, this story has very little to tell us about the dignity or value of a hard day’s work, or how employees should treat their employees. Both of those things are good and true, but that’s not primarily what this story is about. Rather, Jesus has put together a story with everyday kind of details in it to communicate something much, much greater: that is, the amazing, frustrating, and dangerous nature of God’s grace. The amazing, frustrating, and dangerous nature of God’s grace.

Here’s what I mean. We need to break down the key elements of the story itself. The landowner represents God (aren’t you glad I’m here, to convey to you the deep things of God?), the workers represent people like you and me, the work itself represents your life as a Christian, and the time spent working represents roughly at what point someone becomes a Christian.

So, what this story is telling us is that both the people who put their faith in Jesus and become a Christian on their deathbed, the ones who start working at 5pm, and the people who have been Christians for their entire life, who started working bright and early in the morning, both of them get the exact same amount of eternal life. And it’s all pointing us to the grace of God, God’s amazing, frustrating, dangerous grace.

So that’s where we’re headed this morning. Three characteristics about God’s grace. So let’s get going …

The Amazingness of God’s Grace

First, things first, let’s define what we mean when we use the word grace. When the bible talks about grace itmeans getting more than we deserve.

Grace is when you get more than you deserve. Which is what this story is all about.

In this story, a landowner goes out five different times during the day looking for workers who can work in his vineyard. He first goes out at 6am and finds a bunch of workers, then 9am, then 12noon, goes back out at 3, then unbelievably with only one hour left in the day, goes back out at 5pm. The 6am workers go into the work day with the agreement that they will receive the usual daily wage. The others from 9am on, are simply told that they will be paid whatever is right, and we can only assume that they expect that they will be paid in proportion with what the 6am workers were promised. After all, as they and we would expect, the amount of hours you work is directly related to the amount of money you will make.

But to their surprise, they get far more than they imagined. Shockingly, the landowner gives them all the same amount, to each one he gives the usual daily wage. Unbelievable. The ones who started working at 5pm, who worked just one hour, who barely even had time to break a sweat received the usual daily wage. It’s unbelievable. The landowner gave them far more than they could have ever hoped for.

Friends, do you realize that this is the heart and character of our great God? He is gracious beyond measure. He lavishes us with his love. Giving us far more than we deserve. Our culture says that hours works equals money made, that you get what you deserve. Not so with God. With God, because the lavish love he has shown us in Jesus Christ, we get far more than we deserve.

And more specifically, within this parable, this story tells us that it’s never too late to make the turn. It’s never to late to put your faith in God. Do you realize that a person could feel like they’ve wasted your life, living for themselves, ignoring God, but then put their faith in God in the 11thhour, and be fully accepted and embraced by God? It doesn’t matter if you become a Christian at 8, 48 or 98, if you put your faith in God at any moment, you don’t get a percentage of his grace, no, you get all of it.

Friends, is there someone in your life who you’ve written off, who you look at and say, it’s too late, they’re a lost cause, they’ll never listen to me, they’ll never put their faith in Christ? This story tells us it’s never too late to make the turn.

Or friends, do you feel like it’s too late for you, that you’ve squandered too much of your life, or that you haven’t done enough to make God happy? Do you see that this story is telling us just the opposite? It’s not and never will be about how much you get done for God and that’s because ultimately we’re accepted by God not because of what we have or haven’t done, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

So that’s the first thing I want you to see from this story. It’s a testament to God’s amazing grace.

But here’s the thing. While there’s the amazing side of God’s grace, there’s also a frustrating side to it as well.

The Frustration with God’s Grace

You might be thinking, how could that even be a thing? How can grace be frustrating? Well, it depends on who you are and your perspective on the whole thing. Here’s what I mean.

While the 5pm workers we imagine were thrilled with receiving the usual daily wage, there’s another group that’s incredibly frustrated with what they’ve received. And that group is the 6am workers, who have worked all day long. They are incredibly frustrated.

So why is that? After all, the landowner gave them exactly what he promised to give them for their work. He didn’t lie, he didn’t deceive them, he gave them exactly what he promised to give them. And the workers agreed to all this. So why are they so frustrated?

Well, thankfully they tell us, 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.

Their chief complaint isn’t that the landowner lied or took advantage of them, again, they have no argument there. Rather, their chief complaint is that the landowner has made the 5pm workers equal to them.

They say, “these guys only worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us!”

That is, they can’t believe that they would be treated the same as those other people.

And this is what frustrates many of us about God’s grace.

We live in a world where we differentiate and separate people based on merit and achievement, age and tenure, success and failure. But yet, God’s grace does just the opposite.

Grace is the great equalizer. Grace is the ultimate leveling of the playing field. And let’s be honest, we often don’t like that. Sure grace is amazing when it saves a wretch like me, but when it saves a wretch like you it’s not so amazing anymore. It’s frustrating. It’s irritating. It’s annoying. But yet, we all are in need of grace. I need grace, you need grace, your spouse needs grace, your kids need grace, even the cashier at Safeway and your mailman need grace. Sure, it can be frustrating to realize that God gives grace to people who don’t deserve it, but the amazing thing is, that means it’s available to you too.

God’s amazing, frustrating grace. Now, here’s one more thing I want you to see.

And that is, the dangerous nature of God’s grace.

The Danger with God’s Grace

And I know that sounds odd, but here’s what I mean.

Callie and I have a practice of reading the Sunday sermon passage the Tuesday before and this past week she made a pretty interesting observation about the potential danger of God’s grace, and I’ll try to paraphrase what she said.

Imagine this thought experiment. Imagine the workers are headed home and the ones who worked all day who only received the usual daily wage are frustrated, thinking, it’s not fair that we worked all day and received the same amount as all those who worked far less.

So they get an idea and say to themselves, “Ok, if that’s how the system works, if working only one hour makes me the same amount of money, then tomorrow I’m sleeping in, I’m going to lounge around all morning and then head out to the street corner in the late afternoon, and see if I can work an hour and get paid the usual daily wage …”

In short, what the worker is trying to do is take advantage of the landowner’s generosity, or in our case, take advantage of God’s amazing grace.

Friends, this is the danger of God’s amazing grace, is that we can try and take advantage of it. Taken to its extreme, this means living a life for ourselves, living apart from God our whole lives and then at the end say a heartfelt prayer and trust in God’s amazing grace.

Now, will God’s grace be there in the end? Can we count on it, even in that kind of scenario? Yes! That’s how amazing God’s grace. It’s there for all those who don’t deserve it.

But yet, but yet, here’s the fundamental flaw with that way of thinking. And that is, to put it back in the context of the parable, the workers see their work as a means to an end, as a means of simply making money, and don’t see the work as good and meaningful and fulfilling in and of itself.

Friends, do we look at living for God, following Jesus as a means to an end to receiving eternal life, or do we see it as good and meaningful and fulfilling in and of itself right here, right now?

Sure, at the end of the day, the workers all get paid the exact same amount, they all get the exact same amount of grace, they each get eternal life, but yet their days all looked the very different.

The 6am workers had a day full of work. They could rest in the assurance that they would be paid at the end of the day, that they could put food on their family’s table, just as we as Christians have the assurance of eternal life. But the 5pm workers? They must have stood around all day, nervous, biting their fingernails, wondering how they’re going to pay the bills. Even more, imagine when they got home that night at the dinner table and their spouse asked them, “Honey, how was your day?” What will they say? “Well, it was pretty boring to be honest, I truly stood around for the first 11 hours doing nothing.” They’ve got no stories to tell.

But yet, the ones who’ve been working all day? They’ve got tons of stories to tell. Chasing cattle, driving the John Deere tractor for miles and miles, stepping on grapes with their bare feet making wine in the vineyard. They’ve had an eventful day of meaningful work.

Friends, do you think of your life with God that way? Do you think of your life of following Jesus as one full of meaning and adventure, joy and hard work? Friends, if we see our lives of following Jesus in this way, then we won’t be tempted to take advantage of God’s amazing grace. Instead, we’ll want to live for him as long as we possibly can.

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember a conversation with someone who wasn’t a Christian. And I remember at one point she said, “You know, maybe, when I have kids in my 30’s, then I’ll become a Christian, then we’ll start going to church, because I want my kids raised in that kind of environment with those kinds of morals.” And while I was saddened to hear her say that, I later thought about how even under that logic, the “I’ll become a Christian when it benefits me” logic, that why not become a Christian right then in your 20’s? In your 20’s your making some incredibly huge life decisions, such as what do I want to do with my life, how should I steward my money (that is, if you have any at that point) or who do I want to spend the rest of life with? Wouldn’t it be good to know what God’s Word has to say about huge life decisions like those?

Here’s what I’m getting at. God’s grace is so amazing that it’s available to us both now and later, and yet because of its amazingness that we ought to say yes to it as soon as we possibly can.

So there you go, God’s amazing, frustrating, dangerous grace.

Now, briefly here, two points of application. Let’s see if we can get specific here.


Fighting Envy

One of the challenges of God’s amazing grace being available to all is that we can become, as the passage alludes to, filled with envy. There’s a crucial conversation at the end of this story. The landowner says,

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?’

I love that last line, “Are you envious because I am generous?” That is, are you frustrated and resentful because what the other workers have received out of my generosity?

We all struggle with envy in some way, shape or form. Maybe we’re envious of the family that gets to go on bigger and better vacations than we do. Envious of the person here at church who has a better singing voice than us. Envious as you scroll through Pinterest. Envious of your friend who’s happily married while you’re still single. Envious of the family with white picket fence, front porch and 2.5 kids that are well mannered and well behaved. Envy, envy, envy.

So how do you fight envy? Well, the text gives us a small clue. In the original language the phrase, “Are you envious because I am generous?” literally translates as, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” A weird phrase, but it’s getting at the fact that envy has everything to do with where you’re looking, where your eyes are. All the 6am workers are thinking about is what all those around them received, yet the way to fight envy is to focus less on what everyone else has and more on what you have been given.

So for example, I heard a story about a married woman who was envious of another wife. This woman when she was at the grocery store would always see this wife’s husband picking up a bouquet of flowers. And she would think to herself, “Man, my husband never buys me flowers.” And she was envious of this wife who was always getting flowers. But what she didn’t know is that, as she would later hear from this wife, is that they were almost always “forgive me” flowers, “I’m so sorry” flowers for the fight they had got in the night before. You see, this woman had created this fictional account of this perfect marriage, with the perfect husband who always brings home flowers, and it was only then that she was so incredibly grateful for her husband, who spoke kindly to her and treated her with respect each and every day.

You see, the way to fight envy is to focus more on what you have, all that God has given you, and less on what those around you have. So next time, you are filled with envy, take a deep breath and consider all that God has given you.

So that’s the first point of application. Here’s the second.

Pay Grace Forward

As people who have received God’s amazing grace, one of the responsibilities we have is to pay grace forward, just as you hear about those stories of Starbucks customers paying for the person behind them.

So friends, how can you pay grace forward? To your spouse, your kids, your employees, your co-workers, your students, to all those around you? How can you pay grace forward?

When you generously tip your waitress after she’s botched all your orders, you’re showing her grace.When you show restraint and extend forgiveness when your spouse speaks to you in an inappropriate tone, you’re showing them grace. When a teacher sees that the class is struggling with an assignment and she extends the due date, she is showing them grace.

And here’s the amazing thing about grace, that is, and that is grace is what God uses to change us, to make us more like Him, to help us grow as followers of Jesus. And we pay grace forward, we’re helping others do the same.

In college I briefly worked at an apartment complex, where I helped with odd jobs around the building. And I remember a conversation with manager who was talking about how great of a guy the owner of the apartment building was. And the manager was telling this story about how when he was new on the job he once put down the carpet in one the units incorrectly and how the carpet was ruined, he was going to have to start over and how he was fearful about telling his boss. But when he went to tell his boss, the owner, the owner just looked at him and smiled, “It’s okay, no worries, we all make mistakes. I’ll pay for it, no problem.” The owner showed the manager grace.

Now think about how that impacted the manager. Do you think he said to himself, “This is amazing, now I can do the carpeting wrong in every unit!” No of course not, rather because of the grace he received he was more compelled to work hard and do a good job for the owner, and he worked out of a sense of gratitude because of the manager’s graciousness. That’s the kind of power grace has and that’s the kind of grace God shows us.

So friends, how can you pay grace forward this week and in the weeks ahead?

I’ll close with this:

The senior pastor at my previous church, his name is Scott Dudley, in his previous career he taught at Stanford, and one time he was invited to speak to a group of atheists on campus about Christianity. So he went, and he talked about lots of things, one of which was grace. And one student was so frustrated by what Scott had said, and so he asked, "Let me get this straight. If my friend goes out and murders a bunch of people, but on the last day of his life, he accepts Jesus, and it's real, are you saying he goes to heaven, the same heaven as Mother Theresa?"

And Scott said, "That's exactly what I'm saying."

And the student said, "That's not fair."

And Scott said, "Nope. Not one bit."

He said, "That can't be. That can't be. Don't you think he needs to do something to make up for all the bad stuff he's done? Don't you think a price has to be paid?"

“Don’t you think a price has to be paid?”

Exactly. This atheist student had this sense that justice had to be served, that a price had to be paid, that someone had to take the fall for what this hypothetical murderer did wrong?

And of course, the story of the bible, the story of Christianity is that a price was paid as God himself, Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.

Friends, it is all so very unfair. Jesus Christ, God himself, who lived a perfect, sinless life, unfairly absorbed the wrath of God himself so that you and I could unfairly receive the amazing grace of God.

It was and is so incredibly, unbelievable unfair. But yet, it’s just shows you how amazing God’s grace truly is. God’s amazing, frustrating, dangerous grace.

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