The story is told of an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian who discovered a bottle with a genie inside. One of them rubbed the bottle and freed the genie, who generously offered to grant one wish to each of the three. The Englishman went first and wished that he would be granted a peerage and daily access to the throne. His wish was immediately granted. The Frenchman came next and wished that all the beautiful women in the world would suddenly fall at his feet in adoration. His wish was immediately granted.
The Russian came last. Of the three, he was poorest. Of the three, his needs were greatest. The genie invited him to take his time and to think of the one thing that would give him the greatest pleasure in life. At that, his face lit up and he said, “That’s easy. I wish that my neighbor’s potato crop might fail.”
The parable of the workers and the vineyard is like that. It proves that the old adage that “the first will be last and the last will be first.” Those who came at the first of the day had their needs met, but they could not focus on that positive aspect of their lives. Instead, their focus was on their neighbour who, though less deserving, also had his/her needs met. Instead of finding joy in their own circumstances, those who came at the first of the day found outrage at the apparent unfairness of the situation. They did not want more for themselves. They wanted less for their neighbor.
The parable is about a landowner who helps others. It’s about a landowner who sweeps up lost and idle people and gives them a purpose. The landowner hired workers at different times during the day, but he paid all of them the same wage regardless of the number of hours they worked. The workers who were hired first represented God’s chosen people of Israel, the recipients of God’s covenant promises. The workers hired last represented the Gentiles. They were offered the same salvation as the Jews through faith in Christ. They were part of the remnant Paul refers to in Romans 11:1-2, 29-32.
At first glance, this parable seems unfair. After all, it doesn’t seem fair to us that the workers who were hired at the end of the day received the same pay as the workers who were hired first thing in the morning. We must remember though that what is unfair to us is fair to God and vice versa. That’s because God’s kingdom does not work in the same way as our worldly kingdom. The parable is the story of God’s grace and how he gives his grace to anyone he chooses. Those who receive it are blessed beyond anything they can earn or imagine. In God’s eyes, there is no difference between a lifelong Christian and a person who becomes a Christian on his or her deathbed.
Jesus had a bitter message for Christians, especially their leaders. The followers of Jesus would sacrifice a sense of fairness for the Kingdom. Those who grew in the faith would feel lonely. Those who grew in ministry would feel abandoned. God does not have favorites in the Kingdom. But he does have the saved community where the most senior and the neophyte shared equally in God’s very life. Indeed, the first would be last and the last would be first.
We are conditioned to judge value and estimate worth on the basis of compassion and merit. This is how the world operates, but that is not how God operates. God’s world is an economy of grace, and gratitude is the capital. God is free to do what is necessary to work out his will in our lives and in the history of the world. We are to wait upon God, and while we are waiting on God we are to praise him just like Paul and Silas did when they were in jail in Acts 16:25-40.
Our capacity for gratitude is directly related to our capacity to see and experience grace. The first workers in the parable were ungrateful because they saw the landowner’s method of rewarding his workers as unfair. They could not see and experience his grace. Likewise, sometimes we can’t fully see and experience God’s grace because we don’t always show gratitude. Sometimes we look at a deathbed convert and think that it was not fair for God to forgive him because we have been faithful Christians for a long time. When God forgives us, he breaks into our world of reward and punishment.
We can improve our capacity for grace and gratitude by being a blessing to others and giving blessings to others. If we want more gratitude in our lives, we have to be more aware of the spirit of grace in our lives. The more we experience grace, the more we will be filled with gratitude and the more likely we will be to affirm and bless others.
There is a story of a man who faced surgery several years ago, and it happened suddenly. He didn’t have time to emotionally prepare for the surgery. He went to the doctor who sent him directly to the hospital and in hours, he had open heart surgery. This man was grateful for his surgery, his successful life and the extra years that had been given to him. But he also said that he was sad that he was not able to express his love to his children before that critical moment of surgery. He had wanted to tell his children but he didn’t. There wasn’t time. Months passed; years passed; a decade passed. One day, he was at his doctor’s office only to discover that he needed surgery again. Only, this time, he had two days to prepare. He had each child, now adults, come into his hospital room and talk privately with him. He wanted each child, now an adult, to know that he felt this past decade of life were extra years that had been given to him by God. Not only the past ten years, but his whole life had been a gift of God, that they, his children, had been a total gift of God. That God had given him his children, his wife, his family, his work, his faith in Christ. That God had given him an abundant life and that God would give him eternal life as well. He wanted his kids to know how he felt. He wanted to tell his children these things ten years ago, and now he had a second chance to do it. And so he told them, each of them, one by one. It was very emotional, and his wife left the room because she couldn’t handle it.
This man expressed what God wants. Deep down inside, all people have this attitude that life is a gift. Life itself, the abundant life, eternal life, it is all a gift. It is not that God owes us anything.
No matter how badly we mess up, God loves us so much as he ever has or ever will. God’s heart is a giving, self-sacrificing, forgiving heart. God’s heart can turn us into people who rejoice over the good fortunes of other peoples-regardless of our own circumstances. God’s heart injected in us allows us to see what God’s Kingdom is all about. It turns the world’s rules upside-down. In God’s Kingdom:
- Greatness is not measured by who ends up on top of the heap.
- Being rich does not mean having material possessions.
- Getting even with people who wrong us is out.
God is always available to anyone who reaches out to him wherever they reach out to him and whenever they reach out to him. Any time is the right time in God’s eyes. God’s grace never runs out. It is limitless because God is sovereign and just.
The workers who were hired last represent the outcasts of society. These workers were hired last because no one else wanted them. Likewise, the outcasts of our society are not wanted. They stand outside of society, but God invites them and all of his people to be on the inside of his kingdom. God looks for us just like the landowner sought out the workers. In the parable, it would have been undignified for the workers to go looking for a job. They had to be found and asked so that their honour could be kept. True selfless acts are rare in our world, but they inspire us to show the same grace, faith and love to others. Those of us who were called first and early in life are called on to understand our sin-filled world and join Jesus in inviting the lost ones-the poor, the lame, the latecomers, the unimportant-instead of complaining.
God’s gift to us is the gift of eternal life with him. It doesn’t matter to God how long we have been with him in faith. God chooses to invite us to spend eternity with him. We can choose to accept or reject his invitation. If we choose to accept him, we choose to reject the attitudes and behaviours that God does not like. If we think that good works are the key to getting into heaven, we are blinded by our sense of our own goodness and we can’t see the goodness of God’s grace-hence the reference to the blind eye in Matthew 20:15.
If we start asking ourselves who deserves to be forgiven, we soon find out that the answer is no one. No matter how hard we work, we can’t be “good enough.” The good news of the Gospel is that what can’t be obtained by good works, Christ gives to us as a gift of grace. God forgives us and frees us from the mistakes of the past. We are all put on a new and level horizon. No one is higher than anyone else. We sit at the round table. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Why climb the stairway to heaven when God takes us right to the top floor in an elevator?
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, NKJV (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013)
- Chuck Queen, “Living with Gratitude.” Retrieved from www.day1.org
- Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman, “A Question of Fairness.” Retrieved from www.treeoflifelutheran.org
- The Rev. Edward Markquart, “Wages and Gifts.” Retrieved from www.sermonsfromseattle.com
- The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss, “The Generosity of God.” Retrieved from www.day1.org
- Gracia Grindal, “Your God is Too Nice.” Retrieved from www.religion-online.org
- Exegesis for Matthew 20:1-16. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org