The Great Reversal Part 5

Lent 4 

The Great Reversal Part 5

The Vineyard Workers   Matthew 20:1-16

Matt. 20:1    “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

Matt. 20:3    “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

Matt. 20:6    “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

Matt. 20:7    “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

Matt. 20:8    “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

Matt. 20:13  “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage?

14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

“It is not fair.”

If you have had children, you probably heard them say that at some time.

But For some people, their entire way of looking at the world is through the lens of fairness.

I am talking about the way we sometimes compare ourselves to other people.

Be it by the way we look, or how much money we make, or how we measure success.

Some people come to the conclusion that they have ended up in life… in… last place and it’s just not fair!

I want to make it clear at the outset that there is a place to fight for fairness. There are real injustices in the world;  like poverty and inequality that as Christians we have a responsibility and a call to minister to.

But  what I mean are the times when we almost stamp our feet childishly,  and say to God “It’s just not fair!”

Jesus tells a story that reverses and challenges our ideas and feelings about fairness.

Let’s pray first:

Our gospel reading this morning touches on the issue of fairness, and… about the great reversal of grace.

In the bible,  the vineyard has been an image for representing God’s people.

There is a moving passage in Isaiah 5 which describes God as a vineyard owner who is upset that even after all the care He has given His people, His precious vineyard, it has still produced bitter, wild grapes… instead of sweet, cultivated ones.

He could not find good fruit in his vineyard.

It is likely that our text today would have struck a familiar tone with Jesus’ listeners,  but… the ending is a total reversal.

It is intended to show us that God’s thoughts and ways are very different from ours especially in light of this whole issue of fairness.

Jesus had a way of telling stories,  where we sometimes find ourselves relating by the end of it,  to the wrong sort of people.

Verses 1-2:

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like……..

In other words, this is how the kingdom of God works…

For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard.

2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

Jesus is using a story to illustrate what God is like, and of course the various ways people interact with God.

It’s time for the grape harvest.

A storm could ruin the harvest so timing is crucial.

The work day begins at dawn 6 am and ends at sunset. 6pm

The pay, a denarius, is actually very generous, especially for an unskilled labourer.

So, There is something strange about this employer.

The employer could have sent someone else. Instead he takes the initiative and goes searching for prospective employees himself.

He cares about their situation. He wants to give them work and …a generous reward.

Verse 3-4

3    “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing.

‘Standing in the middle of the market place’ was the equivalent of waiting in the unemployment line or attending a job fair.

This employer, the vineyard owner, is an unusual employer, as I mentioned.

He doesn’t just go out once……to seek out these people , but He goes out repeatedly through the day.

He’s persistent.

He doesn’t give up.

He searches until, he finds them.

6 o’clock in the morning, 9 am, noon and even 3 o’clock in the afternoon he is out hiring people.

Is the harvest that big? Are the workers so few.

Does the vineyard owner just want to help people out?

Maybe both?

What is Jesus saying about God in this parable?

What is the Kingdom of Heaven like?

Maybe we need to look at the last group of people to get hired, because I think the story is building to a dramatic conclusion.

Verse 6:

Matt. 20:6    “At five o’clock that afternoon, (meaning there is only 1 hour in the work day left)

He was in town again and saw some more people standing around.

He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

Their answer is revealing.

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

In other words, no one wanted them.

We might guess that they are hungry….They are unemployed, having nothing productive to do, and as the day drags on,  they might even be losing hope.

Perhaps they were the kind of people other employers tried not to hire; the ignored, invisible, unremarkable the lowly?

Matt. 20:8    “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first.

The timing of the payment, at the end of the day was customary in Jesus time;  so that the workers could buy their families food for supper.

But, Paying the last workers first was probably told purposely by Jesus so that the first workers in the story would see how much the one hour workers got paid.

Again the employer does something very unusual;

The big surprise to everyone is that he pays the 5 pm guys, the very same amount as the ones who started working at 6 o’clock in the morning!

The last, who have worked only one hour get paid the same amount as those who have worked all day!

They all got a full days wage. The same reward.

What an amazingly generous employer!

But not everyone is happy about this:

10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.

11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, “It’s just not fair.”

12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

Doesn’t that sound similar to the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son?

Verse 13:

The Vineyard owner answers, “Friend (Hetaire, in the Greek).

That should get our attention, I will tell you why in a moment.

In effect the owner is saying this: ‘Friend, can I show you an agreement you signed this morning?

You agreed to work for (a hundred dollars), correct? “Yes.”

“ I thought you did. “

“It’s a very good wage for a days’ work, is it not?”

“So, what are you complaining about?

Are you demanding that I tear up this agreement you willingly entered?”

The vineyard owner is telling them, in a nice way,  they are in the wrong.

That is why I mentioned The word, friend, hetaire.

It is used three times in Matthew’s gospel.

In each case the recipient is in the….wrong. (Matthew 22:12 and 26:50) Judas is one of them.

The Vineyard owner is fair, generous and kind.

Life is unfair sometimes, but God is never unfair.

From Romans 9:14, “What can we say? Was God being unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. So receiving God’s promise is not up to us. We can’t get it by choosing it or working hard for it.”

 

Jesus’ simple story about workers in a vineyard suddenly becomes charged with an incredible reversal.

Last part

Verses 14-15 basically say, No matter how long or how hot the day. No matter how hard the work, there are no claims on God to owe us anything more than what he has already given us, which is everything.

His grace is everything.

The story touches on fairness, but it is more about the Amazing Grace of God.

All the workers in the story were equally UN-deserving of the vineyard owner’s generosity.

So, Who’s to complain?

The question arises, Who were the disgruntled workers that Jesus is addressing then?

Well, they may have been the Pharisees, and religious leaders, they often came under fire from Jesus.

The disgruntled ones may have been the chosen people of Israel. After keeping all the laws of Moses for 2 thousand years they now see the Gentiles, outsiders being welcomed into the Kingdom of God by Jesus. He even welcomed tax collectors and sinners.

Even the Disciples themselves may have been the ones Jesus was referring to.

Remember when they were complaining to Jesus that they had given up all to follow him. Shouldn’t they get more from God than everyone else?

Jesus’ message is clear.

Our place in God’s Kingdom does not depend on our worthiness, or even our good works.

It all depends on the sheer undeserving favour of the only One who is perfectly good and who accepts those who could never be good enough, or work hard enough. It is all about grace.

We find the very same message in Ephesians 2:8-10. When the apostle Paul writes…..

‘God saved you by His special favour when you believed. And you cannot take credit for this; it is a gift from God….’

One day,  you and I will stand before our God as workers in his vineyard:

Now Imagine standing before our Holy God and demanding of him: ‘Give me what is fair, give me what I deserve.’

Are you comfortable with a fair God? Or a Gracious Lord?

 

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