Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 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?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“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.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘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.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 – Remember the Wonderful

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,
    children of Jacob, his chosen ones….

Then he brought Israel out with silver and gold,
    and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled.
Egypt was glad when they departed,
    for dread of them had fallen upon it.
He spread a cloud for a covering,
    and fire to give light by night.
They asked, and he brought quails,
    and gave them food from heaven in abundance.
He opened the rock, and water gushed out;
    it flowed through the desert like a river.
For he remembered his holy promise,
    and Abraham, his servant.

So he brought his people out with joy,
    his chosen ones with singing.
He gave them the lands of the nations,
    and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples,
that they might keep his statutes
    and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

Every day I read in the psalms. There are two reasons I do this. First, the psalms are the church’s prayer book.  They are more than reading material; the psalms are meant and designed to be owned for us as prayers. And second, I need their reminders – a lot!

Remembering is a major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture. It is just part of the human condition, fallen and forgetful as we are, to lose sight of what has taken place in the past. Today’s psalm invites us to seek the Lord through remembering all the good and wonderful works he has done.

For Israel, remembering meant continually having Passover in front of them. God redeemed his people out of Egyptian slavery and into a good Promised Land. They were to never forget God’s miracle through the Red Sea, his protection over them from other nations, and his provision of food and necessities in the desert.

We are to remember because we are made in God’s image and likeness. God remembers. God has an ongoing reminder in his divine day timer: fulfill the promises I made; keep the covenant I initiated with the people, even when they’re stinkers and forget who I am.

God does not forget. God always keeps his promises. For the Christian, all God’s promises are remembered and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell; the gift of the Holy Spirit; and ongoing presence and provision are given to us graciously and freely by the God who loves and cares for his people. For us, remembering means coming to the Lord’s Table, entering the once for all loving sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

One of the reasons I write and journal about my life and Scripture is to remember. Sometimes I forget. There are times when I am overwhelmed with life and it feels as if God has forgotten me. In such times, I look back into my journal and see what God has done. And I also peer into the psalms and see that God is active in his big world, always attentive to working what is just, right, and good in his people.

May your daily spiritual journey cause you to remember the Lord Jesus, to have him always before you.

“Now We Remain” by David Haas

We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts.

Living, now we remain with Jesus, the Christ.

Once we were people afraid, lost in the night.

Then, by your cross, we were saved;

dead became living, life from your giving.

Something which we have known, something we’ve touched,

what we have seen with our eyes;

this we have heard; life-giving Word.

He chose to give of himself, become our bread.

Broken that we might live.

Love beyond love, pain for our pain.

We are the presence of God; this is our call.

Now to become bread and wine; food for the hungry, life for the weary,

for to live with the Lord, we must die with the Lord.

Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35 – Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting

Hello, friends! Welcome. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. Click the video below and let us consider the words and ways of the Lord Jesus.

As we consider forgiveness, let this song by Matthew West help us along:

Forgive us for our sins, just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us. And do not cause us to be tempted, but save us from the Evil One. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:12-13, NCV)

The Big Reveal

Joseph feasting with his brothers by Yoram Raanan
Joseph Feasting with His Brothers by Yoram Raanan

The biblical character, Joseph, went through a lot. While growing up, his brothers misunderstood and ridiculed him as “that dreamer.” Their jealousy and hatred of Joseph led them to throw him into a well and leave him for dead. Then, they turned around and pulled him out only to sell him into slavery. Joseph served as a household slave, until he was again misunderstood and wrongly accused by his master’s wife.

So, Joseph languished in a prison for years, suffering injustice. Yet, the awkward liminal space in between his family of origin and becoming the administrator over all Egypt was not a waste of time. Rather, it gave Joseph a divine perspective on his life and shaped him for his rise to power.

Likely believing he would never see his brothers and father again Joseph went about the immense work of overseeing Egypt. One day, during a severe famine, lo and behold, his brothers show up in his court looking to purchase some food for their large families! Joseph immediately recognized them. The brothers, however, did not have a clue that this was their long-lost brother.

Joseph, understandably guarded, kept his identity to himself and toyed with his brothers to discover how Jacob his father was doing. Eventually, through a labyrinthine experience of a few journeys of the brothers back and forth from Palestine to Egypt, Joseph could take it no longer; he just had to reveal his identity to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1-15)

Yet, the ultimate unveiling is much more a glimpse of what God was up to. Joseph provided a commentary on his life, why he endured hardship, and how he came to be the administrator over all Egypt. Joseph wisely discerned that God sent him to Egypt to save many lives.

It is mostly in retrospect we see what God has been doing all along.  A good chunk of our lives is a mystery that is concealed, only revealed with time and patience on our part. While we exist in the strange space of the great unknowing and may struggle to understand our hardships, God is working behind the scenes, bending all our life events to his purposes. And that is the key to understanding the entire narrative of Joseph (Genesis 37-50).

Joseph’s brothers, despite being stinkers, were the means God used to send Joseph to Egypt.  Furthermore, all of Joseph’s experiences in Potiphar’s house, and in the prison where he was unjustly sent were the training ground for him to lead all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

The Reconciliation of Joseph and his Brothers, Peter Cornelius 1
The Reconciliation of Joseph and His Brothers by Peter Cornelius, 1817

Therefore, trust and faith are imperative for God’s people. Faith is placed where the object is trustworthy. In other words, we trust God if we believe God is good and has our best interests at mind. Conversely, if we view God as sometimes fickle or inattentive, then placing faith in him becomes a gamble and we might be hesitant, hedging our bets and relying more on ourselves and our own ingenuity to get through a hard circumstance.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:16-18, NIV)

We all face times and seasons in our lives where we wonder if the Lord is sitting in his Lazy-God recliner sleeping while we wither in some miserable situation, believing that God has better things to do, or has simply lost interest in my puny life. Yet, it could be that the Lord is providentially shaping our circumstances in preparation for us to accomplish a significant godly purpose.

Although hindsight can help us see the superintendence of God, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is still largely a mystery.  Many times, we can only affirm paradoxical truths. For example:

  • It was ordained before the foundation of the world that Jesus would be our Savior.
  • Jesus chose to willingly face the cross for our sake.

Both statements are equally true at the same time, all the time.

  • Christ’s betrayal by Judas was foreordained and foretold in the Old Testament centuries before Judas Iscariot was born.
  • Judas deliberately chose to betray Jesus with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver.

Both are equally true.

  • Joseph was meant by God to go through all kinds of hardship for a purpose.
  • Joseph willingly submitted to his hardship, choosing not to become angry, bitter, or vindictive.

Both of those realities are equally true.

It is not so much what happens to us that is the issue or problem. Rather, it is how we interpret what happens to us that is the critical issue. The way Joseph interpreted his difficult circumstances and his brothers’ calloused behavior toward him was to see the big picture of what God was doing in the world, instead of merely viewing events from a narrow perspective of painful personal adversity and becoming hateful.

Just as Joseph saw his suffering, hardship, and persecution as the means to saving lives, so Jesus viewed his suffering on the cross as the means to save our lives and bring us reconciliation. And, in the same way, we too, will undergo suffering and hardship for the purpose of saving lives through peacemaking efforts.

My dear wife and I have endured our share of hardship in our lives. I choose to interpret the reason we have gone through it all just as the Apostle Paul discerned his own adversity by saying to the Corinthian Church:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces within you a patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, NIV)

Whatever you are going through, or have gone through, even if it has been many years ago, God wants to use your difficulties and troubles for both your personal strengthening of faith, and for empathic and compassionate ministry for the sake of others.

We all need to practice patience and perseverance through hard times, if we are going to realize better days and gain a better interpretation of our difficult circumstances. Here are a few ways to do just that:

Write It Out

When suffering an upsetting event, writing about it can make us feel better as well as helping us make some sense of it. The act of writing organizes our thoughts, which then makes the experience feel less chaotic. Writing also provides an emotional release, along with insight and awareness into yourself. And with awareness, we have conscious choices.

Guard your heart more than anything else because the source of your life flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23, GW)

Some thoughts to get started writing:

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes a day for several days to write about the event and how it made you feel.
  • Don’t worry about grammar or creativity. This is just for you.
  • Stick with it. At first writing about an upsetting experience might be painful. However, over time it can help you get past the upset. Keep in mind, though, that if it is an especially disturbing event, you might want to do this work along with a trained professional.

Tackle Your Problem(s)

When distressed, it is unhelpful to stew in self-pity or to waste energy in blame shifting. Instead, be assertive.

Make every effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who does not need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly. (2 Timothy 2:15, CEB)

Take charge of your trouble:

  • Write down the problem. On paper it seems more manageable than when it is swirling inside your head.
  • List as many solutions as possible. You can reject options later.
  • Assess the list. Ask yourself how you would like this situation to end. Which of the written options likely will get you there? Weigh the pros and the cons.
  • Accept a reasonable solution, without searching for the perfect one. Focusing on perfection only breeds disappointment.
  • Form a concrete workable plan. Set some realistic and specific deadlines.
  • Avoid discouragement if the first solution does not pan out – just try another one on your list.

Get Support

We as people are hard-wired by God for community and needing one another.

Help each other with your troubles. When you do this, you are obeying the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ERV)

  • Ask someone to give you a hand if you are overwhelmed.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for advice. Consulting and collaborating with others are always the way of wisdom.
  • Get emotional support. Crying, sharing our frustrations, or otherwise venting helps release tension, relieve stress, and helps us move on.

So, may we choose to have the eyes of faith and trust, discerning that God is good and  sovereignly works out his will through our troubles.