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

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)

Matthew 23:29-36 – “Woe Is Me!”

Ethiopian Jesus
Jesus, from an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, c.1750 C.E.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So, you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! 

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you; all this will come on this generation. (NIV) 

I almost feel the need to place a warning label on this blog post: “The writer has determined that a careful reading of this Scripture is dangerous to those who think their current state of Christianity is just fine.”  Jesus stands in a long line of Old Testament prophets as the ultimate prophesier calling the people to see things as they really are and come back to the God of all, not the God of their own making. 

I feel yet another warning is warranted, knowing from years of experience that there is an Enemy of our souls: The dark forces of this world will try every which way to get us to believe these words of Jesus are for other people, not me or you – that you and I are okay and that this is for “those” people [probably ones we don’t like] who are clearly deluded. We, however, are simply fine.   

We all need these words from Jesus and to let them speak to us. Christ’s scathing and damning critique was leveled against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God. Jesus pronounced seven woes on the religiously pious spiritual brokers of his day. Today’s Gospel lectionary contains only the seventh woe. This woe, along with the rest, are not directed toward the irreligious or the spiritually lackadaisical folks among us – the woes are aimed squarely at the religiously committed. 

Ethiopian Orthodox Jesus
Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus

The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” and “misery.” Jesus pronounced a woe against ultra-religious persons who were obsessed with respecting the tombs and the graves of the ancient prophets. It was considered a terrible travesty to walk on such a grave, even accidentally. The concern about it would be something like today’s respect given to the American flag by many people. 

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on those being so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people and inanimate objects like graves while ignoring live people is not good. Respecting dead people of the past means nothing if we simultaneously ignore the live people right in front of us. For Jesus, one of the surest ways to hell is to give credence to Christian leaders long dead while flippantly disregarding the prophet or pastor presently in our lives who is taking pains to communicate God’s will and care for God’s people right now. 

Jesus knew quite well the telltale signs of hypocrisy: 1) hypocrites don’t practice what they preach; 2) hypocrites keep other people out of God’s kingdom; 3) hypocrites focus on externals; and, 4) hypocrites major on the minors. Hypocrisy, however, never has the last word – grace does. The final word to everything is God’s grace.  

For all of Christ’s severe words, his heart was filled with a love and a longing for his wayward people. Jesus died for the ungodly with deep concern, intention, and hope that everyone would come to know the true worship of God – filled with an abundance of mercy for the penitent sinner. 

When the prophet Isaiah experienced a vision of God his response was “woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1-5). The appropriate response to today’s Gospel lesson is repentance – to see and turn from our own propensity toward spiritual and/or religious pride and the tendency to view the “other” as needing to repent, but not me.  

Let us, then, come to the cross of Jesus Christ and there find the grace which absolves us from such sin. Let us approach the empty tomb and find Christ’s resurrecting power of transformation. Let us approach the ascended Christ on the throne with both humility and confidence. Let us intercede for a world which desperately needs the peace of Christ. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you prayed that we would be one as you and your Father are one. We confess our resistance to your prayer. We have failed to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We have broken the bond of peace. For the times we have not listened to each other, when we have spoken in anger, haste, or fear, we are sorry. For the times we have not loved each other, when we have competed, or insulted or judged each other, we are sorry. For the harm that our disunity has done to our witness to the Gospel, we are sorry. Have mercy on us, we pray. Restore us to friendship with you and with one another, through the power of your Spirit. Lord, grant your grace for repentance to spiritual charlatans and victimizers; and, give your power to those distressed and victimized for forgiveness of their abusers, so that all of us together may strive to break the chains of oppression and show the peace of Christ in the world. Amen. 

Romans 12:1-8 – Healthy Group Dynamics

Transformed

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will. 

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV) 

Every person is important. Everyone is needed. Each one, according to this New Testament lesson, is to offer their entire lives to God through worship and the exercise of their spiritual giftsPeople are designed to be active in building up one another. 

When I was growing up, we had a fine china set that my parents kept in a beautiful china cabinet.  The set and the cabinet are old and were a prominent part of our living room. However, we almost never used it. I can only remember once or twice that my Mom got the china out to use. God is not looking for fine china that sits unused. He is looking for rough-and-tumble clay pots—the kind that can be used every day. God wants ordinary table-wear that can be handled in a crash-and-bang world.  

Followers of Jesus Christ were never meant to be a china cabinet, where precious pieces are safely stowed out of harm’s way. Instead, humanity is to be like a working kitchen, where well-worn pots are filled again and again to dispense their life-giving contents to a thirsty world; and, where common plates and cups are used again and again to provide a hungry population with the Bread of Life. 

Cup and Plate

Within the ancient Roman Church were both Jews and Gentiles – two groups vastly different from each other.  They tended to keep to themselves and only operate within their familiar and comfortable circles of friends and relatives.  But the Apostle Paul wanted them to be united by exercising their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the entire congregation, and not just certain persons. 

We are strongly encouraged to give ourselves in service to one another because of God’s mercy in Christ.  Since God has saved us from sin, we are to gratefully respond to him in worship that is dedicated to serving everyone.  The word “worship” in today’s text is where we get the word “liturgy.”  That is, Paul’s vision for the church was to have a daily liturgical rhythm of spiritual worship, not just on Sunday when we might pull out the fine china and impress people. 

Paul’s appeal was not to guilt people into serving but is an exhortation for all Christians to appropriately respond to God’s grace by offering their lives in sacrificial service. This is a form of saying “thanks” to God. To be oriented in a sacred liturgy that is fit for the daily will of God, our minds must be renewed. Through saturation in Scripture we discern our spiritual gifts, know what God wants us to do with those gifts, and use them effectively in the church and the world.   

Grace has been given to every believer in Jesus, not just a select few. We all have different gifts and have been graced with abilities for the benefit of others. When everyone collectively uses these spiritual gifts, there is the ability to know the will of God in any situation for any group of people. All the pronouns used in today’s verses are plural. There is to be a group dynamic which seeks to give minds and bodies completely to God in worship, using our spiritual gifts for building up one another, and discovering the will of God together. 

All believers in Jesus must share and work together by utilizing God’s grace, instead of getting burned-out because others are not serving. Grumbling about what others are not doing begs the question of whether we are over-functioning, or not. It could be that we have succumbed to the danger the Apostle Paul warned us about: thinking so highly of ourselves that we believe our gifts are superior to others, so we need to maintain our control and hegemony in the group. This is a terribly misguided notion.   

Body of Christ

We belong to one another.  Therefore, one major way of giving to God is through offering ourselves to each other with equity and without favoritism.  We must not separate Christ from his church.  To say that we need God, but do not need the church is to really say that we do not need God because the two are inseparable. Nowhere in Holy Scripture do we find individual Christians doing their own thing, isolated from a committed group of people, the church.  

When Jesus called people to follow him in service to God and a world in need, some gave him excuses that they were busy and had other pressing matters to attend to before they could follow him. Jesus simply left them and told them they were not fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:57-62) 

When people were preoccupied with building wealth, or gaining power, or jockeying for influence, Jesus told them to stop it, exercise some faith, and seek first the kingdom of God.  Build your treasure in heaven, Jesus said, because it will be permanent; and, not on earth where it is temporary. (Matthew 6:19-34)  

We are graced by God with abilities which God fully expects us to use. “Cheap grace” is merely embracing Christ as a personal Savior but not welcoming him as the Lord in whom we must sacrificially give our lives to service in the church and the world. Spiritual health and vitality cannot exist apart from every person using God’s given grace to contribute to the functioning of the Body of Christ.   

spiritual gifts

The list of spiritual gifts Paul provided is not exhaustive but represents a combination of speaking and serving gifts necessary to bless humanity. Paul exhorted the church to not restrain people’s exercise of gifts but let them go at it, full bore:  

  • “Prophesying” is not foretelling the future but a word meaning “inspired speech” from God that addresses what God’s people are to do considering his Word.   
  • “Serving” is a generic word referring to all types of hands-on service.   
  • “Teaching” is needed to instruct the faithful in all the revealed will of God.   
  • “Encouraging” involves both speaking and serving, as the one gifted in encouragement comes alongside others and helps them to do something with both verbal coaching and tangible help.   
  • Giving” specifically refers to the person who lives a simple life to be able to give generously and contribute to the needs of others.   
  • “Leading” is the ability to get out in front and show the way in obtaining the will of God.   
  • “Mercy” is the much-needed ability to see down-and-out hurting people and be a conduit of God’s grace to them. 

Here is a simple observation: There is no one person who possesses all these gifts. That is why everyone must work together to have a spiritually healthy community.  A spiritually toxic community is the inevitable result of only a few people using their gifts. 

The Apostle Paul communicated some important truth about what faithful Christians must do to be transformed by a renewal of the mind: exercise godly sacrifice; commitment to worship; intentional unity; and, an awareness of our spiritual gifts. The following are some thoughts on becoming aware of our spiritual gifts:   

  1. Pay attention.  Every spiritual gift reflects God’s grace and character, and so, you will find joy and satisfaction in expressing it. Your spiritual gift will be a place of deep spiritual formation and growth in your life, as God uses it both to powerfully connect you to him and to expose areas of your soul that need his forgiveness and redemption.   
  2. Try.  Give it a whirl.  Take the step to connect with a service or ministry, or just try doing what you feel might be something God wants you to do.  Gifts are discovered more from others observing and affirming your gift and less than going through a research process.  The encouragers among us will be happy to affirm the gifts of others. 
  3. Develop.  All spiritual gifts must be cultivated and developed.  Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, to fan into flame the gift of God.  Put yourself in a position to be taught and mentored. 

We were designed by God for worship and service. We will find our greatest delight in life through engaging those two activities. The result is a spiritually healthy and thriving Christian community that loves God, loves one another, and loves the world. 

God of grace, I come before you today praying for your Holy Spirit to stir up the gifts already placed inside your people. God Almighty, I pray that whatever gifts your Holy Spirit has decided to give and put within me and those around me that those gifts be activated and used for your glory and the edification of others.  I pray for peace and joy in the community, that no one will be jealous or covetous about anyone else’s gifts. Lord God, I pray also as these gifts grow and develop that the fruit of the Spirit will be manifested, to ensure the gifts are ministered in love. May you receive all praise honor and glory from the gifts you give, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.