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 12:15-21 – The Servant of the Lord

Jesus the Liberator
Jesus the Liberator by Argentine artist Adolfo Perez Esquivel

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
    In his name the nations will put their hope.” (NIV)

It is important to say the words, “I love you.” It is also significant how we say it. If our tone of voice is monotone and our affect flat, then the incongruent words of love will go unrequited. If, however, our tone is soothing and excited and our face beaming as if starstruck, then the love expressed will likely be received and stick.

Christians have a message of love to the world; it is a message of Jesus Christ and his love for humanity. Both the content of our message and the way we communicate it are vitally significant. For if the words we speak are grotesquely mismatched with our tone of voice and affect, then love is not what we convey. Yet, if we have been profoundly and meaningfully touched by the love of God in Christ, then that love cannot be constrained and will find a way to express itself with appropriate mannerisms.

Both the message of Jesus, and the way he proclaimed it, testified that he was, indeed, the promised Savior and the rightful King for God’s world.

The message of Jesus was to proclaim justice to the nations. The disciple Matthew used a quote from the prophet Isaiah to explain the reason why Jesus withdrew, and told people not to make him known.  This was a curious act for a Messiah, to say the least.  After all, we might believe Jesus should loudly proclaim who he is and what he is doing. Human ingenuity might say he should be advancing, not retreating – getting his name out with some notoriety in a slick marketing message so people will come running into the kingdom of God!

Nope, Jesus goes a different direction. Matthew quoted the prophet Isaiah to make it clear who Jesus is and what he is all about. Jesus is God’s servant. Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased. The Holy Spirit came on him in his baptism. Jesus became a teacher of justice to the nations, that is, to all kinds of people – even the ones we do not like.

I personally find it strange that there are folks who seem to think justice is something which is not part of the Gospel, as if it were nice, but optional.  However much they believe it is important to engage in some sort of social justice toward the downtrodden, some believers want to put it on a secondary shelf that bends to the primary initiative of speaking, as if we could or should separate the message from the messenger. However, we can no more divide the good news of forgiveness in Christ from social justice any more than can neatly separate the cross and resurrection. It is all redeeming work, and it all goes together.

Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus Christ emphasizes the kingdom of God. The Sovereign of the universe desires all things and all people to be redeemed and come under the Lordship of Christ with the practice of justice as central to making redemption a reality for humanity.

“And what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)

Mercy and justice go together like corn on the cob and butter, and like pork ribs with barbeque sauce (okay, so I’m from Iowa).  Mercy is God’s unconditional grace and compassion.  Justice is treating all people with equality without favoritism. Biblical justice is not primarily punishment for wrongdoing; it is to give people their rights – and this concept is overwhelmingly taught in the Scriptures, over 200 times in the Old Testament alone. Christ’s back to the Bible movement rightly emphasized justice.

God loves and defends the weak, the poor, and the powerless:

He gives justice to the oppressed
and food to the hungry.
The Lord frees the prisoners.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down.
The Lord loves the godly.
The Lord protects the foreigners among us.
He cares for the orphans and widows,
but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9, NLT)

We, as God’s people, are to share his passion for justice:

Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. (Proverbs 31:8, CEB)

“Cursed is anyone who obstructs the legal rights of immigrants, orphans, or widows.”  All the people will reply: “We agree!” (Deuteronomy 27:19, CEB)

Since believers are justified by faith in Christ, we must in both word and deed bring justice to our communities by advocating for the least, the lost, the last, and anyone else without social or economic power in this world.

If we have a voice, we must use it both for ourselves and for those who have no voice.  The voice of justice is the voice of action.  To be concerned for the justice of God is to actively work for the kingdom of God to enter every inch of this world, and every nook and cranny of our homes, neighborhoods, and schools.

The Christian life is much more than avoiding sin; it is about actively pursuing God’s will through words and acts of justice on behalf of the needy.  Jesus came to this earth to proclaim justice, and, as his followers, he expects us to do it, too. For this to happen we must overcome our own prejudices toward anybody unlike us so that we will stand with the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, and the hurting among us.

The probing question for all of us is: Am I able to see the image of God in someone different from me?

Jesus did. The quote referencing that Jesus “will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice” is referring to the way of Christ – gentle, humble, and meek.  Jesus did not look for dramatic confrontations with others but instead went quietly about his Father’s business.  Jesus was not bullhorn guy, who loudly proclaimed his message on the street corner.  He interacted with and ministered to the lowliest people of society who had no power and nothing to give in return. Jesus did everything to connect with them and not avoid them.

Along the Jordan River in Israel, reeds grew by the millions in Jesus’ day.  They were of little value because there were so many.  Reeds were used to make baskets, pens, flutes, and a variety of other things.  A perfect reed is fragile, and a bruised one is useless.  When the text says that God’s servant will not break a bruised reed, it means that he will treat the weak with sensitivity.  A smoldering wick is also not worth much; if it is damaged, we would just get another one.  A contemporary example might be a paper clip; it is not worth much to us, and a damaged one we would just discard and get another.  The point is that Jesus handles hurting people with care. Society’s poor, disadvantaged, and struggling will not be callously overlooked and tossed aside by Jesus.

Jesus Christ discovered his own island of misfit toys and demonstrated to the world that they were a needed part of society. Small wonder, then, that droves of the lowliest people throughout history have come to Jesus, placing their hope in him.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16, NIV)

My hope is in the name of Lord who made heaven and earth. May you also find Christ as your anchor and hope in the world.

Holy Father, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will that they be gathered as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and the desire to ensure justice for all. Through sharing your goodness, may we secure equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, hatred, and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 31:9-16 – Lord, Have Mercy

woman sitting on wooden planks
Photo by Keenan Constance on Pexels.com

Lord, have mercy, because I am in misery.
    My eyes are weak from so much crying,
    and my whole being is tired from grief.
My life is ending in sadness,
    and my years are spent in crying.
My troubles are using up my strength,
    and my bones are getting weaker.
Because of all my troubles, my enemies hate me,
    and even my neighbors look down on me.
When my friends see me,
    they are afraid and run.
I am like a piece of a broken pot.
    I am forgotten as if I were dead.
I have heard many insults.
    Terror is all around me.
They make plans against me
    and want to kill me. 

Lord, I trust you.
    I have said, “You are my God.”
My life is in your hands.
    Save me from my enemies
    and from those who are chasing me.
Show your kindness to me, your servant.
    Save me because of your love. (NCV) 

None of us signed-up for suffering.  Yet, not a one of us can avoid it.  Pain comes in all kinds of forms – and perhaps the worst kind of wound is the one inflicted from others looking down at you when you’re already experiencing trouble and damaged emotions.  Whether it is a group of people, such as Asians facing ridicule and anger because of COVID-19, or COVID-19 patients themselves who sometimes become a pariah, the physical effects of pain can oftentimes be secondary to the primary hurt experienced within the spirit. 

David of old knew first-hand about suffering through hard circumstances.  There were times when he felt completely overwhelmed by wicked people trying to take his life.  If we could put ourselves in David’s sandals, we can understand why he was worn-out to the point of not sleeping, not eating well, even with a hint of paranoia.  David entrusted himself to God, and truly believed he was in the Lord’s hands – and that fact was his go-to truth. 

Jesus uttered his last words on the cruel cross from this very psalm: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  The cross was obviously a place of extreme bodily pain.  That pain, however, was dwarfed by the great spiritual pain of holding the entire world’s hurts, their curse of separation.  The stress of both body and soul must have been crushing for Jesus.  Yet, there was a strength of assurance smack in the middle of that pain – the confidence of knowing he was in good hands, just like David’s confidence a millennium before. 

There are times when we all struggle with why afflictions happen to us, whatever form they might take in us.  It is in such times of being forgotten by others that we are most remembered by God; it is in the situations of trouble that God is the expert in deliverance; it is when people revile us, say terrible things about us, and talk behind our backs that God comes alongside and whispers his grace and steadfast love to us.  It is when life is downright hard that we see a soft-hearted God standing to help us and hold us. 

While we are feeling our suffering, God is carefully crafting within us resilience through the rejection, empathy in our loneliness, purpose because of the trauma, forgiveness out of the shame, courage from having been failed, and self-awareness in the wake of emotional devastation. 

The biblical psalms are the consummate place to run to when we are most in need.  They provide the means to lift heartfelt prayers when our own words fail us.  The psalms give us structure and meaning when the world around us makes no sense.  The psalms do not always give us answers to our most vexing questions; they do, however, point us to the God who is attentive to the least, the lost, and the lonely.   

Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy.  Lord, have mercy on us and grant us your peace.  Amen. 

Click It Is Well with My Soul sung by Anthem Lights and be reminded that we neither bear our sufferings alone, nor needlessly.