Matthew 20:1-16 New Living Translation (NLT)
Parable of the Vineyard Workers
20 “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[a] and sent them out to work.
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.
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?’
7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
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.’
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.”
The last will be first and the first will be last.
Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner ends with this bold phrase.
The last will be first and the first will be last.
If you are like me, you may wonder where you fit in as you hear these words…. Who are the last in our community- who are the first? As I pondered this I found an online quiz that measured privilege. I will give you all an abbreviated version, so you can know where you stand. Count on your fingers the number of statements that are true about you…
You have never gone to bed hungry
You can afford a needed medication
You are a man
You work in a salaried job
You are white
You are heterosexual
You graduated high school
You graduated college
You are able bodied
You do not have a mental illness
You have never been threatened/shamed because of your religious beliefs
You speak fluent English
If you have run out of fingers, you can assume that you are pretty privileged…. You are first.
Those who were first in this parable were the privileged among day workers. They were the physically fit and skilled workers. When the vineyard owner came to offer work to the day laborers, they were the first to be chosen, given the dignity of work and the promise of a day’s wage. Those overlooked included the elderly, sick, disabled, and women. A smart manager would know that these people would not be worth as much as the first laborers. They would be left behind without the means to support themselves and their families. Still, these laborers hung around at the end of the day- hoping for pennies worth of work at.
Yet there is something different about this vineyard owner in our story. He doesn’t send a manager, but goes to the people himself. He keeps coming back to hire more workers, even those left behind that no one else wanted to hire. And finally he pays them the same wage as those who have been working all day long. You could say he is not a very shrewd businessman. He doesn’t seem to get the economics of cutting expenses and making a profit. His strategy is backwards.
The last will be first.
Jesus told this parable and other parables to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like. Here we see that the kingdom of heaven is not about making a profit. It is not a business transaction. It is not what people expect. It values all lives the same. The kingdom of heaven is about sheer generosity- a gift that cannot be earned or measured.
When we hear stories of generosity and witness generous acts, we are seeing the kingdom of God lived out right here. In my call I am able to see this kingdom generosity on a regular basis:
- I see it in people who give large and generous gifts to the Church because they are passionate about our mission.
- I see it in people who give generously of their limited spare time including their nights and weekends to serve others in need at the Beacon House and other causes.
- I see it in the teachers of Rachel’s Place extravagantly loving all of our little children as their own, even as they make very little money doing it.
One of the greatest examples of generosity in my life happened when my nephew Drew became sick with brain cancer when he was just a baby. My family decided to put on a benefit walk in support of Drew’s battle in our hometown community. We were trying to raise money to support my brother Ben and his wife Annie with their extra medical costs and time away from work. And the response was overwhelming. In our tiny town of Elroy, population 1500- we were able to raise well over fifteen thousand dollars in one day. I saw people donating whom I knew had very little money themselves, and yet they were giving generously to help my family in our time of need. Annie who worked at the VA hospital had people donate all of their sick days to her, so she could get paid while she was away from work taking care of Drew. The generosity was shocking and beautiful.
And thankfully it is really not a rare thing. I think most of us can share an experience where we have been touched by radical generosity of some sort. But I think we all agree we could use a little more of it in our churches and in our world.
This story of the vineyard owner is about generosity and extravagant grace. It is also about going to extravagant lengths to include those who are excluded. It is about coming back, time after time to make sure that all have a chance to do the work of the kingdom. It is about the last becoming first.
Earlier we imagined who among us might be first. Now let’s imagine who might be last. Who are those people that we consider less deserving of ourselves, even if only subconsciously? Maybe its people on welfare, people who “look like terrorists,” people who suffer from terrifying diseases like Ebola, people who wear hoodies, children who cross our borders… Now imagine what it would look like for God to make them first- to put them ahead of us.
This is good news for the last. It is good gospel news for the people of God who are sick, poor, marginalized, or just plain left out. It is good news to know that God sees your plight and cares for you every step of the way. You are welcomed into the kingdom. God’s extravagant love and forgiveness is for you.
But take heart those of you who are first already. As we see in the parable those laborers who were chosen first were still given the day’s wage. It would seem that we are still offered God’s gifts of grace in the kingdom -if only own our selfishness and entitlement would not get in the way of us accepting those gifts.
God’s kingdom is about tearing down the boundaries between the first and the last and all divisions between people. As Paul said, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28 The Message). This is good news for all people.
Jesus tells stories to teach us about the kingdom of God. And in this story we see that God’s generosity and grace go beyond the bounds of what we might expect. It reaches everyone- even the lost and last. This sort of grace does not make sense. It is abundant and extravagant. And when we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for this radical grace to overtake our world and our own lives. We pray that God’s overflowing generosity will overflow into our lives so that we may share it with the world.
And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ.