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Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries

 

The Workers in the Vineyard  audio

Matt 20:1-19 

We read this parable and perhaps the first thing we ask ourselves is “Why doesn’t the landowner act fairly?” Then we think, “If this is a parable of the Kingdom of God does it mean that God doesn’t act fairly?” Well let’s think about that question as we go through the passage together.

Something that struck me when I looked at this parable of the workers in the vineyard is that it just seems to pop up in the middle of a series of narratives as Jesus moves towards Jerusalem, without any introduction. Why has Matthew put it here?

Well, partly the problem is that someone, centuries ago, decided to put a chapter break between v30 of the previous chapter and this parable. If you look back at that final verse of the chapter then forward to v16 of this chapter you find they’re the same. That phrase, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” forms a bracket around this parable. What does that tell us? It says that this parable follows on from what’s happened just before.

So do you remember what happened in the passage last week? The rich young ruler had gone away disappointed because he had many possessions. But then Peter jumps up and says, perhaps with a degree of pride, “We have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

What does Jesus say? Well, he very kindly promises them that they’ll be greatly rewarded. But now he goes on with equal kindness to warn them about spiritual pride and a sense of entitlement arising from their good works.

The scene is a typical rural setting of the first century, different from our setting in various ways. The first is that the farm workers aren’t permanently employed by the farmer. Rather they wait in the town marketplace for the farmers to come and enlist their services for the day. The farmer negotiates with them over their day’s pay, though it appears that there’s a fairly standard rate, and they then go off to the farm to work, in this case to the vineyard.

But what’s different in this story is that the farmer goes back a few hours later and sees some workers hanging around doing nothing so he gives them jobs as well. And he repeats this at noon and at 5pm, close to the end of the day. Each time, apart from the first, he tells them that he’ll pay them what’s right. That’s an example some modern employers could well follow isn’t it?

Now I want you to notice a few things in this parable. First of all, the setting of a vineyard is very significant. The vineyard was a common metaphor in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel and Jesus adopts that image here to describe the people of God – or, as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of heaven.

Secondly it’s the landowner himself who goes out to find the workers. Who does the landowner in the parable represent? Well he represents God doesn’t he? So Jesus is teaching us that the initiative for evangelism is always God’s. He’s the one who goes out to bring in people and he continues to do that now through the preaching, teaching and friendship of those of us in his church.

Thirdly, notice that he goes out to bring back workers. If you’re someone who’s been called to be a disciple of Jesus, you’ve been called to be a worker, to continue the work of bringing others in to God’s Kingdom.

Finally notice that the fact that he goes out three times may indicate there’s some urgency to the task. Earlier in the gospel Jesus says: “37The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

But there’s also the sense here that the landowner cares for the plight of these overlooked people. You know, there are always people in our world who miss out for one reason or another and Jesus seemed to have a great heart for them. In his days they were simply called sinners; they were the outcasts for one reason or another. At one stage Jesus pointed out that the healthy have no need of a physician but only the sick and so he came to call sinners. This is one of the strengths of the Christian church isn’t it?: that we care for those who are outcast or unlovely or downtrodden. We mustn’t forget that, in a world where those sorts of people are so often ignored or pushed out.

But now we come to the sting in the tail of this parable. The end of the day comes and the men line up to be paid. The last men are called up first – remember the bracket around the parable? They come forward and are paid the standard daily wage. Wow! This landowner is generous. The men who’ve been there since 6am think “We’re going to do well out of this day’s work!” But no, they also receive the usual day’s wage. What’s going on? This isn’t fair. We’ve worked twelve times as long as these latecomers, including sweating through the heat of the day, and we’ve been paid the same wage? Call out the union!

But see the landowner’s reply. He’s acted quite justly in paying them what they’d agreed upon. His generosity in paying the others the same amount is his prerogative. It’s his money. Why shouldn’t he do with it what he wants?

Do you see what Jesus is doing here with this parable? First he’s warning the disciples about being too proud of all they’ve done in giving up everything to follow Jesus. They will receive a reward but that reward doesn’t depend on their hard work; it depends on the grace and generosity of their master. There’ll be others who come to God through their ministry who’ll receive the same reward without any of the hard work or loss that they’ve put in.

One of the interesting things about the parable of the rich young ruler that we looked at last week is that although he went away sad, there are many rich people in our world today who are faithful followers of Jesus without having to sell all their possessions. That’s because their salvation depends on God’s grace alone.

I’ve been a Christian for all my life (that’s a very long time!) but my reward in heaven won’t be any different from someone who became a Christian in the last week. Because, you see, I haven’t earnt that reward, it’s simply a gift from God.

The other group Jesus is warning here are the Pharisees and later the Jewish Christians who tended to look down on those who either weren’t Jews or who’d come to the Jewish (or later the Christian) faith from a Gentile background. In the case of the Pharisees he’s warning them that though they were the first, if they ignore Jesus they’ll become the last, the least important in the kingdom.

Do you think that God is being unfair in the way he treats people? Saving some and not saving others? If you do, you’re probably correct. You see grace is always unfair because it gives favour to those who don’t deserve it. That’s the very definition of grace isn’t it: undeserved favour? But would you want him to judge you fairly? i.e. on your merits? I know I wouldn’t! I much prefer to be treated as one of the last in the kingdom who’s given special treatment. not because of any merit I might have but because God chooses to pour out his love on me.

In any case let’s not lose sight of the main reason Jesus tells this parable. It’s to warn us about judging others on their performance, or their usefulness to the kingdom, or on their level of theological understanding or even theological belief. God’s way is to pardon the sinner, to take the weak and make them strong in his strength, to give comfort to the downtrodden and the outsider.

To reinforce the point the next episode that Matthew records is a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. They’re on their way up to Jerusalem just a few days before his Palm Sunday entry into the city and he takes the twelve aside to warn them about what’s about to happen. “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” Again we see Jesus living out the things he’s been teaching his disciples. In just a week or so the First in the kingdom will be taken and handed over to the Gentiles to be flogged and crucified. He will literally go from being first to last. The Old Testament taught that the one who was hung on a tree was cursed.

Yet the story wouldn’t end there. The one who people thought had become last would be raised from death and would again become first, the firstborn from the dead.

We don’t need to go further than this statement of Jesus to understand the depth of his love and grace towards his followers. The grace that Jesus is describing in the parable of the workers in the vineyard is a grace that comes at a clear and well understood cost. Jesus isn’t caught out by his arrest in Jerusalem. He goes there willingly and knowingly because this is the only way that his grace can be poured out on us his beloved creatures. This is costly grace. So costly that it’s ludicrous to even dream that we might be able to earn it. And it’s ludicrous to imagine that I’m more worthy of it than anyone else.

No, let’s rejoice in the fact that Jesus comes to us to draw us into his service and let’s look to see which part of his vineyard he wants us to work in. Then let’s do all we can to serve him, not looking at what others are doing but simply focusing on what he wants us to do, working out of love and gratitude for his great love and grace towards us.

 

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