Jesus said, “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NLT)
On its face, the Parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 has to be one of the most unfair stories in the Bible. Come on—people who come to work just before quitting time and get paid the same as those who’ve put in a full day! You’ve got to be kidding! Since Jesus told parables to illustrate the Kingdom of God, how in the world does this story represent the Father’s righteous rule?
In this story, a landowner goes to the marketplace to hire temps at the beginning of the work day—a 12-hour day that began at 6:00 AM—and contracts with the most suitable looking workers: a day’s work for a day’s wage—one denarius. Then, still needing help, he goes back at 9:00 AM, again at noon and at 3:00 PM to get more workers. Each additional time, however, there is no contract; he just says he’ll pay them whatever is right. Finally, at the 11th hour—at 5:00 PM—he goes back and sees a few more workers hanging around. Now you’ve got to ask why haven’t they been hired yet…and how come they’re still here? Waiting to get hired with one hour left in the day is kind of like showing up at a Pumpkin Patch the day after Halloween looking for work. Obviously, these guys are not your Stanford MBA types; they’re not the most employable people at the temp service. But help is needed, so they’re hired.
Then the owner blows them all away at the end of the workday by paying all the workers the same: One denarius—a full day’s wage! Imagine the surprise of the 11th hour workers when they realize they’ve just been paid the same as the all-day guys. I can imagine one of them saying, “We didn’t really deserve this. Let’s get out of here before the payroll people realize their mistake and ask for the money back.” And the all-day workers—man, are they mad at the ridiculous generosity of the owner!
So what is Jesus getting at in this parable? To begin with, understand that this is not a story about how corporations should draft compensation policy, so don’t get hung up over that. As a general rule, people who work 12 hours should get paid more than people who work 1 hour. Operate your HR department like this landowner and you’ll soon be out of business.
What Jesus is doing here is picturing the kingdom for us: Undeserving, unlikely desperate people trusting in the generosity of God to include them in his vineyard. The vineyard is a metaphor about coming into God’s kingdom, through Jesus. Who gets to be in God’s kingdom? Everyone—anyone who accepts Jesus’ offer, that’s who! And all kinds of sinful people are taking Jesus up on this offer: Prostitutes, tax collectors and even Gentiles. They’re coming in at the 11th hour and still getting the whole denarius.
But the pious Jews who’ve been in the vineyard all day long aren’t happy about this. They can’t grasp this thing called grace that Jesus is revealing; it’s nothing less than scandalous to them.
Now here is one of the things I’d like for you to consider in this story: You are an 11th hour person—me, too—but the longer we’re in the kingdom, the more we become like the all-day people. Every time someone new comes into the vineyard, they become the 11th hour worker and we move back down the line to 9th hour workers, to noon people, to the nine o’clock crowd, until finally, we are sitting with the all-day folks. And the real danger we face is taking on the attitude of these all-day workers.
As we move along in our walk with Jesus, we are either moving into what we might call performance-based Christianity, or we’re moving toward grace-based faith. Performance-based people believe they deserve a full day’s pay based what they do. They act as if God is getting a good deal in getting them; that he couldn’t run his vineyard without them. But grace-based believers understand they did nothing except to show up and accept God’s offer. Their entire relationship with God is based on trust in his ridiculous generosity and gracious character.
Don’t slide into an all-day spirit. Rather—perhaps you should do this on a regular basis—simply recount the gracious goodness of God that invited you into his vineyard when you did nothing to deserve it at all. Take a moment to absorb what Philip Yancey wrote so insightfully about this in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace:
“Many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day’s work rather than with the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, and the employer’s strange behavior baffles us as it did the original hearers. But we risk missing the story’s point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit like these early workers, none of us, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirement for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of merit, we would all end up in hell.”
Listen, friend, you received the whole grace enchilada when you didn’t even deserve a nibble of the beans and rice. So be grateful—be very grateful! And don’t ever stop!
What If God Took Over?
Quit trying to control how others come to God, or worship, or serve or grow in their faith. Just release them to God’s grace, because his grace will do a much better job conforming them to his image than your griping. Memorize Acts 15:19,
“Don’t make it difficult for those who are turning to God.”