|Mercy Street Church of Christ
Text: Matthew 20:1-15
Jesus said that God’s kingdom is like a man who had a vineyard that needed harvesting. The man goes out into the marketplace and hires some workers, agreeing to pay them one denarius a day. They go to work.
Mid-morning he looks over his vineyard and sees that more workers will be needed if they job is to be done, so he goes back into the marketplace where he encounters some men still standing around whom no one has hired.
Even though a third of the day is over, he asks them to go to work for him, telling them that he will pay them what’s right.
At noon, when he goes back downtown, he sees some guys hanging out on the street corner, and invites them to come to work in his vineyard, telling them that he will pay them what’s right.
At three, he’s back downtown where he spies a couple of young men with nothing to do and, even though the sun is beginning to move toward the far west, what the heck? He hires them, promising to pay them what’s right.
Finally, at five p.m., he goes back to town one more time. Now, there’s almost no one left loitering on the street corner. After all, the day is almost over. But there are two men, leaning up against the wall of the unemployment office. Even though it’s only one hour before quitting time, he hires them as well.
So if you’re keeping score, by the end of the day we have different groups of workers in the vineyard who have been there for 12 hours, for 9 hours, for 6, 3, and one hour.
Now, they will be paid. If you’ll recall, a wage was agreed upon only for those who got there first. A denarius. But this employer pays those who got there last, first.
To everyone’s amazement, he pays those who have only worked one hour a denarius. So that means that those who have worked for 12 hours, sweating in the vines all day long, will probably get … 12 denarii?
No, they get what they agreed to work for, a denarius.
There are murmurings of injustice. Is this any way to run a business? No, the injustice is only apparent. They agreed to work for a denarius. And they have been given a denarius.
Now Matthew, in his introduction to this parable (19:30), suggests that the parable has something to do with Jesus’ statement that “many that are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).
“Oh,” say the disciples, “we get the point. Those Pharisees, who have criticized you for eating and drinking with sinners, think they are first in God’s kingdom. But because of their insufferable self-righteousness and smugness, they are really going to end up on the outside and we shall end up on the inside. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
“Oh,” said the early church, “we get your point, Jesus. Those Jews, who were supposed to be God’s Chosen People, the inheritors of your kingdom, they rejected you so now those who were to be first shall be last and we Gentiles, who were supposed to be last, get to be first. We are those who came late to God’s kingdom but we get the same reward as those who have been here through all the ages.”
Well, we can certainly understand those Pharisees, those Jews who murmured and grumbled over God’s generosity in Jesus, coming to us, as God did, so late in the day, after they had believed (and suffered, too) down through ages of persecution, misunderstanding, and exile.
Even though we are last, we get the same generous grace that God offered to them so long ago. The first shall be last, the last, first.
God’s grace is the same for the last as for the first. The wages are the same for the last as for the first.
But such an interpretation may not get at the true scandal of this little story...
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