(Matthew 20: 1-16)
Back when I practiced criminal defense in Tyler, Texas, I handled indigent court appointments for one of the felony courts which kept me plenty busy. One day I got a fax from the court advising me that I had just been appointed to represent a young man who had been charged with five very serious felonies. While driving drunk he tried to pass a car in a no-passing zone striking another car head on and running another car off the road. As a result, he killed the two people in the car he hit head on, killed his girlfriend who was in the car with him, and injured the two people who were in the car that he ran off the road. He was looking at a total of 80 years in prison. As was my usual practice, I pulled up his booking photo so I could put a face with the charge and saw a very angry young man glaring back at me. I’ll be honest with you I dreaded my trip to the jail to meet him as I was sure he would be in denial and that the tragedy wasn’t his fault. So, I screwed up my courage and went to the jail to meet him expecting a very unpleasant interview. When he walked into the visitation room, he seemed to be very aimable, as he greeted me and firmly shook my hand. He said something to the effect of: “I’m guilty, there will be no trial and your job is to get me the best deal you can. I know I’m going to prison.” I was both shocked and greatly relieved as my job just got a whole lot easier. He then told me he had found Jesus, asked for, and through the grace of God, received forgiveness. Then he gave me his personal testimony. Later I told one of my chief skeptics about this meeting whose immediate reaction was: “Sure, everyone finds Jesus in jail.” You see, that’s not an uncommon reaction in some Christian circles among those who have worked hard all their lives, never did much wrong, and rarely missing a Sunday, and believing eternity in heaven was a sure thing. But then, late in the game, along comes some guy who rarely, if ever, darkened the door of a church, finds Jesus and there they are, right there with us sitting in the front row. That just doesn’t seem fair.
And that’s the point Jesus is trying to make in his parable of the vineyard workers. In the twentieth chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven like it’s a huge vineyard owned by a man who goes out one day to hire men to work in his vineyard at harvest time. Early in the morning he hires a group of men who agree to a day’s wage of one denarius. A few hours later, needing more workers, the landowner goes to the marketplace and finds some guys standing around doing nothing and hires them to work in the vineyard, also agreeing to pay whatever is right. He goes out again in the sixth and ninth hours of the day and hires more men agreeing to pay them what is right. Around the eleventh hour he finds still others standing around and hires them too. 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 at the eleventh hour came forward and each was paid a denarius. So, naturally, those who were hired first after seeing this expected to receive more than they bargained for. But when each one received the agreed upon denarius they began to grumble against the landowner. These men 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 them, Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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? I have no doubt that these disgruntled workers were speechless as they shuffled off feeling cheated or envious of the workers who got paid the same as they for less work. Jesus ended the parable by saying: So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.
I’ll be honest with you, if I was in the first-hired group I’d probably be one of the loudest grumblers. But this parable isn’t about picking grapes, although it may be about sour grapes. This parable speaks especially to those who feel superior because of their heritage or favored position, to those who feel superior because they have spent so much time with Christ and have a sense of entitlement, you know, the ones who give people this bad experience with organized religion we hear so much about. But this parable also speaks to new believers as reassurance of God’s grace. This parable is not about rewards, it’s about salvation. It’s a strong teaching about grace, God’s generosity, and that it’s never too late.
You see, God’s grace is unearned, it’s unmerited and undeserved. This amazing grace is just a part of God’s unconditional love for his children who have all fallen short of his glory. This amazing grace is one of those attributes of a loving God that is extended toward undeserving human beings no matter how good or how bad we’ve been in our lives, past or present. It’s the kind of grace that the Apostle Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians when he said: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. We were created to do good works. Paul is telling us that we become Christians through God’s unmerited grace, not as the result of any effort, ability, intelligent choice, or act of service on our part. However, out of gratitude for this free gift, we will seek to help and serve others with kindness, love, and gentleness, and not merely to please ourselves. You see, it’s God’s intention that our salvation will result in acts of service as we are not merely saved for our own benefit, but to serve Christ and build up his church.
Jesus put it bluntly when he said in John 14: 6; I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. Jesus is basically saying that there is no other way to get to God except through him, and in Matthew 7: 21 he says: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. He’s saying it’s not enough to call Jesus your lord, you also have to do the will of God. Jesus is talking about what some people call, for lack of a better term, “cheap grace” in that once saved, always saved, and there is nothing else to do. Jesus reaffirms this when he says in John 14: 12; Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also. Now, to be clear, we are in no way saved by anything we do, but the Bible tells us that what we do with our lives after believing in Jesus and accepting him as our Savior gives evidence as to the kind of belief or faith we have. What we do with our lives is the result of wanting to please the One who has already saved us and wanting to help others to be saved by accepting the gift of God’s grace. It’s when we grasp what God’s grace means for us that a love for God wells up in us resulting in our wanting to live a life that is pleasing to God, and, as a result, the things of this world will no longer have an attraction for us. It’s just stuff we can’t take with us. We will live our lives in a way where we can share the Good News with others as we throw ourselves into doing God’s will and his work here on earth while we still have time. And we will be working hard, but not to gain what we already have, but to help others have it. That’s our reward. We will not be anxious about anything but will have the peace that surpasses all understanding as we go on about our daily lives. These good works that we do will be the result of God’s amazing grace shown first to us and then, through us, to others.
So, the message for us is that, in the kingdom, our reward is not the product of us deserving it, but of unmerited grace. And the good news is that God is just as gracious to those who come to Him at the last moment. Now, without argument, sometimes we are a little resentful of those who accept Jesus when it appears they haven’t put the work in that we have. As far as God is concerned, we should be grateful and overjoyed at the fact that we’ve been blessed with all this time to be his servants in establishing the kingdom and helping others. But for God, it’s never too late and this unmerited gift of grace is his to give regardless of what we may think or feel. We should be happy for those who accept it even up to the last minute, rejoicing right along with God at the lost sheep who has been found and has been saved.
Many people we don’t expect to see in the kingdom will be there. The criminal who repented as he was dying on the cross, and the drunk driver who killed three people will be there along with the people who have believed and served God faithfully for many years, the ones we miss and long to see again. We shouldn’t resent God’s gracious acceptance of the despised, the outcast, and the sinners who have turned to him for forgiveness, and we shouldn’t be jealous of that same grace that God has freely given to another undeserved person as he freely gave to us. Instead, we need to focus on God’s gracious benefits that we have received and be thankful for all that we have as it is, after all, free for all.
Let us pray.
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt! Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, freely bestowed on all who believe! Loving Father, how we praise you for your unconditional love, love that we did nothing to earn, a love that is undeserved. Move us to take that grace and to work every day in your service seeking the lost and the searching. Use us to bring others to that grace that will pardon and cleanse within, grace that is greater than all our sin. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.