Matthew 20:“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew includes this story directed to the early Christian community. There may have been some conflict between the Jewish Christians who were among the first believers and Gentile Christians who came later. Payday likely refers to the end days of judgment when all Christians alike, Jew and Gentile, will be received into God’s eternal Kingdom by grace.
V.12 gets at the heart of the conflict. The laborers who were first hired object to what they perceive to be an unfair pay practice. If those hired at the very end of the day get a full day’s wage shouldn’t those who worked longer get more? It’s hard to object to the logic here. But v.13-16 highlight the flaw in this way of thinking.
The point Jesus is trying to make via this illustration is that all people are saved by grace alone, whether they spent a lifetime as a Christian or a single moment. Doesn’t matter. The ones who complain about getting too little pay are thinking through the lens of justice. You get what you deserve. But salvation is a consequence of grace, not justice. If justice were the operative principal here ALL people would die an eternal death in our shared sinfulness.
If I’m honest I mostly think through the lens of justice rather than grace. And I expect that’s in large part because the world around us doesn’t generally function out of grace, but justice. No free lunch! You get what you deserve! No one owes you anything in this world! But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that – thankfully. We all stand together as broken sinners before the throne of grace. And because of God’s great love for us, most poignantly expressed by Jesus on the cross, we do NOT get what we deserve. Thanks be to God. Amen.