The Extravagant Grace of God: Matthew 20:1-15
I’m thrilled that our church is preaching a series in the parables of Jesus. Parables are wonderful lessons from our Lord; they are challenging, timeless, and applicable to our lives in this day and age. The parable I’m sharing with you today is called the “Workers in the Vineyard” from Matthew 20. I chose it not because I work in a vineyard, nor that I own a vineyard (though that would be nice), but because I’m a worker, an employee. Many of you are employees or workers as well. I work as an engineer in a high-tech company (the “fruit” company some blocks from our church). This company – many companies in the valley – is based on meritocracy – you work hard and you earn the rewards of your labor. In addition, I am Chinese, and my cultural heritage has instilled in me a strong work ethic; you’ve heard this before, “study hard, work hard, earn lots of money. If you don’t work hard, you’ll be poor.” This work ethic / meritocracy seems “fair”; it is what the world expects.
In this parable, Jesus begins with this common, well understood premise – laborers who are willing to work hard and expect to be fairly compensated. The “usual”, however, takes an unexpected twist that leaves us in tension, uncomfortable with the message it presents. Turn with me in your bibles to Matthew 20:1-15.
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 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.’ 9 The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These 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.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
(NIV, Matthew 20:1-15)
The Kingdom of Heaven
Let me offer a word about the “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus mentions right at the beginning. Jesus uses this term in many parables, and it’s often referred to as “kingdom of God” as well. These interchangeable terms refer to the same concept.
Some folks think this “kingdom of heaven” refers to heaven, somewhere we’ll go after we die. While that may be true in some instances, In the parables the “kingdom of heaven”or “kingdom of God” refers to any place or time where God reigns as king, where there is submission to His rules, values, and purposes. Kingdom of heaven where His work is done. And this place and time can be right here, right now. When we show kindness to a needy world, offer counsel and comfort to the hurting, His kingdom is expressed. As your character is being conformed into the image of Christ, His will is done in your life; your life is the “kingdom of heaven”. As the Lord’s Prayer states, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; where God’s will is done on earth is the “kingdom of heaven”.
Now let’s examine this parable following the structure that Shawn Reese presented last week: the three “U’s” of “Usual”, “Unexpected”, and “Unsettled”.
We start with the “usual” or the “common” scene – a landowner looking for laborers in town. This was a common practice in biblical times; it is even common today. Perhaps you may have seen day laborers who wait outside home improvement stores, hoping for an opportunity to earn a day’s wages. The landowner and laborers agree that they would work for a denarius, which is a common wage for a day’s labor. Very fair, very usual.
This scene repeats four more times throughout the day. The slight difference is that the vineyard owner did not specify the exact wages for the subsequent workers. “I will pay you whatever is right,” the landowner declares. The expectation is that those who worked a fraction of a day will receive a prorated wage.
This is the “usual” aspect of the parable. We in the workplace can identify with this idea of “what is right” or “just.” As I mentioned earlier, I work as an engineer at Apple in Cupertino; I started there a year ago. When I joined last summer, I missed the cutoff for the employee review cycle. I saw my colleagues get their reviews, salary bumps, bonus, or additional stock. However, since I had been there less than three months, they skipped me. I got nothing. And I was fine with that. It’s only fair, because my colleagues were there longer, they should be compensated better. This is “usual” and commonly accepted.
Now let’s examine the “unexpected.” The vineyard master pays the workers in reverse order – the last one is paid first.These last workers got a whole denarius, a full-day’s wages. Wow, how fantastic! That would be like me getting a bonus after only two months at work! What an generous manager! Although not explicitly mentioned, we may surmise the middle workers were also paid one denarius. They also must have been surprised with receiving a full-day’s wages for a partial work day. What a great boss!
Imagine what the first workers are thinking. They are calculating: “one hour gets one denarius, I worked twelve hours, let’s see, I’ll receive… twelve denarius! I’m rich!”
What happens? The “unexpected”! These early workers got exactly the same wage – one denarius! What? “That’s totally not fair! I worked harder than the last guy,” the early workers grumbled, “but you paid us all the same!” They were indignant at this “perceived” unfairness.
Now comes the “unsettling” part, the uncomfortable tension. The vineyard owner explains, “friend, we agreed to your day’s wages at the customary rate. I’m giving you what I promised and you agreed to. So, I did you no wrong, there is no injustice. Take your pay and leave! Are you envious (literally ‘are your eyes evil’) because I’m generous?”
Pretty harsh words from the landowner. Does the master’s response sit well with you? Or do his actions and words unsettle you? It unsettles us because it’s contrary to our own sense of fairness, of meritocracy. We worked harder, so shouldn’t we get more? Also, because we worked harder, we feel we’re superiorthan the other workers, our superiority entitles us to more, yet the landowner treated every worker as equal.
Jesus leaves us in this unsettled state, and I wish to give you a moment to sit with this tension. Think of how this parable applies to you. With which worker do you identify? What do the characters represent?
In this parable, of course, the vineyard owner represents God, and the different workers represent people whom God has called to his kingdom, each different in life situation and attitude. The workers represent you, me, all of us. Now, what about the “work”? What does that represent?
Do you see “work” literally as your daily grind – get up, fight traffic going to work, work hard, skip lunch, go to meetings, write emails and at the end of the day you earn your denarius as your salary? May I suggest that the parable speak to a different domain of work than the pursuit of a salary or career. This work refers to work in God’s kingdom in the spiritual domain. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.(Eph 2:10). This work is has eternal significance: it is how God’s kingdom is brought to earth, through and by His people. It may be the work of social justice, ministering to the less fortunate of society. It may be evangelism, sharing the Good News to your friends, leading someone to Christ. We commend each of you who do the “ministry of the saints” in the world. This is one of the four core values we embrace at PBCC.
How do we react to this “work”? For some of us, it is difficult; for others, it feels easier and we wish we can do more of God’s work. Perhaps some of us wish others would do more of their share of God’s work compared to us.
I think a natural tendency is for us to assign “levels” to God’s kingdom work. The artificial hierarchy may put full-time ministers at the top, followed by leaders in church, bible teachers, Sunday school leaders, ministry volunteers, etc. Within this man-made hierarchy, we may compare ourselves to others around us. Unconsciously or consciously, we may evaluate our own worth by comparing our work to others. We may become offended if God appears to bless others “lower than us” more than they “deserve”, or if He appears to bless us less than we deserve.
What worker are you? Do you see yourself as the last worker who does an insignificant amount of work, yet rejoicing in the unexpected gift from your generous boss? Do you identify with the early workers, offended because your sense of fairness is called into question? Or are you the silent middle workers who were blessed by a denarius, yet secretly feel like you deserve more when compared to the late workers?
This parable teaches us that in God’s eyes, we are important and valuable workers in God’s vineyard – different but impactful in our own way. We have different roles, gifts, and talents, and we each ought to contribute to the best of our ability without comparing to fellow believers. (I will discuss more about the different gifting when I preach on “Parable of the Talents” on Labor Day weekend). For today’s sermon, I wish to give one encouragement and one exhortation.
To those of us who feel like the last worker, this parable ought to be a tremendous encouragement. The last workers are not as strong or fit, so were not chosen earlier in the day. God went chasing after, seeking for the last workers, not because he needed more workers but because He wants to bless them, to bring them into His family. So even if we feel like the last workers, or we may have labored in a “lower level” of God’s work, we are not inferior or less worthy in God’s eyes. In fact, God seeks us out and blesses us “last workers” so generously! We are so loved!
Here’s the exhortation to the more mature believer who labors in a more “visible” position for a longer period of time. We ought not look down upon or have an attitude of superiority towards those who have different gifts and roles. An eye cannot say to a hand “I don’t need you”; rather, we must respect honor each other within God’s family. As we read in Romans 12: 3-5 “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
This, then, is our first application of this parable: Jesus reveals to us our attitudes about ourselves, our worth and teaches us to honor respect one another.
Here is a second lesson God has laid on my heart through this parable: the “uncomparable” gift of salvation. Let me illustrate this application by describing two people. Imagine one person who accepted the Lord as a teenager and committed himself to proclaim the gospel to a needy world. Throughout his adult life, he pastored, held revival meetings, and ultimately preached the message of salvation to millions of people. I’m thinking of Billy Graham here. When he died, he certainly received the crown of glory reserved for him.
Now consider a second person, one who disdained religion and rebelled against God all his life. As a career, he took advantage of the less fortunate and made himself rich on the backs and broken lives of his underlings. And then at the end of his life, he sees the train wreck he left behind. He repents of his lifetime of rebellion and accepts Jesus as Savior. Does this person also receive salvation when he dies? Does this last one really get into heaven, into eternal life in God’s presence, as the first one did? An unsettling question, isn’t it?
This is particularly relevant for me. My father resisted the invitation from Jesus all of his life. He was a fine, loving man, but he insisted on his independence and self-sufficiency. But a year ago, on his deathbed, my father repented and accepted Jesus as his Savior in his final hours. Is his salvation genuine? Can God really redeem my father? What is my dad’s salvation compared to salvation of Billy Graham? Can the gift of salvation be compared? This is an unsettling tension I’ve been wrestling with for a year now.
The parable of the vineyard laborers teaches me salvation cannot be compared. That’s why I referred to it earlier as “the uncomparable gift of salvation.” Salvation is God’s gift to give to us undeserving people. God is so generous, so merciful, so loving that even the last one can receive His free gift of salvation, same as those who have followed Christ faithfully since childhood. Here’s what God says, “I want to give the one 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?” (Matthew 20:14-15). God is so generous with Himself, with His gift of grace to us, that it ought to leave us speechless. So don’t try to compare, be envious, or feel entitled. None of us deserve the free gift of salvation. God is extravagant and gives grace to ALL of us, regardless of who we are, what we do, or when we accept the Lord.
You may ask, “can I live life as an unbeliever, in disobedience to God, reveling in a life of sin, then at the last moment, I accept the Lord just before I die and be saved? Does that work?”
There is indeed an example of a last-minute conversion: the thief on the cross next to Jesus. He confessed his sin, acknowledged Jesus as his Sinless Savior, and the Lord promised him, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:47).
However, to the person who wants to “try” this, I ask, “do you really want to gamble with eternal life in that way? Do you really want to slip into the kingdom by the skin of your teeth?” Life is brief, you don’t know how much time you have left, nor the circumstances of your death. What if you die before you receive salvation? So don’t gamble with your life. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:7). The only reasonable option is to repent and believe in him today, right now!
If you still insist to wait because you don’t want to “give up” what you enjoy now, then you are mistaken! We don’t give up anything of substance when we accept Christ; instead, we gain eternal life to enjoy now, this side of death! We gain a right relationship with God, the Holy Spirit to guide and counsel us, a new family in the church – all wonderful gifts of eternal life we can enjoy right now. So why would you wait?
God’s Extravagant Nature
When we think about it, this parable is not really about the vineyard laborers, is it? It’s really about the Master of the vineyard, about God. This parable illustrates not only the nature of the kingdom of God, but also about the nature of the God of the kingdom. And the most important element of God’s nature in this parable is his extravagant gift of Grace. Here, my friends, is the main point of this parable and of my sermon: God is extravagant, and He chooses to bless the least, the last, the undeserving with grace upon grace!
God’s way of acting seems unfair because He decides to be gracious, loving, forgiving, and merciful to those who didn’t earn it, work for it, or “deserve” it. That’s God’s economy, His kingdom, where generosity and kindness reigns. How rightside up this appears compared to the world’s perspective!
When the world cries out for punishment, God cries out for forgiveness. When the world reminds people of their duty, God seeks to show them love. When the world demands that people be held responsible, God extends more grace.
God seeks out those who are lost, hires those He shouldn’t, pays more than they deserve, and gives them His most precious treasure, His only Son, for free.
All of us receive this undeserved grace, whether early in life or late in life. The grace extended to my dad on his deathbed is the grace you and I live by every single day. And this grace comes by the cost of and through the path of the Cross.
May we fully grasp the extravagance of God given to us who did not work for it nor deserve it. Let us each have the attitude of the last worker who is overcome with joy for receiving the extravagant grace of the Father.
I end my sermon with a quote from the late Billy Graham. He has devoted his life to serving God, preaching the Gospel to millions upon millions of people. Of all people, he may be the “early worker”, he have a sense that he entitled to a bigger crown of glory than the later worker. However, Billy Graham’s words embody the attitude of gratefulness of the last worker.
“I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds or read the Bible many times. I’m going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment: ‘Lord, remember me.”
We are all the last worker, we are all the thief on the cross next to Jesus who receives God’s amazing grace. Let us go forth this week, living in and enjoying the extravagance of the God of the kingdom.
Rom. 11:33, 36 – Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
from Wall Street Journal