God's grace is his to give to whomever he wishes, whenever he wishes.
From this lesson, students should
Understand that God's grace is not based on our efforts or merits but is freely given to all who respond to God’s call, regardless of when they do so.
Have our notions of fairness and entitlement challenged, reminding us that God's generosity and grace are beyond our comprehension and that we should rejoice in God’s extravagant blessings.
Be encouraged to emulate his example by extending grace and generosity to others, recognizing that we, too, have received God's unmerited favor.
Catching up on the story
Once again, the parable under consideration results from a question or questions that have been put to Jesus. The first question put to Jesus is the rich young man's question in verse 16 of chapter 19. The man asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The man has done this diligently. Finally, Jesus urges the man to sell all he has and give his money to the poor. That way, he will have treasure in heaven. A call to follow Jesus is also issued. The rich man goes away sad because he was very rich.
Jesus then turns to his disciples and declares that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. It will be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle! The disciples are astounded by this declaration (Remember, riches were often seen as a sign of God's favor). This leads us to the second question. Peter, who has indeed left everything to follow Jesus, wants to know what he will receive for his sacrifice and faithfulness. Indeed, the disciples and those who are faithful in sacrifice will receive much in the way of eternal reward. But Jesus also ends the chapter with a warning: "But many who are first will be last, and the lasts will be first." The meaning of this warning will become clear as we examine the parable.
The parable begins, once again, with the iconic words, "For the kingdom of heaven is like…" As we have said before, Jesus is comparing a known world and rule to living in the reign of God. In other words, Jesus is painting a picture of life as it should and will be when Jesus' kingdom is fully established. Jesus is now bringing the kingdom of heaven here on earth, which involves inviting his followers to become good citizens of that kingdom. There is a steep learning curve, so Jesus teaches via parables.
What is the kingdom of heaven like? The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner with a vineyard that needs to be harvested. So, the master sets out early in the morning to hire workers for the day. Day laborers (see Important Terms) would congregate in the marketplace hoping to be hired for the day. It may not be common in our fair city, but there are places in our country where day laborers, usually immigrants or migrant workers, gather at local businesses hoping they might get hired for the day. Today, this happens at places like Lowes and Home Depot. Usually, those hired, both then and now, are from the poorer segments of the community.
As the parable begins, we are immediately struck by the idea that the landowning master himself goes out to hire the laborers. Later on in the parable, we meet the master’s manager, who is tasked with the job of paying the workers. Why would the master go out himself when he could send his manager instead? And he does not go out just once, but multiple times! Perhaps this points to the nature of the King at the center of the kingdom of heaven. What we confess about who God is in Jesus Christ is that he is the God who goes and leaves his position of comfort so that he might mingle and personally call us to work alongside him. The King at the center of the kingdom of heaven is a King who issues his call to participation in the kingdom not just once but early and often.
The master enters the marketplace and hires the first workers he sees. He agrees to pay them the usual daily wage. What is translated as "usual daily wage" is really "a denarius." Then, a little later in the morning, the master again hires workers. This time, he agrees to pay the workers “whatever is right.” No amount is settled upon; the workers will have to trust that the master will not take advantage of them. It may also be that the workers had no other hope of being hired for the day, so any pay would be better than nothing. Again, the master goes out at noon, three o’clock, and toward the end of the day at five o’clock. Each time, he agrees to pay the workers whatever is right.
The end of the day arrives, and the master instructs his manager to pay the workers, beginning with the ones who arrived last. Each worker will receive the normal daily wage. When the late-arriving workers received their pay, the workers who had worked the entire day began to get excited because they believed they might receive more than what had been promised.
They quickly learn that this is not the case. The workers hired first only received the normal daily wage, the same amount as those hired at the very end of the day. As you can imagine, they begin to grumble. I imagine if we all were put in this similar situation, our reaction would be much the same. “I worked all day long! And it was hot! How can he give more to the guy who only worked an hour? It's not fair!" The master's treatment of workers hired later in the day goes against everything we are taught is fair and right. "You get what you work for. If you want a lot, you have to work hard for it,” and “Those who don’t work very hard or long shouldn’t get the same as those who work hard.”
The master of the vineyard turns those notions on their head. The master points out that he has dealt fairly with the workers who are now grumbling. The master has paid the promised wage. Besides, can't the master do with what he has in the way that he wants to? Of course, he can.
Jesus then closes the parable with the same warning he began: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." What do we make of this parable and its warning? We might spend some time discussing who the workers are or whom they represent. Many have speculated about the identities of the workers. Some early church fathers believed that the workers represented different periods of human history from Adam to Christ. Others have speculated that the workers represent people who receive Christ at various ages.
The workers hired at the end of the day represent the elderly. Some have speculated that the later workers were the Christians while the ones hired early in the day were the Jews.
The identity of the workers, I do not believe, is the main point of the parable. It is, rather, the identity of the master that matters most in this parable. As we have already said, the master is a missionary master; he goes out personally to recruit workers. He calls early and often. Not only that, he is an extravagantly benevolent master. He promised that what he would pay the workers would be fair and right. With the first workers, he gives them the normal daily wage. But with the later workers, he becomes extravagant! One commentator wonders if "Jesus is hinting at the goodness of grace, at a judgment that will be more generous than our conscience usually allows us to believe?" (Bruner, 320) After all, is it not up to God to do with what belongs to him in the way that he chooses? God's generosity is far beyond our usual ability to comprehend.
The warning that Jesus gives about first becoming lasts and lasts becoming firsts speaks deep to our hearts. How often do we pride ourselves on being workers who have shown up early to work in the Christian faith? Many of us have been Christians since an early age. We have heard the call of the master and have responded. But do we get envious when those, perhaps, who have not worked as hard or as long, receive or will receive the same blessings we have? Do we think of ourselves more highly than we ought because we have worked so long? If so, we are in danger of becoming last. God's unthinkable grace and love is God's to give to whomever he wishes, whenever he wishes. May we rest in the knowledge that God has given that great grace to us, not because we have deserved it, but because he desired to give it.
The kingdom of heaven is like great and unmerited grace. The King of that kingdom, Jesus Christ, calls us to come and participate in his kingdom, to join the work and promises to reward us fairly. Only the King doesn't cease calling. All those who listen and respond get to participate in the kingdom and receive its rewards, even those who respond very late in the day. The King is more than just fair; the King is extravagant, giving disproportionate payment to those who, often, we believe shouldn’t get very much. God’s grace is his to give.
We are warned, though. We will become last, not from a failure to work, but from an oversized vision of what we think we deserve compared to others. Rather, we should rejoice in the great gift of grace that God has given us. We should rejoice and find comfort that the master we serve is extravagant in his blessing to all. And then, we must exercise the same great grace.
"Day laborers fall into a class of people in advanced agrarian societies known as 'the expendables'… For them, as Thomas Hobbes noted, life was 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.' Owing to the specters of 'malnutrition, disease and deprivation' that haunted them, they were unable to maintain marriages or reproduce themselves, but the ranks of the expendables were continually replenished by 'the steady stream of new recruits forced into is ranks from the classes immediately above it,' the unclean and degraded, the peasantry, and the artisans. The expendables were largely composed of the excess children of peasant households who could afford to pass on their inheritance to only one child, usually the eldest son; the holdings of these peasants were to small to support more children. ‘The best that most of them [the expendable] could hope for was occasional work at planting and harvest time and charity in between…’ Between 5 and 10 percent of the population ‘found itself in this depressed class…’” (Herzog 88-89).
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Refresh your understanding of the context. As a group, go back and read Matthew 19:16-30.
Why do you think the master himself goes out to hire workers? Why do you think he continues to go out throughout the day?
Why does the master not settle on a given wage for the workers he hires later in the day?
The master instructs his manager to pay the workers, beginning with the ones hired last. Why do you think this is?
Why does the master give the workers hired at the end of the day the same amount as the first hired? Do you think your reaction would have been the same as that of the first hired workers?
If we are the workers in the story, what does this say about us? How might we become like the master in the story?
What does Jesus mean when he says, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last?"
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).
William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, 1st edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).