FOR THE Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we hear of the rightful tension that exists between the Law of Moses as provided to Israel, and the grace given to us through Christ Jesus our Lord. This we hear from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew through the Parable of the Vineyard. In the telling, Jesus explained to his followers that the grace of God often moves counter to what we humans think of as fair measure…
So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 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.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
This parable told by Jesus brings closing thoughts to a topic that had been presented in Matthew’s previous chapter. There, the initial question asked of our Lord was, “What good deed do I do to inherit eternal life?” In that prior scene the Son of God had ultimately answered the rich young man’s query…
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)
Therefore the question focused the early church of Matthew upon fair and just rewards for that which is humanly done by a person during their lifetime… good things which are to be accomplished by any… for those who most certainly will stand in judgment before God. The initial response Jesus gave addressed the position and responsibilities of a rich person as over against the care of the poor. After this teaching was finished, the disciples thus inquired about their own reward. They boldly reminded he who needs no reminding that they had left everything to follow him. Jesus answered them concisely by saying all things would unfold properly in the kingdom of God. . .
The query from the disciples gleaned an answer requiring faith from the followers of Jesus. However, the situation also prompted the illustration presented by today’s parable. Whether the parable’s inclusion in Matthew’s gospel, a text not found in either Mark or Luke, is recorded because of confusion and ambition on the part of the original twelve… or simply notes a particular disturbance that had run solely through Matthew’s church in Antioch… is difficult for us to know. If the first, ask then, “Was it that both Mark and Luke wanted to avoid painting their early church communities as internally contentious, seeking after power, position or wealth? Or if the second, “Was there already in the infant Matthean church by the time of the gospel writing, a pronounced tumult that arose between Jewish elders, Judaic proselytes, and Gentile Christians?”
I offer that Mark likely did not include this parable because the story belongs to a source not known at the time by the Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt… for that gospel was written at least fifteen years earlier than Matthew’s telling. On the other hand, Luke’s gospel was written during the same decade as Matthew, but evidence can be made that they either chose to eliminate the text for the topic addressed something that was not an issue for their communities, thus they did not use it because its portrayal would consume too much manuscript length. In any case, we in today’s environment, we rightly look to Matthew, for the parable addresses human sinfulness as a folly that may be found in every modern society and church. Why? The parable states that whether rich or poor, small or large, urban, suburban or rural… we in latter days too often ask our Lord, “What are we to do to inherit the good stuff? What shall our payment and position in the kingdom be? Who shall sit at the head of the table?
Thus the parable answers the folly that human works are often seen by us as earning our way to heaven. Jesus thus challenged our worldly concept of fairness, as it is reflected over against God’s wondrous grace.
What is striking about this parable is how it portrays an ethic that differs from customary human economy. Today, we have an understanding that person’s be paid according to work, and be paid on time. We have in the Hebrew writings and the traditions that which demands that accounts, whatever their sums, must be immediately settled fairly between employers and day laborers. We read…
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
Therefore in the parable our Lord agreed with the earlier tradition that in person-to-person commerce, he called for wages to be fairly settled immediately at the end of the day. This was in agreement with the Law of Moses. As Christians then, if we consider ourselves as workers in the kingdom of God and the end of our lives may be thought of as the end of the day… the idea of how much is “earned” for the “day” becomes an issue. In light of this, since the workers described in the parable were brought into labor at various hours of the day, those hired first factored that on a tilted scale the wages each should receive. Thus as a household enterprise, we see that a division occurred when the vineyard owner chose a different course.
That Matthew chose to include this parable, thus may show that similar conversations were pronounced in his church. In the parable, we hear that many workers thought the vineyard owner should vary the wages according to the measure held by the workers. Those who had worked earlier, and longer… should be paid more. Thus we see that “works seniority” became the issue. As the parable unfolded, we see that the owner of the vineyard wronged no one. He simply chose extend generosity to those who had been hired later in the day.
We in today’s society should not take this as either an endorsement or rejection of such things as trade guilds or modern union bargaining. Rather than imposing our own human concepts, we need to consider that according to Jesus and the witness of Matthew, the intent of this parable was to portray the grace, generosity and sovereignty of the Father. I consider that any adverse human reaction should be judged according to what is best described and summed by a Greek variant translation. You see, a variation exists for a latter verse in our reading. We find the divine challenge… ”Or are you envious because I am generous?” … which is also interpreted properly by some Greek language scholars as… “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Thus we get in full import the message that God is God! Therefore the parable asks the hearer to examine themselves about their own motivation. When payment does not meet our expectations…. when lives do not work out as expected… who do we consider ourselves to be… as gods? Is it that we sinful human beings shall judge not only ourselves and our economy, but our God as well? Or shall we more rightfully praise our graceful God?
Within our modern environment, therefore, we hear from Matthew an important message concerning our salvation. I argue that we are called to see that our God has worked in response to the fallen state of humanity. Almighty God, the Father of Jesus Christ, is not respectful of human measures concerning gained position, inheritance, nor seniority. We see that Saint Paul thus reminded the early church in Rome…
For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?
Surely then, amid our jostling and grumbling amongst any family ancestry claims, class jealousies and denominational allegiances… it is with humility that we are all called by the Spirit to confess our sinfulness, and mutually accept the very graceful gift of forgiveness and salvation. We are asked to corporately recognize that we are those who were caught as last in our sinfulness and sat in outer darkness … and who are now gracefully placed first. For us and for our salvation Jesus accepted the hurtful and dreadful payment for our sinfulness, and we are paid gracefully instead. He that is the firstborn of God, and was God at the beginning of all things, accepted the punishment, knowing that he would be considered as the last and cast out to the dump upon a cross.
Indeed Jesus as the Son of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end… is the Righteous one that gave himself and yet gives generously. It is this obedient Son, whom God raised from the dead. Through him, we who were deservedly last and placed far removed… are forgiven and find ourselves as standing among those put foremost by God’s eternal love. This was, and yet still is the happy exchange… the divine economy… thanks be to God!