1 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion [note: a denarion was a typical day’s wage], he sent them into his vineyard.
3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.
Jesus showed that God’s generosity goes way beyond “fairness.” People who worked all day watched the landowner pay people who’d only worked one hour the same amount that they had agreed to work for—and they got angry. (We can almost imagine their pro-rated mental calculations.) But the vineyard owner didn’t cheat them. Sadly, he asked the upset workers “Are you resentful because I’m generous?”
Loving God, in fall foliage and spring flowers, every morning and every evening, you delight in giving to me. Keep my generosity growing, even though it will never match the magnitude of yours. Amen.
* R. T. France, article “Matthew” in New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994, p. 930.
God’s love and mercy are probably the most central parts of modern Christianity. We sing songs about these things every week in church, and we give thanks for them in our prayers. Recognizing that God has given us something we don’t deserve is a core tenant of our faith, and it’s something we’re all aware of as Christians. But it’s funny how quickly our tune can change when it comes to God extending love and mercy to other people. Not our friends, of course—the people we disagree with. The other people.
When we think about these other people inheriting God’s kingdom by way of his love and mercy, we turn into hyper-vigilant faith police, ready to draw lines between the real Christians and the fake ones and mercilessly call out the people we deem as unworthy.
In my young adult life, I was routinely told I wasn’t a real Christian because of my political beliefs. I was told, by individuals and some churches, that the things I wanted were incompatible with Christianity. When I heard this, there was a backlash—I would often respond (sometimes only in my head), “I’M the fake Christian? Look at what YOU’RE doing!” and there was this nasty back-and-forth as we tried to figure out who was the least Christ-like.
And it didn’t stop there. I was told I wasn’t a real Christian because of some of the movies I watched. I was told I wasn’t a real Christian because of my theology. I was told I wasn’t a real Christian because of some of the people I associated with. And, if I’m honest, I made these judgments about others too.
It’s funny how when we get into arguments about how real Christians are supposed to behave, real Christians always tend to behave like us. Nobody ever argues, “My vices are the real problems in Christianity! Why can’t I be more like you?”
The fact is, all of us are figuring things out and all of us will continue to screw up. In fact, we will keep screwing up until the day we die. I look at today’s parable of the generous landowner and I see how all of us can learn from it; but in another sense, many of us don’t even know how long the other workers have been working. We simply assume that we’ve been the hardest and longest working workers of the bunch, and we assume that others are less deserving of the full wages of their efforts. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, and I like to believe I’m one of the workers from the beginning of the story. I think I’m going to be surprised, at the end of my story, how many hours I wasn’t actually working at all—at least, not in any productive way.
It can be easy to be mad about God’s generous nature with love and mercy, much as the people in today’s parable were mad that seemingly undeserving workers were getting a full day’s pay. But we should be grateful that God’s generosity covers our own mistakes, even if we spend our entire lives unknowingly plowing the wrong fields. We shouldn’t choose to be gatekeepers of God’s love and mercy not only because it’s not ours to control, but because we may end up being surprised at the end of our story to see where the real work was all along.
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