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Unfair Grace

Sermon, 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday September 17, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16‘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[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.3 ‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place 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?”16 ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Would you work for this guy? His version of ‘fair wage” probably would not suit any Union boss or worker for that matter. His way of paying people for a job done is a bit strange.

Imagine if you were a boss hearing this parable. If reimbursement is not based on hours actually worked by the worker, then how would you motivate your employees? It would be hard. Those working for you would have no incentive to work hard for you.

If you can’t motivate your employees, then you get rorting and corruption and laziness. I saw this kind of thing when working a summer job as a student on the Cooperative Bulk Handling (CBH) grain terminal in Fremantle. There was no incentive to work hard there. I noticed that the long-term guys would just disappear for a couple of hours in the heat of the Summer day.

I eventually found out that they were off down at the cool underground base of the huge silos having a snooze most afternoons! The grain grower were paying for this!

Imagine if you are a hard-working person hearing this parable. You put in the long hours. But then the boss pays everyone the same amount. So you, who have been on the job since sun up, and the guy down at the shops who started working at 5.00pm get the same day’s fair wage!

Jesus describes how you would fee; “These last blokes worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” This is just not fair. If that’s how it’s going to be, why shouldn’t we just dally all day long down the shops or at home before wondering in to work to punch in at four o’clock?

Here’s the point: Whatever the kingdom of God is, it does not work on what we work on – the great Protestant work ethic – work done- reward given. It seems here like reward given, despite what work done? OR, reward is not based on work done at all.

This is like that parable of the two lost sons. The older son experiences this ‘crazy grace” from the father as the father pours huge gifts of love on that scoundrel of a younger brother who has come back home with his tail between his legs after blowing 1/3 of the inheritance that the older brother will be receiving when Dad dies (Luke 15:11-32)! The acceptance of the Father for the wayward son is unfair. The older brother believes that the Father owes him. He has been hard working for years. He has earnt his way into his reward.

The people hearing of this unreasonable forgiveness would not have been wiping tears of gratitude to God from their eyes. They would have been amazed at the injustice of what Jesus is describing his Kingdom to be!

Now, this is a parable. It tries to describe the Kingdom of God in part. It is not a manifesto on how you are supposed to treat your pruners or pickers or your employees or staff.

So, it is really not at all about “reimbursement” or “fair wages”. It is rather about a gracious and undeserving gift that comes from a gracious King of the Kingdom. It is about what Jesus brings to people and how he transforms people from envious self-interested ‘right’ and ‘deserving’ people to simply people who are reliant on every word that comes from the mouth of God for life and life to the full.

Remember, Jesus is the one telling the parable. He will be the one who establishes this kingdom of grace by sheer grace and the only way in to his kingdom is by grace through faith in this Jesus of the cross.

There is real challenge here too, though. Jesus challenges us on how we relate to our God. Do we relate to our God on the basis of work done, accomplishments achieved, good work complete?

If we believe that it is what we do or don’t do that determines our relationship with the Lord, then we will be very upset like those first workers who are in the end envious of the Lord’s grace shown to others they think have not done enough, been good enough, have the correct family name, know how to behave in church and etc…….

Is this you? Does God owe you? Do you believe the Lord has treated you unjustly? If so, is this because you are in the mindset that his acceptance of you is just like everyone else’s – based on your performance – right living, right thinking, right praying, right saving, right handling of things….?

But the thing is that this is not a parable about people doing the Landowner a service. It is actually about the Landowner doing people a service. The Landowner is the one who gives them all a job and a reward and a purpose and meaning in their day. This landowner sweeps up idle (and therefore lost) people and gives them a purpose.

So there’s absolutely no room for questioning the landowner’s rationale for payment: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

It reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

How easy it is to forget over the course of the day that every good thing comes to us as a gracious gift from God, and God is not required or compelled to create us, much less pull us out of our idleness.

Here’s the truth: Jesus’ kingdom will offend all of us who assume that the future, if it is to be good, must be earned and deserved.

Actually, how the church works is this: fewer hours clocked serving the Lord does not lessen one’s status as a labourer in his mission. When we come face to face with God’s boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others who are new to us, or new to Faith, or less experienced at church, or not so capable at volunteering or serving in leadership, the Spirit tends to reveal things about us who have been long-term disciples and members of God’s church. We find out whether we view our own labour in the gospel as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfilment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.

The second way is the Kingdom way and it is better! It is so much more freeing and joyful to view all that we have and do and are as gift from this crazy gracious Landowner God than to view ourselves as doing God a favour by our fine morals, ideas, stances on issues and etc….

It is so much more truthful and fulfilling in life to trust that you and your work, your family, your serving of others is the Lord fulfilling his plans for his world through you than to see life as a long run in the scorching heat that just has to be suffered through as best as you can, based on what you can do – leaving the calling, gathering, enlightening word of the Spirit out of the picture!

Jesus is the King who serves sinners hand over fist in unreasonable acceptance and second chances given freely to people who don’t deserve them and have not and cannot earn them.

Would you work for this guy? At the end of the day would you be envious of his gracious reward paid to undeserving people or laughing along at the grace of it all and be full of joy that you are also included in this over-the-top gracious God?


Listen to the parable again as you read it out loud slowly noting the flow of the story and then both the landowners words and first hired worker’s words.

I suggested that the main person in this parable is the landowner. he is the  one making the decisions and employing and rewarding workers. He is the one doing the workers a favour, rather than the workers doing him a favour. he goes and finds them at the markets. he employs them for an agreed day’s pay. he makes the first move and he owns the property and business in which these chosen workers are employed.

When those who were hired early and worked the whole day in the heat complain because of the injustice of receiving the same agreed pay that the guy employed at 5.00pm gets, the Landowner rightly says it is his call. He is within his rights to pay  a fair days pay to anyone he wishes, no matter how long or short they have worked. So, in the community of God, no one’s place is determined by performance. No one is included in God’s acceptance and love because they worked hard to get there. People’s place in the Lord’s community must be based on something else than performance.

Thank the Lord it is! because none of us can perform enough, work long enough, hard enough or be enough to earn his grace and favour! Our place in God’s gracious kingdom is  based on his gracious gift of forgiveness and life not our goodo work. the landowner makes everything happen in the parable. he gives people a place, a role, a meaning and a purpose in  their day – all by his decision. he loves giving people without place, purpose and meaning these wonderful gifts!

The attitude in focus here is envy over God’s reward given to others who we don’t think deserve it. By default, this first attitude is linked to another. If we don’t think another person is deserving of God’s grace, then we also then think that we ourselves are because we have EARNED his grace. That is a problem for a Christian because it is  not true. No person can earn God’s grace. No person can be good enough for long enough or work hard enough to earn God’s acceptance and love because these gifts are gifts!

Who do you see yourself being in this parable – the person hired early who is miffed because he thought he had earned God’s favour, or the person who was employed for only an hour or so who cannot believe is luck at receiving a reward of such lavish grace?

Does God owe you? This is the challenge in this parable – particularly for long-term workers in God’s mission vineyard. When people different to us in some way, or people new to the Faith, new to the congregation, new to the community come our way, it is easy to be like the guy hired early. When God gives his gifts and blessing  these new people, we can get on our high horse and consider them to be lower than ourselves or even underserving f our respectful and loving treatment until “they earn their  stripes”. This betrays that old ‘performance based’ kind of belief – that the Lord’s acceptance and love for us  is based on OUR performance, our goodness, our hard work. we can be like the older brother in the parable of the  lost sons in Luke 15. Have a read of that parable again and note the older brother’s attitude to his Father.

Jesus is the one telling this parable. He will go on to give up everything to make it possible for people without hope and place and a purpose in life get all these by faith in him.  He is the ultimate worker who does his  work for us. He is the Landowner who chooses and calls us into being his co-workers in his work of calling our community to himself.

I suggested that we might be in one of two groups of workers at the end of the day. When the fair reward for a fair day’s work is being  handed out by the Lord, we will either be envious of the reward given to others because we think we earned our place in his grace or we will be laughing with joy at the generosity of this landowner and  just glad to being included in whatever reward he gives because we did not  expect reward or work for it. which one do you find yourself being today?

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