“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (verses 13-16)
Jesus’ story is drawn from the typical middle eastern labouring context of the time. Workers who assembled in the centre of town are hired by a landowner with the promised pay of one denarius, the going rate for a day of work. So far, so good. But the landowner keeps going back throughout the day, hiring more workers each time, hiring the final allotment at the eleventh hour with only one hour remaining in the workday.
When the time comes to settle up, those hired last are paid first. They get a full denarius. Those hired at the beginning of the day take notice. Their expectations take a sudden leap – they now hope to get more than they were originally promised. Wouldn’t that make sense? But when wages are put into their eager hands, they’re sorely disappointed. They, too, receive the standard denarius.
How can that be? They grumble – loudly! – feeling hard done by. They’d worked the full day while these others hadn’t. How was that fair?
The landowner gives a straightforward response, reminding them they are getting exactly what he’d promised – in fact, they’d agreed on it together. They haven’t been cheated; they haven’t been shortchanged. They’ve been paid in full. Yet they’re upset for the simple reason that the landowner has been exceedingly generous to those who started work late in the day. Those labourers only worked one hour but got a full day’s wage. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” the landowner asks, and then puts his finger on the issue: “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Generosity. This is the key issue in the story. It catches the early-rising workers off-guard. It catches us off-guard, too. Jesus’ story sneaks up on us, putting us onside with those all-day labourers, making us feel their indignation as our own. How is it fair that the one-hour workers get full wages? The answer is “generosity” – which is another word for “grace.” That’s what the kingdom is about.
It's what we see in the story of the Prodigal Son. The older brother has stayed home, working hard, but the younger son gets warmly welcomed back after squandering his inheritance. He’s welcomed because of the Father’s love. Because of his generous heart. Because of grace.
It’s what we see with the thief on the cross next to Jesus. He has no time at all to prove himself. It’s well past the eleventh hour. He simply turns to Jesus in trust, and Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It’s generosity. It’s grace.
It’s what we see when the door to the kingdom is flung open wide to Gentiles, those who’d been outside the circle, who had no right to expect acceptance and forgiveness and welcome. Yet, through Jesus, they receive it all. Generosity. Grace.
It’s what we see when our eyes finally open and we realize that all the workers in the vineyard were only there because the landowner himself went to the centre of town, sought them out, welcomed them in, offered them a place, provided them work, drew them into his circle.
It’s not what it seems. It’s all generosity. It’s all grace. Or, to put it another way, the first will be last and the last first, a concept which Jesus states twice over, once immediately before he tells this parable (19:30) and once immediately after (20:16).
We thought we could earn it ourselves, but the kingdom is always a gift.
Dear Lord, praise you for your generous heart. I was least and last, but have been brought right in. Into your family. Into your kingdom. Into your grace. Thank you.
Reflect: Have you worked long and hard? Have you been tempted to lean on your own merit rather than the Lord’s generous heart? Take time to simply bask in his generous grace. Give thanks.
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