The window was closing on the extent of the earthly ministry of Christ. Certainly the disciples had little idea as to what was soon to come, though they certainly sensed difficulties ahead. They were travelling to a place where their master was hated and reviled by the religious leadership of their own people. Conflict and change was thick in the air.
Along the way, a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus spoke of keeping the commandments, which the man was able to say he had consistently done.
But then Jesus upped the price, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Some of the disciples surely noted the moisture in the eyes of Christ as he reflected on the man who was unwilling to give up earthy, temporal gain for eternal, spiritual riches.
After an awkward silence, the silence-breaking disciple – the one who surely had loud and impertinent ancestors from the state of New Jersey – involuntarily found himself once again verbally up-chucking his logical thought process. On some of the hard days of trudging around the Judean and Galilean countryside, he found himself reminiscing back to the Sea of Galilee – to his boat – to his love of the water and challenging business of catching fish.
Practically without thinking, Peter said, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Jesus answered that “… everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
He basically said that you can trust me on this … it might look like you are at the back of the line now, but lots of faithful people who feel that way are, in the end, going to find themselves at the front of the line.
This statement is going to come back again at the end of our parable we study today – serving as bookends for it.
When we speak of financial economies, we might speak of something called “market value.” The price of a used car depends on what consumers are willing to pay for—which in turn is mitigated by supply-and-demand and competition.
When we speak of spiritual economies, we might see ourselves through a similar lens. In short, we prefer to “balance the books.” Hard work, moral behavior—these should give us an advantage against those we view beneath us. This is the way the Pharisees viewed the world around them.
The parable Jesus tells is devoted to seeing God’s grace as built on something other than performance. Jesus is saying that if we view our relationship as a contract, this leads to at least one of two things:
(1) We feel entitled to blessing because of our hard work, and/or
(2) We feel angered when others receive the blessings we feel they don’t deserve.
By contrast, Jesus declares that the “economy” of God’s Kingdom won’t be ruled by contracts and obligations, but by love and grace.
And the ultimate application of this passage will be that the truly “unfair” thing about grace is that any of us should receive salvation at all. This leads us not toward frustration like the servants of the parable, but gratitude for what we receive.
20:1 — “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 for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace 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.”