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The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

"The Resurrection of Lazarus" by Vincent Van Gogh

The parable of Jesus which we are going to read today is an expansion on a point I talked about yesterday, about the first being last and the last being first in the kingdom of heaven. Let's see what Jesus has to say in Matthew 20:1-16. . . .
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. 
He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

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.’

The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men 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.’

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.”
Since moving to Washington, DC a year ago, I have taken many opportunities to visit my favorite museum: the National Gallery of Art. My favorite part of the National Gallery is the section with all the impressionist paintings.

Van Gogh is not my favorite impressionist but a very interesting story is told about his paintings. This famous Dutch painter grew up in a Christian home but rejected the faith for a time. Not surprisingly, Van Gogh sank into periods of depression. However, as Van Gogh later came back to faith in Christ, his life gained a renewed sense of hope, and he gave that hope a color.

Van Gogh’s renewed sense of hope is actually seen in his paintings with the gradual increase of the color yellow. Yellow evoked for Van Gogh the warmth of God’s love. In the midst of one of his periods of depression Van Gogh painted his famous work, The Starry Night. But even in this painting you can see a yellow sun and yellow swirling stars. Sadly, in this same painting the church, which stands tall and should be the house of enlightenment, is about the only item in the painting showing no traces of yellow. However, by the time Van Gogh painted The Raising of Lazarus (shown above) he was experiencing resurrection in his own life. The entire painting is (almost blindingly) bathed in yellow. In fact, Van Gogh put his own face on Lazarus to express his unqualified hope in the Resurrection.

Yellow was the surprise color of Van Gogh’s paintings, telling an even more surprising story about his life. Many famous painters place little surprises in their greatest works. Jesus, as a master-painter of great stories, is no exception to this rule.

In the story of the workers in the vineyard Jesus paints for us a tale which is both familiar and surprising at the same time. The scene that Jesus paints here would have been a familiar one to the Jews of his time. Going back at least as far as Isaiah 5, God is likened to the owner of a vineyard and Israel is likened to the vineyard itself. The details in this picture would also have been familiar to Jesus’ contemporaries. The working hours for an agricultural laborer were then, as they are now, from sunrise to sunset. The wage of a denarius was generous pay for a full day of unskilled labor. Standing in the marketplace was akin to standing in line at the unemployment office. Paying the laborers at the end of the day was standard practice so that the working man could go home with money to purchase the evening meal for his family.

However, the picture Jesus paints here is like one of those you find in a magazine which then invites the reader to find something which is out of place in the picture. There are at least three things which are out of place in Jesus’ picture, three surprises, if you will.

The first surprise has to do with the landowner. This particular landowner really cares about those who are down on their luck. The standard thing for an employer in Jesus’ day to do would be to send one of his employees to the marketplace to pick up a few extra workers for the day. But this employer does something astonishing: he goes to the marketplace himself. In fact, the landowner goes out repeatedly to seek workers for his vineyard to bring in the harvest. The people this landowner finds to work for him are hungry, unemployed and, as the day drags on, they are nearing complete hopelessness. The workers he hires toward the end of the day are the ones no one else wants. The owner of the vineyard cares about their predicament and seeks to lift them out of their despair by providing work and a reward.

Jesus seems to be telling us that God is just like the owner of the vineyard. He cares about our hopeless situation as human beings. He comes looking for us. He goes on an all-out search to find workers for his vineyard. He longs to provide us with a life of significance in his kingdom work.

Do you tend to think of your life as hopeless? Do you often wonder what worth your life can possibly be to God? Don’t. He has already declared how much he values you by sending his Son to this earth to live for you, die for you and rise again for you. God has declared categorically how much he wants you as a worker in his kingdom by sending his Holy Spirit into your heart to empower you to be a servant in his vineyard.

The second surprise in Jesus’ painting has to do with the pay-off at the end of the day. The owner of the vineyard pays the last arrivals first; that was standard procedure in Jesus’ time. But the big surprise of course is that the owner of the vineyard pays the late arrivals a full day’s wage, the same as those who have worked all through the day.

Of course if this happened in our own time the unions would be up in arms. Just so, those who have worked in the vineyard for the entire day, sweating under the burning heat of the Palestinian sun, begin to grumble. “How come these lazy bums, who only worked for an hour, get paid the same wage as us?”

Who might these complainers represent in Jesus’ painting? Perhaps they represent the Pharisees who looked down their noses at “the people of the land”, the common day-laborers of their time.

Perhaps the grumblers represent the Jews. Matthew’s church would almost certainly have identified those who worked all day in the vineyard with Israel, while they would have viewed the latecomers as representative of the Gentiles. Perhaps the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s church had a hard time accepting the Gentiles who were being welcomed into God’s kingdom on equal terms, despite the fact that the Jews had been trying to serve the Lord for centuries. But in the kingdom of God there is no such thing as a “favored nation status”.

Perhaps the complainers represent the disciples. They had given up everything to follow Jesus. It would have been easy for them to resent those who refused to follow Jesus during his earthly ministry but then came into the Church on Pentecost. As the first to follow Jesus, the disciples may have been tempted to think they would become rich and famous. But that’s not what God’s kingdom is about. The disciples need to reconcile themselves to the fact that others may come into the kingdom after them and get paid the same daily wage, so to speak.

Perhaps Matthew sees a correspondence between the grumblers in Jesus’ "painting" and the longstanding members of his own church who have a hard time welcoming newcomers.

As William Barclay has written, “There are people who think that, because they have been members of a Church for a long time, the Church practically belongs to them and they can dictate its policy. Such people resent what seems to them the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian Church seniority does not necessarily mean honour.”

This especially applies to Christians in America who have much to learn from younger Christian churches in other parts of the world like Africa.

Be that as it may, we can hear, and maybe even sympathize, with all of these grumblers. The way the owner of the vineyard is treating his workers just doesn’t seem fair!

But this leads to the third surprise in Jesus’ painting: the employer’s response. The owner of the vineyard responds to complaints of unfairness by saying: “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?”

The use of the word “friend” in the context of Matthew’s Gospel should alert us to something. In each of the three cases where this title is used by Matthew, the person being called “friend” is in the wrong. That is the case here. That is the case in Matthew 22:12 where the man not wearing wedding clothes at the banquet is called “friend”. And that is the case in Matthew 26:50 where Jesus calls Judas, his betrayer, “friend”.

According to Jesus the owner of the vineyard is not the one in the wrong in this story. It is the grumblers who are wrong because they all agreed to work for the owner of the vineyard for one day, for the wage of one denarius. It is as though they have signed a contract and now they are asking their employer to break that contract which the employer has fulfilled down to the bottom line. The employer is not being unfair; rather, as he himself says, he is being generous.

With that word “generous” the story Jesus is telling, the scene he is painting, really turns into a song. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see!” As Michael Green says of this story:
Length of service and long hours of toil in the heat of the day constitute no claim on God and provide no reason why he should not be generous to those who have done less. All human merit shrivels before his burning, self-giving love. Grace, amazing grace, is the burden of this story. All are equally undeserving of so large a sum as a denarius a day. All are given it by the generosity of the employer. All are on the same level. The poor disciples, fishermen and tax collectors as they are, are welcomed by God along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are no rankings in the kingdom of God. Nobody can claim deserved membership of the kingdom. There is no place for personal pride, for contempt or jealousy, for there is no ground for any to question how this generous God handles the utterly undeserving. He is good. He sees that the one-hour workers would have no money for supper if they got paid for only one hour. In generosity he gives them what they need. Who is to complain at that?
Sadly, many of us find reason to complain at that. Have you ever been jealous of someone else in the kingdom that God seems to honor more than you? Have you ever looked down your nose just a bit at someone new in the church wanting to take a position of leadership? Have you ever wondered how God could forgive someone who has committed a crime you consider heinous? Perhaps we all need to remember how much God has forgiven us. Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves that our work for Christ’s kingdom doesn’t merit anything; our labor for the Lord should simply be our loving, grateful response to all that Christ has already done for us and in us.

The Apostle Paul makes the same point that Jesus makes with this story. In Ephesians 2:8-10 Paul says, 
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The only merit in the kingdom of God belongs to the Son of the vineyard owner, who lived a perfect life, and who then died on the cross for all of our grumbling and complaining.

As N. T. Wright has said, 
God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowingly generous nature. 
There is always a danger that we get cross with God over this. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, God is out in the marketplace, looking for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everybody else) with his generous grace. The earliest church clearly needed to learn that lesson. Is there anywhere in today’s church that doesn’t need to be reminded of it as well?
Jesus ends this parable on the same note we ended yesterday: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The good news of the parable is that both the first and the last get to work in the owner’s vineyard. And both the first and the last get a reward for their work, the reward of grace.

William Barclay captures well the color of grace in Jesus’ painting:
In it there is the comfort of God. It means that no matter when a man enters the Kingdom, late or soon, in the first flush of youth, in the strength of the midday, or when the shadows are lengthening, he is equally dear to God. The Rabbis had a saying, "Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime." In the picture of the holy city in the Revelation there are twelve gates. There are gates on the East which is the direction of the dawn, whereby a man may enter in the glad morning of his days; there are gates on the West which is the direction of the setting sun, whereby a man may enter in his age. No matter when a man comes to Christ, he is equally dear to him.
I wonder . . . do you realize how dear you are to God? Do you know that he has come searching for you to find you and use you for his kingdom purposes? Have you accepted the fact that whether you have come early or late to faith in Christ, you are special to him? I hope that like Van Gogh, yellow is beginning to tell the story of your life. Because of Jesus, each of us can begin to paint our lives with the fresh hope of a new beginning.


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