Theme: Mercy and Grace
This week’s lesson teaches us the reasons why we should serve the Lord.
Matthew 20: 1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
When Peter reacted to the unbelief of the rich young ruler by reminding Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow Jesus but were still wondering, “What then will we have?”, Jesus answered by promising Peter rewards, “You who have followed me…sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:28-29). When I commented on those words in the last study I said that God will be no man’s debtor.
But “debtor” isn’t quite the word to describe what is going on in this passage. Debt implies obligation, that God owes us something. It was what Peter meant when he asked, “What then will there be for us?” Actually, God owes us nothing and whatever we receive from him we receive only because he is gracious. To be sure the disciples understood that, Jesus told the story that follows in chapter 20, the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
The parable itself is quite simple. A landowner needed men to work in his vineyard, so he went out early in the morning and hired all the workers he could find. He agreed to pay them a denarius (a normal day’s wage) for their work. About nine o’clock he went out again and found other workers. He hired them, too, but this time there was no set wage. He merely said, “and whatever is right I will give you.” (v. 4). The new workers agreed with that arrangement and soon joined the others. The owner did the same thing at noon, at three in the afternoon, and at five o’clock, just one hour before quitting time.
At the end of the day he paid the workers, beginning with those he had hired last. He gave each one in that group a denarius, and so on with those hired at three o’clock, noon, and at nine in the morning. At last he came to those who had been hired first. By that time they were rubbing their hands together happily, supposing that if those who had worked less than they had worked were being paid a denarius, they would receive more. But the owner paid them a denarius too, and they complained. The owner replied. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (vv.13-15).
At that point the parable is followed by a statement that is close to the one that ended the previous chapter: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” (v.16). It is a version of one of Jesus’ favorite themes, appearing also in Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11 and 18:14. Matthew 23:12 reads, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The story itself is clear enough, but that does not mean it is without difficulties. The first difficulty is that it presents us with an admittedly strange situation. We have a businessman who is paying people who work only we hour the same wage he is paying those who work all day. We may say, as he does, that the pay for the full day‘s work is fair. That may be true, but what businessman operates that way? It seems irrational. It produces acute labor problems. More than that, it is bad business. A man who operated like that would soon be bankrupt.
But there is a further difficulty; the payment to the workers seems unjust. We may be reluctant to say it, knowing that the owner of the vineyard is God and that God is always just, regardless of what we may think. But still the procedure seems unjust. Why should those who were hired later be paid the same as those who were hired at the start of the day? Why shouldn’t those who worked longer be paid more?
What does the word “debt” imply?
What phrase from Matthew 19 does this parable illustrate?
What two difficulties surface in the analysis of this parable?
God owes us nothing and whatever we receive him we receive only because he is gracious.