Theme: Mercy and Grace
This week’s lesson teaches us the reasons why we should serve the Lord.
“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.”
There have been attempts to interpret the parable so as to eliminate the difficulties we looked at yesterday, but these interpretations do not work.
Some have suggested that those who began early in the day did not work well. They took extended coffee breaks and talked on the job. They knocked off for two-and-a-half hours at lunch. Those who worked a shorter day worked harder. They accomplished as much in their one, four, or seven hours as the early risers did in their twelve hours. It was a simple case of equal pay for equal work. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the story to indicate that we should interpret it this way, and there is much that goes against it. If nothing else, the concluding words stress the generosity of the owner and not his accurate evaluation of the amount of the quality or quantity of the work that had been done (v. 15).
Others have suggested that the coins were different. In one case it was a gold denarius; in another silver, in another bronze, and so on. But that is mere fantasy. Still others have supposed the parable to be teaching that there are no rewards in heaven and that ultimately it will not matter how much or how little we do for Jesus. The problem with that view is that other texts teach that there will be rewards and that our work does matter.
So how are we to understand this parable? At the very least it is a story intended to teach about the grace of God in salvation. Peter wanted to know what he and the others would get for their discipleship, which they considered major contributions on their part. But when Jesus answered as he did, he was teaching that although there would be rewards for his disciples’ service, anything they received from God—whether rewards for service or eternal life itself—was a gift flowing from the grace of God only. Sola gratia! God owes us nothing, not even a chance to hear and respond to the gospel.
Most people think he does, of course, which is why even church-going people think so little of grace in our day. “Amazing Grace” by John Newton used to be one of the most popular hymns. But today, as J. I. Packer, says in Knowing God, “amazing grace” has become “boring grace” for many people. It is boring because we do not think of ourselves as sinners—at least not very great sinners—and because we think that God owes us something anyway. We are kind, generous, forgiving. Why shouldn’t God be?
What Jesus has to tell us is that God is not like human beings and does not operate in line with our ideas. All is of grace in God’s kingdom, which is why “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
There is nothing in the immediate context of Matthew that requires us to see anything more in the parable than that. But I cannot help notice that it is one of a certain class of parables that deal in part with the problems the Jews had when Gentiles began to believe the gospel and embrace Christianity. The problem is reflected in the person of the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is seen in the parable about the banquet to which many were invited but refused to come (Matt. 22: 1-14) and in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18).
What details do some readers choose to add to the story to make it seem more just?
What, in the very least, is this parable meant to teach us?
Anything [we] receive from God-whether rewards for service or eternal life itself-was a gift flowing from the grace of God only.