Radically generous grace

By James Ellis

Have you ever heard of someone being under-paid for a job? Do you remember the feelings of injustice you felt on behalf of the person affected? In recent years, and even weeks, we have become all too familiar with media reports about wage theft and underpayment. A large company (or perhaps a high profile chef) being found (either by self-discovery or not) to have underpaid their staff; sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars. But have you ever heard of any instances of overpayment? Of an employer being more generous than sensible? Sounds too good to be true, right?

In our Gospel reading today, we encounter such an example, along with the jealousy that comes with it, as contained in Jesus’ parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. This is our first parable in Matthew’s Gospel since the cluster of parables in Chapter 13, and is one that is unique to Matthew. In it, we are presented with a scene which at first glance would leave most economists and business people scratching their heads. After the first cohort of workers are hired for an agreed price, early in the morning; the owner of the vineyard proceeds to hire workers on three further occasions from the square, with the last group working for a single hour. At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard pays those hired last first, and pays each the rate agreed with the first cohort, a denarius (an amount that could feed a large peasant family for a day). The workers who have worked for the whole day aren’t happy. They share their discontent with the owner of the vineyard who says “Friend, I am doing you no wrong”, and continues to say that they have received what they agreed on, and he is free to pay the others as he sees fit.

While Jesus is many things, he is not an economics professor, and this is not a lesson in economic principle. Jesus uses this story to teach a spiritual principle, a discipleship principle – that is, that the owner who claims the right to pay the workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his own compassion is what God is like; and, that this model of radical generosity is part of the Kingdom of Heaven, and is one that disciples should imitate, not begrudge.

What do we say about the people who are the last to be hired? Nothing suggests that these people were irresponsible or lazy. Nothing says they were “bludgers”. More than likely – they were the unwanted. In Jesus’ time, this could be the weak, the sick and the disabled. Maybe the elderly. Or criminals. Or people with a bad reputation.

Matthew uses Jesus’ parable to speak to his context. The vineyard is an often used image from the Old Testament and Jewish teaching and usually refers to Israel (Alyce Mackenzie). For Matthew, the vineyard is the Christian community. Those who join it late are treated as equal in privilege as those who joined it early. The parable reminds me of that of the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel, where the grumbling of the full-day workers reminds me of the grumbling of the elder brother. Indeed the word used for ‘envious’ in this reading is the same used in the Prodigal Son parable, literally having an “evil eye”, a powerful and evil causing look associated with envy and resentment. In the prodigal son story, it is towards the returning brother; here it is to the landowner (NRSV Harper Collins Study Bible Notes).

A parable is essentially an elaborate allegory. We are invited to see ourselves in the story, and then apply it to ourselves. So we are invited to recognise our own envy at what God chooses to give to others, completely undeserved and unmerited. The wages at stake (even at the moment of Jesus’ first telling of the parable) are not actual daily wages for vineyard-labourers, but forgiveness, life, and salvation for all. We need not literally be labourers in a vineyard, as we are all of us co-workers in the kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:9). And in relationship, one believer to another, envy is a problem. The point here isn’t necessarily that other folks receive blessings from God that we don’t — that they get more or better or lovelier gifts from God. The problem is that they get the same as us; and they don’t deserve it, do they? They are less worthy, or later arrivals, or just plain worse sinners. They don’t deserve the same as we get, do they? Not nothing maybe, but certainly not the same. The parable’s day labourers parallel perfectly with today’s forgiven-sinners in both our pews and pulpits. 

In this parable, in this story of what the kingdom of heaven is ‘like’ – the Kingdom of heaven shows special generosity to the poor and the outcast. We have seen these images before in the parables of Chapter 13 – where the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed (not the smallest of seeds or largest of trees!). We see this in the previous chapter where Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to children (who especially in Jesus time were considered lower on the social rank than women). We see the special place that those who have nothing have in the Kingdom when we see how difficult it is for the ‘rich young man’ to enter the kingdom of heaven. What does this say to us? It says the kingdom of heaven belongs to the unexpected, to the downcast, to the poor, to those never chosen for work.

Much has been said by some commentators about this parable being an allegory of power – saying that at the end of the day, the rich landowner possesses all the power and that the workers are at his whim. While I can see this is a valid comment on the conditions in Jesus time (and indeed in ours), we must not forget the opening words of this parable “THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE…”. For this is the heart of this parable – not a commentary on local work conditions or on how everyone should be paid the same – but a life overflowing with generosity that makes no sense!

Friends, what does it mean for us as followers of Jesus, as bringers of the Kingdom, to follow this way? A way where the first are now last, and the last are now first? It is evident that this overturning of the social order is a central part of Jesus’ message. In this section of Matthew alone, it is mentioned in Chapter 18, 19, here, and echoed later in this chapter when he says “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave…” (v. 26-27).

In this parable, the last are literally first in that they are paid first. And the first, who have worked longest, must also wait the longest to get theirs. But notice as well that the first who are now last do not receive nothing or less, they receive the same, as the labourers themselves say, “you have made them equal to us….” So perhaps it should be said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be the same.

This element of the parable is taken up in the other Gospels and in Revelation; this scandalous reversal of expectation, of our sense of justice, and even of our hopes, is a central piece of the New Testament (Karl Jacobson). Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all (Mark 9:35); so much for human ideas of greatness. Who is worthy to climb the holy hill, and enter the gate of God’s kingdom? Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last (Luke 13:30). And it is Jesus, who is first and last (Revelation 1:17), who tells us that we need not fear; for in the one who is both first and last, the first and the last are brought together when we are called to lay down the burdens of our days and find our home with God.

The scandal of this parable is that we are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. The scandal of our faith is that we are often jealous when God’s gifts of forgiveness and life are given to others in equal measure. This, in essence, is Amazing Grace – boundless, overflowing, and radically generous. What does it mean for us – for the church – to take this boundless generosity that God offers into the world?

The Lord be with you.

Photo of James Ellis

Written by James Ellis

James is a TUC member and preacher with an interest in radical discipleship and Christian community. He has been preaching since he was 17 and is currently working towards accreditation as a Uniting Church Lay Preacher. He is undertaking a period of discernment. 

James is works in the public service and lives with his 6 year old daughter Amelia. 

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