Matthew 20:1-16
Workers in the vineyard

In their wisdom the people that put our readings together started the reading with “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”  If they went back one verse we would have two great inclusios or brackets around our text.  Beginning with, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”, and concluding with “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  It’s a statement or concept that just doesn’t quite seem fair, BUT:
We have in the parable of the workers in the vineyard an explanation by Jesus of what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Not what it looks like but how things work.  You have to admit that it’s a bit of a tough one to deal with.  We can’t help but look at the whole thing and wonder just how fair it all is.

How would you feel if you’d been working all day in the vineyard, in the heat and the flies and the dust, then when it comes time to knock off the blokes who were hired an hour ago are paid the same as you!  I reckon I’d be a bit upset, what about you.

Think about how our wages system works in this country, when you are inexperienced you can expect to be paid less, when you work longer hours you expect to be paid more.  You want to be paid for overtime and in many cases still, even though things have been changing, you expect to get paid more for your overtime that you would for regular time.  I know my Dad likes to work on public holidays and the like because he gets paid more for the same amount of work.  It makes sense to us doesn’t it?

I remember when I started working as a sub-contract Auto Electrician back in about 1990 I was paid less the first year than the guys who had been there longer, this was the contracting company’s way of keeping their contractors for longer.  The more years you worked for them the higher the hourly rate.  I think it was only something like 50c extra per hour for each year worked, but it adds up.

I think that’s why the parable of the workers in the vineyard is so hard for us modern people to understand, we’re used to lots of perks for hard work, not the other way around.

To make matters worse the ones who had worked the least amount of time were paid first!  Shouldn’t it have been the other way around?  What was Jesus on about?

If this is what the kingdom of heaven is like then who wants to be a part of it?  It just doesn’t seem fair! 

I think it’s here that we hit the central focus of the illustration in the parable.  If this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then we discover that no matter when a person becomes a part of the kingdom of heaven, in the morning of their lives or in the late evening, they are still going to get the same reward, the same payment.

God the Father, like the landowner is generous, he is entitled to do what he chooses with what belongs to him.  He chooses that whoever belongs to him, no matter what their status or abilities are, will receive the same benefits, in fact those who came later will be the first to receive it.

It might be hard for us to understand, after all it doesn’t fit with the way the world works, but the fact remains it’s how God works this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  The end result is the same, we will all receive the same reward, regardless of when we started, or the work that we were asked to do, the final payment is eternal life and it is offered to everyone. 

Something else to note from this parable, the landowner didn’t just stop with the first batch of workers.  He went back to the marketplace over and over again, looking for workers for his vineyard.  We don’t know whether all of the workers had been there all day waiting to be employed, or whether they’d slept in after a big night the night before and had only rolled up at lunchtime.  What matters is not what the workers had or hadn’t been doing, the important thing is that the landowner went looking for them and offered them gainful employment at a fair price, “Whatever is right”.

‘Whatever is right, for each and every person that God the Father seeks out to become a part of his kingdom is that they receive righteousness from his son.  When he calls them into his kingdom, he makes them a part of his family, just as he will/has for Jai this morning.  He will/has just signed on as a worker in the vineyard, he mightn’t be picking many grapes just yet, but his payment at the end of his day, whenever that may be will be the same as those of us who became a child of God at our baptism, 10, 20, 30 or even more years ago.  It is the same reward for all people, for all generations throughout time.

We inevitably follow the same pattern that the workers hired first do, we feel that there should be a greater reward for having laboured in the kingdom for longer, if the one in charge of the kingdom is generous, why wouldn’t we receive more?  The thing is that what we do receive is already so ridiculously generous that its not possible to receive more!  What is more generous than giving eternal life to us sinners? 

The problem is we think we earned it by all the good things we’ve done in our lives, but the truth of the matter is, God seeks us out, like the workers who were standing around in the marketplace, he calls us to join him and he gives us what he believes to be just reward, not by what we do, but by what he wants to give us, the generous gift of living as a member of his kingdom, now and for all eternity.

This is truly worth being excited about!

So don’t get caught up in thinking about what’s fair and what’s not, whether the last will be first and the first will be last, rejoice in your reward.  Be thankful, for yourself and for all people that our loving and generous God has called you to be a part of his kingdom.