Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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An Economy of Grace

Matthew 20:1-16

The setting for this parable of Jesus is the grape harvest, which would happen close to the end of September, about this time of the year. This was a time of urgency. Once the grapes were ripe, you had to get them harvested before they spoiled on the vine or were eaten by birds and wild animals.

In the case of a large landowner like this, he would own slaves, but not enough for the urgency of the grape harvest. So he would go out and hire day laborers. These would be small landowners, landless peasants, and migrant workers. They represented some of the most vulnerable people in the first century world, more so than slaves. A slave was a member of the household. Good or bad, the slaves would not go hungry. But a day laborer who went without work, well, they just might.

Daytime in the Hebrew world went from sun up to sun down, which was 12 hours. Of course, the actual length of daylight varies with the time of year, but it was still 12 hours. The landowner goes to town at first light to hire laborers for the day. They agree to work for the denarius, which was the “minimum daily wage” of the first century world.

He goes back three hours later and finds more men in the marketplace looking for work. These might be small landowners who have already done their own farming work. Or maybe they were hired to work at another farm and already finished there. Or maybe they just went to the wrong place at daybreak and found no work. He hires them, too, promising “what is right.” They would take the job expecting to be paid less than a denarius.

This same process repeats several times throughout the day, even up to the “11th hour,” 5 PM, one hour before sunset. Even if they only worked one hour, even that was necessary in the urgency of the harvest.

This reminds us that in the Kingdom of God, there is much work to be done. There are many who need to hear good news. There are many whose wounds need to be bound up. There are many “prisoners” who need to be released. There is much work to be done, and God will take all the laborers he can find. Whatever your gifts, whatever your abilities, whoever you are, if you will work for the Kingdom, God will have your service.

At the end of the day, the foreman calls the laborers in for their pay, the last coming first. By the Old Testament Law, they must be paid at the end of the day.

Remember, this money may be the only money they have. The last hired each receive a denarius, a full day’s pay for 1/12 of a day’s work.

Those hired earlier expect more, and they are upset they don’t receive it. The landowner says, “You received what you were promised. Are you angry that I am kind or generous?”

Would you be? To be honest, I think I would be. I think most people would be. Because we are used to an economy of merit. “You get what you deserve.” And God’s kingdom operates on an economy of grace. “You get what you don’t deserve.”

God is gracious. He welcomes all who would love and serve his Kingdom. And all who come into his Kingdom are precious in his sight.

I think we also see the compassion of God here. The person hired at 5 PM would expect far less than a denarius. And it would not be enough to feed his family. They would go to bed hungry.

I think some people would read this story and seize on that and say, “Jesus is advocating a living wage! Fifteen dollars an hour! Or more!” The problem is that is an “anachronistic” reading of Scripture. It’s inserting a contemporary issue back into the text. And that’s really not a good way to read Scripture.

But there is certainly a principle here: The needs of people are more important than profits. The wealthy person who hires others has a responsibility, a godly duty, to be sure their needs are met. I favor the idea of personal responsibility over government mandates. If the government has to tell a Christian business person to pay his or her employees more, then that Christian business person has already failed at his or her duty.

How do we read this story?

I think the typical reading is that the one who comes to Christ at the 11th hour, the deathbed conversion person, is just as much a part of the Kingdom as the one who has served Christ since childhood. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That reading is not wrong or false, but I think there’s more to it.

For starters, coming from a culture with a high value on individuality, we tend to read the text from that perspective. But Jesus’ listeners lived in a culture that thought far more of community and group identity. And I think we should understand this as Jesus referring to the Gentiles coming into the Kingdom. His listeners are all Jewish.

They would feel like those hired at daybreak and think of the Gentiles as those hired at 5 PM, the Johnny-come-latelies.

The point is that all who enter the Kingdom of God enter by grace. Jew and Gentile enter by grace. No one deserves the Kingdom. No one gets in by their merit, their heritage, or their status. All come in by grace.

Now, we should read this parable from the perspective of the rest of Scripture, too. It doesn’t mean that there is no reward for faithful service in the Kingdom of God. Jesus said to the servant who was faithful with the talents entrusted to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with small things and now you will be trusted with greater things.”

But when it comes to entering into the Kingdom, we all come by grace. There is a reversal of worldly values. Grace triumphs over merit, status, achievement, and longevity.

There is an equality in the Kingdom. None of us deserve it. All of us come in by grace. All of us are precious in God’s sight.

We may say we affirm that, but sometimes our words and actions betray it. If we treat a new believer as a second class citizen of the Kingdom, we betray it. If we presume that our words should carry the day because of our status, position, or longevity in the church, we betray it. If we think that we deserve God’s Kingdom, we betray it. The door into the Kingdom only opens one way, and that way is by grace.

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