Sermon / September 21, 2014 / Workers in the Vineyard / Pastor Terry Defoe
1 “… the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out – early in the morning – to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day, and sent them into his vineyard.
New International Version (NIV)
Someone once said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. A parable explains spiritual things by comparing them to everyday things that people are familiar with. The parable we’re looking at this morning has much to teach us about God’s GRACE. Now, some parables are easy to interpret. But others test the skills of even the best Biblical scholars. The parable we’re looking at this morning is one of those challenging ones. So I pray that God would send His Holy Spirit and bless our consideration of His Holy word this day.
As we begin, let me take a moment to summarize the parable for you. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a landowner who needed workers for his vineyard. So he went out, into the town square, where some people had gathered very early in the morning, and asked some of them if they’d like to work for him. Together, at that early hour of the day, they agreed on a 12-hour work-day. And together, they agreed that the landowner would pay them one denarius, which the typical salary for a day’s work back them.
So that first group of laborers started out early, at 6 o’clock in the morning. Then, later, about 9 am, the landowner went back to the town square and hired a second group of laborers. This time, no specific amount of money was mentioned. They were simply told that they would be paid a fair wage. Then, later in the day, at noon, and at at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the landowner hired even more workers. Each new group of workers was sent into the vineyard and worked alongside those who were already there. Finally, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, one last group was hired. The landowner found them standing around in the marketplace. When he asked why they were doing that, they said that no one had offered to hire them. The landowner asked these people to come out and work in his vineyard. They would be paid, he said, along with the rest.
And then, when the work-day was over, the landowner called his foreman and asked him to gather the workers together. At this point, the landowner made a rather strange request. The last group hired was to be the first group paid. Lo and behold, the landowner paid each worker, from the group that had been hired at 5 pm, one denarius! In other words, the landowner paid these workers a full day's wage for just one hour's work. After that, one group after another, those who had worked different amounts of time throughout the day, were all paid the same amount! So, no matter how long they’d been working, they all received the same pay.
You’ll remember that the first group hired had made a verbal agreement with the landowner. They had formally agreed to work for a denarius. And the other groups, you may recall, were simply told that they would be paid a fair day’s wage. Of course, as you might expect, when those who were hired first heard what the others had been paid, they were sure there’d been some sort of mistake. Those who were hired earlier in the day thought that the landowner would pay them more than the others, considering that they had worked more hours out in the hot sun. This first group was understandably upset. They just couldn't understand why these latecomers – those who had barely worked up a sweat – had been paid one denarius. The landowner told this first group of workers that what he had done was fair. After all, he said, they had agreed to work all day for that amount of pay.
Jesus’ parable ends with these words:
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (N.I.V. © 2011)
So there you have it – Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard – which, as I indicated earlier, is one of the most challenging parables in the Scriptures. So – how are we to interpret it? Well, as you might expect, God is the landlord. And Jesus is the foreman. The vineyard represents Israel – and is symbolic of God’s kingdom. You’ll notice that God – the landlord – takes the first step in inviting people to work in His vineyard. The implication is that they would have stood around forever – with their hands in their pockets – if He hadn't come along. You’ll notice that, in Jesus’ parable, the landowner is a very wealthy man. He’s very generous. But he’s also a little eccentric.
So the vineyard represents the nation of Israel. Jesus' hearers would have thought of Israel right away when he mentioned a “vineyard” in His parable. Jesus’ hearers would have considered it very strange, however, that people were called to work at various hours of the day, right up to one hour before quitting time. And they would have considered it even more unusual that the landowner decided to pay all of his workers the same amount, regardless of the amount of time they had spent in the vineyard. That didn’t make sense to them at all.
It’s important for us to understand that the first group to be called to work in the vineyard – in other words, those who started at 6 in the morning – were the Jews. And the others – those who were hired later on in the day – were the Gentiles (non Jews!) people like you and me. In Jesus’ parable, some of God’s workers begin their task just before the work-day comes to an end. These are the believers who come to faith just before the end of the age – just before Jesus returns at the consummation of all things.
It’s important for us to remember that the Jews of Jesus’ day had a hard time with the idea that God accepts Gentiles into his spiritual family. Think back – if you would – to the story of Jonah. You may remember that God called Jonah – his prophet – to preach to a non-Jewish city called Nineveh. But Jonah was a typical Israelite. He didn't think it was right for God to bless any people but His own. Those Gentiles didn't do things God's way. So how could he love them too?
Jonah heard God's call to work in the vineyard. But, as you remember, he really didn't want to go. Instead, he bought a ticket for a boat cruise to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. In this part of God’s word, Jonah’s actions represent Israel’s attitude toward non-Jews. The book of Jonah tells us that it took a little excursion – it took three days and three nights in the stomach of a great fish – to change Jonah's mind about God’s call to work in His vineyard. And even then, even after his “time-out” in the fish – Jonah went, but only reluctantly.
Of course, at the end of the day, Jonah did bring God's message of Law and Gospel to the people of Nineveh. But, in his heart, he secretly hoped that they would reject God's offer. Jonah really wanted to be able to go up on a hillside overlooking the city, set up his lawn-chair, and watch God send fire down from heaven to destroy that city. And what did the people of Nineveh actually do? They expressed sorrow over their sin and they came to faith in Israel’s God. Their city was not destroyed. And Jonah was disappointed!
God’s Word tells us that Jesus’ message was offered, first of all, to the Jews. Only after most of them had rejected the message, was it then offered to the Gentiles. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard reminds us that all those who trust Jesus as Lord and Lord and Savior, be they Jew or Gentile, receive the same "pay package" – if you want to call it that, from the Lord. In other words, all believers – it doesn’t matter whether they are Jews or non-Jews – receive the same forgiveness of their sins and the same promise of eternal life. Whether they've worked the full day, or only part of the day, doesn’t matter. Everyone receives the same blessings. There is no favoritism with God.
Jesus’ parable mentions those who were standing around in the marketplace with nothing to do. Can we blame these people for their idleness? It seems that they had no choice. The Bible clearly teaches that we can't call ourselves into God's family. He has to take the initiative. He has to call us – by Word and Sacrament. Only then – enabled by God’s Holy Spirit – can we respond in faith. When you think about it, there are many people "standing around" in our world today, waiting for a call to work in God's vineyard – waiting to hear a call to faith.
I’ve told the foll0wing story before here at Mount Olive. But it bears repeating because of what God can teach us from it, especially in the context of the parable we’re looking at this morning.
Back in the early 1980’s, 30 years ago, I was a pastor in the Kootenays of B.C. – in a two-point parish, one congregation at Castlegar and the other Nelson, B.C. One day, Kathleen and I attended an LWML meeting at Creston, 80 miles from our home in Castlegar. We left the meeting at 8 o’clock in the evening and we headed up the Salmo-Creston highway – which was our normal way home. But we came to a sign that said that the highway was closed because of the danger of an avalanche. So we headed back towards Creston, and decided to try the alternate route – the long way home. That meant travelling north from Creston, along the east side of Kootenay Lake, and then taking the ferry across the Lake. We would then travel south, through Nelson, on our way home.
We knew very well that it was getting late, and that we’d really have to hurry if we were going to make it to the ferry, which was 50 miles away. The road along the east side of Kootenay Lake is winding and very narrow. And it was wintertime. It was dark, and also snowing. And sure enough, as we travelled, we came up behind a huge tractor trailer, which was almost impossible to pass on that narrow road. Time passed quickly and we knew that if we did make it to the ferry dock, it would be very close to the final sailing. Finally, we came to the long hill which led down to the ferry. We drove down the hill and onto the boat. And it wasn't more than 10 seconds before the ferry began to pull away from the dock.
So here’s my point. Kathleen and I got the same ferry ride as the people who'd been waiting there for an hour or more. Maybe that's not fair, but that's the way it is. In the same way, those who make it onto the Christian "ship" at the very last moment – receive the same blessings as those who have believed for a lifetime. They get the same ride – the same benefits – the same salvation – as those who have served the Lord all their lives.
For God's people today, His "vineyard" is the church. It's in the vineyard where we serve the Lord. It’s in the vineyard where we to do His will. It's in the vineyard where we live out our faith – for some, it’s a long time and for others, it’s just a short time – before evening comes and no one can work. Jesus’ parable reminds us that working in God's vineyard isn't a RIGHT. It’s a PRIVILEGE. And it also reminds us that we can’t even go to work until God calls us, and the length of time we work in His vineyard is up to Him.
The people of Israel, those who first heard Jesus’ parable, must have thought that He got it all wrong. For them, your PERFORMANCE determines your PAY. But for Jesus, it’s the PAYMENT that prompts the PERFORMANCE. Let me repeat that. For the Jewish people, your PERFORMANCE determines your PAY. But for Jesus, the PAYMENT prompts – motivates, enables – the PERFORMANCE. There’s a huge difference here. So see what Jesus is doing. He’s taking the Jewish understanding of salvation – their understanding of the way God works, and turning it upside down. Jesus is saying to the people of Israel – and to us today – that we don't EARN His love by what we do, He GIVES us something we don't deserve. But, if you think about it, isn’t that what GRACE is all about?
So let’s review. When the end of the age arrives, or when this life comes to an end, we come to God's "payday." God's "foreman," His Son Jesus, is the One who hands out the checks. You know, some Christians are very uncomfortable with this parable. Some Christians are afraid that people will think teaches "works righteousness" – that God loves us because of what we do for him, rather than by grace alone. In our world, people love to COMPARE themselves with others. Workers in one job want the same pay as workers in another. Children at the dinner table notice how much dessert their brother or sister gets, and they complain, "That's not fair!" The parable before us this morning reminds us that the Christian faith is the GREAT EQUALIZER. For me, the first group of workers in the parable reminds me of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable also talks about special blessings given to people who don’t deserve them. The older brother complained that he'd been slugging it out in the hot son while his brother was living a life of leisure. When his useless brother finally came home, His father brought out the fattened calf! How could that be fair?
Because of God's love for us – love we don't deserve – because God’s Son died on the cross for us, as a sacrifice for our sins, God's benefits are freely given to us, by grace alone. God doesn't begrudge His gifts to us. And we should never begrudge them to others. May God, by his Holy Spirit, impress this truth upon us. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Teach us the meaning of this parable. Teach us the meaning of grace. Enable us to accept your gifts. Never allow us to begrudge Your gifts to others. Enable us to serve You, in our corner of the vineyard. Remind us that everything we have is a gracious gift from Your bountiful hand. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.