Matt. 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
There are many points to uncover in this parable of Jesus but at the end we discover that kingdom culture is not worldly culture. The ways in which the kingdom function do not make sense in the eyes of the world and God’s generosity toward humanity is beyond our comprehension.
No one in this parable is paid an unfair wage. The landowner pays everyone a generous amount of money for working. The reality is that none of them, even those who began to work at the beginning of the day, is worthy of the salary that they receive.
The different laborers, hired at varying times have been interpreted in numerous ways. This includes a focus on various people groups. Who are those who are invited into the kingdom? Some would argue that it’s a progression beginning with the Jews and ending with the Gentiles. Or, we might say that it’s the good church folks at the beginning and ends with those who have just been saved off the street.
In our human understanding of “fairness” we would think that those who have served longer in the kingdom should receive more. We find ourselves right there with the long-suffering laborers, but we fail to understand the lavish generosity of the wage. No matter when the laborers began their work that day, the wage was more than generous. It’s the lavish nature of the kingdom of God. Then Jesus reminds them of what he had said previously about those who would sit at the places of honor at the wedding feast. The last are first and the first last because the scales of the world are not the scales of the kingdom. Those who think they deserve more will get nothing and those who serve faithfully without power and honor in the world will receive a great reward. God’s grace is not bounded by human understanding and lavish generosity means that even being last in the kingdom is a generous gift.
It’s fun to give gifts to my family members. Watching packages be opened and the look of surprise is always a joy. We want the best for those whom we love and I’m sure that most of us have wished that we could lavish more on those within our circle.
I think that I’m learning a little bit more about this love as our little family expands. When it comes to planning Christmas gifts we now have a new member of our family. Mackenzie is our granddaughter and she will be about a year and a half at Christmas this year — an age where ripping paper and pretty lights will be fun for her and for us to watch. As I plan for Christmas I don’t plan gifts around how many years someone has been a part of our family. If that were the case, Chuck would get more and Mackenzie would get very little. Everyone else would get something somewhere in between. That sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? We give gifts because we love every single member of our family and we wouldn’t think of treating one different from another. It doesn’t matter how long someone has been a member of the family, they are ours and we want to love them with lavish generosity.
The grace of God reaches out to all of God’s children wanting them all to participate in the rewards of the kingdom. The sad part is that sometimes we play the role of the grumbling laborers and almost feel that we are begrudgingly engaged in kingdom work. It is work which comes with a great reward and when we fail to keep our eyes on the goal, we lose the joy that we have been given by God. At the same time, when we understand how great the reward, we are inspired to share the good news with others.
I remember early in our days in Russia when I was doing some work at a polyclinic. Food was in rather short supply in the early 90s and in the middle of the day one of the doctors came and got me and dragged me by the hand outside. A truck had arrived with frozen chickens and everyone was lining up to get one or two. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss out on what was being offered that day. She loved and cared for me enough that she would take me by the hand to make sure I had an opportunity to get a chicken!
We have the opportunity to take others by the hand and lead them to the kingdom where they will receive the same reward as those who have been in the kingdom for a long time. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been in the kingdom, the reward is more generous than anything we deserve. Wouldn’t we want everyone to have the opportunity to experience the lavish generosity of our Father?
Some argue that the traditional days of evangelism are over. I’m concerned that somehow we may have lost our passion for others to get to know Christ. I don’t believe that we have an evangelism or church planting problem — I believe we have a personal spiritual problem. We enjoy hanging onto that which Christ has given us but we may suddenly find ourselves grumbling with those who have worked all day. Instead, we are to be a people who are so overcome with the love of Christ that it overflows into everything that we do in life. We are lavish in our generosity and love toward all of those who find themselves in need.
Life in the kingdom will never make sense to the world. Jesus invites us to live in the space where the last are first and the first are last and rest in the generosity of holy love which has been lavished on us.