Amazing Grace

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New Testament 3 Production Still Photography

Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that at least 260,000 “day laborers” wait each morning on American street corners, hoping for employment.

In various communities, especially during seasonal harvests, men gather at dawn at designated pick-up sites.  A farmer, boss, or contractor rolls up.  “I need six,” he might say, and a half dozen lucky ones hop into his truck.  The rest stay behind, hoping that another truck will come soon.

A day laborer is hired and paid (cash only) one day at a time.  There are no promises or guarantees that work will be available tomorrow. 

It’s a tough life.  The labor is usually hard, the wages are typically low, and one is unlikely ever to see a worksite safety inspector.  But if you’re providing for a family and you’re hoping to eat that night, you’ll take whatever work you can get. 

Day laborers have been part of the American scene since at least the late 1700s, when chimney sweeps, woodcutters, and dockworkers competed on a daily basis for the chance to earn a few coins.

In the time of Jesus, it would not be uncommon for the owner of a vineyard to need an army of workers on short notice.  The grape harvest ripened toward the end of September, and steady rains came shortly after that.  Since those rains would ruin the harvest, the ingathering became a race against time.  Even those who could put in just an hour of hard work were welcome.  That’s the background of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-15:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 

About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.  He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”  So they went.  He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.  About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around.  He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” “Because no one has hired us,” they answered.  He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”  The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. 

But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  “These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

But he answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave to you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?” 

Jesus makes it plain that those who were still available at mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, and even at 5:00 p.m. (the so-called eleventh hour in Bible times) were not lazy.  They hadn’t decided to sleep in and watch The Price is Right before heading to the pick-up corner.  They were simply not yet chosen.  And that put their families at risk of serious hunger.  For them, the plea of the Lord’s Prayer was quite literal:  Father, give us today the bread we need today

Every detail of this parable reflects current social practices of that culture.  That is, until it’s time to get paid.  Then, all of a sudden: Wow

The landowner first summons those he hired last.  Each receives a full day’s pay.  These men must think they are dreaming.  Instead of going home with loose change because they missed their chance to work, they and their families are going to enjoy a full dinner.

Those standing behind them in the payroll line can’t wait for their turn.  Since this owner is just giving away money to the guys who hardly broke a sweat, they figure they stand to get huge bonuses.  Instead, they receive exactly what they agreed upon twelve hours earlier – the standard payment for a hard day’s work in the sun. 

And that ticks them off.  Fair’s fair, they’re grumbling.  Why do these latecomers receive the same pay, when we’ve done all the work?

Whose voices do we hear rumbling in the background of this story?  We may presume that Jesus is targeting the religious stuffed shirts of his day – those who can’t believe he is giving away God’s love (for free!) to prostitutes and crooks.  They’ve worked all their lives to deserve the favor of God, and here come these people who at the last minute get everything handed to them. 

Think about the thief on the cross who is dying next to Jesus.  He has apparently lived a wretched life.  But now he reaches out in a final act of faith: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And what does Jesus say?  “I tell you the truth: Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Excuse me?  This guy has never been baptized, never attended Sunday School, never contributed to a capital campaign, never joined a new members class, and never tried to find the last available parking space on Easter Sunday.  And now he gets heaven at the last minute?  How can that be fair?

Is Jesus being stupidly generous?  Isn’t he empowering people to do whatever they want with their lives, because they can always patch things up with God in a deathbed confession? 

The Bible makes it transparently clear that waiting to come to God at the eleventh hour is a bad idea.  The right time to surrender to God is always the same: now.  None of us has been guaranteed a certain number of birthdays.  And the plain truth is that the longer we forestall softening our hearts in God’s presence, the less likely it is that we will even want to cry out to him at the end of life.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is meant to shock us back into the wonder of amazing grace. 

We must not be the disgruntled worker who says, “I’ve labored so hard for you, Lord, so pay me what you owe me.”  None of us is entitled to receive God’s gifts and God’s grace.  God is the landowner who quite simply overwhelms us with generosity when we least expect it.

But what about justice?  If you do the math, things don’t add up here.  You can’t give a full day’s wage to someone who works just one hour.  That means there will be a loss on the books, and someone will have to pay.

That’s right.  Someone will have to pay.  And that someone is the landowner himself.

He willingly accepts the loss so those who work in his vineyard might be blessed.  Can we see here a preview of what Jesus will do for us on the cross?

The temptation, of course, is to begin to imagine God’s gifts as spiritual entitlements.  We become accustomed to his grace.  If we feel ourselves sliding down that path, what can we do to jumpstart our hearts?

You might choose to get alone with God.  Sit down with a cup of coffee, and leave an open chair for him.  Remain quiet for a while.  And then speak out loud, slowly, the things that bring you the greatest joy in life.  You won’t be able to name a single thing that doesn’thave its origin in God’s power or generosity.  Thank him for each one.

Then speak out loud, slowly, that reality that brings you the greatest shame.  Unburden yourself of your darkest secret.  Something that scares you.  Something about yourself that you find impossible to accept.  Something that you would immediately undo, if you ever had the chance.

Now picture yourself standing in line at the end of the workday in God’s vineyard.  You can’t even bear to make eye contact with him. 

But the Master says, “Look up.  I want to bless you.  Let me heal your heart with grace.”

And then he says the words that would thrill the heart of every day laborer:

“I still have so much for you to do.  Will you come and work with me tomorrow?”