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Thomas J Parlette

“The “unfair” nature of grace”

Matthew 20: 1-16


There is an old story about a mysterious man who walked through a certain neighborhood on the first Monday morning of the month and stopped at the first house on the street.

He knocked on the door and explained to the homeowner, “I’ve come into some money, and I want to share my good fortune. I’d like to give you $100 if that’s OK.” And the man handed over a crisp $100 bill.

“Okay?!! Sure it’s OK,” said the flabbergasted homeowner as he thanked the mysterious stranger.

The next week, the same man appeared again and the homeowner once again received a $100 bill. Each Monday that month, the mysterious stranger with the money knocked at the door and handed over $100 to the overjoyed homeowner.

But when the first Monday of the next month rolled around, the mysterious philanthropist walked past the first house on the street and knocked on the door of the second house. When the owner of the second house answered the door – he heard his neighbor yelling from next door – “Hey buddy, where’s my money?!”(1)

Such is the reaction we see in today’s parable from Matthew. At the end of the day, when the money is being handed out, the ones who had been working all day were understandable upset when the ones who worked only an hour got the same pay as them. You can almost hear them shouting, “Hey buddy, where’s my money?!”

The context for this parable actually takes us back to Chapter 19. A rich young man comes to Jesus seeking assurance of eternal life. He’s been a good kid, obeying all the commandments. This alone should shoot him to the top of God’s list of favorites.

But Jesus squashes the young man’s sense of self-worth when he challenges him “to be perfect” by selling his possessions, giving the money to the poor and only then following Jesus. It’s an invitation to downward mobility but, ironically, it’s often within that downward mobility that true satisfaction and worth are found, As Jay said last week – sometimes when we lose, we win. A person might have the perfect spiritual resume, but until they are willing to be generous toward others, both physically and spiritually, to lose a little bit, then they will be outside the kingdom of heaven.

This troubles the disciples, who like many people in their day, believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing – a belief that persists even today. Peter brings up the obvious question, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have.” Sort of a different version of “Hey buddy, where’s my money?”

Jesus assures him and the others that their dispossession of family, job, wealth and status won’t go unrewarded. In order to be first in God’s world, you have to be willing to be last.

That brings us to this maddening little story for today, a parable that we find only in Matthew – the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

The harvest is ready and the landowner, serving as his own HR department, comes to the marketplace to hire some day laborers. He starts with the early birds, the one there first. They agree on a wage and he sends them into the vineyard. Still more workers are needed, so the landowner comes back at 9:00, again at noon, back again at 3:00 and finally he comes in at 5:00 with just an hour left in the work day.

When the day is over and it’s time to get paid, the landowner calls the manager of the vineyard and tells him to start paying the workers – starting with the ones he hired last. The shocking tale of the pay stub, however, is that the ones who only worked an hour get paid a full days wage!

You can imagine how quickly this news spread through the pay line. The ones at the back, the ones who worked the longest, were probably elated. “Wow – if those guys who worked an hour got a day’s pay, imagine what we’re going to get! Ten times that! We’ve been working all day.”

But as they work their way to the front of the line, the news is not good. Everybody is getting just a day’s wage. And sure enough, the ones who’ve been working since dawn-thirty get the same amount of money as the ones who barely broke a sweat. Totally unfair!

I wonder how long it took them to find the HR office or their vineyard workers union rep and file a grievance. Not long! Apparently they started grumbling against the landowner almost immediately. As soon as they opened their pay envelope, they were complaining –
“Hey buddy, where’s my money.”

But the landowner reminds them that they’re getting exactly what they agreed to. It’s the employer’s prerogative to give whatever wage he wants to others. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” he asks. “Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Thus, Jesus says, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

According to New Testament scholar Craig Keener, Jewish teachers used a similar parable to describe the day of God’s judgment, but used it to make precisely the opposite point that Jesus was making. Israel, who had worked hard and been faithful for the long haul, would receive high wages while the Gentiles, who had come along much later, would receive little. Like the rich young ruler, or the older brother in the Prodigal son story, many Jews believed that their spiritual resumes and faithful service should give them priority status and a little extra for their faithful labor over time. This is what they expected to hear in Jesus story about the laborers in the vineyard. But then Jesus throws a twist in there.

Jesus’s version of this parable reveals that God’s economy doesn’t work that way. God chooses to be generous and extend the same grace to the least and the last as God does to those who think they’ve earned it.(2)

One of the most imposing buildings on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, is the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights – an ornate stone structure modeled after a Greek Temple. Kirby Hall is named for Fred Morgan Kirby, a wealthy businessman who donated the money to build it in the late 1920’s.

Mr. Kirby did rather well for himself. At the tender age of 23, he committed his life savings of $600 to purchase a variety store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He had a partner in the venture, a man named Charles Sumner Woolworth. Together, they opened the first Woolworth’s “five and dime,” the cornerstone of a retail empire.

Kirby took an active role in designing the college building. He also specified exactly what sort of teaching would go on within it’s walls. There’s a dedicatory plaque just inside the entrance, declaring that Kirby Hall is “for instruction in the Anglo-Saxon ideals of the true principles of constitutional freedom, including the right of man to own property and do with it as he will; the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and, incidentally, the right to sell his labor as he chooses.”

Mr. Kirby was a Gilded Age captain of industry. He was anti-socialist and anti-union, as you might expect. He didn’t want any left-wing ideas taught inside his building.

Mr. Kirby also directed that something else be carved into that stone plaque: a Bible verse, from this parable for today, Matthew 20: 15. In the King James version it reads, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

To Mr. Kirby that verse seemed the perfect biblical justification for the capitalist, free-enterprise system.

Turns out, the joke was on him. That scripture verse doesn’t mean what he thought it meant.

It seems no one ever pointed out to Mr. Kirby that the person who speaks that line in the parable is the landowner, as he justifies paying everyone the same amount money at the end of the day. If you think about it, the landowner here anything but a dyed in the wool capitalist. What he does with his wealth is really mush closer to Socialism! This is the boss who pays all his farm hands exactly the same, regardless of how many hours they have worked.

But the landowner is not really a socialist. What he is a philanthropist. It is said that when a person gives away their own money – like this landowner – that is philanthropy. When someone gives away somebody else’s money, that is socialism. God is not a socialist – but neither is God a capitalist. God is a philanthropist – one who does things for well-being of humankind.(3)

In order to be first, you must be willing to be last. Discipleship means laying aside our ambitions for wealth and power and embracing a life of generosity, finding our satisfaction not in wealth or possessions but in service to others. In order to be first, you must be willing to put yourself last.

But there is Good News!

We don’t get what we deserve – or think we deserve.

The Good News is that we get what God chooses to give.

It may seem unfair if you see yourself as one of the original workers, or as someone like the older brother in the Prodigal Son story. But God acts on Grace, not on Merit. We get what God chooses to give – Life for all.

We can grumble about what we see as God’s “unfairness” – or we can accept God’s gift of grace, and be thankful that God is a philanthropist at heart.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 5, p38.

2.    Ibid…p37.

3.    Ibid…p38.