The shock of grace - Matthew 20:1-16
'Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.' So wrote the eighteenth century English author Henry Fielding. And certainly if you cast your eye over the tabloid headlines on any given day, then you'd be right in thinking that we in Britain are obsessed with scandals. But one particular scandal that we really love is the royal scandal. And these scandals really get the papers excited. And we've had a few of them this past month. Paul Burrell the former butler of Lady Diana is accused of stealing thousands of items from the late Princess' house. Then before that it was Princess Anne's dog which allegedly attacked some innocent passer by in Windsor Great Park. The Charles and Camilla saga rumbles on. And before that it was Dodi and Diana. Much of the country was glued to their copies of the Sunday papers or the magazines looking for the latest bits of juicy gossip. And papers sold like hot cakes. Yes, royal scandals really get us excited.
Now this morning we are looking at a royal scandal with a difference. But this royal scandal is not some lovers' tryst, not some bung concealed in a paper bag, not even a snarling corgi snapping at someone's heels. No this scandal is in the royal kingdom of God. This scandal goes right to the heart of the heavenly government; it goes right to the top, right to the king of Kings, God himself. It's a scandal with God right at the centre. And the reason this scandal comes to light is because Jesus tells about it in Matthew 20 through one of his parables, some of which we have been looking at this past few months. It's a story the CBI or the TUC would not be happy with. They would certainly not have had Jesus preaching at one of their conferences with this sort of scandal attached to him. Jesus tells the story of a landowner who has a shocking way of paying his workers. He says that if you work for 1 hour, then you get the same as the person who has worked for 12 hours. It's scandalous isn't it? And Jesus says in verse 1 that the kingdom of heaven is like this. This is what God's kingdom is like. Jesus is teaching us something about God's priorities and actions. And when we see the wider context of this passage we find out that Jesus is actually illustrating a shocking principle. In verse 30 of chapter 19, Jesus says: 'But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.' And then in verse 1of chapter 20 he says 'For, the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner....' This parable illustrates the point of 19 v 29. And at the end of the story in 20 v 16, Jesus says: 'So the last will be first and the first will be last.'
So what does this little phrase, which has come into common speaking today, actually mean? What is it about this phrase that Jesus illustrates in our parable? Well what Jesus is saying is that the way God thinks and the way God acts are often very different from the way the world acts and thinks. The kingdom of God has a very different way of looking at things to how we might look at things. It is an upside down kingdom. You see in the previous passage, a rich young man has been turned away from Jesus because he is unwilling to give himself whole heartedly to Jesus. And so the disciples ask the question in 19 v 25: 'Who then can be saved?' And Jesus replies that 'with man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.' With God it is possible for country fishermen to know God personally. With God it is possible for children who seem least useful in the world, to come into the kingdom. God's kingdom is a kingdom where the world's values are turned on their head. God's kingdom is not a matter of power and prestige and moral virtue. God's kingdom is about a simple child like trust in God which takes no account of power, influence and prestige in this world. God's kingdom is an upside down kingdom and no matter where you stand in the world's pegging, with God there is a level playing field.
So this parable is about how we get into the kingdom of God, what criteria God has for entry into his kingdom. And Jesus tells this parable to illustrate that point. And he does it for two reasons. First he's wanting to remind the disciples of God's upside down principles, so that they who have surrendered their lives to God will receive generously from him. And yet they should also beware of being smug, because in God's kingdom he is generous to others whom the world might think do not deserve such generosity, and there is no room in God's kingdom for envy. And like all Jesus' parables this one comes with a sting in the tale. And this one is designed to shock. And there are two shocks for us to look at in this parable:
1) The Shock of God's Sovereign Choice (Vv 1-7)
2) The Shock of God's Extravagant Generosity (Vv 8-16)
1) The Shock of God's Sovereign Choice (Vv 1-7)
So let's look first then at the shock of God's sovereign choice which we see in the first half of the parable as the landowner recruits the workers. Let's picture the scene. It's 6am at the Chateau Bethlehemberg vineyards. The landowner knows that the time has come to pick the grapes for the AD 33 vintage and he needs hired men to do his work. Maybe he has heard from the Jerusalem weather centre that there are storms on the way. Whatever the reason, the work needs to be done today and so he personally goes down to the job centre, which is the local market. There men would gather who needed work and who hoped to be hired for the day so they could put some food on the table for their families. Sure enough the landowner finds a bunch of workers. They agree on a fee for the day, one denarius, the standard working fee for the day, sign the contracts and off they go. Everyone is happy.
But at the third hour, which is nine o' clock, the landowner goes out again and finds more men doing nothing in the market place waiting to be hired. So he says to them in verse 4: 'You also go and work in my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right.' So off they went and got to work. Now there is no specific price quoted by the landowner. He simply says that he'll pay them what is right. But I guess if they knew that a whole day's work is one denarius then they would work it out that they would receive about of a denarius. That would only seem fair.
But the landowner's recruiting drive does not stop there. He goes out again in verse 5 at the sixth and the ninth hour, that's about midday, when half the day has gone, and then at three in the afternoon, when the day is getting close to ending. Still he's looking for workers. And we begin to wonder: 'Well, hasn't this landowner made a bit of a mistake. He's been to the job centre four times now, and still he hasn't got enough workers. Surely he's made a management error hasn't he?' But actually Jesus makes it clear in this parable that the landowner's trips to the job centre stem not from a bad dose of mismanagement, but rather from a remarkable concern for the needs of these workers. Because the final trip the landowner makes is at the eleventh hour, that is about five in the afternoon. There is just one hour's work left. 11/12ths of the working day have gone. But still the landowner is out there. Why? Verses 6 and 7 give the reason: '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.'' You see this landowner is concerned for these workers. They've been standing there all day, not through idleness, but because there is no work. So what is his reason for hiring them? They are unemployed. He knows he's not going to get much out of them. They are hardly going to do an hour's work before the day is over. But such is the compassion and generosity of the landowner that he's so bothered about their employment.
You see if this landowner hadn't have come down to the market place and seen these men, had he not come down five times during the day, then many men would have been without a wage that day. Many would have gone hungry, because that's the way the society worked then. You don't work, you don't get paid, you don't eat. And it was all because of the generosity and the kindness of the landowner that these men got work. It was his free choice.
And the first shock that Jesus is teaching us from this parable is the shock of God's sovereign choice. In this parable the landowner is God. That's often the way in Jesus' parables. And the shock of this first part of the parable is that the only way we can get into heaven is through God's sovereign choice. He chooses out of his incredible love, to save his people, to bring people into his kingdom. But it is all his doing. And so everyone who is in heaven is there because God brought them there. If the landowner had not come down to the market place then no-one in that village would be working that day. They would have faced a day without work, without pay and without food. And if God had not acted to rescue us, then we would face a far more serious fate. We wouldn't be without work, we'd be outside the kingdom facing judgement day on our own. We wouldn't be without pay, we'd be without salvation.
And that is the plain teaching of the Bible. We were told in Ephesians 2 that we are dead in our transgressions and sins. Now there is no way in the world that a dead body can raise itself. And there is no way in the world that a spiritually dead person can bring themselves back to life. Time and again we hear the same message. God is the one who takes the initiative to save us. We cannot take it ourselves. He decides to save us. And we'll be heaven because of his choice sovereign choice.
Now of course this cuts right across what the world says. The world says we can decide our own futures. We can make our lives what we want of them. But the Bible says we cannot do that spiritually. God alone is powerful enough to take the initiative to save spiritually dead people like you and me. But often this attitude creeps into our Christian language doesn't it? We say that we found Jesus. We say that we decided for Christ. Now of course there is some truth in that. God's sovereign choice doesn't not mean we are mere robots. No we are responsible for receiving his offer of salvation. We are responsible for how we respond to him. But it is he that opens our eyes to see the truth. It is he that brings us to the point where we can decide. The fact of the matter is that he found us.
I remember hearing a well known evangelist tell the story of when he went to speak to a particular school and the audience were A Level students. And the evangelist was saying that none of them could become Christians unless God took the initiative. Now as with some A Level students, one young man thought he knew better than the evangelist and he said: 'Oh, that's rubbish. I could become a Christian whenever I wanted to.' So the evangelist said: 'OK. Prove it. Give us a demo now. Become a Christian.' 'No,' said the boy. 'I don't want to.' 'Well want to want to,' said the evangelist. 'Show me I'm wrong.' 'No I don't want to.' And then after a while going back and forth, the evangelist said: 'You can't can you.' And the boy said very quietly: 'No, I can't.'
That's the shock of God's sovereign choice. He has to take the initiative to rescue us. And that has two pertinent lessons for us. First it means that we must be humble. We must remember that we cannot save ourselves. Only God can. And that should humble ourselves. It's humbling for the Christian because it means we realise we can do nothing to save ourselves and our pride is broken. But it's humbling too for those who are not yet Christians. Because it reminds you too that there is nothing you can do to revive yourself spiritually. You are dead in your sins. Only God can save you. Cry to him for mercy and ask him to rescue you. And if you know God is speaking to you urging you to trust him, don't ignore his call.
But it means too that we should be grateful. We should thank God every day that he took the initiative to bring us into his kingdom, to rescue us. Because without him coming to rescue us, then we would be lost. Humility and gratitude. That's the response to the first shock in this parable. The shock of God's sovereign choice.
2) The Shock of God's Extravagant Generosity (Vv 8-16)
But there is a second shock that Jesus is wishing to teach us about in this parable and that is the shock of God's extravagant generosity, and we see that in the second half of the parable in verses 8-16. So let's return to Jesus' story. The day has come to an end, and it's pay time. And so the landowner asks his foreman to get the workers together and pay them in verse 8: 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.' But what follows is quite extraordinary. In fact one Bible translator has called this parable the story of the eccentric employer. It looks very strange to our eyes. The last are paid first and the landowner says that they are to receive one denarius, a day's work for an hour's work. It's incredible generosity. And no doubt these men rub their hands with glee. What a wonderful employer. They've got 12 times what they deserve. And so when it comes to the rest of the field, then everyone else is no doubt doing a few hasty calculations. You can almost see the pound signs come up in their eyes. You can hear the cash registers ringing in their minds. Ah, say the first group who've worked for 12 hours. If the last lot got one denarius then we'll get twelve times as much. That's twelve denarii. Even the thickest of them could have worked that out!
But what happens? Verse 10: 'So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.' And they were furious. They begin to grumble against the landowner. The rep for the National Union of Vinedressers comes to the landowner and says in verse 12: 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' But do you see what the landowner says in verse 13: '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 I hired last the
same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my money? Or are
you envious because I am so generous?' This landowner is not being unfair to these workers. They signed the contract. They got what they deserved. What they couldn't stomach was the incredible generosity of the landowner.
And that's the real shock of this parable. The shock is seen in what the men hired first say to the landowner. You made them equal to us, they say. And that's precisely the point. You see this parable is not about how God treats his workers who work for him. Other parables show how God rewards faithfulness in the kingdom. This parable is about God's incredible generosity in allowing people into his kingdom. With God's kingdom the first are last and the last first. The values of the world are turned completely on their head. The world says the more you do, the more you deserve. And we think that carries over with God's values. The more we do to impress God, the more he'll give us. The more we go to church, the more we give, the longer we serve on a committee, the less we swear and the less we cheat people, then God will be impressed. Surely he'll be impressed and let us into heaven. Surely all those things will get us up the ladder with God. But the fact is, when it comes to getting into heaven, none of that can help. Because none of us can get into heaven on our own merits. The fact is none of us deserve heaven, no matter how good we have been. We all fall short of his perfect standards. We actually deserve just the opposite, hell. The only way we can get into heaven is if God lets us in. Getting into heaven is all about his incredible generosity. That's the shock of this parable. Grace you see is the great leveller. The first shall be last and the last first. The fact of the matter is that in the race to heaven, we all cross the line at the same time. And the only way you and I can get to heaven is by trusting and receiving God's gracious gift. And the shock is that God is willing to be generous to people you and I would never dream of being generous to. The last in our world.
Let me tell you what I find shocking about Jeffrey Dahmer. What shocks me are not his acts, though they are horrible. Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted on a count of seventeen murders, all of which were carried out in the most horrific fashion. This man was a cannibal, and was called the Milwaukee monster. I cannot describe to you his acts because they are so vile. But that doesn't shock me. Nor does his trial shock me, even though Dahmer sat serenely though the whole thing, with not even a glimmer of remorse on his face. That doesn't shock me. Nor does his punishment. Life imprisonment, though life would hardly do for even one of the murders he committed. Let me tell you what shocks me about Jeffrey Dahmer. It's his conversion. Months before Dahmer was murdered by a fellow inmate, Dahmer became a Christian. He said he was profoundly sorry for what he'd done. He said he put his faith in Christ. He said he wanted a fresh start. That's what I find shocking. It's the fact that when I get to heaven I will be side by side with this horrific cannibal worshipping together our saviour and Lord. He's my brother in Christ. That's shocking, don't you think? Yet what is perhaps more sobering to realise is that I have no more reason to be in heaven than Dahmer does. We are both there because of God's extravagant generosity. And that's the shocking thing about God's grace. God is willing to give his grace to those we would never dream of giving it to.
And it's not as if God has forgotten Dahmer's crimes. Do you think God has just swept all those seventeen murders under the carpet? No. Do you know how God can allow someone like Jeffrey Dahmer into heaven? Because his crimes have been paid by someone else. Someone else has taken all that injustice on his shoulders and borne the price of those murders. And that someone? Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on the cross, he took Jeffrey Dahmer's sin, and paid the price so he could go to heaven. And how is it that I, a filthy sinner, a respectable sinner, maybe, but a sinner none the less- how can I get into heaven? Because Jesus died on the cross for me. Such generosity is not cheap. It comes as a huge price. The death of God's own son. And that's why in heaven there will be teachers and doctors and vicars and lawyers, people the world may respect, rubbing shoulders with murderers, prostitutes, armed burglars and muggers, people the world hates. The first will be last, the last first. Everyone who is there will be there because of God's extravagant generosity. All forgiven sinners. Don't you find that shocking? Billy Graham and Jeffrey Dahmer both in heaven? But that's the shock of extravagant generosity.
And there are two important lessons we need to remember as we close, two implications for us of the shock of God's extravagant generosity. The first is never think you are superior over other Christians. If grace is the great leveller, if we all cross the finishing line at the same time, then there is no place in the church for a superior attitude. We have no right to look down our noses at other Christians, and question God as to why they are in the church. What right do we have to do that? What right do we have to ask God why he gives his grace to some people who we wouldn't include. Like those first workers, we're in danger of calling God unfair. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. If it wasn't for the landowner, no-one would be working that day. And if it wasn't for God's grace, none of us would be heading for heaven. Don't be superior. Its very easy to do, even subconsciously as we compare ourselves with others. But as soon as we do it, we forget how gracious God has been to us, and we show ourselves not to have fully grasped just how incredibly generous God is.
But the second application is not to think we are inferior. All too often it is easy for some to fall into this second trap, to think that God is not interested in us, to think that somehow everyone else is better than us, to think we don't come up to everyone else's standards. Maybe you have sinned in a way of which you are deeply ashamed. Well remember God is incredibly generous and he will forgive every sin if you will come to him. Don't think you are inferior. In God's eyes you are incredibly special. He sent his Son to die for you. Nothing could show you how God feels about you more than that. Don't think you are inferior.
I read a true story a while ago about a young girl in Brazil named Christina. She lived in the country with her Mum and like many young people she wanted to experience the high life of the city. So early one morning, she gathered her things together, left the house and her Mum and went straight for the city. When her Mum awoke the following morning she was devastated. She knew that her daughter was thinking about it, but never thought she actually do it. So she bought a return ticket and set off straightaway to the big city. When she got there she photocopied a photograph of herself and put a message on the back. She then placed the photo in all the bars and clubs she could find, went back home and waited. Well some time later Christina was in one of those bars and happened to see a dog-eared photo of her Mum behind the bar. She took it down and turned it over and on the back were these words: 'Wherever you are, whatever you've done, come home!' And she did just that. And that is the shock of God's extravagant generosity. That he can say to us: 'Wherever you are, whatever you've done, come home!' He will have you back if you'll have him. For that's the kind of God he is.
Well it's not the sort of royal scandal that you'll read about today in the Sunday papers, but it is amazing nonetheless. The big difference with this scandal is that it doesn't concern people we will never meet, it concerns you and me. And the question we must all answer is how will we respond to God's sovereign choice and God's extravagant generosity.
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