Friday, March 03, 2017
Sermon: Matthew 20: 1-16 Grapes, Gripes & Grace
“That’s not fair!” It seems that from our earliest days, we have an inbuilt sense of fairness - at least as far as recognising when things aren’t fair for us! So whether it’s the sharing out of sweets - watching carefully to make sure that your brother or sister didn’t get one more than you; or how long you played on the computer - making sure that you got an equal amount of time; or when dividing up a cake - friends of ours have a rule in their house that the one that cuts it isn’t the one who picks which slice they want, therefore ensuring that the pieces are cut evenly!
That’s not fair - when we feel hard done by. Perhaps on other occasions, when we benefit from the unfairness we don’t seem to notice. But when we are losing out, then it’s definitely not fair, and we’ll make sure everyone knows about it. If you can identify with these feelings of being on the wrong end of unfairness, perhaps you can identify with the complaint in our Bible reading tonight.
Workers who have laboured hard all day in the hot sun are paid the same amount as Jonny-come-latelys who swanned in for the last hour’s work. How would you react, if that was in your current or former place of employment? You’ve worked hard all day, done your twelve-hour shift, and then someone comes in to do the same job, the same work for just one hour, and they’re given the same pay packet. You’d be looking for the trade union shop steward! Instinctively, you’d be crying out ‘That’s not fair!’
Well, rather than holding a protest straight away, or writing to our MLAs, whoever they might be now, let’s have another look at the story, to see what it’s all about. And as we dive in, I’ve come up with three ‘gr’ words that summarise the story - think of Tony the Tiger on the Frosties box “they’re grrrrreat!” Let’s see if you come up with the same three words.
The first grrr word is - grapes. There were grapes, loads of them, all growing in the vineyard, and all of them needed to be harvested. The master of the house might have had one or two permanent staff, but come harvest time, he needed casual labour.
Now, if you were to drive through Dromore any weekday morning, you’re likely to see a bunch of men gathered around one of the summer seats. I know it, because my dad is one of them. Dromore’s version of last of the summer wine. They’re there in the Square every day, mostly just to chat, about football or books or the latest happenings in the town. But in Jesus’ day, a similar gathering would have been the men looking for work that day. They’d turn up at dawn, ready to go to work, to earn enough money to feed themselves and their family for that day.
So the master agrees with the labourers their wages for the day. One denarius. A labourer’s daily wage. And off they go to work. Grapes, grapes, and more grapes.
They’ve been working for three hours already, when at 9 o’clock they’re joined by more workers. The master had seen them idle in the marketplace, and says: ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’
As the day goes on, even more workers join them at the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3pm), and the eleventh hour (5pm). These last ones, they’ve been standing idle all day because no one had hired them. Eleven hours idling, and one hour working. It was hardly worth their while. Or was it?
Evening comes, the end of the working day, and the foreman pays the wages, starting with the last, up to the first. The last ones hired, the eleventh hour workers, they open their pay packet to find a denarius - a full day’s wage. So the ones who worked all day, they see this, and they’re rubbing their hands, they think they’re in for a bumper bonus bonanza of a pay packet. ‘They thought they would receive more.’ But they’re given... a denarius. The same amount of pay for harvesting grapes for an extra eleven hours. They might have been fed up looking at grapes - which leads to the second grr word - the gripes.
The gripes come in verse 11. ‘And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’’
It’s not fair! say these gripes. We’ve worked hard for our money and they haven’t! You’ve exploited us! We’ll see you in court!
But look how the master replies. First of all, he answers their gripes: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.’ He takes out their contract, and reminds them that they had agreed to work for a denarius. They were content with their wages when they started the day, so why change now? He had given them what they deserved.
Now, the story could have finished there. The master didn’t need to say anything else. He didn’t have to give any further answer. The gripe had been answered. But in the last couple of verses, we get to the heart of the story, the reason it was told, the point it’s driving to - and it’s grrr - grace.
Listen to what the master says: ‘I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’
The twelve-hour worker deserved to get his denarius. The one-hour worker deserved to get a twelfth of a denarius. But the master chose to be generous, chose freely to give him the same wage. What seemed at first to be a matter of fairness is actually a matter of generosity, a matter of grace. The master displays his grace, above and beyond the narrow confines of what is merely fair.
But what is the story all about? And why does it come where it does in Matthew 20? Look back to the opening words of the story. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house...’ So the story is telling us something about the kingdom of heaven. That God is so gracious, that sometimes we might be offended by it.
Do you think that’s possible? That we could be offended by God’s grace? That we could be the long-hours labourers complaining about God’s grace to others? Surely not! And yet that’s what the story is all about.
Did you notice the first word? ‘For’ - that’s a linking word, linking back to what had come just before, at the end of chapter 19. There, we find the time when the rich young man came up to Jesus, and then walked away sorrowful, because Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and follow him. There’s the bit where Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. And then Peter says this: ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’
He’s saying that the first disciples are all in, giving up everything for the sake of following Jesus, so what’s in it for them? Will there be a bonus package awaiting them?
And then Jesus tells this parable. He seems to be saying that they’re in from the start, but they’ll receive the same as someone who comes in later - eternal life in both cases - but don’t be offended by God’s grace! They’ll give their lives in witnessing to Jesus, they’ll bear the burden, but don’t be offended when God graciously deals with others who don’t do as much.
Could it also apply to us? Could we be offended by God’s grace? You’ve been a Christian for fifty, sixty, seventy years. You’ve worked hard to follow Jesus, to live your life as he wants, you’ve laboured in his vineyard a long time. And someone you know, the worst scoundrel in the whole of Fermanagh, a notorious sinner, they come to faith a week before they die. And you might be tempted to think - God, that’s not fair! They lived a life of sinful pleasure and nipped in at the last minute, and they get the same eternal life that I do, having served you all these years?
Grapes, gripes, and grace. The Lord has called us into his vineyard, to serve him as we gather the grapes. It’s only by his grace that we were called. So don’t be offended by that same grace, freely shown to others. Grapes, and grace, but please, no gripes. Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached at the Women's World Day of Prayer service in Aghavea Parish Church on Friday 3rd March 2017.