Today’s reading from Matthew is about the outrageous generosity of God:
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “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.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These 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.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
God’s love is simply not fair!
The reaction of the workers who have been working all day is very similar to that of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (Luke 15:28). I’m sure that Jesus was also alluding to the people of Israel as he uses the word ‘grumbled’ – since this is what the Israelites do for most of the 40 years they spend in the desert with Moses (have a read of Exodus 15-17
Another bible story which illustrates the point Jesus is making is the story of Jonah. You probably remember the bit about Jonah in the belly of the whale, but do you remember what happens after he preaches to the Ninevites? Shock, horror, they repent and God decides to forgive them. Jonah is furious. He’s gone and set himself up on a hillside under a nice shady tree to watch the fireworks display (he’s hoping to see the fire of God’s wrath falling down over the city). When he discovers that his preaching has been effective, he goes into a huff with God! The book of Jonah ends oddly with this line:
“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
– Jonah 4:11
How similar to the owner of the vineyard in Jesus story as he says:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
– Matt 20:15
What is at the root of our and the main characters’ annoyance with God in these stories?
Image: Jacob Steinhart, Jonah has pity on gourd
Some years ago David Beckham got sent off in a key England game and he was the focus of the nation’s hatred for a few weeks. On Fridays I used to buy a copy of the Salvation Army newspaper and I’d put it on my desk in the office where I worked. The headline was ‘God forgives David Beckham’. My colleague spotted it and was intrigued. He was a big football fan. He wanted to know what it was about. We spoke for a while and eventually he said ‘so, if Saddam Hussein confessed on his deathbed, God would forgive him and he’d go to heaven?’ ‘Er, yes’ I replied. My friend’s reaction was incredulity. He was really angry. He was right to want justice for Saddam Hussein (this was 2003, the height of the Iraq war) but the idea that Saddam Hussein could be forgiven by God if he repented was just too much for my friend.
My friend was furious in the same way Jonah was, just in the same way the workers in the vineyard were, just in the same way as the older brother was…
…just as we are?
What these stories tell us is that God is totally Other. He is not like us:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the lord.
– Isaiah 55:8
Thank God for that! He doesn’t play by our petty human rules.
With God we don’t get what we deserve! That is the joy and mystery of the Christian faith.
We can either choose to grumble and see our service of God as a duty, even describing ourselves as slaves instead of his children. Or we can celebrate the outrageous generosity of God, the God of second, third, thousandth chances, the God who loves us so outrageously that he sent his own son to die for us, that believing in him we should not die but have everlasting life in all its fullness! (John 3:16; 10:10).