The kingdom of heaven is like this. There was a man who owned a vineyard. One year, as the harvest was beginning, he decided to go himself to hire temporary workers rather than giving that job to his steward. He rose early and went at 6am to the corner of the village market where the unemployed gathered, looking for work as day laborers. He chose some, hired them for the standard wage, and sent them to work in his vineyard.
A few hours later, he went back to see how the rest were faring, and found many men still there. Some, who were beginning to lose heart, were sitting on the ground, but there were many others who were still standing, eager and hopeful and ready to put themselves forward if an opportunity came. The owner didn’t really need more men, but he hired several more anyway, sending them off to his vineyard with the promise that he would treat them fairly. By mid-day, he figured the rest had either gotten jobs or gone home, but he decided to check on them anyway; when he found a crowd of men still waiting, out of compassion, he sent a few more out to the vineyard with the assurance that he would do right by them. He did the same again three hours later, perhaps to honor the determination of those who were still there.
An hour before sundown, the master went back to the market, thinking surely all the men would be gone; it was really quite unusual that any had remained there past noon. Amazingly, he found a few diehards, depressed and humiliated but just not willing to give up. Surprised, the owner asks, “Why are you still standing here?” They respond, “We want to work! As long as there’s light to see, we won’t leave unless someone hires us.” In his compassion, he tells them, “You go work in my vineyard too.” He promises them nothing, and they can’t hope for much, but it’s the best they have, and so they go.
When night falls, the owner calls his steward—who’s been wondering what the master’s been on about all day, why he keeps going to the market and sending back extra workers—and the master says, “Call the men and pay them the wage.” The steward is taken aback by this; he says, “Master, you want to pay them all the full wage? They didn’t all—” The master says, “Yes, I know. Isn’t it my money? Just do it.”
The steward starts to walk away, muttering under his breath, “OK, we’ll start with the guys who’ve been here all day, and work our way down the list—” The master calls him back and says, “No. Begin with the last ones hired, and work up the list.” The steward can’t believe his ears. “Master, you know what’ll happen if you do it that way—” The master says, “Yes, I do.” “They’re going to be pretty angry—” “I imagine some of them will.” “But—” “Not another word. You heard what I said. Go do it.”
The first group is called, and everyone is stunned into silence when those who worked just one hour are given a full day’s wage. That group, of course, goes off rejoicing; those first hired, meanwhile, start calculating how much extra they’re likely to get. But then the next group is called, and they too are given a full day’s wage, and so is the next, and the tension in the first group begins to rise. When those who worked nine hours also receive one denarius each, the tension reaches the boiling point. It explodes into anger when those who worked the whole day are called forward and paid—exactly what they were promised, exactly what they agreed to.
Now, those workers have every reason to keep their mouths shut. They were paid on time and in full, so they haven’t really been cheated. More than that, they’ve been hoping for more than just one day’s work—hoping the master would keep them on for a second day, or all the way through the harvest, or maybe even longer; if they make him mad, all hope of that is gone. But they feel cheated, and some of them are too angry to keep quiet. One man bursts out, voicing their common complaint: “It isn’t fair! We worked all day, we did all the hard work, we deserve more than them! You’ve made them equal to us—how dare you!” Are they angry because they were treated unjustly? No: they’re angry because someone else was shown grace.
The master reads them the riot act. “Mister,” he says, “I promised you a just wage, and that’s what I paid you. That’s what you earned, and it’s all you earned—take your money and get out. You’re free to do what you like with it, and I’m free to do what I like with my money. If I chose to use it to pay these other men a living wage so that they can feed their families, too, what gives you the right to complain?”
How do the angry workers respond? We don’t know—the story stops. Once again, the final response is left in our lap. It’s interesting that the master doesn’t respond gently and graciously, as the father does in Luke 15 or Abraham initially does to the rich man. I’m not sure why that is, but I wonder if it might be a matter of context: this is right on the verge of the Triumphal Entry, in the last days before the crucifixion. Time is shorter here, things are more urgent, and the division within Israel is continuing to widen and harden. There comes a point when grace ends, not because God stops being God but because time simply runs out; here in Matthew 20, that point is perilously close for Jesus’ opponents. They have rejected gracious words; if they don’t hear the hard words, then soon there will be no more words for them at all.
That said, I suspect most of us would have to admit we understand the anger of those full-day workers. I know I’ve been there. Some of you have heard this story before, but at the church I served in Colorado, there were some deep divisions in the community and the congregation, and thus unfortunately in the Session. There were several other issues that compounded the problem in the Session, and at one point I was absolutely furious with a couple of the elders. I was stalking back and forth in the sanctuary—as usual, nobody else was around—praying at the top of my lungs, just venting at God, when I heard his voice in the back of my mind: “Show them grace.” Well, I knew that was God because it absolutely wasn’t me, and I didn’t want to hear it; I snapped back, “They don’t deserve it.” He replied, “I know. That’s why it’s called grace.”
I don’t mind telling you, that put me flat on the floor. It has continued to resonate with me for a number of reasons, and not least for the lesson that sometimes God’s grace is infuriating. When is that? It’s when I start to let myself believe, in my natural pride, that I actually do deserve God’s favor—that for me it isn’t really grace, at least not to the same degree. “They don’t deserve it”—and I do? Really? Maybe I’m closer to deserving it than that person out there that I don’t like very much, but maybe an amoeba’s bigger than a diatom, too—I still can’t see either one without a microscope.
Grace infuriates us because we want to believe we earn the good things we want. We want to believe that we don’t need grace, that we deserve success and the satisfaction of our desires, and that justice is on our side. The workers confused justice and grace; they objected to the grace given to others, demanding grace for themselves and calling it justice. They got justice, not according to their own self-righteous perspective, but by the master’s definition: he gave them no less than they had earned, but not one bit more. They got one day’s pay and expulsion from his presence, with no hope of any future employment, or any future relationship. Whenever we’re tempted to demand justice, we do well to remember the proverb: “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.”