As I mentioned last week, we have an interesting couple of lessons that should inform us as to how we approach our lives as disciples of the Lord Jesus. Specifically, I mentioned that we would be getting a teaching on the difference and relationship between mercy and grace. If last week’s conversations are any indication, it was a distinction which many of us did not get. To be sure, mercy and grace go together in the Gospel, but they are by no means synonyms. To illustrate the difference between mercy and grace and their relationship to one another and their role in our relationship to God, Jesus uses parables. Last week, we looked at the story of the man who owed 10,000 talents. By rights, the king should have sold the man and his family into slavery because the idea of him paying off the equivalent of a couple billion dollar debt was simply preposterous. The king demonstrated mercy by withholding that punishment from the man and his family. Mercy, if you will remember, is the withholding of earned punishment.
This week, we look at the parable of the workers in the vineyard. We are told that a vineyard owner of incredible wealth hires workers several times during the course of the day. Each is contracted to earn the daily wage of a denarius. Think of the size of this vineyard. The owner hires workers at 6am, 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. Presumably, as he is hiring them, there is work to be done to earn the wage. The man is also a righteous man. One of the teachings of the torah was that the worker’s wages were not to be held. God had instructed Israel that they were to pay their laborers for their work each day. Not surprisingly, some business owners held wages hostage for all kinds of reasons. Even more predictably, those with hardened hearts would refuse to pay their laborers. This owner instructs his payroll clerk to settle up with everyone, beginning with those most recently hired.
Those recently hired, of course, have already experienced grace—receiving that which one does not deserve—by simply getting a job. If one was not hired at the start of the day, one usually had great difficulty getting a job for the day. Imagine, if you were not at the hiring spot right on time, you lost your chance to earn money for your family. Child was sick? Sorry you were late. Overslept? That is unfortunate indeed. And we also understand that desire of the business owners to get a full day’s labor for our full day’s wage. How many of us, were we small business owners, would be willing to pay employees $40 each day, even if they worked only an hour or four? I notice that none of us think we would be enthusiastic about the prospect of paying full days' wages for anything less than a full day's work. But that is precisely the generosity practiced by the man who owns the vineyard. More amazingly, especially from the perspectives of human resources, schools of management, and common sense, the owner of the vineyard tells his steward to pay the workers in reverse order. Those who worked the least get paid before those who worked the whole day. Anybody with common sense or management experience knows that he should have paid the early workers first. One of the rules about business is to keep the employees talking about their salaries and wages so as to prevent what happened in our story. Had the owner done that, they would have been none the wiser, and they sure would not have had reason to be upset.
Some will point to this parable as a teaching about our eternal reward; others will focus on the work being done that results in injustice. Jesus, though, is teaching this story to teach us about the hardness of the human heart. Though the initial question a somewhat far from this passage and not included in readings these last two weeks, Jesus is addressing the hardness of heart found in the Apostles. At the beginning of this section, Peter has reminded Jesus that he and the other Apostles and disciples have given up everything to follow Him, as if Jesus would ever forget. The purpose of these parables is not just to teach us about mercy and judgment and other important virtues; the parables go a long way to teach us lessons about ourselves that we may not like.
Any reward that we receive from God is undeserved. Any. That's the very definition of grace. God first showed us mercy by withholding punishment that we all deserved, but this idea of being adopted as firstborn sons or daughters into His family, this idea of a fabulous wedding feast, this idea of being given citizenship in an eternal kingdom—it's all grace. Notice how everyone gets the same reward for working.
As the owner points out to the spokesman for the early laborers, he has given them that with which they agreed. It is only when they begin comparing their length of work and the conditions of their work to others does the situation seem unjust. The spokesman for the early day workers complains. In an amazing demonstration of patience and calm, the vineyard owner shows even more grace. Rather than dismissing the man's complaint, he elevates the laborer and calls him “friend.” Then the vineyard owner addresses the seeming injustice. Did we not agree to this when I hired you? Is your eye evil? Why are you complaining about my treatment of you? We had a contract, and I honored it just as you and I agreed. For all our supposed advancement, little has changed in the hearts of disciples. How often do we argue with God about our perceived value in His plans? Lord, I deserve a better reward than her because I come to church every week. Lord, I deserve a better reward than him because I give way more money. Lord, I deserve more blessings because I do way more work than them? There's some squirming because I am right.
Peter's complaint, and ours, arises from the fact that we do not understand grace nor the fruit of grace, gratefulness. We do not understand in the depths of our hearts and our souls and our minds that any reward He chooses to give is far, far better than we deserve. We bargain, we plead, we complain about perceived injustice. We are modern early laborers or modern Peters.
The response to mercy and grace, as not demonstrated by the debtor or the spokesman, but expected by the king and the owner of the vineyard, is one of gratitude. In telling these stories, Jesus is reminding His audience and us that our attitude needs to be one of gratitude. Unlike the Pharisees and Temple priests, who practiced piety to appear holy, Jesus demands that you and I respond with thankfulness, with joy, with gratitude. The very second that we slip into Peter’s demand is the first sign that we lack the motivation our Lord expects and demands. Your company may expect you to trumpet your long hours worked, your dedication to a project, your ability to be more productive than your co-worker, but Jesus asks only that we respond in joyful thanksgiving. What does He tell them? He who would be greatest will be servant of all!
What motivates you? Are you working for Jesus because you want to walk on streets of gold? Are you working for Him because you feel it gives you some kind of status? If those are the motivations of your faith, you have surely missed the example of our Lord. Though He deserved any and all accolades we could give Him, He thought only of our need for a Savior. Looking around this morning as I asked about paying wages for only an hour worked, I would say we all agree He understood us better than we understood ourselves. That’s why He and His behavior must be our focus and our guide. Like those who were called into the vineyard late in the day, you and I need to remember that what He chooses to give we have not earned. Nothing in us merits reward. Nothing in us is praiseworthy. Nothing in us is worthy of the adoption and life, the grace, that He gives. The better we understand that, the more we let the truth of that sink into our hearts empowered by the Holy Spirit, the better servants we will all become. As we are transformed by this sincere attitude of gratefulness and thanksgiving, the greater harvest will be for His glory. In the end, He served us that we might be able to serve Him. Pray that our hearts are always mindful of that important truth and this important teaching about mercy and grace.