When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to be class president. In the Bahamas, we called it head boy or head girl, although some schools chose both. If you were a head girl, your chances for employment and scholarships after high school increased, because you were a leader.
Have you ever felt as if you didn’t get something that you deserved? I wanted to be class president, and part of the selection process involved speeches by the candidates to the student body. After I gave my speech, I was satisfied. Based on the students’ responses, it was one of the best speeches given that year. I was sure that I would be chosen class president.
However, the decision didn’t rest with the students, but with the teachers. And they chose someone else. They made me a vice president. What? My 16-year-old self began to think, This isn’t fair! Her, not me? Others agreed with me that I deserved to be class president.
The parable of the vineyard is a fascinating story wrapped around the truth of God’s strange grace. Jesus begins by stating that “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” (Matt. 20:1, 2).
In those days the workday went from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. And day laborers waited in the marketplace to be hired. The marketplace was a crowded center for commerce where public meetings, rallying of troops, even celebrations, took place. Day workers, people of a status just above slaves—some of them being freed slaves—waited to be noticed and hired. A denarius (plural denarii), Roman currency and the wage for a day’s worth of work, was often just enough to provide meals for their families for just one day. To be chosen to work was a major blessing, both socially and financially.
After a few hours the landowner hired more laborers. This was not entirely unusual, for sometimes the harvest’s bounty required more laborers. The landlord sent the new workers in with a promise: “I will pay you whatever is right” (verse 4). At the sixth hour, noon, he repeated this process; and again at the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.). Always, it was the landowner’s initiative that made the working relationship possible.
One hour from the close of the day, the landowner stood again in the marketplace and accosted those waiting around: “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” (verse 6). Evidently the employer was aware of their movements—or nonmovement.
He simply delights in bestowing good on others. His generosity is part and parcel of the goodness of His nature.
“Because no one has hired us” (verse 7).
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard’ ” (verse 7).
Is their last-minute employment a response to crisis? After all, the landowner always knew where to find them. The answer is that the parable’s purpose does not go in that direction, as the day’s final activity will now show. The story is not about bosses’ provisions, but about employees’ notions of justice.
“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’ ” (verse 8). So they came. To receive what was theirs they had to come. And when those hired latest arrived, “each received a denarius” (verse 9).
“How strange!” we exclaim. “One day’s pay for one hour’s work!” We would love it, wouldn’t we? Some of us may have been stunned silent with gratitude; others moved to tears, or perhaps even leaping with joy. We can picture the celebrations swelling as each group comes to receive their pay: the 3:00 p.m. group—a full day’s pay! The 12:00 noon group—a whole denarius again! The 9:00 a.m. group—a whole day’s salary! What excitement in the vineyard! What delight as each individual experiences this unusual generosity: one whole denarius for something they haven’t done. How wonderful! How strange!
The 6:00 a.m. group observes all this: fiesta in the vineyard! Perhaps they are touched by the graciousness of this landowner. They may even say so: “Look at that! It’s so touching—a whole day’s pay!” They are touched and moved. But not for long. For “when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius” (verse 10).
“What?” The smiles fall from their faces. The conversation quickly changes: “This landowner is unfair!” And they do have something of a point: they worked from the beginning, more hours than anyone else; they endured the heat of the day. I’ve been to Israel: I know the noonday heat. Then some last-minute group comes along for an hour and receives the same pay as they do. It doesn’t make any sense! In this world, when you work harder you should get more; when you work longer you should get more. It is an assault on their sense of justice and normalcy. Their hopes and expectations dry up like a raisin in the sun.
If they had never witnessed the later groups’ payment, they would have been content. They would have left thinking that they got exactly what they deserved. But they needed to witness it, and thus be confronted with the condition of their heart. Devoted as they were to sheer common sense, they needed to learn that kingdom principles are different. Their sense of justice and ours is often shaped, not so much by what we have, but by what we think we should have, especially in comparison with others.
If roles were reversed, would we feel the same?
If those hired first had actually been among those hired last, would their response have been the same? Would they have thrown their denarii back in the landlord’s face? Perspectives change when we can empathize with others.
We too may have witnessed circumstances somewhere that have tested our understanding of fairness. Seeing people given a raw deal can awaken our own resentment. But Jesus’ story teaches that our sense of right and wrong may sometimes contradict heavenly principles.
The heavenly Father, the story’s generous landowner, has a different perspective than ours. And we should thank Him for that. He declares, through Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isa. 55:8). There would be no hope for us sinners if things depended on getting just what we deserve; the salary we are owed is eternal death (Rom. 6:23).
The landowner’s message to one representative of the group states the contrast plainly: “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:13-15).
Jesus is asking whether or not it is right for Him to dispense His grace as He wishes. Here is a wonderful pair of implications: First, grace is His, not ours. No individual, no institution, is ever authorized, or even capable of dispensing divine grace. Second, Jesus wants to give His grace away to whosoever, without reservation, trammel, or hindrance: “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17, KJV).
Jesus wants to give. And it’s not because He thinks there will ever be something of comparable worth that we might conceivably offer Him in return. He simply delights in bestowing good on others. His generosity is part and parcel of the goodness of His nature. It is this goodness of His—His “bands of love”&md
ash;that draws us to Him (Hosea 11:4, KJV).
When it comes to grace—glory be to God!—His understanding of what is fair prevails. In God’s strange grace what is good for one is good for all. What works for the last works just as well for the first. His summing up is no more preferential than grace itself: “So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16, KJV).
Promotions and demotions depend exclusively on our relationship to grace. We are all first who recognize our need and rejoice in His supply. And we are all last who are impressed by our own hours or years of service, or size of portfolio.
Thus the similar conclusion to end an earlier conversation with Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 19:30) after His exchange with the gifted young millionaire turned out poorly (verse 22). Against all our property-based, title-based, career-based, status-based evaluations, Jesus sets forth and lives out His kingdom principles. He and they erase all our categories of preference: Jew contra Gentile, slave against day laborer against free, male instead of female. In need and reception of His grace we are all at the same level, all needing the same amount—one denarius—for our salvation from sin, and all receiving the same one denarius of His generous reward to enter through the pearly gates into the everlasting city of His love (Gal. 3:28).
Our “Yes” to His call to labor does not remove us from the ranks of those needy of grace. And that is good news! His freely and daily distributed denarii are what Lamentations speaks of in declaring that “because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22, 23). The mercies of His grace are fresh and available every day of our lives.
Jesus told this story so that we may understand the constant, unfailing availability of His wondrous grace. Rather than force or obligation, it is invitation that brings us to partake.
For me, kingdom principles are now so much more alluring than the moralities of my 16-year-old ambition. I follow my Lord because His grace has captured my heart. His grace has wooed me into friendship with Him. His grace inspires me every day to live the life of love that serves. I praise Him for this grace. This strange grace that has taken hold of me and will not let me go.
Alareece Collie is executive pastor of the Walla Walla University church in Washington state.