Commemoration of John Chrysostom, Preacher
January 27, 2013
What is the Kingdom of heaven like? According to Jesus it’s like nothing you and I would ever expect it to be. It certainly was not like what those laborers would have thought who worked hard all day and got exactly the same pay as those who slipped in at the end of the day and worked for only one hour.
Now if this little story Jesus were telling was about the way things are in this life then He would not be much of a God, let alone a leader. Things would not work out very well if in this life a guy were to treat people that way. Sure, the people who hardly worked would like it, but word would soon spread that there’s this guy who will pay you for a whole day if you show up in the last hour. How long do you think that would last?
No, Jesus doesn’t tell His stories so that we can learn better how to do things in this life. He tells them so that we can learn, well, what He said we were learning from it: what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
If you think that there are things in this life that are unfair, you’re right. We live in a fallen world. The world is populated with sinful people, who, guess what?, act unfairly. Because of the Fall into sin, things are not as they should be in this life. When I was a child and my parents tried to drive home the fact that life is unfair, so I should get over it—I didn’t want to get over it. It just wasn’t fair, and it needed to be fair. Since then I’ve learned this lesson and it’s still a hard one. It’s one I try to impress on my own children, and I sympathize with them when they don’t want to let the unfairness go.
But why would Jesus become a man just to teach us that life is unfair and we need to deal with it? He wouldn’t. He became a man for another reason. And the reason is to show us the Kingdom of heaven. It’s to show us something we don’t know and can’t know on our own. We need to be shown it. If you want to succeed in life, sooner or later you should be able to learn on your own that life isn’t fair and that if you don’t dwell on the unfairness you will be able to do great things. But the Kingdom of heaven? You can’t know what that’s like on your own. That’s why Jesus told this parable.
It’s like this man who apparently had a lot of money. So much so that he gave no thought whatsoever to paying workers who worked for only one hour a whole day’s wage. He also apparently gave no thought as to how this would make the other workers feel, the ones who worked hard all day, who bore the burden and the heat of the day. Talk about unfair. Those workers who came last surely loved the jackpot they walked into, but even they would have to admit that the landowner wasn’t acting in fairness. Eccentricity maybe. But he wasn’t being fair.
So there you have it. Not only is this world unfair, the Kingdom of heaven is too! If we have such a strong aversion to unfairness in this life, why would God present to us what is supposed to be better—the Kingdom of heaven—as unfair as well? Working through the parable will show us the answer.
Jesus’ parables can be difficult for us. He tells them to teach us what we cannot know on our own. So here He is teaching us what we need to know about the Kingdom of heaven. One challenge with parables is, how far do you take all the details? When Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like a man who entered into an agreement with several laborers, does that mean that the Kingdom of heaven is like a business transaction? There are a lot of people who think that way. You do your part, God will do His. You do good works and live a good life and God will reward you for that. If we press this detail of the parable too far we find ourselves in contradiction with other parts of Scripture that teach that salvation is far from a business transaction but rather purely by grace. It is not some agreement we have entered into with God. It is not on the basis that we have done our share and so God then gives us our due wages. It is rather purely by God’s grace that He has saved us.
And yet, if you do look at that detail, there is something striking about what that landowner does with the first ones he hires and the ones he finds milling around later on in the day. The first ones get a straightforward business transaction. The wages back then were a denarius a day, and that’s what both the landowner and the workers agreed to. At the end of the day he was happy that people did the work he needed to be done and they should have been happy that they were able to make some money they presumably needed.
But notice how he interacts with those he finds hanging around later in the day. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” He doesn’t agree with them on a wage. He says rather, “Whatever is right I will give you.” Apparently they are just happy to get a job, perhaps thinking that since the day had already begun they might be standing around all day and not get any work. So whatever this landowner would give them would be great. We can probably assume they were thinking it would be less than a denarius, in other words, not a full days’ wage.
You can usually see that in Jesus’ parables His intent is not to teach us about what this life is like or about how we ought to operate in this life. The first clue is that He says something along the lines of, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this…” The second clue is that His stories simply wouldn’t make sense if played out in the real world. In this parable we need to come to terms with who these first laborers are and who the rest of them are. We need to come to terms with how the landowner deals with the first ones and how he deals with the rest.
The first ones were looking for something and the landowner provided that. They had an expectation and they were right to. They would provide the labor, he would provide the wage; a day’s wage for a day’s work. But what happened with those first workers? What changed that their expectations changed? What changed is that the rules changed. They put in a full day’s labor and then along come these other workers who worked only part of the time. A few of them only worked the last hour of the day! It was no longer hot. They were rested up from standing around all day. When it came time for everyone to get paid, those other workers got a denarius. The landowner gave them a full day’s wage for a little bit of work.
At first, the first workers were ecstatic. The landowner really needed a lot workers today and so he kept hiring people throughout the day. Since he gave those others a full day’s wage, and he must be extravagantly wealthy to do that, he’s going to draw from his treasury and give us even more. Today has turned out to be a really good day!
Then they got it. A denarius. A stinkin’ denarius. Only a day’s wage. Normally, this would be great. You put in a day’s work and you’re happy to go home with a day’s wage. But they were getting exactly the same as those who worked only one hour. They didn’t toil and sweat like they did. They didn’t put in a full day’s work. It wasn’t fair. And they told the landowner so. Why are you treating us like this? We deserve more than what you gave those other guys.
His response wasn’t going to win any friends among those who worked the whole day: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. 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?” And this here is the beauty of this parable. It is the brilliance of the unfairness of God. You think life is unfair? The Kingdom of heaven is more so. You think you don’t like it when life doesn’t go the way you want it to, when others treat you unfairly, when God seems not to care how badly things are going for you? I promise you you will like it even less the way God deals with you in His Kingdom.
To understand the unfairness of God, you need to broaden your understanding of life. Do not think of it only as your living on this planet, your living day to day in this world. Life is so much more than that. It is all the blessings, not only in this life, but all of His abundant blessings of eternity. Once you do, you will see things clearly. You will see, in fact, that God is not fair. You will see that life, not just this life, but life in all its fullness and abundance, is not fair. And it won’t be in the way your parents taught you, life isn’t fair, deal with it. You will see it and give thanks to God for it. You will see that exactly what you need is for God to not be fair with you.
Think of it this way, God will deal with you in the same way you deal with Him. If you want to earn from Him a wage, a wage is what you will get. You will put in the work, you will work hard, you’ll do good works, you’ll toil and sweat, and at the end of the day He will give you your wage. You will have earned it.
The only problem here is that you will look around and you will see all those people who didn’t work nearly as hard as you. They didn’t do nearly the good works you did. They didn’t put in as much time on church boards and helping the needy and driving the elderly to their doctor appointments. In short, they didn’t deserve it like you did. What you won’t see is that they didn’t receive a wage. They received grace. What God gave them was a gift. “Whatever is right, I will give you,” said the landowner. And you know what is right? What is right is grace. Because God doesn’t operate in fairness. He operates in grace.
There was no agreement made on the cross. There was the completely unfair reckoning of your sin and my sin and every person’s sin to Jesus. If you’re looking for a wage you will get it. The wages of sin is death. That’s fair. The thing about God is that He’s completely not about fairness but about grace. Jesus received the wages of our sin. We have received grace. Or do we begrudge His generosity? That truly is the scandal of all of this. God chooses to give to us and to all what we do not deserve. Instead of being fair, Jesus died for every single person. He didn’t check first to make sure we were going to be good workers in the vineyard. He didn’t determine if we were going to work hard and do all the right things and live a life of good works.
He simply died on the cross. He acted in grace. He gave to all because that’s who He is and what He’s about. He gives life and abundantly. This life is not fair, but we see clearly now, and thank Him for it. We see clearly, that there is so much more to life than simply what we know in this life. There is also and especially eternal life; the Kingdom of heaven. And when it comes to that, life is unfair. You have God to thank for that! Amen.