Jesus ends the previous chapter of Matthew with the rather cryptic statement: “…But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”. He then proceeds to illustrate this with the most infuriating parable in all the gospels (well, in the opinion of some people, anyway): ‘The Workers in the Vineyard’. At grape harvest time it was vital to make use of the last few days of good weather to get the entire crop safely picked and stored before any storms or high winds damaged the ripe grapes. So temporary labourers were in big demand from competing vineyards.
The landowner goes out the marketplace just after dawn and hires a sizeable group of workers for the entire day for an agreed wage of one denarius each – that was the going rate and everyone was happy. But he needed more help, so he kept having to return to the marketplace at 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm to recruit still more workers. No agreement appeared to be struck with these additional people, although the expectation was probably that they would receive the appropriate fraction of a denarius, in relation to the numbers of hours they had worked.
What happened is interesting and, for some readers, unacceptable: The first workers to be paid were the last to be hired, the 5pm crew, and they received the pay for an entire day’s work. The same occurred with the 3pm, the noon, and the 9am crews; and as the queue shortened, the remaining workers were becoming increasingly disgruntled. Finally, the 6am starters came to the pay desk and also received a denarius each – to their disgust! “You have made those ‘shirkers’ equal to us”, they complained to the landowner, “We deserve more wages than THEY had”.
The landowner made two points: (1) The 6am crew had negotiated a contract for a day’s work for one denarius and were completely happy at the time; the landowner had honoured that contract; (2) The landowner had generously chosen to give the 5pm crew much more than they deserved, since it was his money to use as he wished. This is a parable about ‘grace’ and, for many people, grace is offensive. Some people simply CANNOT receive gifts – things that they haven’t earned – and have no mechanism for doing so. Neither can they stomach others receiving unearned blessings. However, God is never unjust, but he does sometimes appear to be unfair – usually when he blesses someone else!
‘Grace’ is, by definition, receiving God’s favour as a gift. You cannot contribute ANYTHING towards a gift that you receive – not a single penny – or else it is NOT a gift, but a partial wage. Salvation, the Bible tells us, is to be received completely as a gift, and not one of us can contribute anything meaningful to it. We DON’T save ourselves with Jesus’s help; he saves us completely WITHOUT ANY help from us at all. The old hymn sums it up well:
“Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.”
Grace is indeed very offensive and also very effective. Don’t ever ask the Lord for what you DESERVE, because he might decide to give you it; far better to ask for grace and mercy.
JOB 15, 16, 17 and 18
A shorter thought today: whatever the reasons for suffering, God himself fully understands how it feels to suffer pain and loss and hardship. There are some key verses in Job that mention Jesus:
“Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as one pleads for a friend.” Job 16:19-21 (NIV)
“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27 (NIV)
This Advocate, this Redeemer, is of course Jesus, the Son of God. He became man and became a servant; he bore our sins on the cross, taking the punishment that was due to us, in order that we might be set free from our sins and be reconciled to God the Father. Isaiah ch. 53 explains this in greater detail.
God therefore understands the full cost of suffering, pain, hardship and death. No-one can accuse him of being aloof and protected from all this. Having been through that suffering and death, Jesus is now perfectly placed to be OUR Advocate, Redeemer, and friend. All it takes is just a brief request from us!