Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 30 2013 - Matthew 20:1-28 – The unfairness of God

Many of Jesus' parables, as told in Matthew's gospel, begin with the phrase, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." The one in our reading this morning tells the story of a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard. Some are hired early in the morning and work through the scorching heat of the day. Others are hired later in the day, some as late as the final hour of the working day. Yet when it comes to the time for them to be paid, they all receive the same amount.

How might this parable have been heard by those to whom Jesus first told it? Perhaps it was told against the background of the resentment of the Jewish leaders against the "sinners" and tax collectors who were so attracted by Jesus and his teaching and whom he seemed so ready to welcome.

How might this parable have been heard by those for whom Matthew included it in his gospel? Maybe it was written against the background of tension over the expansion of the church among the Gentiles; why should these latecomers enjoy the same blessings as those who had laboured so long and suffered so much for the God of Abraham?

How do we hear this parable?

The parable is all about the generosity of the landowner. The parable is about the grace of God. The dying thief is welcomed into the kingdom equally alongside the apostles who have devoted their lives to labouring for their Lord. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace.

The disciples found this very difficult to grasp. The mother of James and John asked Jesus for one of her sons to sit at his right hand in the kingdom and the other on the left. She felt that those who had spent so much time in Jesus' company and had laboured with him for these three years deserved the chief places in the kingdom. That's not the way my kingdom works, Jesus says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

Our labour in the vineyard is as nothing compared with that of the Lord Jesus. He, the Son of God, came to give his life as a ransom for many. He paid the penalty for our sins so that we might enter freely into the blessings of his labour. He worked through the scorching heat of the day. We are all latecomers to the kingdom. Praise God that he does not treat us as our sins deserve but embraces us in his love – the love that moved him to give his Son for us.

How does this truth shape our attitude towards others who have come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we have a hierarchical view of the kingdom in which we try to fit ourselves and others into some sort of pecking order? The grace of God is a great leveller.

Lord, teach me what it means to follow you. Teach me what it means to live a life of glad service of the servant king. Keep me from the deceit of looking for status in your kingdom because of the many things I imagine I have done for you. Teach me to revel in the glorious unfairness of your grace – that you continually lavish blessings upon me that I do not deserve.

Peter Misselbrook