It is a scene I have seen in Uganda and in Zambia and in Bulgaria. It is multiplied in many places over Eastern Europe and all over the global South. Groups of men, and sometimes women too, standing by the side of the road in the hope that a truck or bus will stop and offer them some work. They don’t know what kind of work it will be. In the fields or on a building site. Some work – any work – so that they will earn enough to feed their family for that day. If nobody stops they won’t find work and the family will go hungry. The strongest and the young are chosen first. They will get the full day’s pay. But the others, the old and the lame, stay waiting and hoping that that somebody will still chose them to work that day. If more workers are required employers will come back for a second bus load. For all of those people who gather, work is not a luxury or something to avoid, it is essential for survival.
This background to Jesus’s story hasn’t changed for some people across the world for 2000 years.
Matthew 20:1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
The landowner hires his workers for the day and agrees to pay them the going rate – which was a denarius a day. The Jewish workday began at 6:00 AM. This was called the first hour. The third hour began at 9:00 AM, the sixth hour began at noon, the ninth hour began at 3:00 PM, and the eleventh hour at 5:00 PM. The Landowner hires other workers through the day. Even when the day is almost over he takes on those who were left standing around all day, who could well have given up any hope of any work that day. At the eleventh hour – and that is where we get that phrase – the Landowner hires some men and agrees to pay them “what is right”. At the end of the day the time comes to be paid.
8 ‘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.”
9 ‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.
Now there is the surprise. A whole day’s pay for just an hour’s work! Well if those men were being rewarded so generously, no wonder those who had worked a whole day were expecting a little bit more!
10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
Working in a vineyard was very hard work. It involved laboring on a hillside in the heat of the day with few breaks! We can sympathize with these workers. We can understand their complaint. Their joy turned to anger as they realized that they received the same pay as those who had worked for only one hour. As such, they were determined not to leave until they received “satisfaction” from the landowner. However this is only a symptom of the real problem. They were upset that the landowner had made the other workers equal to them.
13 ‘But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Indeed – they were jealous because the Landowner was generous! This is not a parable about workers’ rights. This is a parable about the generosity of the Landowner. Generosity which treats everybody the same however much or little work they have done. Generosity which is a picture of God’s grace. God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.
Grace makes us equal to everyone else. The workers’ complaint in verse 12 is interesting. “You have made them equal to us.” The all-day workers don’t complain about their own wages because they knew their pay was already generous. They’re upset because they wanted to be superior.
The word “grumble” is in the imperfect tense, which means that they complained not just once, but were in a constant state of grumbling. And they weren’t saying, “You have put us on a par with the late-comers,” Instead, they grumbled, “you have put them on a par with us.” In other words, they weren’t so much dissatisfied with what they themselves had received; they were also envious of what had been given to the others. They emphasize that they bore the burden of the work in the sweltering heat of the day. Compared to these upstarts, who only worked an hour, these workers thought they were worth a lot more.
But that is not the way grace works. Here is the marvellous truth about grace.
There is nothing you can do to make God love you more.
There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.
Like a gift, the only thing we can do with grace…is to receive it.
The 12 hour workers – in Jesus’s day
Jesus told this parable to challenge the attitudes of the Jews of his time and especially the strictest and most religious of all – the Pharisees. The Pharisees lived to the letter of the Jewish Law. For that reason they thought that God’s blessings were especially for them, and that the best places in heaven would be reserved for them. The Pharisees thought they were better than everybody else. Through this parable, Jesus was teaching the them that God’s generosity is not just for them, who had worked all day and borne the burden of the work and the heat of the midday sun. Instead God’s blessings are for everybody – even those who only make an appearance at the eleventh hour, when the work is coolest and easiest.
The end of the day workers – in Jesus’s day
We thought before Easter about the Parable of the Lost Sheep
Luke 15 “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.
Jesus said to Zacchaeus Luke 19: 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
In Jesus’s time what really annoyed the respectable Jews was the company he kept. Not respectable people like them – but the lost sheep.
Luke 15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’
Matthew 9 9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. 13 But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’
It really annoyed the 12 hour workers that Jesus spent his time with outcasts and drop-outs. That God cared about such people just as much as He cared about those who had done their very best to live by the Jewish Law. But the gospel really is for the lost sheep, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the “sinners”.
1 Corinthians 6 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
These are the kinds of people God welcomes into His Kingdom! Those were the 11th hour workers
11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The eleventh hour workers – today
Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. We would save the not-so-bad. God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there. Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver. It is given to those who don’t deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it. That’s why God alone gets the glory in our salvation. Jesus did all the work when he died on the cross.
In the end grace means that no one is too bad to be saved. God specializes in saving really bad people. Some people listening to this may have some things in their background that they would be ashamed to talk about in public? Don’t worry. God knows all about it. His grace is greater than any sin.
ANYBODY can become an eleventh hour worker. By the grace of God – anybody can be saved. However wicked.
In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Phillip Yancey describes grace like this. “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more—no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much an infinite God can possibly love.”
If these are the eleventh hour workers, then who are the
The 12 hour workers – today
Anybody who thinks they can earn God’s favour. Anybody who thinks they actually deserve the blessings which God offers.
If it’s a wage that we want from God, the Bible says that our salary is already figured out for us. If we want to be rewarded for our merit, if we want God to recognise all our good work, then Romans 6:23 spells out how we will be paid: “For the wages of sin is death…” There is NOTHING we can do to earn or deserve God’s favour. But, if we want to receive what God wants to freely give us, then here is the wonderful promise of the second part of Romans 6:23 “but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
12 hour workers today – Any Christian who looks down on any other Christian – who thinks, “I am better than you because I have served God longer, because I have been a minister or a missionary or a preacher or a Deacon or a Home Group Leader or a Sunday Club teacher.” Any Christian who thinks I am better than you because I know my Bible better, or because I have prayed more, because I have sacrificed more for Christ. Anybody who thinks like that is represented in the parable by the twelve hour workers. They thought they deserved more because they had worked harder and longer – but they were wrong.
12 hour workers today – Any Christian who is jealous of another Christian. If anybody thinks it is unfair that God lets prostitutes and tax collectors and “sinners” into his church. If anybody is worried those kind of people might spoil it for respectable Christians.
The eleventh hour workers and the twelve hour workers. Which of those groups are we in? Which brings us to the post-script to the parable.
Matthew 20 16 ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
The Pharisees thought they deserved the best place in God’s Kingdom. But that place was reserved for Tax Collectors and “sinners”.
Luke 14 7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: 8 ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Are we 11th hour workers? Or 12-hour workers? We may think that we deserve a good place in God’s Kingdom. We may be surprised! It is the last who will be first – those who think they should be first will be last!
Matthew 20 16 ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’