What you feel about all of these important issues and concerns might just impact on how you hear today’s parable. Jesus is talking to his closet friends, and as ever is sharing things which are difficult for them to hear. The main teaching point, the punchline, comes right at the end, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus is pointing to a way of life that is built entirely on grace and not necessarily on socially accepted norms.
To share this teaching the parable shares an insight into the normal life of Jesus’ time where the labourers who worked all day expected and anticipated a great pay out. That sounds reasonable. But when they see the owner’s generosity to others, it’s no wonder they grumble. This is behaviour that upsets the usual order of things.
But Jesus is saying that this parable relates to how the gift of God’s grace and love doesn’t in any way rest on a system of merit. The question is raised in the parable about whether this understanding of generous grace undermines the whole reason why someone might try to live a good life, following accepted standards of common life and trying to live justly. God’s response though is to totally shake up all of those expectations about what it is to lead a good life, and by paying every labourer the same clearly says that everyone has equal value and receives God’s grace, however brilliantly or poorly they have tried to live a life of holiness.
This parable paints an incredible picture of a generous God who is delighted in all that is offered, however much or little, in God’s name. It also shares something about humanity’s reaction when they witness this generous grace in action. The labourers who work the longest simply cannot cope with the generosity they see poured out on those who come late to the work. It’s back to the “It’s not fair”. They probably aren’t cross that God’s grace is there, just cross when others receive it so generously, in a way that doesn’t tally with the usual order of things.
The Bible is full of stories that have echoes of our parable today, because it is essentially another age old story of people getting cross when they see actions and consequences that simply don’t look fair and don’t make sense against the normal expectations of society. The Prodigal Son is a great example of where grace is shared in abundance on the son who turned his back on his father, but who eventually returns, with nothing expect himself. That’s really hard for the brother who has stayed at home and worked hard and who hasn’t felt valued. You might understand exactly what he felt like. But this is how God responds to everyone, always with generosity.
In all these stories the important message seems to be that divine grace makes everything and everyone equal. There is no privilege for one person over another, everyone is regarded as the same in God’s eyes. This might be a hard message for you to hear, when we all carry the history of a way of life that says those who do the most, work the hardest, make the most difference, should be rewarded the most generously. It might be hard to hear when you think that some people simply aren’t as deserving as you, for all sorts of reasons. God challenges us and turns everything upside down and says, my grace is for you and you and you, whoever you are and whatever your story is. And that, Jesus shares, is what God’s fairness is all about.
- What is your reaction to hearing today’s parable?
- What does it mean to you to know that God’s grace is poured out on you?