Just this week, as my family was preparing for Thanksgiving break, I asked my two daughters, separately, to help with a few chores around the house. Although they are 9 and 7 respectively, my wife sometimes thinks I assign chores above their pay grade. She may be correct, but in this case, the chores I asked of our daughters were simple – empty the wastepaper baskets in their bedrooms, bathroom and play area. Four in total. One of my daughters emptied three of the four wastepaper baskets. A few hours later, our other daughter emptied only one, the wastepaper basket in her bedroom.
It was not long until an argument ensued between the girls. They began to grumble and complain. This wasn’t fair.
How could I pay my daughters the same allowance when one of them emptied three wastepaper baskets and the other only one? My usual response would be a quick utterance – “life isn’t fair” – but because we were in the car, it became a teachable moment. I shared the parable of the workers found in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus, the ultimate storyteller, found himself always in teachable moments, sharing wisdom in parables through the power of story.
Here, we have a wealthy landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. As Matthew 20:2 says, he agreed to pay them a denarius for the full day of work (the value of a denarius today is around $4.00). The landowner went out around noontime, at 3:00pm and finally at 5:00pm doing the same thing; recruiting workers to labor in his vineyard. All was well until the workers hired early in the morning found out that the workers who had been hired at noon, 3:00pm and 5:00pm were receiving the same pay.
It was not long until an argument ensued amongst the workers. They began to grumble and complain. This wasn’t fair.
How was it that the workers who were hired last were to be paid the same that were hired first? Here is the response from the landowner:
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I find this response to be both challenging and fascinating as it points to something amazing – grace. First, he called them friend. Second, he called out their envy at his generosity. And finally, he stated something that is as puzzling as it is interesting: the last will be first and the first will be last. What does being first and last look like in today’s culture and climate?
Throughout history, there has been much written about grace. The definition that resonates most for me is simply unmerited favor. Unearned blessing. Undeserved goodness.
When I look back at my mistakes, the sin that has entangled me and the unwise choices I have made… and then compare them to my life today, there is absolutely no comparison. Nothing I have today I deserve. I didn’t earn the right to have a beautiful family and vibrant friendships. I was never good enough nor could never accrue enough merit to have this favor, this amazing grace.
Sometimes, I have been an early morning worker, grumbled and complained in envy, and many times I have been a late afternoon worker. When I revisited this parable with my children, I was reminded that it does not state why the landowner chose to be more generous with some of the workers over the others.
It’s a mystery and it does, in fact, seem unfair. But it was also unfair in the truest sense for God the father to send his only son to earth to be crucified for the sins of many.
The life of Jesus, His ministry, death and resurrection all started, as all life does, with a birth. His birth in a manger was the first act of cosmic grace. The power of this unmerited favor has rippled throughout history to this very day.
So, no matter who you identify with in the story of the workers, whether you are the early morning or late afternoon laborer, it is fair to say that life may not be fair, but it is beautiful. And that God may be mysterious, but He is good and so generous.
As we find ourselves in this season of giving thanks and having more Christ (Christmas), I invite us all to ponder over and wonder the true meaning in our lives and the beauty of its amazing grace.