Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Grace of Heaven on Earth

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (Matthew 20:1)
In Matthew’s Gospel, after the encounter with the rich young man, and Jesus’ discussion with His disciples about it afterwards, Jesus segued into a parable of the kingdom. The narrative begins and ends with this paradox: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:20) and “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). The parable in between (Matthew 20:1-15) shows how this surprising turn-around takes place.

In this parable the landowner went out at about 6 a.m. and hired a group of laborers for a denarius a day (the standard wage) and put them to work. At 9 a.m., he went and hired another group, saying, “Whatever is right I will give you.” Though they had no reason to expect a full day’s pay, since they would not be giving a full day’s work, they had every right to expect the standard wage pro-rated to them. At noon, the landowner went out again and did the same. Then at 5 p.m., an hour before quitting time, he hired one last little group, saying, “What is right you will receive.”

Finally, evening came, and it was time for all the workers to be paid. The landowner had them line up to receive their wages. He paid the last ones first. To their surprise and delight, the latecomers each received a denarius — a full day’s pay. Now the ones who had worked the full day, seeing this, supposed that since the last ones were receiving the full wage, the first ones would be receiving that and more. But to their surprise and chagrin, they each received a denarius — nothing more.

How they complained about the landowner! They felt cheated and abused. “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”

Hearing one of them grumble, the landowner answered him directly. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

The truth is that he had wronged nobody; he simply showed goodness to those who needed it. Because of his generosity, those who earlier were content to receive a full day’s wage for a full day’s work now felt they deserved more, and they became greedy and jealous.

Jesus concluded the parable with this: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” There are those who think they should be valued more because they are first, and others who believe they are worth less because they are last. But they are all the same with God. He cares just as much about the poor and helpless as He does the rich and powerful. In the kingdom of God, it is never a question about our worthiness but about His grace. Even those hirelings who labored the whole day were the recipient’s of grace, for the landowner was under no obligation to hire them in the first place. It was his favor that gave them a paying job.

The rich young man, whose encounter led to this parable, thought he was ready to pursue eternal life, but the thing that gave him prominence in the world turned out to be the very thing that held him back because he was unwilling to let it go. On the other hand, Jesus was desire for him to remember the poor, who have nothing but God to lean on. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The “poor in spirit” are those who realize they have nothing except God, but they also know that He is more than enough — something the rich young man failed to understand. So the last indeed become first, and the first last.

Those who hold onto position, possessions and the pride of being first may end up with nothing; but those who let go of these things and trust in the goodness and grace of God will always have enough and more.



The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
Keys to the Kingdom of God
in the Gospel of Matthew

by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.