[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Could there be a better parable to help us understand the “Table of Grace?” I think not. This is not one of Jesus’ parables that leaves us scratching our head, wondering what on earth he may have been talking about. Nope — this one is clear as a bell.
What would you call this parable? I think it says a lot about you when apply a title to a parable, because once you’ve titled a parable, you’ve already begun interpreting it. For example, if you said this was “The Parable of the Grumbling Workers,” the focus is on the disgruntled attitudes of the first workers to the vineyard, who are angry because they received only what had been promised to them. It just isn’t fair! This is a lot like us, isn’t it? We tend to misunderstand grace by thinking we earn it or we deserve it. A better definition for grace is “Receiving something we do not deserve.” Or better yet, “Not getting what we deserve” as in punishment or the negative consequences that should have befallen us.
Grace is certainly not “Fair,” but all too often we try to dole out who receives grace by who has worked the hardest or who has been the nicest. God doesn’t work that way. Instead, Jesus tells us “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
If you call this “The Parable of the Late Comers,” the focus is on the incredible wonder with which the last workers received their full day’s pay. This is closer to the idea of grace — being aware that they received something they didn’t work for. You might also be aware that they didn’t go seek out the field to work in, they waited for the landowner to come to them. The parable doesn’t go into details about how grateful those latecomers were, but I can only imagine how pleased they were. They certainly weren’t complaining that “It isn’t fair” that they received a whole day’s pay. Indeed, in this case, “The last were first.”
If we call this “The Parable of the Generous Landowner” we begin to to understand the concept of grace. This parable certainly could be about us and our perceptions of fairness; but my heart swells when I think of this landower heading out three or four times during the day to offer work to those who were needing it. I get all goose-bumpy when the landowner doles out the day’s pay and gives everyone the same amount. It helps me recognize that God doesn’t exactly play favorites. God’s justice is difficult for us to understand because it doesn’t seem fair.
God’s justice is more like a scene I saw on Louis CK’s sitcom, where Louis is teaching his daughter about fairness. He tells her, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to see that they have enough.” But really, how often are we looking in our neighbor’s bowl to gauge whether we have as much as they do?
The table of grace is a place where God’s justice is realized: where everyone receives more than they deserve. Grace flows freely and plentifully to everyone at the table, no matter when they arrived.
It must have been difficult for the first Century Jews to grasp that God’s message of love and forgiveness was for the whole world (the late comers) and not just them (the first to work!). But with this excellent parable from our master teacher, we come to understand that our focus shouldn’t be on the good fortune of the late comers, nor on the disgruntled attitudes of the first comers; our focus should be gratitude filled for the gracious landowner, who gives freely and generously to all.