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Mercy: The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

The parables of Jesus often violate our expectations. In a sense, Jesus designed them to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." The parables contain unlikely heroes (the unjust steward) or unanticipated outcomes (the two sons who do the opposite of what they say). As God said to Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8). To the extent that the parables reveal the mind of God, they have the capacity to perplex, and one of God's riddles is that "the last will be first and the first last."

Peter occasioned this parable by asking the selfish question, "What's in it for us?" (Matthew 19:27). He wanted to know what the apostles' payoff would be for following Jesus so faithfully. While confirming that his disciples would have their reward, Jesus told a parable to temper their pride and self-righteousness.

In the first century, most people worked long, twelve-hour days for meager wages. The owner of the vineyard goes out at dawn to hire workers for a denarius a day. Whatever the coin might have been worth, one coin a day wasn't much, but the laborers seem to have agreed it was the going rate. The landowner keeps on hiring workers, at 9 a.m., then 12 noon, then 3 p.m., and finally 5 p.m.--the eleventh hour counting from 6 a.m. and just one hour before quitting time. "Doing something at the eleventh hour" comes from this parable.

The surprise hits in verse nine: Those who worked only one hour are paid just as much as those who worked twelve. The protests begin. No injustice has been done because those who have worked all day are receiving the agreed-upon wage. The basic issue is indignation at the landowner's largesse. The early workers resent the good fortune of those who came late. Those who had worked long and hard for their wages begrudged those who had not, but they also resented the landowner's inexplicable generosity. Generosity isn't fair unless everyone gets an equal share of it.

What if the owner had given the late workers a denarius and the early workers nothing? What if he had given the late workers two coins and the early only one? In either case, he would have been doing something other than he said he would do. By giving everyone exactly the same wage, the landowner shows himself to be both just (a man of his word) and merciful (a generous man who gives people more than they deserve).

The point of the parable is not that God can do anything he wants or that salvation is by grace alone. After all, everyone worked at least part of the time. The point is that the disciples should not be asking "What's in it for me?" because in God's eyes we all are worthy of the same grace and unworthy of any special treatment that might cause pride or arrogance. The first shall be last.

Jesus goes on to make the same point later in the same chapter. When the mother of James and John asks that her sons be given special seats around Christ's heavenly throne, Jesus reminds them that "whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:26).

The Pharisees especially needed this parable about mercy. They looked down upon the masses of country folk who were ignorant of the law and the ritual purity regulations. They looked down even further at sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes. They looked down the furthest at those who were not Jews at all. Jesus is reminding them that God's mercy is extended to every stripe of human being. You cannot look at God and tell him what to do with his grace. You cannot tell God who can and who can't be saved. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7).


1.Does this parable teach that some people earn their salvation by works (the early workers), some by a combination of works and grace, and a few by grace alone (the eleventh hour workers)?

2.Many believers in Christ think other believers should not be saved for various reasons. For example, some conservative Christians might think a Catholic like Mother Teresa has not met the doctrinal requirements for salvation. Are there any sincere believers in Christ you think should be damned? Would you be disappointed in God if he saved someone like Mother Teresa?

3.In this parable, justice and mercy complement each other. In other situations, justice and mercy often conflict. For example, a teacher may fail a student who has worked hard because, despite the expenditure of effort, the student simply did not pass the tests. How should Christians resolve conflicts between justice and mercy?

4.Like the early workers in this parable, people will often react by saying "That's not fair!" when what they really mean is "That doesn't help me any!" Have you seen other examples of misplaced righteous indignation? When is fair truly fair?

5.The doctrine of the sovereignty of God says God can do anything he wants. In this parable, Jesus compares the landowner (who is both just and generous) to God. But could God in his sovereignty act in a way that was generous but unjust? In other words, is God bound by the concept of justice?

6.How would you define mercy? When is mercy appropriate and when is it inappropriate?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 7, 2007 12:27 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Anti-Materialism: The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21).

The next post in this blog is Obedience: The Wise And Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27).

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