Jesus: The kingdom of heaven is like a wealthy landowner who got up early in the morning and went out, first thing, to hire workers to tend his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a day’s wage for the day’s work. The workers headed to the vineyard while the landowner headed home to deal with some paperwork. 3 About three hours later, he went back to the marketplace. He saw some unemployed men standing around with nothing to do.
Landowner: 4 Do you need some work? Go over to my vineyard and join the crew there. I’ll pay you well.
So off they went to join the crew at the vineyard. 5 About three hours later, and then three hours after that, the landowner went back to the market and saw another crew of men and hired them, too, sending them off to his vineyard and promising to pay them well. 6 Then finally late in the afternoon, at the cusp of night, the landowner walked again through the marketplace, and he saw other workers still standing around.
Landowner: Why have you been standing here all day, doing nothing?
Workers: 7 Because no one has hired us.
Landowner: Well, you should go over to my vineyard and work.
And off the workers went. 8 When quitting time arrived, the landowner called to his foreman.
Landowner: Pay the workers their day’s wages, beginning with the workers I hired most recently and ending with the workers who have been here all day.
9 So the workers who had been hired just a short while before came to the foreman, and he paid them each a day’s wage. 10 Then other workers who had arrived during the day were paid, each of them a day’s wage. Finally, the workers who’d been toiling since early morning came thinking they’d be paid more, but the foreman paid each of them a day’s wage. 11 As they received their pay, this last group of workers began to protest.
First Workers: 12 We’ve been here since the crack of dawn! And you’re paying us the exact same wage you paid the crew that just showed up. We deserve more than they do. We’ve been slogging in the heat of the sun all day—these others haven’t worked nearly as long as we have!
13 The landowner heard these protests.
Landowner (to a worker): Friend, no one has been wronged here today. This isn’t about what you deserve. You agreed to work for a day’s wage, did you not? 14 So take your money and go home. I can give my money to whomever I please, and it pleases me to pay everyone the same amount of money. 15 Do you think I don’t have the right to dispose of my money as I wish? Or does my generosity somehow prick at you?
16 And that is your picture: The last will be first and the first will be last.
(Matthew 20:1-16, The Voice)
The message I want to share with you today is going to make you mad. At least, it will if I share it properly. It made me angry when it first came to my mind. I’m just giving you a head’s up: You’re not going to like what you hear from me today.
This week I happened upon an interesting conversation on the radio. The host was talking about food stamps, and how he had read in the Wall Street Journal that one in seven Americans are on food stamps. He thought that was outrageous, and that too many people were, in his opinion, “jobbing the system.”
“They need to pay at least a portion of their bill themselves,” he said. “They need to have some skin in the game.”
His first caller was “Brandi from Batavia.” Brandi is a single mom of four from three different dads. She said she has been on food stamps for some time and loves them.
“I don’t see why you’re so against them,” said Brandi. “I don’t have to work and get all I need. I’m living the high life.”
She went on to say she gets about $300 a week in food stamps. The only time she feels bad, she said, is when she runs out of money on her card and she can’t get what she wants for her kids. But, she said, when that happens, she gets in line behind someone who looks like they might have pity on her and foot her bill.
Wow. Talk about jobbing the system. As you might imagine, Brandi from Batavia’s confession unleashed some pretty harsh responses. The next caller said she works two fulltime jobs to provide for her family, and she couldn’t stomach the idea that some of her money was going to pay for Brandi’s food stamps. Another woman said she had suffered a serious illness a couple of years ago, and she was told she could apply for disability. But she refused and worked hard to get her life back on her own terms.
I was on the side of these callers. How could someone be so brazen as to totally depend on others to provide for her while she lived “the high life”?
That was when I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit.
“Brandi from Batavia is a picture of my grace. She receives and rejoices. She doesn’t earn.”
And then the parable we just read came to my mind. Did you read it? Did it make you angry? If it doesn’t, said Michael Spencer, then you didn’t really read it. Here you have a field full of hard workers, those who are doing it right, those who are following the rules. And here come a group of slackers who have done nothing all day long, and they show up as the work day draws to an end. And these losers get paid the same as the winners.
Jesus says, “This is the way it works in my kingdom. You can’t earn your way in. You can’t work to keep your place in line. Everything that can be earned has been earned on the cross. Everything that can be purchased has been purchased with my blood. All you can do is receive.”
Brandi of Batavia buys groceries with money she hasn’t earned and she is pleased as Punch about it. But we aren’t. We want her to shape up, to get a job, to—as the host said—get some skin in the game. We all feel better when everyone does what we consider their fair share. The prodigal came back, we think, at the very least remorseful for telling his dad to drop dead, taking his money, and ruining the family name. We like to think that after he came back he was a good boy, behaving as he should. But what if he went on a-whorin’ and partying in his dad’s house, wearing his dad’s robe? What would we think then?
God’s grace is scandalous; it’s not respectable in the least. Do you not see that in our Old Testament reading? Come, buy food without money, stock up on milk and wine with your food stamps. We don’t read that this is a one-time offer. It seems we can continue to get all the food and all the drink we want without ever having to pay. As a matter of fact, we cannot pay for what God is offering. We can only receive it as it is given—freely.
I will conclude this morning on this note, and it may not be a pleasant one for you. If you want God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness, you are going to have to become Brandi of Batavia. You are going to have to receive these gifts without working, without earning. You may endure ridicule and scorn, but endure you must. Grace is a very hard thing for those who insist on working and earning. But for those who want to live the high life, it is the only gate where entry is available.