The Scandal of Grace Part 1
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
Saved by Grace
2 September 2005
The Scandal of Grace
We receive grace when we are born again.
This saving grace is not something we can earn or work for; it’s a free gift given by a gracious God.
Today, I will attempt to answer the question, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”
It's been said that Christianity is totally a religion of grace.
And that is certainly true.
But, even so, grace is not well understood and often it’s not really believed.
We use the word a great deal but rarely think about what it means.
Part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself.
Grace is scandalous.
It’s hard to accept, hard to believe, and hard to receive.
Grace shocks us in what it offers.
It is truly not of this world.
It frightens us with what it does for sinners.
Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them.
We would save the not-so-bad.
God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there.
Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver.
It is given to those who don’t deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.
That’s why God alone gets the glory in your salvation.
Jesus did all the work when he died on the cross.
In the end, grace means that no one is too bad to be saved.
God specializes in saving really bad people.
Do you have some things in your background that you would be ashamed to talk about in public?
God knows all about it, and His grace is greater than your sin.
Grace also means that some people may be too good to be saved.
That is, they may have such a high opinion of themselves that they think they don’t need God’s grace.
God’s grace cannot help you until you are desperate enough to receive it.
Today, I want us to look at a parable that I have never heard a sermon on before, and one I’ve never preached on.
It’s not one of the more popular stories because it strikes at the heart of our sense of fairness and justice.
Let’s begin by reading Matthew 20:1-2: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”
This would have been a typical scene in the days of the Bible.
Just as we have employment agencies today, in the first century, there were places where day laborers gathered to seek work.
These workers were unskilled at a trade and were usually very poor.
In fact, many lived at a level not far above beggars.
They went from job to job, many of which lasted no more than a day.
Because they had no guarantee of work beyond what they might be doing at the time, they would gather in the market place before dawn to be available for hire.
Working in a vineyard was not easy work.
At harvest time, which was during the hottest time of the year in Palestine, the grapes had to be picked, often in temperatures of 100 degrees or higher.
Just as the corn and soybeans in our area have to be harvested when the weather is good, grapes had to be picked quickly before the bad weather set in.
If for some reason the grapes were slow in ripening, the time for harvesting could be significantly shortened.
Consequently, the grape harvest was a hectic and demanding time.
These workers were promised the pay of a denarius for one day's labor.
This was also the wage of a Roman soldier.
While this might not mean much to us, it meant a great deal to those listening.
Being a Roman soldier was not the most glorious or prestigious job but it was higher up the social ladder than the common laborer.
As such, the promise of a denarius to these workers would have been quite generous.
And so they agreed to this rate with great eagerness!
The equivalent today would be about $60.
Now, this particular landowner’s property obviously was large, and so he needed more laborers to get the job done.
Now I’ll read verses 3-7: “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour, he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’”
The phrase “I will pay you whatever is right” in verse 5 shows us that these workers no doubt trusted the owner as a man of his word -- while the owner does not promise a particular wage, these workers knew it would be fair.
The phrase in verse 6, “found still others standing around” does not imply laziness, but rather, unemployment.
That’s what they did until someone came to hire them.
This pattern continued for the men hired at the third hour, sixth hour, and the eleventh hour.
The Jewish workday began at 6:00 AM.
This was called the first hour.
The third hour began at 9:00 AM, the sixth hour began at noon, the ninth hour began at 3:00 PM, and the eleventh hour at 5:00 PM.
It is at this point that the parable takes a dramatic turn.
By the eleventh hour--5:00 PM --the work on most plantations would have been winding down.
The laborers waiting for work at this time would have lost hope.
Yet on this particular day, it was different -- because of the generosity of this landowner.
It is clear that he is interested not only in his vineyard but also in the unemployed.
So we see that there are two groups of workers: those hired early who went to work after negotiating a wage; and those hired later who went to work without a contract, choosing to trust the goodness of the master.
Listen to verse 8, “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”
The typical mode of payment back then was “first come first served.”
Not surprisingly, Jesus turns it around to, “last come first served.”
I’m sure those who worked all day were beginning to get a bit confused at this point.
Let’s continue with verses 9-10, “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each of them also received a denarius.”
Though Jesus does not say it, the implication is clear; ALL the workers up to those hired first were paid a denarius.
Because of human nature, we can imagine how the laborers who worked all day felt as all the workers got paid one denarius.
The natural thought would have been, “If the owner gave them 60 bucks for working one hour, those of us who have worked twelve hours stand to gain a bundle!”
However, their hopes were dashed. They received the same pay.
In verses 11-12, we see that the attitudes of the workers head south.
I’ll read it to you: “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
Working in a vineyard was very hard work.
It involved laboring on a hillside in the heat of the day with few breaks!
We can sympathize with these workers.
We can understand their complaint.
Their joy turned to anger as they realized that they received the same pay as those who had worked for only one hour.
As such, they were determined not to leave until they received “satisfaction” from the landowner.
However, we find that this is only a symptom of the real problem, which was that they were upset that the landowner had made the other workers equal to them.
Verses 13-15 give us the owner’s response.
I’ll read it to you: “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?”
Here the owner completely refutes the workers’ argument with a crushing blow.
The Greek word rendered friend is not the term for a close friend, but rather a casual companion.
Since the landowner only addresses one person the implication is that this “friend” probably was the spokesman for the group.
The owner then clearly states, “...I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree to work for a denarius?”
Before 6:00 that morning, they had “agreed” with the owner on a price for their labor.
At that time 60 bucks was a fair, generous wage for their work.
Both sides had lived up to their end of the bargain.
What the landowner paid other laborers, or what the landowner did with his own money was no business of anyone else.
In fact, if the landowner had wanted to give half of his wealth to one of the workers, he would not be unjust and we would admire him for his generosity.
Then Jesus brings the parable to its appropriate end in verse 16.
We’re told, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In the kingdom of God, our perceived position makes no difference because God shows no partiality.
In God’s kingdom, things are often just the opposite of what we expect.
Grace has an edge to it, doesn’t it?
It’s challenging and even disturbing.
If we were honest, we’d have to admit that grace even scandalizes us.
Grace is not the way we normally do things.
Now, how do we apply a text like this?
Do we simply accept the fact that others may be saved later than us or will do less work than us in the kingdom of God?
If you’re like me, we can handle that.
But I think there’s more in this passage that God wants us to learn.