February 7, 2010

Fairness and Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

by Rev. Jeremiah Cheung

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The Parable’s Content

In this parable, there are five batches of people. The first batch was a group of workers hired to work in the vineyard at five in the morning. The second batch entered the vineyard to work at nine in the morning, the third batch was hired to work at 12 noon, the fourth batch entered the vineyard at three in the afternoon, and the fifth batch at about five in the afternoon. The owner had already agreed to pay the first batch of workers one denarius for 12 hours of work. But the owner did not discuss with the next four batches how much he will pay them. He only said, “I will pay you whatever is right.” and they went in. At the end of the day, those who worked for only one hour got one denarius, along with those who worked for 12 hours. Those who were hired first became displeased and began to grumble. The owner rebuked them and said, “Why are you envious because I am generous? Take your pay and go!”Jesus concluded the parable, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This parable contains a precious message about grace and fairness.

The Parable’s Background

I want to give you a brief background regarding this parable. In the olden days, there were no storehouses. Therefore, grapes can’t be harvested too early; because they will turn sour. Neither can they be harvested too late, because the grapes will spoil. The harvest period for grapes is very short. The owner needed to harvest the vineyard within a short period of time, so, he had to hire many workers. Thus, he hired 5 batches of people to harvest the grapes.

The Difficulty in the Parable

When the owner paid the workers their wages, he proceeded to pay the workers who were hired last and the ones hired first got paid last. The ones who worked for only one hour did not expect to get one denarius. We can imagine how happy they were, they must have thanked the owner loudly and sang and shouted hallelujah, praise the Lord. They worked only an hour and they received a day’s pay. At this time, not only were they happy, the other four batches must be very happy too. They must have thought, `If these got a denarius for one hour’s work, then I will receive 12 denarius for 12 hours’ work, 9 denarius for 9 hour’s work, 6 denarius for 6 hours’ work, and 3 denarius for 3 hours’ work.’ They never thought that the owner would give all of them only 1 denarius each. They were very angry, especially those who came into work the earliest. They grumbled against the owner. They felt he was unfair. Do you think this was fair or unfair? It was fair because they had agreed to be paid one denarius from the very start. They could have disagreed to work for that amount; since they entered the vineyard that means they agreed to the price; so they cannot say it is unfair. However, it is also unfair, because the fifth batch only worked for one hour, but they enjoyed one whole day’s pay; which is exactly the same amount received by those who worked 12 hours. So, how can that be fair!

We often feel life is unfair because we like comparing ourselves with others. From infancy, we begin to make comparison. Of course, it was our parents who did the comparing then. As a child, we compare who is cuter, more intelligent, and who has better grades. During adolescence, we compare boyfriends, girlfriends; once married, we compare our families, children, and professions. During mid-life, we compare our reputations or wealth. In old age, we compare grandchildren, health and longevity. We humans never cease to play the comparison game all our lives!

If you think this has nothing to do with you, then consider this: some people do many wicked things while on this earth, they enjoy all the pleasures of sin and this world – drinking, gambling, womanizing, cheating, all kinds of evil deeds – they enjoy themselves to the utmost in this world. Before they leave this world, at the last minute, they would say `Lord, I have done wrong. I am willing to receive you as my personal Lord and Savior’, and so got saved and entered heaven. How about us? We are so pitiful; after we come to know Christ, we refrain from doing many things we want to do, because we want to be a good person, to be a good testimony. Good people often get bullied by others. Life is difficult for a person who wants to be good. But I tell you, if a person really wants to enjoy this world’s pleasure and come to the Lord only at the last minute, such a man is unsaved, because he has not understood God’s love at all; in his life, he has no love of God at all.

We are not saved because we love the Lord, because love itself is a law. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. We know that no one is saved by observing the law, and that there is no love inside us. How then can we love God and men? We are saved because the Holy Spirit worked in our hearts and made us understand the love of God. The Bible says, “We love because he first loved us.” The more we experience God’s love, the more we will draw near to God, the more we draw near to God, the more we will understand his salvation. When we are moved by God’s love, we begin to love God and men, only then do our lives begin to experience transformation.

The Truth in the Parable: Grace and Fairness

I want you to understand an important truth. The Lord is a God full of grace and fairness. But the Lord does not deal with us according to fairness. He deals with us according to grace. If the Lord will deal with us according to fairness, then there is only death for all of us. Before we become believers, the Lord dealt with us according to grace, and after we become believers, the Lord continue to deal with us with grace. Before I knew the Lord, I truly deserved death, I have done many shameful deeds of darkness, thought many shameful thoughts, a true sinner who deserves death. After I became a believer, the more I deserved death. Just as I sinned unknowingly before, now, I sin knowingly. So, I deserve death through and through. If the Lord doesn’t deal with us according to his grace, I cannot be worthy at all to stand here and teach you today.

You may think in your heart, `If that is the case how God can be called fair?’ God is a God of fairness and justice. But God does not deal with as according to justice. However, He used fairness and justice to deal with Jesus. Because God is just, He allowed Jesus to be crucified on the cross, because Jesus took the sins of the whole world. Because God is just, He cannot not allow Jesus to be crucified on the cross. So, I tell you, we can never understand God’s love, unless we come to the cross, we will never understand God’s justice unless we come to the cross.

The Story of the Prodigal Son: The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a parable we often hear. We are often moved by the love of the father, so, we are displeased with the older son who refused to go inside the house. We conclude at once that the older son was mistaken. We had never considered that the older son’s anger was justified. The younger son had already taken his share of the inheritance, he squandered away his wealth with drinking and womanizing, he had tasted all the pleasures of life. Now that he is broke, he has nothing to eat, nowhere to live, he comes home and his father doesn’t even rebuke him one word, instead, he kills the fattened calf to celebrate as if nothing had happened. If this happened in your home, your younger brother asked for his share of inheritance and squander it all away, and he returns home and your father brings out the best wine to welcome him, will you rejoice?

What does the word prodigal mean? A pastor preached a message using the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but his title was not the Prodigal Son, instead it was the Prodigal God. This is not being disrespectful of God, because God is truly that extravagant, generous God, he gave away his only son’s life, to die on the cross for you and for me. Do we deserve it? None of us deserves it. Yet, the Lord gave his only son to die on the cross for our sins; He is the prodigal father, and this is called grace.

Jonah’s Story: We are all very familiar with Jonah’s story and we all like Jonah. God wanted him to preach to Nineveh, but he fled to Tarshish. In the end, the Lord used a big fish to bring him to Nineveh. When Jonah preached to Nineveh that the city will be destroyed in 40 days, the whole city repented, from the king to the least. Men and beasts fasted and put on sackcloth. In the end, the Lord turned and did not bring the destruction he had threatened. Jonah became very angry. We would all judge Jonah for daring to be mad at God. Let me ask you, have you ever been angry with God? I am not teaching you to disrespect God, but if you have never argued with God, then your relationship with God lacks intimacy. When you or someone you love encounters suffering, do you ask God why? When you see good people being oppressed and taken advantage of, don’t you ever ask why?

Jonah told God, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah knew his God very well, his relationship with God was very intimate; he knew that once the Ninevites repent, God would forgive them. You may conclude quickly that Jonah has no love. Pardon me for saying this, but if your loved ones, your whole family was killed, the women were all raped, the men were beheaded, the baby were slashed in half with swords, will you not cry out for justice?. Will you not demand justice from God? But then, if the man who did this crime asks the Lord, `Lord I have done wrong, please forgive me’ and God said, `Yes, I forgive you.’ Will you be happy? Nineveh is Babylon’s big city. Babylon did this exact thing to the Israelites. They raped all their women, they beheaded all the men, and slashed open the stomach of all the babies. Thus, the prophet sought justice from God, he did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew God will be gracious with those who repent. We are all sinners indeed, for we always want God to deal with those who hurt us with justice, but we want Him to deal with us in grace.

Do you want God to deal with you with grace or fairness? Of course, you want God to deal with you in grace. Psalm 130:3 “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” No one can stand before God. How about you? Do you treat those who have offended you with grace or fairness? I believe you all understand what I am saying. All of us humans are very unfair. We want God to deal with us in grace and our enemies with justice. But the Lord is reminding us, He wants us to treat others as He had treated us – “I have treated you with grace, so treat others with grace”. But then you ask, `What about justice?’ Leave justice to God, for the Lord said, “ Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

February 7, 2010