Matthew 20:1-19 (AD 30)
‘Do you feel ignored by your network operator? Do they only chase after new business? Do they even care about you? Come to us and we’ll give discounts to our loyal customers. Come join the XYZ Network family…’ etc…
That’s been a common advertising tack over the years, playing on your natural sense of injustice, and the idea that everyone must receive the same of everything or else life isn’t fair. (Recently, since loyalty became a ‘four letter word’, many have reverted to ads that read more like, ‘Come join us and you can leave again as soon as you like’!)
As ever, the first priority with the parable is to see the context and originally-intended meaning. It comes right after a section where Jesus spoke of salvation as a free gift from God, available to all, and earned by none.
This parable is an illustration of the sovereignty and justice of God in how he generously shows mercy. In the parable, there were those who had worked for twelve hours and those who have worked for one, and each receives the same pay. Why did the workers hired at six a.m. go so readily for a single denarius? Two reasons: 1.) that was average for a day’s unskilled labour, 2.) as later verses show, they had no guarantee that they’d be hired that day, so would jump at the first offer.
At the point of being hired, those workers were certain of the justice of their employer as regards their wages, and grateful they’d have the money to feed their family the next day…until the guys who’d worked an hour received a full day’s wage. How much – the all-day workers figured – is the owner about to give us if the one-hour guys have received a full day’s pay?
The owner was faithful to his promise to the all-day workers, and astoundingly generous to those who worked for less time. How much more just and merciful is God, showing mercy regardless of how impressive or deserving anyone thinks they are.
But this doesn’t only point out that God will show mercy to whom he will show mercy, and that he doesn’t favour those who have been trained to obey rules. It doesn’t only remind us that however good you’ve been recently, you mustn’t be lured into thinking that God will give or love you more because of it.
It also gives great encouragement to those who wonder whether God could ever love them, or whether perhaps they’ve not done enough to warrant his attention, let alone his love. I’ve counselled far too many people who speak entirely of merely HOPING they’ve done enough that God will be pleased with them.
The worker who was in the field for one twelfth of the day, didn’t earn twelve twelfths of a day’s pay. But we can see that the owner, if he wished to be generous, had every right to give that to him without treating any other worker poorly. How much more right does God have to do the same thing, how much more secure should you feel that God DOES do the same thing – every day.
In salvific terms, no sin you have committed is too big, no period of backsliding is so long, no pattern of giving in to temptation is too set, no rebellious attitude so entrenched, that God will not gladly forgive ALL of it. He will usher you in to the very same paradise in which you will find Paul the Apostle, the prophet Deborah, Mary the mother of Jesus and all the great and the wonderful who have lived and died for Jesus ever since.
It isn’t merely that God can and might show you mercy that you don’t deserve when it LOOKS like others deserve it better, but it delights him to do so. Don’t ever push God away because you think he won’t show the mercy that this parable demonstrates he does.
You might be the worker hired at five p.m. who collects her day’s pay at 6pm. Don’t second-guess the God who behaves like that – just thank him for it and get to work. Your hour’s service will bring you – and God – great joy, and his mercy to you afterwards will be just as sweet.