The Scandal of Grace

Matthew 20:1-16

October 10, 1999 | Brian Bill

In this series, we’ve been learning about the topic of grace.  As we look at how Jesus dealt with people and at some of His parables, we’re discovering that these “Grace Encounters” radically changed people’s lives 2,000 years ago – and can change ours as well.

Two weeks ago we discovered from Jesus’ interaction with children that grace is granted to us in spite of what we do, or even who we are.  And, just as Jesus was gracious toward children, so too, we’re to let them come, we’re to learn from them, and we’re to love them.

Last week we established that 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.

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Its been said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace.  And that is certainly true.  But, even so, grace is not well understood and often not really believed.  We use the word a great deal but rarely think about what it means.

In his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” Phillip Yancey points out that 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?  Fear not.  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.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers

This morning 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.

We’re going to do something a little different during the first part of this message.  The parable is going to appear on the screen behind me in different segments.  We’re going to read the passage out loud together.  I’ll then make some comments and offer some observations that will help us interpret this story.  When we’re finished, I’ll conclude with some application points.

Incidentally, what we’re going to do this morning is a good method for studying the Bible on your own.  Start with reading the passage.  Then make some observations.  Next, try to interpret the passage by asking, “What does this mean?”  Finally, move to application, “What does this mean to me?”

Let’s begin by reading Matthew 20:1-2 together.  “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 near the bottom of the social-economic scale.  In fact, many lived at a level not far above beggars.  They worked 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 hiring.  

Working in a vineyard was not easy work.  At harvest time, which was about this time of the year in Palestine, the grapes had to be picked, often in temperatures of 100 degrees or more.  Just as the corn and soybeans in our area have to be harvested when the weather is good, so too, 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.  This was 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 $50.

Now, this particular landowner’s property obviously was large, and so he needed more laborers to get the job done.   Let’s 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 denote laziness, but rather, unemployment.  That’s what they did until someone came to hire them.  This pattern continued for the hirings 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 the 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.

The Owner Pays the Workers

Let’s read 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 50 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. 

The Workers Complain

In verses 11-12, we see that the attitudes of the workers head south.  Let’s read it together: “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.

The Owner Responds

Verses 13-15 give us the owner’s response.  Let’s read it together: “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 word 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 of 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 50 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.  Let’s read it, “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 economy, things are often just the opposite of what we expect.

Grace is not the way we normally do things

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.  I see at least 4 application areas.

1. Grace reminds us that God’s favor is a gift. 

Remember the “problem” in this text.  It is not the injustice of a mean and cruel landowner. The problem is the scandal of a gracious and loving farmer.   Verse 15 asks the question, “Are you envious because I am generous?”   One of the most harmful sins that we can commit as God’s children is the taking of God’s grace for granted.

One pastor puts it this way:  “The charge of unfairness was not grounded in a love for justice but in the selfish assumption that the extra pay they wanted, was pay they deserved.” 

It’s so easy to take grace for granted.  This past Friday I played basketball at the Armory during my lunch hour.  I was guarding a guy who went out to the top of the key and took a hook shot.  Unbelievably, it went in!  As he was clapping his hands and strutting around, I went up to him and said, “You know, there’s a term in the Bible that explains what just happened here.  That shot was grace.”  He laughed.  The next time he got the ball he went even further from the basket and attempted another hook shot.  This one missed badly (probably because of my tenacious defense).  This time I said, “You pushed grace a bit far that time.  Because it’s a gift – you shouldn’t expect it each time you shoot.”  

After a time we come to demand grace just like the workers of this parable.  Verse 10 says that they expected to receive more.  In the kingdom of God, there is no such thing as merit!  God’s grace is granted according to His good pleasure.  

I’ve discovered that there was another parable that made the rounds during the time of Jesus.  In this version, the workers who came last worked so hard they produced more than all the others put together.  They earned the salary they got.  That makes more sense to us capitalistic Americans, doesn’t it?  But, that’s not the story Jesus told – everyone got the same, no matter how much they produced.

God dispenses gifts, not wages

Many of us identify with the employees who put in a full day’s work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day.  We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers and the employer’s strange behavior baffles us.  But, let’s not miss the point of the story: God dispenses gifts, not wages.

If it’s a wage that we want from God, the Bible says that our salary is already figured out for us.  If we want to be rewarded for our merit, if we want to be compensated for our work, then Romans 6:23 spells out how we will be paid: “For the wages of sin is death…” But, if we want to receive what God wants to freely give us, then the last part of this verse offers us something far better then just compensation: “but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God’s favor is a gift.  Let me mention two truths that can radically transform your thinking and your way of living.  Here they are:

  • There is nothing you can do to make God love you more.
  • There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.

Like a gift, the only thing we can do with grace…is to receive it.

2. Grace keeps us from looking down on ourselves. 

How many of you have ever struggled with feelings of incompetence?  Have you ever experienced discontentment?  Ever wished for a greater gift or a more important ministry?  Have you ever felt inferior to others in the church and thus less important?  

Think with me for a minute about those who were not hired until 5:00 p.m.  They watched and waited while the other workers were hired.  They knew that they would probably not get paid that day – and that they probably wouldn’t be able to buy any food for dinner that night.  All day long they were passed over – like a little boy chosen last for kick ball.

But, this story shows us the Lord’s passion for the forgotten.  Usually the best and strongest were the first picked.  These workers were the leftovers – the least skilled.  Who in their right mind would pick them?  

These workers really represent each one of us.  When you think about it, what do we have to offer the Lord?  Does He need our intellect?  Our strength?  Our money?  Our good deeds?  No. 

Let our confidence and joy in this life be based not on what we have or do not have – or on what we do, or don’t do.  Rather our confidence is on WHO we have!  For on the last day, when we stand before our Savior there will be no distinctions between preachers and taxi drivers.  

No one is worthier than another to receive salvation because we’re all unworthy.  Not worthless, but unworthy.

3. Grace makes us equal to everyone else. 

The workers’ complaint in verse 12 fascinates me, “You have made them equal to us.”  The all-day workers don’t complain about their wages because they knew their pay was generous.  They’re upset because they wanted to be superior.

The word “grumble” is in the imperfect tense, which means that they complained not just once, but were in a constant state of grumbling.   This helps us see what kind of workers they really were.  They didn’t say, “You have put us on a par with the late-comers,” Instead, they grumbled, “you have put them on a par with us.”  

In other words, they were not only dissatisfied with what they themselves had received; they were also envious of what had been given to the others.  They emphasize that they bore the burden of the work in the sweltering heat of the day.  Compared to these upstarts, who only worked an hour, these workers thought they were worth a lot more.

There’s a part of us that wants God to give us grades so that we can compare ourselves with other people.  And if the truth were known, many of us think God has given us an “A” while others are barely passing the class.  Do you put yourself above other people?  

I want you to notice a tragic chain of events that took place in the hearts of these workers.  They started by comparing themselves with others.  This then led to coveting, which led to complaining, which led ultimately to criticizing.   Do you struggle with coveting, complaining and criticizing?  If so, stop comparing yourself with others.  God declares that in the economy of grace, we are all equal.

Romans 12:3 challenges us to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to.  Friends, let’s stop being so hard on other people.  Stop looking for things that don’t seem fair.  Refuse to criticize.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  We want grace for ourselves, but we don’t always give it to others.  Grace applied to us always seems good and nice and right but grace given to others frankly disturbs us.

Be gracious with others.  Cut them some slack.  Your sin doesn’t smell any better than mine does.  It really doesn’t.  Let’s treat people the way we want to be treated because grace makes us equal to everyone else.

4. Grace offers us a fresh start. 

The Christian life is really a series of new beginnings.  That’s what grace is all about.  No one is first, and no one is last.  I’m not better than you and you’re no better than me.  You’re no worse than I am and I’m no worse than you are.  We’re all covered by the grace of Christ.  

That’s why I think Jesus used such radical language in verse 16 about the first and the last.  Notice what He said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  But I also want you to look at what He said in the last verse of chapter 19, in the verse immediately preceding this parable: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

He changes the order, doesn’t He?  The first and the lasts, lasts and firsts all blur together.  It’s as if Jesus is trying to make the point that first and last don’t matter any more in the kingdom of God.  Grace is not about finishing first.  It is not about finishing last.  It’s about not counting at all.  It’s about not keeping score.  It’s about having a do-over, a fresh start – whenever you want it.

Do you want a fresh start today?  Do you need a new beginning?  You can have one!

How do you find God’s grace?  Just ask for it.  That’s all.  It’s really that simple.  The more you feel your need for grace, the better candidate you are to receive it.  Hold out your empty hands and ask God for His grace.  You will not be turned away.  It’s never too late.  Though your sins are as scarlet, God says they will be white as snow.

This is the miracle, the wonder, the scandal, and the shock of God’s grace.  It truly is “out of this world” for no one in this world would have thought of something like this.

Here is good news for sinners. Free Grace!  Free Grace!  Free Grace!   Shout it, sing it, tell it, and share it.  And above all else, believe it, for in believing, you will be saved.

When we get to heaven, there will be no contest to see who was the most deserving of God’s grace because no one deserves it.  There will only be one contest in heaven.  When we look back and see what we were before, when we see the pit from which he rescued us, when we recall how confused we were, when we remember how God reached out and hired us into His family, and how he held us in his hand, and when we see Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us, the only contest will be to see which of us will sing the loudest, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?