Whenever I hear the parable of laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), I automatically jump to the ones who were hired first and who worked all day. Usually, that’s the message I need to hear. I get resentful when I don’t feel like I’ve received what I deserve. (Don’t we all?) As the firstborn son, I was born to be right all the time. I was born to make sure that everything else is fair. I was born to impose my perfect sense of right and wrong onto the world in order that the world might be a better place. What do you mean the late-comers get the same amount as the early-risers? That’s not right!
But today that’s not where my eye fell when I read this passage. Instead, I was drawn to the exchange between the landowner and the last laborers, who were standing idle in the marketplace. He went out at 5:00pm and found still more laborers just standing around. “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” he asked. And they replied, “Because no one has hired us.” Why were they still standing there? And why hadn’t anyone hired them yet?
Preachers like me love to talk about grace and for good reason: it’s what Jesus is all about. We talk about how God loves us unconditionally. We talk about how there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. We preach a gospel of free grace—undeserved, unmerited favor. That is the bedrock upon which my life is built, and I am convinced with every fiber of my being that it is good news for the whole world. But what I so often fail to consider—and what I believe many other preachers forget, too—is that grace might be free, but it isn’t easy to accept.
Human nature is what leads the laborers to stand around in the marketplace idle all day. Why would anyone want to pick us? We’re the scrawny ones. We’re the unkempt ones. We’re the ones who didn’t quite make it here on time—just a little late, but landowners notice things like that. The world tells us that we are the last ones who would ever be picked, and we believe it. What is there within us that would make anyone want to hire us? Another day will pass, and we will again struggle to feed our family.
That’s how it feels to be human. We aren’t worthy. You might not be able to see it, but there’s a whole lot of mess going on inside of me. And that’s true for all of us. We’re not worthy. No one should pick us—certainly not God. And so we stand idle all day because we have convinced ourselves that the landowner would never hire us—that God would never call us into his kingdom.
Grace is free, but it isn’t easy to believe. In the parable, the landowner keeps coming back, hour after hour, to see if there’s anyone else who hasn’t been hired. There’s always room in the vineyard for more laborers—even the measly dregs at the bottom of the barrel. Finally, the last are called, and, when they are paid, they receive the same payment as those who come first. This parable is about the radical, hard-to-accept truth that everyone is invited into the kingdom. Ironically, we are both the first to be hired and the last to be called. We’re both. We can’t believe that the least-deserving would receive as much as those who were hired first, yet we’re also the ones who were called last. Hear God’s gracious invitation. Stop listening to the world, which tells us that only the best get chosen. This isn’t the Olympics or the NBA draft. This isn’t the World Cup’s “Group of Death.” This is God’s vineyard. You don’t have to be good to get in. You’re already in. You just have to hear the owner’s call.