A Thirteenth Question

My church is doing a sermon series on “God’s Questions” — twelve different questions that God asks humans throughout scripture. So far, it’s a really interesting series, and has really gotten me thinking. Today I’d like to think about a thirteenth question, one not included in the scheduled sermon series.

The passage is long, so bear with me:

Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It’s kind of cheating, because it’s two questions, but I have three observations about the parable and the questions.

(1) God doesn’t act like we think he ought to.

Interestingly, all of the workers in the parable think they know how the landlord is going to act — the all-day workers as well as the latecomers. And they’re all surprised.

(2) God is more generous than we are.

Over and over in Jesus’ parables, we are surprised by the way God works. And when God surprises us, it’s pretty much always because he’s more generous than we are.

He welcomes the Prodigal Son with open arms. He leaves the 99 sheep at home and searches for the one who’s lost. When he throws a banquet, he invites the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

We try to figure God out, but as soon as we draw boundaries around him, he breaks out of those boundaries. And when he does so, it’s pretty much always to include the people we would exclude, or to offer compassion to people we would ignore. His grace isn’t just bigger and wider than ours — it’s bigger and wider than we think it ought to be.

(3) God doesn’t explain himself

This is what I find most frustrating about the parable. As someone who struggles to understand God’s will, I really think the parable ought to end with an explanation. Why does he choose to pay the latecomers a full day’s wage? Does he think they deserve it? I’d like an explanation that would help me understand God’s thinking, or figure out how to apply his mindset to other circumstances. But instead of an explanation, we get the question, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

At its heart, this is a parable about the sovereignty of God. God’s resources are his own, and he can do with them as he chooses, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. And he doesn’t owe us an explanation. Understanding him would gives us a feeling of control over the situation, and this parable doesn’t give us that option. It leaves God in control, not us.

Did I say I had three reflections? Sorry; I’ve got a fourth one:

(4) An economics of abundance, not scarcity.

The science of economics is based on scarcity of resources: more for you means less for me. This kind of thinking is hard-wired into our brains. But the economics of grace isn’t based on scarcity. God’s resources are not limited. More grace for the latecomers does not mean less grace for the early.

I think God wants us to unclench our grasping fingers and let go of our jealousy. “Are you envious because I am generous? he asks. How often does God need to ask that question of us? How often do we resist God’s generosity to people we don’t approve of? How often do we feel possessive of God’s grace?

God refuses to be controlled, and he refuses to be limited by our understanding of how he should act. He’s unpredictable. And this parable reminds us that, as uncomfortable as that makes us, that’s good news.

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