Parables studied are:
The Laborers in God's Vineyard
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The Weeds Among the Wheat
The Ten Pounds
Dives and Lazarus
The Unmerciful Servant
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Jesus' Parables of Life
By James W. Moore
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Laborers in God's Vineyard: God Is Generous, and He Wants Us to Be Generous
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Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Over and over again, Jesus liked to drive home a significant point by using the technique of contrast. Let me show you what I mean.
For example, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the gracious love of the forgiving father is seen all the more powerfully as it is contrasted with the rigid, unbending bitterness of the elder brother.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14), the genuine humility of the publican is underscored more dramatically as it is set alongside the self-righteous arrogance of the proud Pharisee.
Also, the terrible plight of the poor man Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is shown even more graphically as his situation is compared to that of the indulgent, rich man who is commonly known as Dives.
In chapter 20 of Matthew we see it again, a fascinating contrast of personalities: the gracious and generous householder, over against the angry, resentful day laborers. But wait a minute; we are getting ahead of ourselves. The truth is that this parable is very perplexing and troublesome to many people, especially at first reading, and they (like the angry day laborers) cry out, "Unfair! Unfair!" Well, let's remember the parable together, and then let me give you a couple of keys that I think will unlock this story and enable us to learn the important truth Jesus intended to communicate through it.
The parable actually describes fairly well the kind of thing that happened each September in first-century Palestine. The grape harvest ripened toward the end of September, followed closely by the rainy season. It was urgent to get the grapes in before the rains came or else there would be extensive damage to the crop, and a big financial loss. More often than not, it was a frantic race against time. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour or so to the job.
Since this work was obviously seasonal, the householder did not have a regular crew of workers on hand to harvest the grapes. Rather, at just the right moment, he would go into the marketplace to find workers he could hire for the day to bring in the crop. In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay describes it like this:
The men who were standing in the marketplace were not street-corner idlers lazing away their time. In Palestine, the marketplace was the equivalent of the labor exchange. A man came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and he waited until someone came and hired him. The men who stood in the marketplace were not gossiping idlers; they were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them stood on until even five o'clock in the evening is the proof of how desperately they wanted work.... With them, to be unemployed for a day was a disaster. (William Barclay, ed. The Daily Study Bible; The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, pp. 245-46)
Now, the going rate for this kind of day labor was a denarius. That was not much money—about twenty cents in silver. Not much, but enough to buy food for your family for the night. Any less than that wouldn't do much good. Today, it would be like going grocery shopping with a dollar; you just can't feed your family for that. Why, I went to the supermarket the other day, got to the checkout counter, and discovered that I had bought $87 worth of stuff and still had nothing to eat! If a worker back then went home with less than a denarius, he would have a worried wife and hungry children. And the householder in this parable knew that!
The story begins as the householder senses that the harvesttime is at hand, and so he goes out early in the morning to hire workers. The workers agree to work for him that day for a denarius (the usual rate), and he sends them to the vineyard. Later that morning (about 9:00 A.M.) he realizes that more workers are needed. So he finds some more hands and sends them to work also, promising to pay them what is right. Twice more (at noon and at 3:00 P.M.) he does this. Throughout the day, he continues to put more and more workers in the vineyard to gather the grapes. It's getting more urgent now. The daylight hours are slipping away so quickly. It's urgent to get the crop in and get it in rapidly.
Still later, very late in the workday at "the eleventh hour," which means about 5:00 P.M., he gets desperate. Maybe he sees a cloud on the horizon; maybe it's a Friday and all work will soon have to stop for the Sabbath. Whatever the case, he knows that every second is precious now, every worker he can get is needed and time is a-wasting. So even at this late hour, he sends even more workers into the vineyard to help complete the harvest.
Finally, at the end of the day, he pays all the workers a full day's wage, a denarius. Those who had come early in the day are upset by this—irate, indignant, resentful. They march on the householder's house, chanting, "Unfair! Unfair!" And strangely at this point, the story reminds us of something we have heard before. Doesn't this sound like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who so bitterly resents his father's gracious treatment of the returning younger brother? He too shouts, "Unfair!" It's the same kind of situation, isn't it? "Unfair!" they cry.
But the householder responds to the workers who had been there from the beginning of the workday: "My friends, I did you no wrong. I paid you what we agreed upon. I gave you the fair going rate. Am I not allowed to be gracious to these others? I don't want their families to go hungry tonight. Do you? Do you really want to begrudge my generosity?"
Isn't this a great story? Perplexing at first; troublesome to many. But there are two significant keys here, two significant verses that unlock its great truth.
The first key is found in verse 1, indeed in the first seven words: "For the kingdom of heaven is like ..." That's the clue. That's the key. You see, this story is not about labor relations, or fairness in the marketplace; it's about God and his kingdom! In this parable, Jesus is telling both his listeners and us that God's kingdom is not about laws and merit and earnings and privileges and benefits. No! It's about grace and acceptance and inclusiveness. It's about unconditional love. Whosoever will may come—even those who arrive late!
Now, let me bring this closer to home. Let me give you another hint: If you want to understand this parable better, just take it out of the setting of the vineyard, and apply it to the church. It means that those who join the church today are just as valid members, just as special, just as precious to God as those who joined forty years ago. And those who joined forty years ago will be the first ones to welcome them and accept them and include them, and to show them God's grace. "For the kingdom of heaven is like ..." Those are the key words, because they remind us that this is not a story about today's workplace. It's a story about God and his kingdom, a story about God and his grace.
The second key that unlocks the story is in verse 15, where the householder says this: "Do you begrudge my generosity?" (RSV). Here is the point of the parable: God is gracious, kind, compassionate, and generous, and he wants us to be that way too. He wants us to imitate his caring, loving ways.
The Gospels make it clear: The people who get cut off from God are those who begrudge God's generosity. The elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son missed the party. Why? Because he begrudged his father's generosity. The religious leaders of the first century got aggravated and outdone with Jesus. Why? Because he spent so much time with the outcasts of society. They begrudged his generosity.
You know, we have misnamed this parable in Matthew 20:1-16. We call it the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, but Joachim Jeremias, who has written the classic book on the parables of Jesus, calls this story "The Parable of the Good Employer," and he is right. The star of this parable is God, not the laborers.
Now, what does this mean to you and me right now? What can we learn here for the practical living of these days? Perhaps this.
First of All, We See That There Is No Place in God's Kingdom for Resentment
When will we ever learn? Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus warns us to beware of the resentful spirit. The workers in Matthew 20 are resentful and bitter over the good fortune of others, and bitterness and resentment like that just don't belong in God's kingdom. Frederick Buechner put it like this when he described the different kinds of love:
The love for equals is a human thing ... of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing ... the love for those who suffer.... This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing ... to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice.... The world is bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy ... love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain.... This is God's love. It conquers the World. (The Magnificent Defeat, New York: Seabury Press, p. 105)
It is love that is characteristic of God's kingdom—not resentment. There is no place in God's kingdom for resentment.
Second, There Is No Place in God's Kingdom for Selfishness
If the angry workers in Matthew 20 were upset about the kindness and generosity the householder was showing to the latecomers, they were even more concerned about the extra rewards and benefits they thought they should be getting themselves. That kind of selfishness is not a pretty picture.
One of Aesop's fables shows how costly selfishness can be. It's the story about a dog that is given a large, delicious bone by a neighbor one day. On his way home, the dog holds the bone firmly in his teeth while he crosses a bridge over a river. Looking down into the river, the dog sees his own reflection in the water, and he thinks it is another dog with a bone that is larger than the one given to him. He leans over and snaps at the dog that he sees in the river, and, of course, as he does, he drops the bone that he is carrying into the river below, and he goes home empty-handed and hungry.
That's what selfishness does to us, and that kind of greedy attitude has no place in God's kingdom.
Finally, There Is No Place in God's Kingdom for Arrogance
Arrogantly, the day laborers marched on the householder. They fussed at him, criticized him, berated him, challenged his goodness, and begrudged his generosity. That kind of self-righteous, haughty attitude doesn't fit in God's kingdom.
Excerpted from Jesus' Parables of Life by James W. Moore Copyright © 2005 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsINTRODUCTION Jesus' Parables of Life,
1. THE LABORERS IN GOD'S VINEYARD God Is Generous, and He Wants Us to Be Generous,
2. THE PHARISEE AND THE PUBLICAN Plugging into the Power Source,
3. THE WEEDS AMONG THE WHEAT Watch Those Overreactions!,
4. THE TEN POUNDS Use It or Lose It,
5. DIVES AND LAZARUS The Only Thing More Costly Than Caring Is Not Caring,
6. THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT Lord, Help Me Forgive,
STUDY GUIDE by John D. Schroeder,