Our children may all be adults and even with children of their own, but they still take great delight when opening cards together at Christmas to suggest that they have been the recipient of an act of greater generosity than any of the others. “Wow.” cries one when opening a card from an Aunt, “She’s given me £20!”. “£20?” enquires another … “She’s given me £30!”
Human nature loves a generous heart and instinctively warms towards acts of generosity, but less so if those acts of generosity are not directed towards ourselves. Consider how Jonah responds to God’s generosity over Nineveh. The story Jesus tells in Matthew, is one in which conventional thinking and understanding is turned upside down, for it is the account of an act of scandalous generosity, and in that, it is an account that serves to illustrate God’s wonderful heart of love towards both you and me.
As hired labourers, these men were already living at the mercy of chance employment. A day’s lost wages meant empty stomachs for the family at the end of the day and so they would stand in the market place seeking work.
Those who began their work for the landowner at the start of the day and those who were hired soon after, do so under a contract. They know what their reward will be. The world’s system of justice would see that anyone working for less than the full day, have their pay incrementally adjusted downwards, but here, we encounter the heart of the landowner. The days wage would just about cover the cost of a meal for their family so anything less would result in a worried wife and hungry children. The landowner goes way beyond accepted justice and provides them with far more than they were due, and in so doing, reveals the true heart of the men hired at the start of the day. They are not happy at all and let it be known.
They think that they are worth more. ‘Beware when drawn to compare; for it can lead to despair.’
In these few verses, Jesus communicates the compassion and the generosity of God to mankind. The men are rewarded out of the grace of the landowner. They did not deserve to be treated the same, but were none the less. But surely, ‘that’s not fair?’. To arrive at such a statement is, however, to reveal our desire to judge God by our own standards, for the startling truth is that fairness has nothing to do with it. If God was being fair, we would be left in a situation of eternal separation from His presence. We cannot earn what God gives us and we most surely don’t deserve it.
What God gives us is not pay, but a gift. Not a reward, but a grace. A scandalous grace.
The reality is that the life of a disciple of Jesus is spent in an atmosphere of grace from its very start to its finish. All mankind, no matter when they come to God, are equally precious to Him. Peter and Paul both remind us that the Father’s heart is that none should perish and that everyone should live their lives with the knowledge of His love. My cousin came to faith in her early 20’s, lived and walked her life as a disciple of Jesus and died a year later. My mother came to faith in her early 20’s, lived and walked her life as a disciple of Jesus and lived another 60. Their gift is the same. Eternity in the presence of God himself. All service ranks the same with God as it is the heart with which it is undertaken that matters. ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ asks the landowner. Praise God, that He is precisely that.
With the Lord’s Blessing
Rev Dave Clark
Vicar of the Benefice of Upper Wensleydale