Scandalous Grace (Sermon)

“Scandalous Grace”

Matthew 20:1-16

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’

7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8When 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.’

9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’

13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)

         Over the last few weeks, the Old Testament passages in the lectionary come from the book of Exodus. And homiletics professor Charles Campbell notes how well they complement the New Testament passages.1 Exodus is the story of God creating Israel, a brand-new community, according to a spiritual, social, economic, and political ethic that differs wildly from the surrounding culture.

God establishes Israel not for her own sake. “I will make of you a great nation,” God tells Abram, “and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2 and 3) Unlike its neighbors, this new, blessed to be a blessing nation will linger through the ages not because of glorious cities and powerful armies. This nation-within-the-nations identifies itself by welcoming the stranger, caring for widows and orphans, doing justice, seeking righteousness. And all of these defining characteristics derive from and proclaim Israel’s monotheistic theology, their signature innovation, their belief in and faithfulness to one God who created all things and whose presence is manifest in all that God created and continues to create.

         In the experience of the Exodus, and in the giving of the Mosaic law, we see only the preliminary markings of the foundation for Israel. While under construction, the Hebrews learn to trust and follow Yahweh—no matter where they are, no matter their joys or sufferings. And when the people do suffer, God sends prophets to tell them that to be restored, return to the ethic of love. Care for those who can’t care for themselves. Work for and demand justice from kings and nations. Demonstrate that justice with lives of humility, gratitude, and generosity.

Faithfulness to God proves to be complicated business. And many generations into Israel’s existence, when she’s barely a toddler, God, through Isaiah, will say, I understand how difficult this is for you, but remember, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my” thoughts and ways higher than yours. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

When Jesus shows up, he reminds us that God’s creation of the new community continues to be a work in progress. With one disruptive teaching after another, Jesus pushes the spiritual, social, economic, and political ethics of the faith to a whole new level, one that reveals that God is, quite frankly, not entirely fair. And yet it’s God’s lack of fairness that reveals God’s unfathomable grace.

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, those who worked only the last hour receive the same pay as those who worked all day. And like the liberated Hebrews grumbling in the wilderness, those who worked all day grumble at the vineyard owner’s inequitable generosity. Their response reveals the limits of the human heart when confronted with pure grace: “…these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

         It seems to me that the grumbling of the workers sums up human sin. We have always been obsessed with measuring the value of fellow human beings and of God’s good Creation as a whole, over against the value we place on ourselves or our groups. And while it is harmful to under-value ourselves relative to others, our principal struggle is under-valuing people who are not like us. So, to hear someone imply, much less say outright, that I must accept those people as equal to me and my group can be as perplexing and offensive as the Hebrews’ suggestion that one God, their God, created and watches over all the earth.

In nations around the globe today, we’re seeing, hearing, and feeling the storms created when the anguish of people crying out to be recognized as fully human meets the grumblings of those who don’t understand, and who feel threatened by cries for equality and justice.

I feel the anger and grief of those whose humanity has been ignored and attacked for centuries. And I stand with them because they are children of God whose very lives bear the imprint of the Creator. I am no more valuable than a black man or woman languishing in poverty in a housing project in Baltimore or Detroit, or locked up in prison. Their lives matters as much as mine, and when I act as if they don’t, I’m a worker grumbling at the end of the day because I don’t want to imagine them deserving equality with me. But when I’m honest, I have to admit that because of the skin, family, and culture into which I was born, I received more than a day’s wage before I even showed up! So, when I grumble, my own condemnation lies in my grumbling. When I grumble, I reject the grace of God who chooses freely and without my permission to love and live in all that God has created. At that point God says to me, Allen, “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Having said all that, I also feel anger and grief when cries for equality and justice turn violent. Violence redeems nothing. That’s the very point of the cross in the Christian faith. Much Christian theology claims that God was so angry and grieved at human sin that if there were to be a heaven at all, there had to be hell to pay. Someone had to die. So, God kills Jesus to satisfy God’s fury and to restore God’s ability to love.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Any god who requires violent human suffering to be restored to wholeness is a golden calf, and idol made in our image. The cross does not reveal God’s wrath in the face of human sin. The cross reveals human frailty when it meets the height, and depth, and breadth of God’s grace. God did not demand Jesus’ death. We did. We killed Jesus because he was just too good to be true, because he loved beyond the strict boundaries set by the Mosaic law, because he offered a full day’s wage to last-hour hires. And because God’s grace has no end, even our brutal, reactionary violence against God Incarnate, does not condemn us forever. Friday is not the last word. Sunday is. Sunday is also the first word of new beginnings. It’s the laying of new foundations.

  “If I were to name the Christian religion,” says Richard Rohr, “I would probably call it ‘The Way of the Wound.’ Jesus agrees to be the Wounded One, and we Christians…come to God not through our strength but through our weakness.”2

The parable of the workers in the vineyard proclaims God’s incomprehensible grace. And in doing so, it exposes human weakness. It exposes our selfishness, greed, and self-consuming appetite to see ourselves as superior to others. And even that is grace because before grace saves us, it scandalizes us into wakefulness. Before grace can make a difference in the lives we live, we have to admit our aversion to grace. We must confess our materialistic religion of individualism and merit, and the various supremacies to which that religion leads. Only when we surrender to the scandal of grace do we begin to recognize and celebrate God’s eternal love for all people and all things.

I love all of you the same, says Jesus. It grieves me if that makes you jealous, but there’s no first or last. There’s no black or white, rich or poor, male or female. So, receive what I give you, what belongs to you by grace alone. Receive my love, receive it for others as well as for yourselves.

Then go; share it. Only by giving it away–especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it­–will you ever understand that there is enough for all.

1Charles Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 93-97.


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