I’ve heard it said that many people know the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ better than they know our national anthem. Isn’t it incredible that a hymn written in the eighteenth century still has such staying power today? And what’s even more incredible is the fact that ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of the most requested hymns at funerals! Why is that incredible? Well, at funerals most people want to talk about how good the dead person was, and how they’re now being rewarded in heaven for the good life they’ve lived.
It’s amazing the lengths to which people will sometimes go to give this impression. The story is told of the children in a prominent family who decided to give their father a book of the family’s history for a birthday present. They commissioned a professional biographer to do the work, carefully warning him of the family's ‘black sheep’ problem - Uncle George, who had been executed in the electric chair.
“I can handle that situation so that there will be no embarrassment”, the biographer assured the children. “I’ll merely say that Uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties and his death came as a real shock”.
Well, that may be a little far-fetched, but I’ve officiated at a lot of funerals over the years, and I can tell you, there’s a lot of creativity that goes on! How strange, then, that people so often want to sing a hymn by John Newton, a converted slave trader. Newton wanted the world to know that he had been an undeserving wretch for the first twenty years of his life, but nevertheless, God had reached out to him and given him a free gift, a gift he did not and could not ever deserve! His life was an illustration of a saying of Jesus’ that is repeated more often than almost any other in the gospels, and is in our Gospel reading for today: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). In other words, don’t think you can predict who will be the first in the Kingdom of God by outward appearances, because this isn’t about human achievement; it’s about God’s free gift.
To illustrate this point, Jesus told the story of the workers in the vineyard. Some of the details in this story seem very strange to us, but in fact this is just the kind of thing that could happen regularly during the grape harvest in Israel. Storms could easily ruin the crop and it was important to get the harvest in as quickly as possible. And so, for a time, anyone who wanted a job could have one. The work was hard; working hours were from dawn to sunset, which in a Mediterranean country means a twelve-hour day. The wage was a standard one, a ‘denarius’ or silver coin. A denarius was the average daily wage for a worker, but it’s important to know that it was also the average cost of daily survival for the masses of poor families in Israel. It didn’t allow any room to manoeuvre; a denarius would buy your family what they needed to stay alive, no more and no less: basic food on the table, but not Shaw cable or Internet service!
During the grape harvest, the day labourers would go to the marketplace and stand around; it was like going to an employment centre in the morning to look for a job for the day. If they were hired, they would work the twelve hours, and then they would be paid at the end of the day so that each man could go home with money to buy food for his family. If a man was unable to find work on a particular day, then his family would not eat. If he found work for only a part of the day, and thus was unable to earn a whole denarius, his family would eat, but not enough to stave off hunger pangs.
Thus far, there are no surprises in Jesus’ story. But now come a couple of unexpected twists, and these are the details that would have stood out for the people who first heard the parable. So let’s spend a few minutes looking at these unexpected features in the story.
First surprise: It was not the custom for the owner of a vineyard to go himself into the marketplace to hire workers. The usual practice would be for the owner to send his manager, or some other employee. In fact later on in the story, when the time comes to pay the workers, we do see the owner working through his manager in this way; if you look in verse 8 we read ‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay”’’. But when it came to the actual hiring, he went out into the marketplace and looked after it himself.
So what we have here is a very unusual boss. He actually cares about the down-and-outs in the marketplace who are desperate to earn a silver coin so that they can feed their families for the day! He cares about them so much that he goes out, not once, but five times during the day to see if there is anyone there, standing around looking for work.
What is this telling us about God? The gospel teaches us that God doesn’t stay far off in heaven, safely insulated from the pain and sin of a broken world. Jesus told us that God is like a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safe in the fold and goes out into the wilds to look for the lost one. And of course in that story Jesus is describing himself. We Christians believe that this is who Jesus is: in him, God has come among us to search for the lost. He cares about every human being in this world, and so he has come among us to live and die so that we can come home to him.
To be frank, this doesn’t fit into some people’s ideas of what God is like. Years ago I had the privilege of knowing Archbishop Ted Scott, who was the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986; I use the word ‘privilege’, because I always found Ted to be a very humble and compassionate and Christlike man; he hated being called ‘Your Grace’ and much preferred people just to call him ‘Ted’! He liked to tell the story of how, when he was a minister in Winnipeg in the late 1940s, he helped to fill sandbags during a major flood. Someone recognised him working there, came up to him and said “You don’t look like a minister today!” To which Ted replied with the crucial question: “So what does a minister look like?”
And this of course is the problem a lot of the Jewish people had with Jesus. He didn’t look like God; he looked like an ordinary wandering preacher who spent time with the wrong people. But if they had come to him and said “You don’t look like God today!” I wonder if he would have replied, “What does God look like?” Maybe it’s our image of God that is wrong. Maybe we’ve pictured him too far away and have never imagined him getting involved in the dirt and pain of everyday life. If he’s like the vineyard owner in Jesus’ story, then he certainly does get involved in it. That’s the first surprise.
Here’s the second surprise: Everyone, even the latecomers, gets a full day’s pay. Of course, that was what the contract said. They’d all agreed to work for a denarius. But when the ones who had worked all day long saw the eleventh-hour types getting a denarius, they naturally thought that they themselves would get a lot more. After all, they’d worked twelve times longer!
We can certainly sympathise with their thinking. In fact, a few years ago there was a very similar story in the news in Canada. A lawyer who divorced his wife had agreed to a certain level of child support for each of his two children. However, he had then gone on to become extremely wealthy, to the point that he could well afford to give much more than the legal agreement specified. He refused to do so; he argued that he was not breaking the law, he was giving exactly what he had agreed to give, and they should be satisfied with that. But we might well agree with his ex-wife and children when they argued that a man making over a million dollars a year ought to give a lot more than he had originally agreed to. And that’s the situation these workers were in. Of course the owner had a contract with them for a denarius a day, but surely if he was going to give the latecomers the same wage, then he was morally obligated to give them a lot more, wasn’t he?
Their problem was that they understood the money as a wage, and it makes sense that they would see it that way. But consider this: is a landowner who gives a full day’s pay to someone who has only worked for one hour paying a wage? Of course not: he’s giving a gift. Paying them all at prime rate was not an economic decision; it was an act of grace: amazing grace.
And it’s the same with our place in the Kingdom of God. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God today, not because of anything good we have done, but because of God’s free gift of grace to us. It was secured for us long before we were born, when Jesus gave his life on the cross for our sins. What he did there for us was a perfect work, to which nothing needs to be added. We don’t have to earn it; in fact, nothing I could do in my entire life would ever be enough to earn it.
John Newton understood this; that’s why he wrote that first line, ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’. A man who uses the word ‘wretch’ to describe himself obviously doesn’t buy into the idea that we’re all basically wonderful people who just need a little more education before we get all the problems of the world sorted out. No; he understood that there’s a basic flaw in human nature; ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, as Paul puts it in Romans 3:23. This sin is not primarily about sex or drugs or stealing or cursing; it’s about selfishness and self-centredness. In the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘i’ in the centre of it, and when I put myself at the centre of the universe, then I am living a wretchedly sinful life.
But we don’t like to face that fact about ourselves. I’m sure that the people in the religious establishment who first heard Jesus tell this story were quite sure that they were the labourers who had started work at six in the morning; they weren’t the shirkers who only worked an hour. They had earned God’s love by their years of keeping commandments; God owed it to them to give them the best seats in the kingdom.
They needed to have their eyes opened to the reality of the situation. In verse 15 the landowner asks these workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the original language, the words are “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” This is the real problem: a flawed vision. We think the world is divided into good people and bad people; the good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell. Jesus thinks that the world is made up of sinners who all need to be forgiven and loved; there’s no room for me to point a finger at someone else, because I’ve got plenty of faults of my own to worry about.
So let’s get out of our minds the whole concept of what we deserve; the kingdom of God does not operate on that basis. C.S. Lewis once received a letter from someone who was complaining about an evil act that had been done to them, and was praying that God would give the perpetrator ‘his just deserts’. Lewis replied gently “I would rather pray for God’s mercy than God’s justice - for my enemies, my friends, but most of all for myself”.
The good news is that God doesn’t give us what we deserve - he gives us what we need, whether we deserve it or not. And that’s the whole point of the fact that every worker was given a denarius. As we said, a denarius was what a family needed in order to survive. Those who had worked only for an hour may not have deserved a denarius, but if they didn’t get it, their families would go hungry that night. So the owner gave them what they needed. And that’s what God has done for us in Jesus. That’s the wonder of the gospel: I may be a wretch, but God’s amazing grace has saved a wretch like me. I may be a sinner but, as the letter to Timothy says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s good news; it means we all qualify.
In the first half of the twentieth century a Christian worker called Sister Doreen Gemmel worked for many years in central London among the prostitutes. When the respectable people in the London churches asked her how she could do it, she always replied “I keep reminding myself of this one truth: the ground is level at the foot of the Cross”. In other words, none of us comes to Jesus at a higher level than anyone else. At the end of the day - at the end of every day - all I can do is come to him with the words of the confession: “I have not loved you with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbour as myself”. The miracle is that when we come to him day by day, asking for mercy, forgiveness and grace, we receive it - over and over and over again.
But the catch is that we all receive it in exactly the same way - not because we’ve earned it, but because of God’s generous love. ‘The first shall be last, and the last first’. The ones who you think would deserve more end up receiving exactly the same gift as the ragamuffins and scumbags who sincerely cry out to God for his mercy and grace, because God has the generosity to give us, not what we deserve but what we need. That’s what grace is all about. And I, for one, am very thankful for it.