Weekly Reflections and Questions
The whole issue here is fairness. The owner and the workers had an agreement (Greek word symphoneo). The first workers were to be paid what was fair—a day’s wage (a denarius). The owner promises to pay the others hired “whatever is right” (20:4). To the surprise of all, they are also paid a denarius.
Is this fair? The first hired don’t think so. The owner responds to their complaint: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (A more literal translation would be, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” 20:15)
The generosity of the landowner goes against what is seen to be fair. Similarly, God insists on acting out of grace. Fair or not, God gives all things freely. The words beginning and ending this parable challenge disciples of every age. In God’s kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first … last.” (19:30,20:16)
The Greek word for “friend” used in the parable (20:13) is only used three times in the New Testament – all in the Gospel of Matthew. In the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), the king uses this word to address the man without the proper wedding garment.
The other occurrence is found in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus addresses Judas as he betrays him (Matthew 26:50). In all three, the word suggests a relationship in which the hearer has very nearly offended or scorned the speaker. (Translating the word, “Look, pal,” might more aptly convey the tone of the word.)
As the first laborers grumble about the unfairness of their employer, the landowner reminds them, “Look, pal, I agreed to pay you a denarius, and that’s what you were paid.” The challenge for the workers who endured the day’s labor is the owner’s seemingly unfair generosity.
Jesus begins this parable, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner. . .” Take a moment to ponder the kingdom of heaven.
The following is a true story. A campus pastor was teaching a college course on the life and teachings of Jesus. As the date for the final exam approached, the class spent several hours reviewing the material. Some students requested extra individualized time with the pastor. Other students met in peer study groups, cramming for the test. One student, realizing she had to be gone the day of the exam, arranged for a make-up exam, only to be told that the make-up test would be much more difficult.
The day of the exam arrived; students sleepily filed into the room, obviously tired from a night of little sleep and lots of study. The campus pastor walked in, looking very serious. “Before we begin, I would like to read a passage from the Gospel of Matthew.” The parable of the laborers in the vineyard was read. The pastor closed the Bible and said, “This reading says that it’s all a gift – it’s all grace. So you’ve all made an A on your exam, and you’re free to go.”
The students sat, stunned, for a moment; and then something unexpected began to happen. A murmur arose from the class – a murmur of discontent. “You mean we studied all this time for nothing, and those who didn’t study or even show up today get an A too? You’ve got to be kidding! It’s just not fair!” Our whole working lives are based on an agreement that offers fair wage—we do something in order to get something. In the world of work there is no such thing as a free lunch.
It’s no wonder we struggle with God’s grace. Without counting the cost, God continues to give unmerited love. There is something inherently unfair in the whole idea of grace. Is it fair that, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”? Is it fair that the gift is for all of us, active members, attending every workday at the church, every worship service, and also for those of us who may be inactive members, seekers, or “back-sliders”? Remarkably–for us, for all of us, “God so loved the world….”
It’s just not fair, this grace upon grace. It’s just not fair, and thank God it’s not!
1. Was the land owner fair?
2. Was he required to be fair?
3. If God was fair and gave each person what he or she deserved, what would that mean for you?
4. Complete this sentence: “For the kingdom of heaven is like…””
5. How do you explain grace to another person?
1. What in this parable do you find challenging as disciple of Jesus?
2. How might you extend grace in the coming week?
Paul writes from prison to the congregation in Philippi with words overflowing with love, support, and encouragement. The purpose of the letter is to provide the Philippians an update on his current situation and to offer advice about putting faith into daily practice. Paul is uncertain if his imprisonment will lead to his death. It is possible this letter will be his final correspondence.
Years earlier, Paul had stopped in Philippi on one of his missionary trips. There he had met Lydia, a believer. By the time he left their thriving community, there were other believers as well. This faith community founded by Paul was rooted in Christ. This partnership between the congregation in Philippi and Paul continued over the years through prayer, financial support, correspondence and occasional visits, primarily from someone from Philippi visiting Paul.
Memories of the Philippians bring Paul joy and sustain him during the uncertainty of prison life. He prays with thanksgiving for this congregation constantly. Although uncertain about his future, whether he will stay imprisoned, be set free, or be killed, it helps knowing the Philippians are praying for him and offering support. What a gift this congregation is to Paul.
Paul recognizes Christ uses him in every situation—even in prison. Paul does not invest his own valuable time and energy worrying about things beyond his control, but offers his words and life as a daily witness to Christ. His words are clear, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 NRSV)
In Philippians 1:27 Paul shifts his focus to the Philippians. He invites and encourages them with these words, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. . .” Paul knows it is not easy to follow Christ, and life can be challenging. His words written from prison carry significance and ring loudly. In all circumstances, live a life worthy of Christ. That is the goal. It takes daily practice to live a consistent life based on Christ.
It is not just preachers who have the opportunity to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. In Philippians, Paul reminds us of the powerful witness of a person who lives a life consistent with Christ – in good times and bad. Paul invites each of us to shape our lives around Christ, so that whether we live or die, we belong to Christ.
Paul’s witness and words serve as a gentle challenge and commission for any who hope to follow Christ. In baptism, we are claimed by Christ and marked with the cross forever. During our life on this earth, we have the opportunity to discover and re-discover what that means as our life unfolds through conversations, relationships, and situations.
1. What does it feel like when others pray for you during difficult times?
2. What do the words “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain” mean to you?
3. What does it mean for you to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ?”
4. What does it mean to have Christ shape your life?
Reflections and Questions from McCullough-Bade, “Daily Discipleship,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2005. McCullough-Bade, “Daily Faith Practices,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2011.
Prayer, “The Oxford Book of Prayer,” Ed. George Appleton, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg 84-85.