9-24-23  “It is the Grace of God!”

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Matthew 20:1-16

Pastor Jenny Lee, Ph.D.

 “It is the Grace of God!”

I want to start with something funny that I found on an internet site: A priest and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the Pearly gates waiting for them. “Come with me,” said St. Peter to the taxi driver. The taxi driver followed St. Peter to a mansion. It had anything you could imagine, from a bowling alley to an Olympic-sized pool. “Wow, thank you,” said the taxi driver.

Next, he turns to the Priest, who thinks he will get a better mansion than the taxi driver. But, St. Peter led the Priest to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television. “Wait, I think you are a little mixed up,” said the Priest. “Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion? After all, I was a priest, attended church daily, and preached God’s Word.” “Yes, that’s true. But during your sermon, people slept. When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed.”

If you have several children, you might have heard them complain saying, “No, Mom, that’s not fair!” or “Dad, that’s not fair!”  What made them say it?  It might have been when they were compared with another sibling. Perhaps they felt their sibling got more than they did. Basically, comparison is likely something like, I am older than others; I work more than others; I am a man; I am a woman; I am younger; I am older: I am better. It is like “meism,” which means “interpreting everything from my perspective.” In other words, they live in an “I-centered world.” You may have seen this happening when your children were younger. As long as they grow in love, they learn about the care of others, especially caring for the weak, the last, and the powerless. Then, their mindset might shift to a God-centered mindset or a parent’s mindset. I myself lived an I-centered life until I understood this scripture. This parable story was difficult for me to understand among the many biblical stories. It seems totally unfair. I didn’t want to go to heaven if the Kingdom of Heaven was like that.

Today’s scripture begins, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard and needs laborers for his vineyard.” The landowner looked for workers early in the morning, at about 9 o’clock, around noon, and again at three o’clock. Whenever he found those idle at the marketplace, he sent them to his vineyard with an agreement for their daily wage.

However, the real surprise of the story comes next. We hear that the landowner went out again at five o’clock! It was almost the end of the day, yet he still found more people standing around. He asked this last group of workers, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into my vineyard. And I will give what it is right.” At first, it did not make much sense. They probably had little time to work when they arrived at the vineyard. We may wonder why this landowner sent them to his vineyard at the last minute. He may have had a lot of work to be done in a hurry.

Let’s imagine which people these might have been. They were the last ones who were left in the job market. Perhaps they were not physically active. Maybe they were older. Perhaps they lacked experience. Perhaps they did not have any work permits. Perhaps they might not have legal status. Whatever the reason was, one thing was clear: they were not wanted! That’s why they were left to be the last ones. This landowner did not seem to care about any of the qualifications. He merely invited everyone and paid everyone the same wage. How does the landowner treat all the workers in the same way, whether working all day or for less than one hour? We may say, “That’s not fair.”  Surely, those who were hired early in the morning entered the vineyard in gratitude because they got a job. Yes, of course, they worked well with good skills. While the people are working, they saw others who came to the vineyard later, thinking, “Hum, they are not good workers, don’t have good enough skills,” and then saw that they received the same daily wage, the people may have expected that they would get more. However, the landowner gives them the same wage as they contracted. So, they are upset with the landowner, “No, it is not fair! We worked more hours, and we had better skills. So, we should receive more.” But, the landowner says, “I gave you what I agreed to give you. Then I gave them what I wanted to with my generous heart.” They forgot when they were first hired that they entered the vineyard with gratitude.

I have similar experiences with these people. When I began to plant a new church in Chicago, I was grateful to God as God called me to do His work. As the church grew, we hired several seminarians as student pastors. The church council and a lead pastor decided all seminarians should be paid the same compensation regardless of work hours. I was also a seminarian, but I was a church planter; I had been in the church ministry for more years than they had, and I am a Ph. D. student while they were freshmen in the Master of Divinity. Don’t you think I should get more compensation? I didn’t understand the church council’s decision then. I thought I should quit working at that church.

I prayed to God to see if I should stop working at the church. And God led me to recall when I started planting that church with gratitude. Then, I found this scripture. I read this scripture repetitively, and I cried with repentance. I noticed that I received more grace as I worked more years and studied more than they had. The grace of God is priceless. Once understanding this, I worked joyfully.

When I was appointed at this parish in a three-point charge, someone said, “It’s not fair: one works at one church while the other works two or three churches, then they get paid the same compensation.”  Do you thing that’s fair? The other said, “Well, you may work at each church 1/3 the time, then work the same hours and invest the same energy as those who work at one church.” I said, “Well, I will work at all three churches giving my best to all, then God may fill me with His grace and energy more than others who work at a one-point charge.” Yes, God fills me with more grace and energy than others, then I can work joyfully with gratitude.

This parable story has sometimes been used to explain God’s grace: God’s love does not depend on our merits. No matter how many hours, days, or years we have given to God’s work and His ministry. The good news is that God’s love has no boundaries. The unconditional love of God is for all people.

God’s grace is not comparable because each of us is a unique child to God. God’s fairness and justice are for those in need, the powerless, the weak, the last, and the least. The more we share God’s love, the more the grace of God increases, 30 times, 60 times, or 100 times. Even though we have a small gift like a tiny mustard seed, the seed grows and becomes a big tree that birds may have shelter on when we share with others. May the Holy Spirit empower us to share God’s love with the last, the least, and the vulnerable and guide us to experience the Kingdom of heaven. Everyone has the equal right to receive the grace of God.

Do you think you work for the church more than others? If you do so, you may receive God’s grace more than others. Your dedication to the church is very precious to God. Bless you for your joyful commitment to God’s ministry. Thanks be to God, Amen!