Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

I Took the Work You Offered

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 24 September 2017, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16, Philippians 1:21-30.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew goes by many names. It’s usually called the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. But one preacher prefers to call it the Parable of Equal Wages for Unequal Work. That gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Other preachers say no, the parable is really about God, not us. So, let’s call it the Parable of the Compassionate Employer. Or more precisely: the Parable of the Generous but Eccentric Employer.

So, what should we focus on this morning? The workers who get hired or the employer who hires them? The laborers who worked one hour or those that worked the whole day? The fact that the boss seems to pay some workers too much or that he paid some workers too little? Actually, I think we could discuss all these as long as we understand that the point of the parable is to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. And I don’t mean just a kingdom in heaven after we die, I mean the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Parables have been described as earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. So, let’s see what this earthly story is about and what divine message it conveys.

We have a landowner who has a vineyard. He grows grapes. To find workers, he goes out early in the morning. 6 a.m. was the beginning of the working day. The workers are day laborers without a steady job. They wait at a certain place every morning hoping to get hired. The landowner comes by, picks some of them, and offers the usual wage, one denarius. That could take care of a family for a day. So off the chosen workers go to his vineyard.

But then, something odd happens. The landowner goes back several more times to get more workers – at 9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m. He makes no promise how much he’ll pay them. He only says it will be fair. So off they go too. Then, believe it or not, he goes back at 5 p.m., one hour before quitting time. He sees some men still standing there. “Why are you still here doing nothing?” he asks. To which they reply, “Because no one has hired us.” OK, says the landowner, go the vineyard and get to work.

One hour later, the working day is over. It’s time to get paid. The owner calls out his manager. Give each worker his pay. Except he tells the manager to pay them in reverse order of the time they came to work, meaning the one-hour guys get paid first. This was certainly unusual. In any case, those who had worked only one hour received the full day’s wage. Wow, what a surprise!

Then we get to the ones who worked the whole day. They were the first to be hired, and the last to be paid. But surely they were thinking what any of us would have been thinking. If the boss is that generous to those who came at 5 p.m., what’s he going to do for us who started at 6 am? Imagine their disappointment when all they get is one denarius, the same as everyone else. “That’s not fair!” they say.

So they go right up the landowner to protest. Hey, we slaved all day in the scorching heat, but you treat us no differently than those who came strolling in when everything was almost finished. How dare you pay them so much! How dare you pay us so little!

How did the boss respond? “Friend,” he says. “What wrong have I done to you? Did you not agree to work for one denarius? Take your pay and go. It’s my money and I can do with it whatever I wish.”

There’s no account of how those workers responded. But you have to wonder how this landowner got himself in such a bad labor situation. If he had wanted to be generous to the latecomers out of pity, why didn’t he just pay the 12-hour workers first? That way, they’d be happy and out of the way by the time the one-hour workers got their wages. All this trouble could have been avoided. But no, it seems the landowner purposely arranged it to provoke those who had worked the longest and hardest. That he intentionally set things up so those workers would get the message loud and clear. And what was the message?

That God’s ways are not our ways, and thank God for that!

Because if we were paid according to our performance in the kingdom of heaven, none of us would measure up. If we were rewarded according to merit, none of us would get a full day’s wage. And the landowner, or God in this story, knows that.

But still God invites us into his vineyard, not out his need, but ours. The truth of the matter is, we’re all dependent on God’s grace for our very survival every single day. The food on the table, the roof over our head, the clothes on our back. Where do they come from? They’re all gifts from a loving and generous Creator, so the only right response for all of us is gratitude. That’s what the one-hour workers understood, and they were grateful. Grateful that God came looking for them when all hope was gone, grateful that they could make some small contribution to the vineyard, grateful for the provision of daily bread today.

And the 12-hour workers? Well, they might have felt more grateful if those one-hour lazy bums had got only one hour of pay. Then they could piously say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” meaning, of course, “Poor things. That could have been me, if God hadn’t smiled on me today.”

Do you see the irony here? We are more than willing to feel sorry for someone who’s down and out as long as it doesn’t affect us. And we’re more than willing to be thankful for God’s grace as long as some of it comes our way too. But it seems we’re not so grateful when God smiles on someone else, especially if we think it comes at our expense. This parable, however, teaches us that God’s grace actually doesn’t cost you or me anything. That’s why it’s called grace – it’s free, generous, unexpected and undeserved. And we receive it simply because a loving God wishes to bless, not just us, but other people as well. And again, the only right response is gratitude.

Why is that such a hard lesson for us to learn? Well, maybe we’d feel better if we remember that Jesus told this parable to his twelve disciples, not a big crowd of people. Those twelve disciples had given up everything to follow him and labor in God’s vineyard. They were the original investors in this Christian start-up. You could forgive them for thinking they should get the biggest payback. But Jesus warns them this may not be the case. In fact, in the kingdom of heaven, many who are last shall be first, and the first shall be last – based on the contents of one’s heart.

For you see, the best workers in the God’s vineyard are not necessarily those who worked the longest and hardest. No, Jesus says, the best workers in the kingdom of heaven are those who work for God’s glory, not their own. In the parable, what were those early birds working for? That denarius they’d been promised. And the latecomers? Well, they hadn’t been promised anything. They were simply working for God, and in the end, both groups got what they were working for. The last shall be first and the first shall be last, based on the contents of one’s heart.

Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century British preacher, told a good story that illustrates this very point. So let me share it with you.

Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his queen and said, "Your majesty, this is the greatest carrot I've ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect." The queen was touched and discerned the man's heart, so as he turned to go, the queen said, "Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all." The gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing.

But there was a nobleman at the queen's court who overheard all this. And he said, "My! If that is what you get for a carrot—what if you gave the queen something better?" So the next day the nobleman came before the queen and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, "Your majesty, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect." But the queen discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the queen said, "Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse."

In other words, the gardener gave his best, not expecting anything back. But the nobleman gave his best, absolutely expecting something back. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?

We may chuckle at the story, but I was surprised to learn that this mindset of “giving to get something back” was actually standard practice in ancient Roman religion in Jesus’ time. You were striking a bargain with the gods; you gave a sacrifice so that a divine favor might be given in return. There was a phrase in Roman worship that sums it up perfectly – “I give that you might give”. And if you think about it, that’s how some people still view religion, even Christianity. That whatever I give to the church or do for God should yield some reward or benefit for me, if not on earth, at least in heaven. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?

But, if we look at the life of Jesus, we see what workers in God’s vineyard can expect. For who worked harder for the kingdom than Jesus in his earthly ministry? Think of all the sick people he healed, the demons he cast out, the multitudes he fed, the sermons he preached, the disciples he taught, the outcasts he welcomed.

And what did Jesus receive for that very full day’s work? One minister described it, Rejection, humiliation, abandonment. A death sentence, cruel death on a cross, hung out to die. What kind of reward was that for the best church worker that ever was?

What kind of reward, indeed! But remember, Jesus labored in the vineyard not for his own glory but for God’s glory. He never counted the cost, because all was given out of love and obedience to His Heavenly Father. He never thought of his reward, because serving the kingdom of heaven was the greatest privilege of all.

I wonder what the church would be like, what our church would be like, if we all had that same mindset. I’m afraid I can’t lift myself up as an example, because I’ve seen others who embody that spirit of gratitude and joy in Christian service far better than I. And I’m not thinking so much of ministers or missionaries, but instead ordinary laypeople. As we joke, “Ministers get paid to be good, but you have to be good for nothing!”

An ordinary layperson that came to my mind this morning is someone from another church here in Hong Kong. His name is Ken. He is a journalist who worked in China and Hong Kong for the newspapers. Ken loves to sing, especially Christian music. So, he was always a part of the choir or worship team of every church he belonged to. But later in life he developed health problems. He couldn’t stand for long periods, and sometimes just getting out of the house was a challenge. So finally, Ken had to give up singing in the choir and worship team, and it broke his heart. Music was his life.

Then the opportunity came for someone to do radio talks on our Christian programs on RTHK. There’s a morning program called Minutes that Matter which includes an inspirational talk and sacred music. And you don’t just prepare one, you have to prepare a set of 4 or 5 programs to be aired over one month. Ken’s pastors were really busy, so no one wanted to take up Minutes that Matter for their church. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, and I only take it up when I can’t find anyone else.
Well, the pastors of his church were looking for someone else to do Minutes that Matter. And they said, “Hey, what about Ken?” And sure enough, when they asked him, he said “Yes” right away.

Ken had an appointment to come to our studio to record. It was near the time when I got a phone call from him. He said, “Judy, don’t panic. I’ve had a little accident this morning and I’m at the doctor’s, but I’m coming! I’ll just be a bit late.” He showed up half an hour later, limping as he came off the lift. I was alarmed. What happened? He said he had stumbled getting off the minibus and hurt his foot. The injury was serious enough to send him to a clinic for medical treatment. I said, “Oh, Ken, you should have told me. I would have said go home and rest.” He looked at me, and said, “No, I couldn’t do that. I was coming to do the radio. This is for God!”

This is for God.

I thank God for devoted workers in the vineyard like Ken. Whenever a speaker was needed for Minutes that Matter, he was the first to volunteer, even if he had to use his annual leave to fit the schedule. Ken told his pastors that doing the radio ministry had saved his life spiritually, and he was so grateful that God gave him this precious opportunity to serve. Ken retired and left Hong Kong a couple of years ago, but I am sure he is making a difference wherever he is. For whether he’s called up at 6 a.m. or 5 p.m., whether he gets 12 hours or one hour to serve, he will be there, giving glory to God. May we all be so willing and eager to take up the work that God offers us in the kingdom of heaven.

In closing, I’d like to share something written by an Anglican priest, the Rev. Doug Constable. He said he wasn’t a trained musician or poet, but he enjoyed composing hymns. One year he challenged himself to write a new hymn for every Sunday of the church year based on the readings from the lectionary. So let me read you his hymn entitled “I Took the Work You Offered”. It’s based on the Gospel reading for today on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.

I took the work you offered, I did the job you set, I thought you’d pay me something, I never dreamed I’d get: the highest love that’s given, a full and rich reward, a taste today of heaven, the saving power of God.

But then I felt offended and hurt, misunderstood: the last you make my equal, and pay them all as good. The highest love that’s given, a full and rich reward, a taste today of heaven, the saving power of God.

Though shame would overwhelm me, and all the world condemn, you disagree and tell me, you’ll always pay your friend. The highest love that’s given, a full and rich reward, a taste today of heaven, the saving power of God.

No less I now will offer, I will no more despise; with all my fellow workers, I’ll share what grace supplies: the highest love that’s given, a full and rich reward, a taste today of heaven, the saving power of God.[1]


# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 24, 2017


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