Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16 (Pentecost 17: Series A)

Reading Time: 4 mins

With their minds set on God’s grace in Christ for them and for all, your congregation will leave church this week prepared to be unfairly gracious toward everyone they encounter.

You do not have to teach humans to notice when things are not fair. It comes naturally. The toddler notices when her snack is smaller than her sister’s. The basketball player notices when he gets fewer minutes on the court than his teammate. The female executive notices when she gets paid less than the man who has the same job. We have an innate and acute sense of fairness. Especially when we are on the short side of the scale, we notice when things are not equal.

This month I have been suggesting you spend time reflecting with your congregation about how human thinking is different than God’s thinking. The idea began with Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:23: “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” But Peter has never been unique in this regard. The Old Testament reading for this week (Isaiah 55:6-9) reminds us that God’s thoughts have always been higher than our thoughts. The Gospel readings the last three weeks have raised such issues as suffering, greatness, and forgiveness. This week the text invites us to think about justice.

Crusaders for justice in our culture have many causes to choose from, including gun rights, voting rights, the right to life, equal access to health care, fair trade, racial justice, and religious liberty, to name a few. The specifics vary, but the common thread is a dedication to bringing about justice, fairness, and equality to some aspect of our life together.

The workers in Jesus’ parable would fit right in. They may not have been crusaders, but they were definitely interested in equal pay for equal work. They had borne the burden of the day, labored through the scorching heat, and expected a fair wage. They had agreed on their pay at the start of the day, but when they learned that those who barely broke a sweat received the same, they were indignant. Who among us would not be? They were surely justified in thinking “they would receive more” (20:10). That is only fair. You get what you earn. You make more if you work harder, equal pay for equal work. This is simply how we think as humans.

But Jesus’ thinks differently about these things. This text (and the verses that precede it) provides three specific ideas which could help you set your congregation’s minds on God’s thinking about being fair.

First, you could highlight what the master says in verse 15. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” It is hard to argue with that. It was his vineyard, his money, his prerogative, and his decision. If he wanted to be generous (the text simply says “good” - ἀγαθός) to the late commers by giving them more than they deserved, that was his business. In this way the master is like God. God is in charge. He can do what he wants... period. Might makes right, and there is none mightier than God. He is not bound to follow any human sense of justice. Whatever he does is justice. Luther’s reflections at the end of “Bondage of the Will” come to mind here: “If then we confess, even according to the teaching of nature, that human power, strength, wisdom, knowledge, substance and all human things together, are nothing when compared with the divine power, strength, wisdom, knowledge, and substance, what perverseness must it be in us to attack the righteousness and judgments of God.”[1] If God wants to be generous, who are we to say He is not fair? This first idea puts humans in their place.

If God wants to be generous, who are we to say He is not fair?

Second, did you notice what the master called the one worker who was quibbling with his goodness? Earlier in the parable he referred to the workers as “laborers” (ἐργάτας), but now he called this man “friend” (ἑταῖρε, which is more like “comrade” or “companion”). He continues, “I am doing you no wrong,” which more literally could be translated, “I do you no injustice” (ἀδικῶ). Indeed, the master was more than fair with this laborer. He had provided work for the man at the beginning of the day. He had sought him out and called him into his vineyard. All day long the man enjoyed the satisfaction and the security of meaningful work. This is no small thing, just ask anyone who has suffered unemployment or layoffs. As for your hearers, God has also called them friends, too. You could refer to John 15:15 here (but notice how John uses the more intimate φίλους). The point is the One whose thoughts are above our thoughts has stooped down to treat us with dignity and respect, almost like we were colleagues. This second idea can function as good news.

Third, the key to interpreting this parable was not even included in the reading. It is the verses that precede the telling of the story. After His encounter with the rich young (and now sorrowful) man, Jesus told the disciples how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They were understandably dismayed and asked who then could be saved. Jesus confirmed their consternation by telling them it is impossible with man. But, He continued, “With God all things are possible” (19:26). Then He spoke to them this promise: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (19:29). This sets the stage for the parable and His description of the Kingdom of Heaven. That is God’s sense of justice. It was a promise. Those who follow Jesus will receive what they have left behind a hundredfold, even eternal life. This third idea prepares you to proclaim the promise of Christ directly to your listeners.

Your hearers follow Jesus. He has called them to Himself and continues to extend His gracious promise to them. That is your privilege in this sermon: To promise them eternal life is their inheritance. It has been signed, sealed, and delivered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Never mind they did nothing to earn or deserve it. It is pure gift, pure grace, and pure promise. It is not fair, but who is concerned about fairness now?

At the very least, this will change the way they look at those who have come late to the vineyard. With a little guidance from you, it will also relativize their innate and acute sense of justice. This is not so they will stop fighting for those who are mistreated or marginalized, justice on this earth is still worth fighting for, but their attempt to address injustices and inequalities will not be done with the self-righteousness which often characters social crusaders. Rather, with their minds set on the things of God, they will go forward in humility and thanksgiving. With their minds set on God’s grace in Christ for them and for all, they will leave church this week prepared to be unfairly gracious toward everyone they encounter.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 20:1-16.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 20:1-16.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 20:1-16.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 20:1-16.


[1] Martin Luther. The Bondage of the Will. Translated by Henry Cole. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976. 386.