A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.
There are a few ways we can look at Proper 20A’s Gospel reading. The general interpretation is that in Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus is speaking about entry into the Kingdom of God. Salvation isn’t reserved for the Jews but for everyone who believes, and even the people who are “saved last” (ie the Gentiles) will have the same reward as those who entered first. In a way, the last ones are even better off, for the Gentiles never had the law to guide them as the Jews did. A second interpretation is that Jesus is speaking here about grace in a more overarching way: God’s grace is the same to everyone who believes, regardless of their works, because in Christ our righteousness is equal. A final interpretation is more prophetic in nature. Jesus used the reality of unemployment and poverty in first century Palestine to school his audience in the Jubilee nature of the Kingdom of God. In this interpretation, practical (read: monetary) matters don’t fall outside the scope of God’s Kingdom. The wealthy and powerful don’t get a free pass to do with their finances as they please (a common enough situation in the society Jesus lived and taught in); their affairs are as subject to God’s Kingdom as the rest of them. In fact, in view of the workers’ resentment of equal wages, everyone should be careful not to idolise money. Of course these interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. I want to focus on the kernel in each interpretation, which is this idea of “entry”–everyone gets to come in: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Time and time again Jesus taught that the only requirement to salvation (and through salvation the full participation in his family, his Kingdom and its work) is repentance. The only sin we need repent of to be “allowed in” is our unbelief. The process of sanctification is a result of this repentance, this metanoia or “turning around”, and as such its lack isn’t enough to deny our salvation, our entry into God’s Kingdom.
This is pretty basic, but I think it’s important to remember this in our “churchified” societies (in the Westernised world, at least). In many churches, entry into God’s Kingdom is wrongfully equated with the process of sanctification itself. It’s a works-based mentality that demands “evidence” of our salvation, when the only evidence needed is our salvation itself. God’s grace is in full evidence in our salvation, regardless of what we do with that salvation. The old objection, “So I can give my life to Christ and go on sinning till the day I die?” actually holds true. You could. That’s grace.
But, we Pew Fillers object, that’s unfair! And if we see grace as something that’s earned through our comparative goodness or obedience or God forbid, church attendance, then yes, it is unfair! It’s outrageous! But if we see grace as an undeserved gift – one the Giver, Jesus, can do with as it pleases him – then we realise that no, it’s not so unfair. The parable Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16 makes clear that the amount of work done has nothing to do with the wages paid. The “wage” of grace is always the same, it’s always complete and it’s always free because it isn’t a wage at all, but a gift. We cannot earn it.
The reason I wanted to discuss this particular interpretation is because any discussion of how unearned grace is must be encouraging. We cannot earn grace. This should be a relief whether our week has been filled with good deeds or bad ones, because damn it all, our effort or lack of it has nothing to do with what we get. We get it all. That’s been established. When we “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), it means simply realising again and again that we have been saved. It’s happened. “It is finished,” Jesus said. That’s the beginning and the end of it. That’s why grace is freedom from sin and death: it breaks their rules. It breaks their cycle. It changes the world.
Who we identify with in this parable will tell us a lot about our faith, and in what, or whom, our faith is. Do we identify with the labourers who’ve been at it since morning? Are we the ones who showed up later still, or last? Are we still standing around at the marketplace, waiting? Grace tells us clearly that it doesn’t matter which of these “workers” we are. Our gift is the same: it is inclusion, it is grace, it is life, it is God looking at you and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”