Controversial Generosity (Matthew 20:1-15)
What is the kingdom of God like? It is like the controversial generosity of an eccentric vineyard owner! Perhaps the most puzzling of all parables, this parable of controversial generosity has been called the "Wallflower of the Parables." Yet it speaks to the very heart of Jesus' self-understanding and mission.
A remote and an immediate context frames this parable. Jesus' running battle with the Pharisees over table fellowship with sinners is the deep background. Harlots and bums invade God's kingdom at the eleventh hour, while the Pharisees have served all day. The immediate context is Peter's understandable but mercenary question: "We have forsaken all and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?" (Matt. 19:27, KJV) This question betrays a calculating approach toward service.
This parable answers both the Pharisees and Peter. Let God be as good and merciful as He really is, and celebrate that goodness with trust.
God Sovereignly Calls Us to His Kingdom
Sheer sovereignty animates the householder in relation to his vineyard. He calls whom he wishes, how he wishes, and when he wishes. Some he calls at dawn, some at 9:00, 12:00, and 3:00 respectively. In astonishing sovereignty he even calls some to work at the hour of 5:00, the last working hour. In all of this he acts at his good pleasure. This parable is saturated with the sovereignty of God—His sovereign call and His sovereign right to be generous and merciful.
Men may react differently to that sovereign call. The first group to be called haggle and bargain with the householder. They evidence a mercenary spirit that will surface later. The other groups called later simply trust the goodness of the lord who calls them to work. We may likewise react differently to the call of God. Some respond in trust and some with calculating motives.
God Sovereignly Rewards Us in His Kingdom
The householder is outrageously and controversially generous. He pays all the same, regardless of the work done. It is not, as some suggest, that the later workers had worked harder than the earlier. This destroys the intent of the parable. The intent is to demonstrate the sovereign goodness of God. It is simply the fact that we all come into the kingdom at different times. Jews came before Gentiles. Some of us came as children; others have come in the eleventh hour of a life long spent. God's reward is the same for us all.
The mumbling, grumbling twelve-hour men of the parable betray a wrong spirit. They have served on a quid quo pro, tit-for-tat basis. They evidence the same spirit that discolored the elder brother of the prodigal son. They are self-conscious and calculating. The proper spirit for kingdom service is not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. That is, the sheer joy of working in the vineyard of the generous King is enough.
God Sovereignly Instructs Us About His Kingdom
His justice and goodness questioned, the lord of the vineyard does not explain or defend himself. He speaks in sheer sovereignty, just as he calls in sheer freedom. What he does do is point to the spiritual defect in his detractors. "Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" (v. 15). The detractors from his generosity will not let him be as good as he wants to be. May we learn from them, and let Him be the controversially generous and merciful Lord!