An Economy of Grace | The Generous Landlord | Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of God; what it means to be his disciple as we live for him now and await his future Glory. Our faith is a duality-reality -we live in two Kingdom’s, and one is both know now fully and yet has more to be known. As Jesus has taught the disciples at every point they (and all who read) have been challenged to consider how their kingdom citizenship is impacting their lives, and their living. The essence of Jesus teaching about the Kingdom is: when the Gospel takes root in the life of a believer, it affects everything. It is not some eternal truth with an ethereal reality. It is something both eternal and now, as God calls us to himself to use us. We see that in today’s passage, yes the workers are paid a wage they do not deserve or earn – an act of grace – but they still worked the vineyards. Thus, through faith and the grace of God, we are saved from something and for something! The Gospel affects who we are, how we live and see the world and what we live for.

The Metric of the World – Productivity

Jesus has been teaching when he was approached by a young man who asked him: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life ?” In response, Jesus told him to keep all the commandments, the man assured him he had, and then Jesus told him to. “

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (19:21)

It was an answer that seemed to startle the disciples, as before them stood the perfect candidate for joining the team, yet, Jesus not only rejected him but set impossible terms for following him. Jesus knew the heart of this man, he knew that while he might suggest a longing for the thinks of God, if push came to shove his God was his possessions. All those things he had gathered over his life, whether through economic schemes or inheritance; whether honestly or dishonestly. This man had acquired, and while his wealth probably left him realising that we were made for something more, something eternal – he was not willing to set it aside in pursuit of the only eternal thing there is – God. He was a product of this world, the ungracious economy which promotes the individual pursuit above all else. Furthermore, Jesus knowing his heart, knew that this man would struggle to let go of all the material gains he had acquired.

Thus, a potential disciple walked dejected away from Jesus because he could not understand the logic of the Kingdom of God and its economy of grace (19:24). Why? Because he had been too conditioned by the ways of this world, the selfish ways of ungraciousness and even though he would rather walk away from the only person who could meet his eternal longing (Jesus) than enter the upside-down Kingdom. It is a scene that brings a startling realisation from the disciples as they ponder this rejected man then consider themselves and ask “if not him who then can be saved?” It is a fair question considering the exchange and one that highlights the struggle of all who will come to follow Jesus, that realisation that we cannot save our selves, a notion that stands contrary to how this world has conditioned us, a fact that stands in contrasts to the ungracious economy that governs this Kingdom, yet, this is the way of the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches in response to the disciples startling realisation, challenging the conventions of ungraciousness with the beauty of the eternal reward that will come to all who follow him, a promise conditioned on the logic of the Kingdom: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Consider our economy and all that underpins it, what do our systems and ways of measuring value suggest about human value and worth? Matthew 19 finished with that summary statement about the logic of the Kingdom, Matthew 20 begins with the statement “For the kingdom of heaven is like,” meaning the parable of the gracious Landowner is an expansion on all that has passed. The promise of the eternal reward that comes not through effort but grace. Here is a parable that hammers home that lesson. It is a scene we all understand: workers and get paid in correlation to their work. Our wage says something about our value in terms of society: The more we get paid (in theory), the more we add to the economic progress of our towns, regions, and nations. The world measures someone’s worth by what they produce; thus, productivity becomes a metric of personal value. Our culture values people not on their inherent dignity but on their economic output. We elevate those who are self-made millionaires, and we promote those who are willing to risk to acquire. An economy based on output then conditions us to value those who bring something to the table and to believe that with enough effort or hard work, we can save ourselves. Furthermore, while we appreciate those who acquire and climb we struggle to deal with the world system rejects, those who rather than bring to the table, sit under it: those facing poverty, the differently-abled, refugees. This is the ungracious economy we live in, a world of selfishness and yet today we are challenged to look beyond this world and consider another way, a different way – The economy of Heaven, an economy of grace. In this economy, we cannot earn our salvation, it is an act of grace. Thus, before the King of Kings, all are equal, and in grace freed to serve as an act of Worship. This is the way of the economy of grace, and this is our way. That values people not based: output, effort, worth, or connections but through grace. We have lived through the work of Christ on the Cross, the gracious gift of Mercy. Thus, as we receive in grace, so will live out the grace that others might see His beauty.


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ 9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A DAYS WORK (20:1-2)

As we have noted this parable is an explanation of the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven; The parable is told to explain the statement “for the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Jesus sets a scene that would have been familiar to everyone there. A landowner seeking workers to help tend his vineyard. Thus, the Landowner (God) heads out early in the morning to hire day labourers. He goes early to find the best workers, and to make a good start on the day’s work. We do not know how many where hired, but we know their terms of employment, the Landowner agrees to pay them a denarius for their labour (A denarius being a days wage). There is nothing contentious here, no subtle fact to be aware of to better understand the teaching point. A landowner has employed men to work his vineyard and agree to pay them a fair wage for their work. Men who would have been hired on the understanding that their working day would be from dawn to dust (12 hours).


Our parable-day progresses, and we join the Landowner again heading out to find more workers, it has reached mid-morning or 9 AM. Their first batch has been working away, yet, there must have been more to do, beyond their ability. Hence, the Landowner has headed back heads out again from his estate to the town to find some more day-labourers. This second group of workers are hired to ‘also work the vineyard’ on the assurance that they will get paid ‘what ever is right’ – a fair wage. We are never really given much reason for the chaotic nature of the Landowner’s recruitment process. What is clear is that there is much work to be done, as our Landowner heads out another three times to hire more workers. As the day has progressed from dawn to dusk, our Landowner has headed out on five separate (6 AM, 9 AM, 12 PM, 3 PM, 5 PM) occasions to hire groups of workers to join the task of the vineyard.

It may be unfair to read much into the implied state of each group. Yet, through an earthly lens of “output” it may be fair to assume that as the day progressed the quality of workers regressed with each batch. Yet, so great was work of the vineyard that the master went out time and time again to find people; and, so desperate were some for employment that they hung about to the end of the working day desperate for any source of income. By our standards it would almost have been pointless to head out for that last run of hiring – there probably would be few people about, and their quality would be somewhat questionable. Yet our Landowner does not conform to expected standards. There is a natural order to these events as it seems to be a case of first to last. With those being hired first agreeing a days wage, then those after assuming some form of fair payment based upon whatever time they joined in the work – most perhaps happy merely to get paid. However, as evening falls, we are challenged by the radical example of the Landowner and his economy of grace. People may have been hired from first to last, but in this gracious economy, they will be paid from last to first.


A days work has been done in the vineyard; through the hot midday sun, the morning labourers have worked and watched as others have joined them. They have been safe in the knowledge that they will get a fair days wage for their day’s work. However, as evening dawns the lesson begins as we learn that reward in the Kingdom of Heaven is not a matter of entitlement, but grace: for those who have been hired first are the last to get paid. The Landowner sends out his foreman to call the workers, instructing him to begin with the last hired and then work back to the first group. It is a phrase that clauses this whole parable, as at the end of Matthew 19 in response to Peters concern: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (19:27). Jesus had been teaching about how hard it would be for some of this world to grasp the things of Heaven, that it was impossible for us to earn our own salvation, but with God it was possible. Then in response to Peters concern, he had assured them that for those who indeed followed Jesus their reward would be great in Glory, but (as stated) the promise of future reward was caused with a reminder of the way of the Kingdom of God, where the reward is not on merit or output but a matter of grace.

“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
– Matthew 19:30 NIV

A parent gives gifts to their child not because they have earned them but because they love them, so too is our reward in the Kingdom of God. Thus the parable of Gracious Landowner is for the disciples and all who were listening to grasp the radical nature of God’s Kingdom. Their promise of reward was not based on anything they had done, or that they where first it was only a gift out of the Grace of God.

You can picture the scene as the last group hired approach; thankful for the work and perhaps guilty that they might even get paid for the day had ended as they had begun. You can imagine their surprise, joy, and thanks when for an hours labour they received a days wage; you can picture the buzz of Joy and appreciate as each group approached in reverse and received more than “what was right.” They had all been paid beyond their merit or effort not because they had earned it, no, simply because this Landowner was a generous landowner who gives graciously and who loves to bless. This is a landowner values people not by the economic standards of the world but through grace.

Offensive Grace (12-14)

What must it have been like to be a part of that last group – the ones hired first – as those who were hired after you were paid the wage you had agreed. Imagine the buzz and excitement at this anticipated generous payday, as they worked out: “well, if he paid them a denarius for an hours work that must mean we could get close to two days wage.” Then all before them had been paid, they approach and receive precisely what they agreed to – a days wage for a days work and yet they are offended by it! Why? The Landowner has done nothing to them – he has not been mischievous or false; he has not tried to pay them less. He gave them the wage that he agreed with them. They are offended not at what they have received but at what those who came after they received, they are offended at the grace the Landowner has offered others even though he has been fair to them.

The economy of grace and work in the Kingdom of God is offensive to those who live by the metric of this world because it challenges their presuppositions and ways of seeing the world. We worship a generous God who gives freely and abundantly to those who follow him, not based on merit or entitlement bu out of grace, because citizens of the Kingdom of God are those who have grasped that there is nothing they can do to earn in the Kingdom, thus they receive much and get on with the work of God out of gratitude and act of worship. The Grace of God at work in the lives of believers, and the economy of the Kingdom being lived out in the here and now where we value people not on merit but because they bare the image of God and where we give generously not to earn or reward but because we serve a generous God is offensive to the world because it is beautiful. The beauty of grace lived out confronts and confuses the world as it grumbles about its own expectation.

Conclusion: Living in an Economy of Grace

Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of God because he want’s the disciples and all who will follow him to understand that this is a way like no other. The Kingdom of God is not an economy of merit, but one of grace, where rewarded, is given because God is generous, kind and abundant. Thus, in the parable, the Landowner speaks in his own defence as he responds to the grumbling of the first batch of workers reminding them that he had been fair to them and their work, and thus they had nothing to be upset over. Moreover, he reminded them of the fact:

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (15).

We live in God’s world, not just in the sense of the Kingdom of God but in this world that we inherit today. It is God who made it and sustains it, and thus he can do whatever he pleases with it! This is only a good thing because God is a good God: abundant, kind, merciful, sovereign and generous. Thus, we can trust him to do what needs to be done and in all that he is doing. Additionally, as we live in his Kingdom, we are those who have grasped that we are not thereby merit but through grace. We are saved through no work of our but through the saving work of Christ on the Cross, an act through which God generously calls us to himself. The Kingdom of God is an economy and citizenship of Grace where God blesses and gives freely to those whom he chooses to bless by no effort or merit of their own. Where the world blesses by production or power, in the economy of Grace blessing and reward are gifts. Our job is to receive them, then to marvel in the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God where the last are first, and the first is last.

The Nature of Grace

The nature of grace is nothing like the world can know are fathom, it is a place of inverted reality where the last are first, and the first is last. Grace is God’s way, and we are all recipients of it. Thus, it is the way of the Kingdom of God. This section of scripture finishes with the same statement it began “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (20:16). This is the reality of walking with God, being citizens of his Kingdom and joining is his work that all we will receive from his is through grace and no effort, so we joyfully get on with that which we have been called to. In light of the parable, Jesus is teaching that no longer how long anyone worked they all received a days wage not because some deserved it more than others but because this is the gracious heart of God and the economy of God’s Kingdom.

Consider the three crosses on Calvary, that fateful day three men hung. Two crooks and one innocent man (bearing the weight of the elects sin). While one thief mocked the other defended and pleaded for mercy. The mercy he received and more as Jesus assured him that he would join him in Paradise (Luke 23:43). Thus, the criminal on the Cross would receive the same eternal blessing as the eleven faithful disciples and all who might labour their whole lives for Jesus, not because he earned it, none of us deserved it but because such is the Grace of God and the economy of his Kingdom.

To the Fields, we Go.

In discipleship we do not work to receive, we work because we trust the one who has called us and know that in the call we have already received fully through Christ, and yet have more to learn, enjoy and rejoice in. Nevertheless, the call remains, and there is work to be done. Thus, we get on with the work of the vineyard not to earn more but safe in the assurance that we will receive through grace more of what we don’t deserve. We join the Lord’s labourers in the vineyard in grateful response to all that He is and all that he offers us! Our work is worship, and we get on with it in the knowledge that through the Grace of the Cross, we have received full and yet have more to acquire. This is the economy of Heaven!

Detrich Bonhoeffer once quipped that “Grace is free, but it is not cheap.” He meant that while we cannot aid our receiving this great gift of God by our own effort. It is a gift freely received, but only correctly received when we grasp it’s cost: the blood of Jesus. Thus, in the reception of it, we are compelled by love and gratitude to a different life – a kingdom life defined by the economy of grace. Grace is free and free, yet, it does not free us to live as we please instead it frees us from the burden of sin and the curst of this world as we live and work for something beyond this world: the Glory of God and the work of the Kingdom of God. We are saved by God through faith and the work of grace offered to all through the Cross of Christ; Grace is not offered because God needs something from us, but because God like the Landlord is fair, abundant and generous. Yet, God does save us to use us in the cause of his Kingdom. The effect of grace is that we gladly join the other workers in the field regardless of when we were called, and we willingly muck in so that the one who got us in honoured.

The work of grace is the spiritual harvest, and it is the call of every disciple. Thus we get on with the work of grace in the heart of grace. The wonder of living in a kingdom where we have not earned the right, nor can earn further favour is that it free’s us to live well for the King – this is the heart of grace, a fruitful heart of thankfulness and worship rather than striving and earning. This is the way of the Kingdom and the economy of grace that we live in. The danger will come when we begin to lose sight of that which saved us – Grace; when we begin to think that we can bring something to the table; when we start to think with the lens of the ungraceful economy. This will happen because even with the Spirit of God at work in our lives, we will still fall back into sin and stumbling. We have all worked with someone who appears like the great employee: they are the first in and the last out every day, they seem to be an expert at every task, and they will always volunteer for the job that no one wants to do. Yet, when you glimpse beneath the facade, it becomes clear that their only aim is up: in secret, they mock and make fun of those around them. Everything thing is an act (not of thankfulness for a job) to get to the next level, and they will clamber, kick, and assail whoever gets in their way. We all know that person who considers themselves far greater than the role they have been given, or they pay they earn, and the only way is up. We have all been that person who’s heart beats to the rhythm of the ungracious economy. Yet, in the Kingdom of God, there is no promotion: we have not earned our right to be there, and our reward will be greater than anything our effort could earn – it is grace. Thus free from competition to earn, improve or promote, we serve in thankfulness and worship. There is no promotion in the Kingdom of God, we all stand equal (no matter who we were), and we all serve equally. It is why Paul wrote:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Co 3:5–9 ESV)

Paul was writing to a church that had lost sight of the Grace of God and had started to think with the mind of ungraciousness. They had started to look for things that might distinguish them from each other: elevate them in the Kingdom. Thus suddenly thing’s of no importance to God became important in the life of the church, status was defined not in the equality of Cross but through human things – who had been baptised by who. Paul’s response? None of it matters: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” In response to ungracious ideas of prestige and power Paul declares that none of it matters because all in the Kingdom are only tools in the Lord’s hand. Furthermore, he reminds them of the truth we see here in this parable of the gracious Landowner using harvest imagery to teach truths about the spiritual harvest. “I planted, Apollos watered,” writes Paul reminding us that everyone has a part to play. Yet, he goes further – “God gave the growth:” it does not matter who does what; how big or insignificant our part might seem, it is nothing to do with us! No matter what work we might do it is God who see’s it through; our call might be too plant, to water, or to pick but it is God in his sovereign work will bring the growth. Hence Paul finishes this section of 1 Corinthians three by writing “He who plants and he who waters are one,” a wonderful declaration that reminds us of life in the economy of grace that no matter the role we are called too we are one with those with whom we answer the cause: we are one in that together we all work for the same cause, we are one in that we not there on our own merit but via grace and we are one in that we are on the same team for we are all God’s fellow workers. It is God who calls us through grace. It is God who sustains us in his work and it is God who will see his work bear fruit, thus, free from striving and effort we do not seek to clamber over one another for prestige or power instead we knuckle down with one another because we are one in grace, call and cause. This is the beauty of the economy of grace, and when we are in it, we must fight to keep from it all the dangerous fruits of the ungracious world – selfishness, pride and self-promotion and instead in unity without brothers and sisters get on with the work we have been called too. In Christ, we have received full and yet know there is more ahead, so let us join in the spiritual harvest so that others too might know the beauty of a relationship with God.

Walking the road of grace

As always Christ is not just our saviour, he is our example. Thus, while this parable calls us to be thankful for the work of grace in our lives, it also challenges us to walk the way of grace as we live now in this ungracious world. It calls us to live our lives by the economics of grace as a challenge to the self-centred world. As we finish, let us consider where perhaps we might need to show and be gracious in our lives? Perhaps it is how we treat those we work with or employ, perhaps it is with family or friends or in the life of the church. Today, wherever we have let us be those who are thankful to be called by God to his work, and rejoice (rather than grumble) as he calls other’s to join us. Let us incarnate the economy of grace where we are as we value people, not by their output or personal benefit to us but because they are made in the image of God and called by God to serve. Let we who are disciples of Jesus be those who delight in the wonder of this call and way where the last are first, and the first are last and live out the grace that we have received so that others can know the beauty of life in the Kingdom of God.

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