- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently by the Rev. Tom Holliday at Alexandria Presbyterian Church:

This morning we are going to prepare our hearts for Communion, and I don’t know of a better passage to teach than Matthew 20:1-16. …

We have to understand the agrarian culture of the day in order to understand this parable. All of these workers were in need of wages to provide for themselves and for their families. It was not unusual for people at that time to live day by day. The generous landowner that Jesus described came along and said, “Look, I will give you the opportunity to earn that wage.” And so the early workers started around 6 a.m., and then the second shift came in around coffee-break time, and then around noon others joined them. Around 3 p.m., still more were hired. And finally, about an hour before the day was done, even more were hired to work in the vineyard.

The surprise came at the end of the day when the workers were paid. When the workers who came last got paid first, there was a buzz among those who had worked all day, “Wow, did you see what he got paid? He got paid a whole day’s wage for an hour’s work. This is going to be good. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to get paid.” Anticipating the large sum that they would receive, they were surprised, even disgusted, to receive the same amount as those who had only worked one hour. And so the grumbling began, which eventually resulted in the charge against the generous landowner, “That’s not fair. You can’t pay us the same wage that you paid them.” …

It’s just as hard for us to understand and accept this message today as it was for them in that day.

This parable is not intended to serve as a trade-union principle. It’s a story about God’s grace. We are all in need of what only God can give. All of us are equal at the foot of the cross and desperately in need of God’s gift of grace.

The Bible speaks of wages in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Bible likens our wages to our deeds, or misdeeds that have earned us nothing but separation from a holy God. Regardless of how moral or immoral we live, no matter how hard we try to be good, we are all more alike than different because none of us has the necessary wages to purchase eternal life. The Bible says our sin has earned us spiritual death.

But eternal life is a gift from God. This gift provides for our most basic need, which is to be reconciled to God. We must receive this gift — and this is where it parts from the parable. The parable was about working and laboring for our wage, whereas the deeper spiritual lesson is there is no working for God’s grace and forgiveness. We receive God’s gift of eternal life by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. There’s a Greek word in the New Testament that teaches this principle: “tetelestai” or paid in full. Jesus paid the full penalty for our sin by His death on the cross. …

Many of us tend to see ourselves as all-day workers, and that’s the problem isn’t it? Few of us see ourselves as the worker who was hired the last hour who got the same wage. In the realm of grace, the word “deserved” does not even apply. So, then, how does one get into heaven? How does one come to the point in their life that they know God has forgiven all of their sin; that God has given to them all of the righteousness of His Son Jesus, and that they are wealthy indeed because of that? …

This parable teaches us the central lesson that Washingtonians need to hear. Acceptance with God is not something that we earn by our efforts — indeed, it is a gift from God. It is not performance righteousness, but rather a gift righteousness, which leaves no room for boasting.

There is no unfairness with God, however, because all that we have is a gift from Him and thus He owes us nothing more. Sometimes God’s grace confuses us, sometimes it staggers us. Sometimes it offends us, if the truth be told. But most of all, God’s grace should amaze us.

I want to close with … the testimony of John Newton, the man who wrote the amazing hymn “Amazing Grace,” which continues to be the most popular hymn down through the centuries since it was written. Newton, near the time of his death at age 82, said to his friends around him, “My memory is nearly gone, but two things I remember: first, that I am a great sinner, and second, that Jesus is a great savior.”

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