Of all the parables that Jesus taught, this one comes closest to showing us the nature of God – and how different God’s world can be. Sometimes we think of God in terms of his greatness and his glory – think of some of those names we use for God like “Almighty” or “King of Kings” or “Lord of Lords”. Names where we see God in ways that reflect our human way of thinking: authority – words like “King” or “Father” or “Lord”.
This is understandable – we have no other framework to think about God than our own human experience. Each of those titles says something different about the role of God – but they are all human titles. That is all we have to go on!
So Jesus, during his time on earth, helps us to understand God in a way that is more than human. It is good for us to try to understand God is every way we can – and we use phrases like “made in his image” to help us – but we are still trying to understand God as a human being – which he is not!
So Jesus uses parables – to show the true nature of God.
- In the parable of the Prodigal Son, God is seen as the loving farther who allows his son the freedom to choose his life style. He lets the son use his inheritance foolishly, to discover for himself that his choices were bad – but the loving father is waiting on a daily basis for the son to return and is welcomed warmly back into the father’s family.
- In the parable of the Vineyard Tenants, God is seen as the Owner of the vineyard, who leases the property to tenants to take care of his property and earn their living. But when it comes to paying the owner for the privilege of benefiting from the owner’s property they refuse. Messengers are sent to claim the rent – and are increasingly rejected – from blunt refusal to violence and murder – and in the end the Owner has only one option – to send his son – and he is murdered. And so the owner will punish the tenants for their crimes / sins.
- In the parable of the Manager of the vineyard, God is seen as the Lord of his world who reaches out to the people in need to give them the ability to earn a living. This was a regular event especially at harvest time – where there was little time between the grapes ripening and the autumn rains coming (which would ruin the grapes). Time was vital, so an owner would take on workers as necessary during the day if the rain was coming. The workers were the lowest of the working class – laborers who gathered in the marketplace – waiting all day if necessary for a job and a few cents of pay. Nothing unusual today, until they were paid at the end of the day – with the last batch of laborers getting paid the same for 1 hour’s work as the first group who worked for perhaps 12 hour’s work. They all got what was promised to the first group. “I gave you what I promised – am I not entitled to be generous to others?” “Am I not allowed to be compassionate?” said the owner.
Here we have three different images of God – and there are other images as well – and each one revealing a different side of God.
- In the parable of the prodigal Son, God is seen as the loving, father figure, prepared to allow us the freedom to make our own choices, but ready to forgive us and welcome us back from our mistakes;
- In the parable of the Vineyard Tenants, God is seen as the owner who is prepared to give us control over his property (the world) but who expects us to be righteous and just and show gratitude and share the benefits for the privilege that is given to us;
- And in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, God is seen as compassionate and generous, reaching out to both the best of the workers, (who were chosen first) and the worst (and poorest) workers (whom nobody wanted to employ) and rewarding them equally.
It is difficult to think clearly about the image of God as prepared to reward the later comers in the same way as the earlier group. I suppose our inclination is to think about quality and fairness, and about the return for our efforts, and think that the first group who labored all day should be rewarded more than the last group – but the owner makes it clear that is his choice. And the earlier group received the pay they had been promised.
So if the owner is a representation of God – and we are his workers – then will God not reward each one with the same reward? Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4 that he is ready to receive his crown of Glory. That Crown of Glory may come to the person who has served God for say, 80 years, and equally that same Crown of Glory will be given to the person who made a death-bed conversion to Christianity.
God’s ways are not our ways.
It is right that we should try to understand the nature of God in human terms and we should do our best to understand God as best we can. But we must never try to force God into our human way of life. God is greater than any human lifestyle we can imagine.
God is loving and caring – yes, and gives us freedom.
God is just and righteous – yes, he is also strong and punishing.
God is compassionate and generous – yes, and will reward his people without favor.
But we must never try to fit God into our understanding – rather we need to understand God and fit ourselves into his image!