Septuagesima (3 Sundays til Lent) – Matthew 20:1-16 – January 23rd and 24th, 2016
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
Thus far in Epiphany we have been focused on how this Jesus, this child who was born in Bethlehem, is indeed true God – Light of Light, Very God of Very God. So now the question these last three weeks before Lent becomes this – how does this Jesus fellow operate? How does He work? What is the way, how does one deal with this Jesus fellow, how does one benefit from Him? Historically in Lutheranism, we've talked about the three solas, the three “alones” - Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Faith Alone. And in each of the next three weeks, our texts will deal with one of these themes – Grace, the Word, and Faith. So to understand that Christ Jesus works by Grace alone, we will consider our parable from Matthew 20 – the workers in the Vineyard.
For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And after agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them out into his vineyard. Now, I want you to understand the point, the impact of this parable. Jesus is not telling this parable in a union friendly state. There are no government benefits, nothing like that. The rule was simple – if a man shall not work, he shall not eat. And who are these people standing there in the market place? They are the unfortunate souls who have no job. They have no income, no back up plan, nothing. And more than that – they are just “workers”. They don't have a specific trade to where they can try to latch on at some place already established – these are the bottom rung workers. And unless someone hires them, tonight they starve. That's their situation. And into the market comes this master of the house, and he hires these folks for a denarius a day. A Denarius was a good wage for a day-laborer; it was appropriate. The master isn't playing hard ball, he doesn't negotiate them down. Just simply – let's do this fair and square. And they agree. Happily. In Greek, the word is “symphony” - that's how beautiful and harmonious this agreement is. And off they go.
And going about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. Now, he hires three more groups of workers – but does this give you the sense of desperation these workers would have been having? Think about it – how desperate do you have to be to go and work for someone who says, “wages, we don't need to set up any wages – just trust me, I'll pay you something.” But there they go. The day is wasting, and as that sun creeps higher and higher without them being hired, that's just a reminder that they will probably starve tonight – so take what you can get.
Finally, at the 11th hour, 5 O'clock, an hour before quitting time, the master goes out again. And about the 11th hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.” We can hear this wrong. We can hear these workers say “because no one has hired us” and think, “Bums, get on out there and look for a job.” No – they've been there, where the jobs would be, all day. And nothing. The “idle” doesn't mean that they were loafing, it means that they hadn't found work... or more accurately, work hadn't found them. And so the master send them into the vineyard. Then what happens next is wondrous.
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. This is mindblowingly generous. This would be utterly unexpected. This is bad business sense. But that's what the master likes to do. He shows over-abundant compassion. However, it does end up ruffling some feathers. Now when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also received a deniarius. And on receiving it, they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” That harmonious agreement, not so harmonious anymore, is it? You've made us equal – how dare you say that we are equal to them when we've done more, we've suffered more! The master responds gently. But he replied to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” That last line in the Greek is literally: “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” Look pal, I've dealt with you fairly, kindly – everything's been above the board. Why do you gripe? If I choose to show kindness to those poor schlubs who thought they were going to starve, that's no skin off of your back. Why does my kindness build up your resentment?
This, dear friends in Christ, is the picture of Christ's grace to us, and also a warning of how and why we can end up hating God's grace. The first workers are indignant – You have made them equal to us! We're so different than them! We deserve more! They view everything on the basis of what they themselves have done and they become angry. Yet, the master is right. All of them were equal – they were all the same thing. Workers. Day-laborers. Folks who would have starved that day with nothing if the master hadn't gone and found them and put them to work. These first could have easily been the last if the master had hit different parts of the market in a different order. These angry workers failed to see that they were in the same boat as all the other workers, regardless of when they entered the vineyard. And so they became angry.
What do you see when you look at your fellow Christians, your fellow sinners, oh members of Trinity? How do you judge them, how do you size them up? Do you see them as folks who are in the same boat as you are – sinners in a sinful world, struggling with a variety of sinful stuff just like you are... or do you size them up on the basis of what you do, how hard you work, how much you've done for God, how much more in order your life is than theirs? Do you see them as the same as you, equal to you – or do you find a way to see them as less than you, so that you really ought to deserve more than them?
It was a false, misleading dream that God His law had given, that sinners could themselves redeem, and by their works gain heaven. The opening of the third verse of my favorite hymn. Do you judge, do you evaluate people on the basis of what they have done? If so, my friends, you have forgotten grace, and we are indeed saved by grace alone. Grace refers to a gift of God, freely given, without any merit or worthiness in me. And the simple fact is none of us deserve anything from God. We are born sinful, born in opposition to God, born at war with Him. And yet, simply and solely out of His great love, He calls us out of darkness into His marvelous light, gives us forgiveness, gives us life, gives us meaning and purpose to our lives. And this is not because of how great we are – no, it is how great, how good He is, in spite of our own jealous wickedness.
Here's the thing. We know this. This is a Lutheran Church full of Lutherans. If I said “grace alone, grace alone” you all would smile and nod your heads, yes pastor, grace alone. But here's the thing; here's where Satan will attack us. We still like to check our works, we still like to get out the ruler and measure ourselves and compare ourselves to each other and get all prideful. When we do that, we forget truly what great gifts from God we have received. Or do you not know that even your works aren't “yours” in the sense that you created them – they are gifts from God to you.
Consider again the workers from the parable. The very first group, the ones that so quickly become prideful in their own accomplishments. If the master of the house hadn't walked up to them and sent them into the vineyard, where would they have been at the third hour, or the sixth hour, or the ninth? Standing idle, waiting, fearing for the future, wondering if they were going to starve. This is why they rejoiced in the morning, this is why they gladly went into the fields. Even working itself was a gift – because they knew that they would be provided for, their day had certainty instead of doubt. And even though the work was hard – not something I'd want to do – it was still a great blessing to them. And if they never looked at anyone else, they would have taken their denarius with joy and satisfaction and gone home glad.
Think on the first article of the creed – God gives us our bodies, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, all that I need to support this body and life. Do you see what this is teaching us? That our vocations, that our ability to work at all is a gift from God. Indeed, as we heard today, having been saved we now live under Christ in His kingdom and serve Him! What a gift! Now, if this is a gift from God, where do I get off thinking that I should look at what I do, my life, which is a gift from God gift from God, and then start jawjacking at God about how He's not giving me enough because I do more than that person over there? How dare You, God! You give me talents and opportunity that others don't have – but then You dare to not give me more on top of that! Kind of stupid, ain't it? All sin is when we step back and think about it.
But here's the thing. God doesn't look at you or judge you on merit. At least not your merit. If He did, we all would be in a heap of trouble. But rather, Christ Jesus has done it all, and we are viewed in terms of what He has done, we are viewed in terms of Christ's death and resurrection upon the cross – and in Him we are all equal, and in Him we all receive forgiveness and life, in Him we receive our daily bread with thanksgiving, whatever the tasks that come along with that daily bread look like. Because here is the good news – your life, your salvation; it doesn't hinge upon you. When we are feeling prideful, we wish it would – but then things go bad, and we mess up, and we fall and crash and expect to burn. But God says no. God says, “I am good, and I will give you good things, not because of you, but because of Christ.” So what if you fail – Christ does not, and thus the love of the Father for you will never fail. And it will continue to be free and full, just as He has promised. You will have work and labor during your days here on earth – some of it will be hard, some of it will be less hard. Either way, He will put you to work, and when the day is done He will call you home saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter now into your rest.” We know – it's what He's promised, what He agreed upon with us at Holy Baptism when we were called away from standing idly in this world and into His kingdom. His grace for you is free, and it never fails. Thus, I encourage you, when that jealousy or sniping comes up, remember once again God's grace, and see again how is flows generously to you and those around you. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the world +