Septuagesima Sunday – February 5th, 2012 – Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
As we prepare for Lent, as we get ready for that intense season with its focus upon Christ, with its traditional fasting, our Lord reminds us of a truth in our Gospel. It’s not just giving up whatever for Lent that makes our life hard. No, in our Gospel lesson, Christ Jesus lets us know that following Him will always be hard work, will be full of effort and toil. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a master who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. That’s how Jesus chooses to describe our lives as Christians –as workers in a field, baking under a hot sun. Let us examine this parable this morning, and see how our Lord shapes our lives by it.
After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them out into his vineyard. As Christians we are sent out into God’s vineyard, that is, the world, and we are sent out to work. The Lord sets before us many things on our plate. If you want to consider this there is no better place to look than the Small Catechism. Look at the Table of Duties. We are instructed by Luther to examine our relationships with other people and see what it is that we owe them – how we ought to serve them. As a Christian, your primary work for God is to serve your neighbor. God sends us out into the vineyard. The parable doesn’t describe God hiring housekeepers to sweep the golden streets of heaven, it’s about workers in a vineyard – it describes working out there, in the world, serving and tending your neighbor. If you are a parent, it’s about serving your children. If you are a son or daughter, it is about respecting and caring for your parents. If you are a worker, it’s about serving your employer. If you are an employer, it is about serving and providing for your employees. The work we are sent out to do is nothing strange because we are Christian – there is no magical, special training that is required. We simply live in the world, but do it knowing that we are here not for simply our own pleasure, but here to love our neighbor. That is our work, what we do.
And make no doubt about it – this is hard work, especially hard for us sinful folk. A vineyard is apt way to describe hard work. Everything has to be done by hand – you have to tend each plant individually, you have to pay special attention and possibly carry water. And the best vineyards are where it is hot, where there is intense sun – you put them on the sunny, harsh side of the hill. And the harvest, all by hand - you didn’t get a scythe to just slice wheat down. You didn’t just get to pick the corn, or even pull the plant up. Pull the grapes, but leave the vines behind so that they bear a crop again next year. Hard work, done over and over again.
We are called to love our neighbor. Grapes are known as a temperamental plant – they require things to be just right, and they need a lot of care. Likewise, our neighbors can often be temperamental, and quite often our neighbor requires a lot of care from us. I want you to think back with me on this past week – and think how many times someone asked something of you, needed something of you, took up your time. That is your work in the vineyard. That is your service to God. Now think on it again. How often were you annoyed with those very same people? How often did the unkind thoughts pop into your head, how often did you have to fight back a sigh, or even a grimace or a scowl? How often did you look with annoyance or disfavor on anyone, even the casual person on the street, in a store, wherever, who inconvenienced you in the slightest way? That is our old evil flesh craving sin. That is Satan tempting you to abandon the work God has set you to. Our work in this world as Christians is hard. We are to show love. We are coming up on Valentine’s day, and the stores are full of tacky cards and the like – big emotional displays. When Scripture talks about love, it’s not talking about emotion – when Christ tells us to love our neighbor, he’s not telling us to look at them and sigh dreamy-eyed and wistfully. Love is an action, it is a verb, it is something that is done. It is our work – and it is hard for us sinful folks to love. Beware of Satan’s temptations, beware of your own sinful flesh trying to pull you away from your duty of love.
And going out 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. And he does the same at the 6th hour, and the 9th hour, and even the 11th hour, when there is only one hour of work in the 12 hour work day to go. And so people come into the vineyard at all different hours – some work the whole day, through all the heat. Some have come only as the cool of the evening comes, as the sun sets. And then it comes time to be paid. And when those hired about the 11th hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. Economically, what the master does here doesn’t make sense to us. If I work more, if I work harder, I should get more. That’s how we tend to think. If you have two workers, side by side, and one works 5 hours a week and the other works 60 hours, doing the same job – we would find it to be a gross injustice if they were both paid the same amount, we’d be indignant. Shoot, if this happened today, you might have “occupy the vineyard” movements popping up. And in our parable, those who started working at the beginning of the day act up as well. 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.”
They grumbled at the master. Oh, how sad it is that this often describes us. How often we grumble and complain about God. It’s nothing new. After the fall, Adam grumbled – it’s not my fault, it’s this stupid woman you gave me. Eve grumbles about the snake. In our old testament lesson, even as they are rescued miraculously from Egypt the people of Israel grumble. And in our parable, the workers grumble. We want what we deserve! We want what we’ve earned!
The workers forgot one simple thing. It’s not all about them and what they do. Yes, indeed, they had a task laid out before them, and they were to strive to do it, but it isn’t all about them. If the master of the vineyard had not come to them, invited them, offered them work, would they have gotten anything? No. They were not masters of their own destiny – they were simply waiting for an opportunity, they were dependent upon the Master. And the Master gives to them what He promised. But [the master] replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” All that happens, all that goes on, isn’t about these workers and what they deserve – it’s about the master and what he gives.
Consider what is going on here. Instead of just paying attention to their own work, their own tasks, and rejoicing in their own payment, these workers start looking over covetously on what their neighbor has, they start lamenting how easy it is for the other guy – and then there is discontent and sorrow. This is the exact same thing that happens in our own lives when we start comparing how hard our lives are or how someone else has more than we do. This is why there are commandments against coveting – because our sinful heart wants to grouse and complain whenever it gets the chance. And that sinful heart will always assume that we deserve more, that we are the best, and ego goes unchecked and it gets ugly. This is sad and dangerous to faith, because when we focus on our own works, we forget what is much, much more important – we forget the mercy of God.
In this parable we are reminded that Christ’s mercy and love reigns supreme. Thanks be to God Almighty that we are not judged on how well we show love – for in this we have failed, often and often again. We can’t point out how much we deserve reward, for we sin often. The very thing which disgusts the workers “you have made them [those who have done little] equal to us” is our hope of salvation. We have been made equal – equally forgiven, equally redeemed. There is not a flaw, there is not a sin that has not been covered by Christ upon the Cross. We have an equal share in forgiveness, and one that we by no means earned. And God gives this out to all – whether they have worked in His fields a lifetime or whether it has been only at the last hour. I’ve buried those who have been Baptized Christians all their life, and I’ve buried those who I’ve baptized on their deathbed, and thanks be to God Almighty that in His sight they and we are all equal, equally forgiven and redeemed children of God. It’s not about what we do for God in our life, it is all about what Christ Jesus has done for us with His life, His death, and His resurrection. Our life is centered, is established, survives, in Christ and in Christ alone. God is more than fair to us, He treats us more than rightly, for solely and completely out of His great love and mercy to us, He grants us the gift of faith, calls us out of darkness into His marvelous light – and makes us His own children.
God is generous – and we are not to begrudge Him that generosity. It is out of His generosity towards us that He had compassion upon us and sent His Son into this world to go to the cross for our sake. And so, my friends, as we prepare for this Lent and Eastertide – do not approach things arrogantly or thinking that you deserve these blessings – rather see how diligently Christ works and suffers for your sake in order to win you Salvation. Your Heavenly Father gives you tasks to do in this life, and you should go about them comfidently, because the task of wining you salvation has been accomplished by Christ Jesus, and your reward is great and wondrous in and because of Him. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the world. Amen.