Septuagesima – February 16th and 17th, 2019 – Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
Today we begin the part of Epiphany that is known as Pre-lent. We have seen our Lord’s transfiguration, we know that He is God become Man, and in just a few weeks the season of Lent will be upon us. And so now our readings shift; they move from showing us that Christ Jesus is true God to teaching us and reminding us of truths that will shape how we approach Lent, how we approach that season of repentance, how we view our Lord’s death and resurrection. And to begin this week, we get the story of the laborers 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. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them out into his vineyard.” Now, here is the situation. You have unemployed workers. Laborers. Folks who don’t have any specific skill that would be in vast demand, folks who simply had to hope that someone would put them to work. And there they are, without employment, with no income. And there's no reason to think that this would be changing anytime soon, but then up comes this master, and he offers them a job. A good job. A Denarius a day – that’s a good, full wage. He’s not going to use their poverty against them, he’s not going to drive a hard bargain – no, he offers a full wage. And not just for today – it’s on going. Come, I’ll pay you a good wage a day, every day. It would be like the dream job falling into your lap, and so off they go to the vineyard with joy.
The master continues. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right, I will give you.’” More folks, and they are now without much hope for that day. Three hours have passed, a quarter of the working day, and, well, nothing. It's too late, the jobs are filled. But then the master comes up, and he says, go – whatever is right, I will give you. They’ll have enough to eat, enough to live today. And the master keeps gathering more. “Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh 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.’” The master does this all day. And with this last group you get the full sense of hopelessness, of despondency. Why are you standing around here – because no one has hired us, because we can’t do anything. If there’s no jobs, there’s no jobs, and we simply go hungry. And eventually we starve and die because that’s how this lousy town works. And the master says, “Eh, go into the vineyard as well.” Over and over the master pulls people away from this hopelessness and gives them hope, purpose, and the promise of life, of being able to live.
And the master is generous. “And when the 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 11th hour came, each of them received a denarius.” What generosity! What care! Here, have the full day’s wages, even though you worked only a sliver. And why? Because you are now my workers, you work for me, and I am going to care for you and treat you well. The owner is good and gracious and supports people well. But, not everyone sees it that way. “Now, when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 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.’” The grumbling starts. How come, if they get this, we don’t get more? We’ve worked harder, we’ve done more, we’ve been more useful than them! Do you see how sad this is? The joy that was theirs when first hired, when first called to work in the vineyard is gone, replaced by bitterness and anger over what others have received. Look at me, look at what I’ve done, I should get more! 12 hours earlier they were wondering where their next meal would come from, and now they are cursing the hand that feeds them.
Yet the master is gentle with them even in their folly. “But he replied to one of 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?’” Be calm my friend, do not be angry. Do you not see and understand how kind and good I am? I have never done you wrong – you are getting exactly what I have told you that you would receive. As for the others, I choose to be generous – have I not also been generous with you? Indeed, you yourself have benefited from my own generosity – rejoice that I am generous.
So then, what does this mean? Here is the warning that we must remember. When Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven, when He describes what life in His church is like, He doesn’t paint an artificially rosy picture. It’s a vineyard. It is full of hard and difficult labor. Likewise, life as a Christian in this fallen world is difficult. Let no one tell you differently. In other places Jesus tells us that the world will hate us, that our own sinful flesh will tempt us, that often we will be set against friend and even family for Christ’s sake. To be a Christian in a sinful world is a hard and difficult task. But again, we remember why we are Christians. We were those with no hope, we were those stuck in sin and sorrow and death. Just waste our lives away and that’s it. And yet Christ Jesus has gone to the Cross, and suffered, died and risen again. And now that same Jesus Christ comes to us, while we were yet sinners, and out of His own great love and generosity He calls us out of darkness into His Church, and He says, “I have forgiven you, and yes, in this life there will be struggles and trials and heartache, but when this life is done, you will rise forgiven and inherit eternal life.”
And this is the promise He makes to all He calls into His church, whether we are called as infants, baptized before we can even speak, or whether we are called into His Church even on our deathbed. The promise is the same. Jesus says, “I forgive you your sins, I give you life everlasting and all that is Mine is now yours.” And this is simply wondrous – such great generosity, such great love. But here is the problem – while we are still in this world, our old sinful flesh still clings to us, and instead of being content to simply look at God’s great love which He showers upon us undeservedly, our flesh wants to make everything be about us and what we have done. We want to make the same move that the workers did – look at us, look at what we’ve done, surely we deserve “more”. And that is how Satan attacks Christians. He slithers up to you and says, “You know, here you are, and you’ve been a good, faithful Christian, and what has it gotten you? Nothing. Your life is still full of problems, while that guy over there, he’s on easy street compared to you – and he’s no where near as nice or hard working as you are. Shouldn’t God give you more, since you’ve been such a good person? Isn’t that the deal? Be a good Christian and get blessed? And what do you have – all these troubles that you work so hard to hide from everyone else… oh, this is all a waste, isn’t it!” And the grumblings and the doubts come in – because we forget the Word of God and instead focus upon ourselves.
Friend, God is doing you no wrong. The deal NEVER was “be good and get blessed.” God never promised you a life of ease, a life free of heartache and pain. You’re a sinner in a sinful world, there is just going to be pain and heartache. And if another has it better than you, easier than you – rejoice for them, be glad in their good things. Help them to enjoy them – that’s what we are instructed in the commandments over and over. But as for you, remember what God has promised you. You are His baptized child, and all that is Christ’s is now yours. Yes, this means life everlasting, but it also means in this world you will receive what Christ received – hardship and trial. The Christian faith is not some ponzi scheme to set you up on easy street. No, in this life you will be put to work loving your neighbors, serving them, giving of yourself for them, even dying for them, little by little. But in the midst of this, even as you live out your life here in this world, even as you remain a sinner who grumbles and rebels, Jesus is faithful and just, and He continues to come to you and say, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. You know what life in this world is really like – for I have told you it is hard. But I am generous. You are forgiven of all of your sin. You will have My own strength to endure through the scorching days, the long and lonely nights, the times of trouble and pain, for I am with you even until the end of the age. And then, I will raise you from the dead, and you will see life everlasting beyond all pain and sorrow, for you are My own, and nothing can separate you from the love that I have for you.”
Lent is coming, and one of the dangers of Lent, as it is a time of repentance, a time of reflection upon our own lives, is that Satan will try to use that reflection to stoke our pride and our ego, will try to tell us that we deserve more and more, especially compared to that person over there. Ignore these temptations, and rather remember who you are. While you are a sinner, powerless to do anything for yourself, Christ Jesus has come to you, and He has given you life now. He has promised to support and sustain you through the trials of this life. He forgives you richly so that come the last day you will stand gladly and joyously by His side for all eternity. Jesus goes boldly to the Cross to win this for you – it is His salvation to do with as He pleases, and He is pleased to give it to you simply out of His great generosity. You are saved by grace. It all depends upon Him, and He will never fail you. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +