The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’ 8 And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 16 Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.” (NASB)
Luther says of this morning’s parable, the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, “As far as civil, public life is concerned, . . . you are unequal; whether you are a better person or work harder than someone else is not the point [of this parable]. No one has a better Christ than the next man.”
In the Gospel lesson this morning Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who needed workers to harvest the grapes from his vineyard. Throughout the day he goes into the market place and hired workers and sent them into his vineyard. Those he hired early in the morning had agreed upon a fair wage for a fair day’s work, a denarius. Those who had been hired later in the day, had not negotiated their wage, were happy to have the work, and simply trusted that the landowner would treat them well.
When the day was done, he paid his workers starting with those hired last first. As the line rew shorter and the men who had worked the longest saw what they others were paid, they reasoned to themselves “that they would receive more” that the agreed upon amount. After all, they had worked much longer than those hired late in the day. When they got the same as all the others, which was the amount they had agree upon, they were paid what they agreed to. They naturally felt cheated. They resented the generosity of the landowner and took on the mantle of the victim. “They grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’”
Jesus knew His audience. He knew the people to whom He was telling this parable. They were Jews, they were the “Chosen People of God.” Their bloodline had been chosen by the God in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and so on. They saw themselves as people who had been called and sent to work in the Old Testament vineyard, the Church. And even if they hadn’t been perfect in the performance of their duties and work, they were hard workers and decent people.
The others who were hired and sent to work in the vineyard later were proselytes – Gentiles converted to Judaism. They were second class citizens. Jews thought they were special and entitled to more of whatever God had to give.
First, they thought they were special by virtue of their bloodline, which was evidence of their long historic association with God. Second, they were special because of the works they had done and continued to do in service to God. By virtue of their genetic heritage and by virtue of their work and obedience, they were sure that they were better and deserved more than the “Johnny-come-lately” Gentile.
In this parable Jesus is making a very two specific points. First,
Jesus was explaining that their relationship with the Lord God didn’t work the way they thought it did. To them it was about a twofold “earning and deserving.” First, they believed that they earned their place in the kingdom. Second, they believed that once they were safely inside the kingdom and counted among the God’s chosen, their hard work entitled them to a better life. That’s how it is suppose to work in the world and up until the rise of communism, socialism, and the welfare state that is pretty much how it did work. “Fairness” is defined as getting what you have earned, good or bad. But when it comes to the kingdom of heaven, things are different.
The Old Testament lesson states it directly. Isaiah 55:8 God says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.’”
People often use this verse and its New Testament counterpart in the Epistles to the Roman Christians to assert that we simply can’t know the will, the ways, and the doctrines of God. It becomes a excuse for doubting or not believing His Word. But what this verse is actually teaching is that our natural and sinful way of thinking about the economy of God is simply wrong. God’s will, ways, doctrines, and deeds are entirely counter intuitive to what we naturally think.
The teaching ministry of Jesus was all about revealing Himself, His person, His work, His doctrine, and the work and doctrine of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to us. We have the revealed will of God in His Word. 2 Peter 1:19 “So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.”
We have been entrusted with the mysteries of God. Listen to Jesus Himself in Luke 8:10 “And He said, ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” In this parable Jesus is teaching us the mystery of God and how He dispenses His grace.
Even many Christians find themselves jealous over the fact they were raised in the church, have remained in the church, have served the church, and served their families and their neighbors as people befitting Christ’s family, while others seem to come and go as they please or are late arrivals, but all receive the same grace, forgiveness, and promises.
The men in the parable and those who heard the parable as Jesus told it were thinking works and rewards and labor and payment. But Jesus was teaching the higher ways and thoughts of God, namely grace. All Christians are given the very same gift and that He gives the One and the Same Christ, mercy, grace, and forgiveness to anyone and at anytime He chooses. Thus, verse 15 “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?”
The problem that Jesus confronted with the Jews in His day is that they thought that God owed them something, that they were entitled to something. This way of thinking is still with us. The visible church is plagued by teachers, people, and doctrines that feed on this notion that Christians and Jews somehow earn some kind of favorable treatment from God. If you have enough faith you can “name it,” that is name what you want or think you’re entitled to, and “claim it.”
After Jesus ascended into heaven, it didn’t take long for all to see that God’s grace is His and He can and will dispense it where, when, and to whom He pleases. The Gospel was first preached to the Jews, but when they failed to listen, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit filled with church with Gentiles.
After all those centuries wherein God saved the Hebrew people and dwelt with them in His temple, the ground beneath their feet shifted, literally on Easter morning. After all those centuries of God and His Word being tucked away among the Jewish people, God placed His Word firmly and squarely in the New Testament Christian Church.
Those who thought that they had something more and better coming because of their national heritage and their outward obedience to the law were mislead and self deceived. Thus God spoke through St. Paul, saying (Rom. 9:6) “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.”
In the musical the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frollo the Archdeacon of Notre Dame sings of himself, “Be-ata Maria, you know I am a righteous man, of my virtue I am justly proud, Be-ata Maria you know that I am so much purer than the common, vulgar, licentious, crowd.” In this song the character Frollo gives voice to that part of every sinner that seeks to demonstrate their own “goodness” and “virtue” in contrast to others, as if to say, God I deserve better than those sinners.
In this parable Jesus is putting that belief to death. We are all saved by grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor and He distributes His grace to whomever He elects and does so through the Word and Sacrament Ministry of the Church.
This is why we preach the Law. The Law shows us our sins and teaches us that whatever we receive from God is not received because we are good people. “We are poor miserable sinners who deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.” And this is the very message that the church growthers make mute.
But one can only know the depth of the peace and love of God given in the Gospel, when they know the depths and despair of their sin. We don’t get what we deserve– remember from last week. That’s mercy.
We receive so much more and better than what we earn. We earn death and hell. We get life and salvation instead. That’s grace.
We think that fairness is what life is all about—even from God’s perspective and in the Church. The point of the parable is the life of a Christian, a Christian husband and wife, mother and father, son and daughter, shepherd and sheep is not a matter of rewards and punishments, of rules and regulations, of fairness and unfairness. The kingdom of heaven, the Church, the person of Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a matter of God’s divine prerogative. It isn’t about fairness.
One person is called and chosen in the Gospel at baptism when he or she is just a few minutes out of the womb. Another person is called and chosen in the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the age of 99 just moments before his or her death.
The lowest seat in heaven is infinitely better than the highest seat in Hell. Where we stand, first or last, in the kingdom of heaven is not important. What is important is that we stand in the kingdom of heaven. “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”
The good news is that we have been chosen by God, purchased at great price by Him, and called by name in Baptism into His fellowship for everlasting joy and peace. All this by God’s choice.
May the Peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. AMEN