Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon and Sweet Home, OR
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Baptism of David Timothy Miller) + September 24, 2017
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
The dictionary defines grace as unmerited favor from God. So, we sing praises of God’s grace in Christ. We name congregations after it and we sing about how amazing grace is. It truly is incredible to ponder, as Paul explains it in Romans 5: “6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What an incredible thought, that the righteous judge of all humanity, the One who knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, the one to whom we will all have to give an account…has paid the penalty for our evil, and embraced His enemies as sons!
We can’t say enough about God’s grace when it has to do with us personally. Yet, in practice, God’s grace becomes a stumbling block to the natural way we think.
That’s what Jesus shows in this parable. It’s a work setting, and what we know about work is that labor deserves fair wages. Here, the wages are constant: a denarius, a silver coin which was the going rate for a day laborer. What varies is how much work is done. In some cases, 12 hours, others 9, 6, 3, and even 1. However, at the end of the day, each receives the same wage—for varying work.
This is a picture of grace, not that the laborers worked and got paid, but that they watched other people work less or more, yet get the same wage. There would have been no quarrel if those hired at the beginning of the day hadn’t seen the latecomers. But if grace is unmerited favor, then those 12-hour workers also wouldn’t understand what those hired at the last hour experienced: That for very little if any work, they were accounted as having worked a whole day.
But this is how the kingdom of heaven is. It’s not about our labors or our striving or even our wise choices. Because of that, grace is scandalous.
Grace is scandalous because it means the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something that can be achieved. Today, we witnessed that beautifully in an infant being baptized. I can be perfectly honest and say that David had no clue what we were doing or had any comprehension of the words that were being said. As an infant, he is as close as you can get to being a non-participant. He can’t even find his mouth with his hand, much less vocalize the name Jesus.
But this is an offense to us who think the Kingdom of Heaven is something for us to enter. They cite Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” They argue people shouldn’t be baptized as babies because they don’t know what’s going on, and they can’t decide that it’s right for them. The scandal about grace is that it happens apart from our works, so that it even happens to the unaware. The recipients of grace are so passive that the best example of faith is parents bringing even infants to Jesus that He might bless them.
Consider the Paralytic and his friends: “2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” The man is there, not inert like a rock, but he certainly can’t bring himself. But is says when Jesus saw their faith, He declared the man’s sins forgiven. What had he done? Had he brought himself? No. Did he ask his friends? Maybe, but it doesn’t say that. He is another perfect picture of grace, because it’s received apart from works.
Grace is also a scandal because it isn’t just. Even if we can get over our unbelief that a little bitty baby can have faith and receive the Kingdom, we have trouble with grace when it means God welcomes people deserve far from forgiveness and salvation.
Conflicts with others in the church challenge the application of grace. It’s not just that they didn’t lift a finger to move toward God, but they are guilty of fighting against God and other people! If grace happened in a vacuum, it wouldn’t be a problem, but when you see God’s grace given to sinners, our thirst for people getting the just rewards of their actions isn’t sated.
But through Jesus Christ, it is achieved—both in achievement and in justice. You are saved by works—Christ’s. In Jesus Christ, justice is carried out, the scales are balanced in a divine, miraculous way. All our sin, be it small or great, is paid for by the blood which Jesus shed on the cross.
So the reward is the same, not in silver or gold, but in the precious blood of Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a reward for our works, but a gift paid for by another. That’s grace, and it’s not just for you. It’s also for the person sitting next to you, the people you meet on the street, and for even those you can’t stand. Repent of your earthly grumblings, and let your heart be tuned to the grace of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.