Septuagesima (70 Days to Easter) (Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Septuagesima (70 Days to Easter) + February 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV

As you’ve already probably noticed from the bulletin, there’s something different about this season in between Epiphany and Lent.  Easter is still over two months away, but already we begin our countdown to it.  For starters, these next three weeks, we will meditate on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Every Sunday of the Church year is centered around the themes in the Gospel reading.  As the saints who went before us chose the readings, these next three Sundays form a sermon series on grace.  First, we hear from the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard that Grace is undeserved.  Next week, in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15), we will learn that Grace is received passively.  Finally, and right before we intensify our focus on the cross of Christ, we learn from the story of a blind beggar (Luke 18:31-43) that Grace is spiritually discerned. All of these teachings, put together will better prepare our hearts for our devotion to our Savior, who in great love, willingly offered up His life that sinners might live eternally through Him.

There’s the way of the world, of daily life, the way things should be.  We are so deeply inculcated with those things.  And we should be, when it comes to our dealings in the world.  Workers should get fair payment for their time and labors.  The story of Jacob working for Laban is true: It was unjust for Laban to renege on what he had promised Jacob, forcing him to work another 7 years for Rachel and repeatedly changing his wages after that (Genesis 29:1-30, 30:25—31:9).

But the Kingdom of Heaven is an altogether different matter.  Yet, couched in the terms of wages, Jesus explains: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner…”  Notice how our Lord does not say the Kingdom of Heaven is like an organization—a non-profit or a corporation; it is like a man who owns land, and that’s the first clue that this is going to shift the way we think of how God deals with men in His Kingdom.

This landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard, and with the first, he agrees with them for a set wage (a denarius was a standard pay for a day’s work).  These work 12 hours.  Next, he goes out at the third hour and hires others, promising more vaguely, “whatever is right I will give you.”  These work 9 hours, but their pay isn’t explicitly stated.  Next, he goes out at the sixth and ninth hours, and sends them into the vineyard without a promise of payment at all.  They work 6 and 3 hours respectively.  Finally at the eleventh hour, 1 hour before the end of the work day, he hires those who have been idle all day and sends them.

Now, before we get to the time for them to “pick up their checks,” notice who he has hired: The diligent who were out there first thing, the less fortunate who were late to the marketplace, and the total slackers who—if they had mom’s basements then—would have been crashed in them, playing video games until 4 in the afternoon.

“So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’

When it comes time for the payout, every one of these gets the same wage—a denarius.  This is where your blue collar grandfather—who worked his whole life from nothing, who went without the finer things when he couldn’t afford it, but loved his family enough to work 12 hour days—wants to spit on the ground in disgust.  How can it be that the undeserving slobs get the same as those who toiled and sweated for the long haul?

But hear the Master’s response: “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. 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 my own things?”

What he speaks of isn’t a wage gap or unfair practices.  He exposes a fundamental error in the complainer’s heart: You think your work entitled you to a greater share than others.  The Master has every right to pay generously and even at His own expense, without partiality.  But the next part of verse 15 gets to the heart: “Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

I chose to use the New King James version over the ESV because of this direct translation from the Greek.  Where does the problem really lie with the Master paying the slacker the same as the hard worker?  The evil is in the eye of the beholder, because it’s the hard worker who thinks God owes him more.  It’s the sin of covetousness, not being content with how God distributes His goodness.  With our evil eye, we look in judgment on our neighbor say, they’re getting far more than they deserve.  But the truth is that if any of us got what we truly deserved, then “this poor wretched soul of mine, in hell eternally would pine.”[1]  Or as the Apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

What is God’s goodness?  With evil clouding our hearts, we can scarcely understand it, but suffice to say, God only loves unworthy people.  As the Proverbs say, “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.” (Prov. 3:34)  To those who boast in themselves, God will be intolerably foolish, wasteful, and extravagant.  Is your eye evil because God is good?

The latest issue of the Lutheran Witness has an article about mercy in the early church.  One particular sermon by John Chrysostom in the late 300’s AD is cited:

“Today, I stand before you to make a just, useful and suitable intercession. I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles. In other words, just as I was passing through the marketplace and the narrow lanes, hastening to your assembly, I saw in the middle of the streets may outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gouged-out eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds…

I thought it the worst inhumanity not to appeal to your love on their behalf, especially now that the season [of winter] forces us to return to this topic…During the season of winter, the battle against [the poor] is mighty from all quarters…Therefore they need more nourishment, a heavier garment, a shelter, a bed, shoes, and many other things…their need of the bare necessities is much greater, and besides, work passes them by, because no one hires the wretched, or summons them to service.”

The article’s author continues: “If his congregation didn’t step up, he told them, they would be guilty of dereliction of duty towards their neighbor. And there was to be no investigating whether or not a poor person was worthy of the generosity he received. Jesus’ own words encapsulated the motivation for this generosity: ‘Freely you have received. Freely give.’ (Matt. 10:8).”

The very grace we have received is the reason Christians show grace toward others, and grace doesn’t ask questions of worthiness.  But, the evil eye presumes, “They’ll just waste it; we’re enabling them; or what are we going to get in return?”  If you don’t understand grace, you will find soup kitchens abhorrent, you will want homeless shelters nowhere near your house, and you will hoard your hard-earned income with a tight fist and only dole it out to those who can demonstrate they’ll use it to your standards.

Is your eye evil because God is good?  If so, the early Christians should rise up at the judgment and condemn us proud, wealthy Americans because we have outsourced charity to the government—and what a wasteful and impassionate job they do of it—and we outsource to other Christians the job of showing mercy that middle-class Christians don’t want to do themselves, because it might get them dirty and infringe on their worldly luxuries. 

If you are humbled by this, now you’re ready to learn (or re-learn) what grace is.  You are evil, but God remains good. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  In His goodness, He has delivered up His Son for you to be received as a gift.  Do you now see that none of us has a reason to boast in the presence of God?  It is in fact part of God’s essence that He shows His goodness to the evil like you and me.  Yes, we take it for granted, we turn His Word into a weapon to use against others and feel better about ourselves, we presume on His kindness.  Yet that doesn’t stop Him from giving to us a goodness we are unworthy of.

That’s what this parable teaches us: Grace is shown without partiality.  When Jesus goes to the cross, He goes there without doing the math to make sure it’s worth it.  His love impelled Him to do it.  He did it long before any of us took our first breath, so that we might receive not the wages for our sins, but the free gift of eternal life in Him.  What is a denarius or any earthly treasure in comparison with that?

I pray that God increases the effects of that grace in His Church, in you and me.  May what we have freely received also inspire us to freely give.  Like the example of Christians who have come before us, may the grace shown to us overflow in grace toward others, so that our lives are a testimony to what He has done. May it be that our congregation is a place not known for its looks or its history, but for its works.  I hope that each of you who have received grace with your hearts will pray this with me. Amen.


[1] “If Your Beloved Son, O God” (LSB 568:1)

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