Septuagesima

(About 70 Days to Easter)

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 | Matthew 20:1–16

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

The way of the world is based on merit.  You get what you deserve, you don’t get what you don’t pay for.  Years of service ought to be recognized and compensated.  For example, in 2005, Delphi Automotive Parts filed for bankruptcy protection.  As part of the auto industry bailout a few years later, the pensions of union employees at Delphi was preserved while 20,000 non-union employees lost their justly-deserved retirement.  The fact that this case was appealed all the way up to the US Supreme Court (and their petition was denied) testifies to the fact that this is not how the world is supposed to work.[1]

That’s the world.  The Kingdom of Heaven is different, and we need to be ready to accept God’s ways on God’s terms, because, as James reminds us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)

One’s place in the Kingdom is not determined by their work, or dedication, or accomplishments.

  • When you are in the Kingdom, it is nothing like the world we live in now.  Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”  Picking up on this, look at how many stores and credit cards have membership programs and perks.  How many points do you have?
  • But Jesus has a terrible loyalty program!  This newbie who comes in at the 11th hour ends up with Platinum status!  It’s just not fair…if we’re judging by the world’s standards.
  • When Christians come together, as we are now, we leave the world to come into the Kingdom.  It’s a preview of our death.  We walk through the doors of the sanctuary and all that stratifies us, all that we’ve done, whatever our family background might be—it’s all forgotten because it doesn’t matter.  Just like when you die.  And like the Transfiguration last week, there’s only Jesus. [Matt. 17:8]

This isn’t to say God is being stingy.  What He gives us is far more than what money can buy.  Peace with God, a clean conscience, being able to look death in the face and know that you have the victory.  As the hymn by Johann Franck puts it, “He who craves a precious treasure Neither cost nor pain will measure; But the priceless gifts of heaven God to us has freely given. Though the wealth of earth were proffered, None could buy the gifts here offered: Christ’s true body, for you riven, And His blood, for you once given.” (Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness, LSB 636:3)

But, what would it be like if we did rank up in God’s favor?  How would you know?  Would you receive a special card like Starbucks when you attained a certain level?  It doesn’t happen.  So, you’d be left to figure it out from your circumstances.  If things were good, you would consider yourself blessed and approved by God.  If ill fortune came—your health takes a turn for the worse, your car unexpectedly breaks down, your job is downsized, or family strife cuts you off from those you love—then you’d be left to conclude you had somehow gotten on God’s bad side.

  • If you want to learn more about this outlook on God, listen to Job’s friends, who can’t help but conclude that Job’s life is a wreck because he did something offensive to God. (e.g. Job 4:7-11)

This Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard teaches us God’s way and the proper place for merit.  The vineyard stands for the Church, and being “hired” is the calling of the Holy Spirit to faith—from spinning your wheels and living selfishly toward a futile end to living to glorify and obey God as your Lord.  But the end result of that calling does not depend on the labor we put in.  It’s a lesson in what “grace” truly means: Undeserved favor.  12 hours, 9, 6, or 1 hour of work?  The reward is all the same!

“You are saved by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8)  It’s not about your own doing, your works, your accomplishments.  It is about Jesus Christ—what He has done, what He has merited, what He has accomplished! 

The world has “only two essentially different religions: the religion of the Law, that is, the endeavor to reconcile God through man’s own works, and the religion of the Gospel, that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, belief wrought through the Gospel by the Holy Ghost that we have a gracious God through the reconciliation already effected by Christ, and not because of our own works.” (Christian Dogmatics, F. Pieper I, 10)

This gives tremendous comfort to us in His Kingdom, in the vineyard as we labor.  When we come through those doors—whether it was our parents carrying us or we came ourselves—we came into the Kingdom in the Baptismal font.  I said it was a preview of our own demise, and it was and is: “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)  And having come into the Kingdom through the death and resurrection of Jesus, He has given you an eternal place in His Kingdom.

And that difference of God bringing us into His Kingdom by grace impacts who we are and how we live when we go out of this place.  Hear again from St. Paul:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

How can you be confident as you suffer?  How can you have strength to press on when you are weak?  How can you, riddled by habitual sins or haunted by your past, have a clear conscience?  Because Jesus has done all to secure your place as a child of God: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We don’t look to ourselves for assurance, because that leads to pride when things are good, and despair when they’re bad.

God has given us what is just: We are justified by the blood of Christ, baptized into His death and resurrection, nourished by His Word, renewed and strengthened by His Body and Blood, carried home by angels when He takes us from this vineyard of labor.  And then on the Judgement Day, we will receive not what we have earned, but what Christ has earned for us.  And that will never be taken away.

God has called us out of the world (the literal meaning for the word “Church”/Greek: ecclesia), where our temporal merits all fade away, but where the eternal merits of Jesus are paid out to us.  Now look here for your Father’s favor.  Now look here for your home which will not be taken away.  Look here for that peace which cannot be shaken by the storms and changes of this life.  And when those things do assault you, remember your Almighty Father, who rules over all things, and trust His good and gracious will for you: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)  Amen.


[1] Steyer, Robert. “Supreme Court declines to hear PBGC Delphi ERISA case” Pensions & Investments. 18 Jan 2022, https://www.pionline.com/courts/supreme-court-declines-hear-pbgc-delphi-erisa-case. Accessed 9 Feb 2022.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 20:1-16)

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: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 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: “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.