Septuagesima (about 70 days until Easter)

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

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Quite often, the airwaves are abuzz with talk of fair wages and proper compensation.  Strong words come from politicians, talk show hosts, and probably in your own conversations, too.   Everyone wants to get what’s owed to them, and as much as possible.  But there seems to be no agreement on what that is.  So, the fiery debates continue.

But, here, in the Kingdom of Heaven, we need to leave all that clamor behind.  It’s earthly baggage.  If we try to bring it with us, we will be in grave danger of missing what grace really is.  So, leave the world while you’re in this place, and listen to your God and Savior.

We will focus especially on the Master’s question in the parable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (v. 15)

“A master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  Notice carefully what he does:  Nobody came to him looking to work in his vineyard.  Rather, he went out to look for them.  And notice the people that he hires: idlers.  If he hadn’t called them, they would have gone home at the end of the day empty-handed.  But did the landowner owe these workers a job?  Did these laborers have any claim on the master’s property?  Not at all.  It was the master’s free choice to go out and hire these laborers.  It was his vineyard, so he set the wage and the rules for working there.

The Lord once said to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.”[1]  The truth of the matter is, God does not owe any person anything.  He is the Creator, and we the creatures.  Not the other way around.   He is not accountable to us; we are to Him.  He formed us from the dust, and everything that makes us different from animals is due to Him creating us in His image.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  God said this to the man and his wife after they brought sin into the world.[2]  And, boy, do we need that reminder!  In our sinful arrogance, we want to answer back to God and accuse Him of being unjust and stingy.  But it is He who formed us, and by His own will gave us body and soul, eyes, ears, our reason and all our senses.

And we must understand this in order to enter God’s heavenly Kingdom.  God does not owe us anything.  Is He guilty toward mankind?  It was man who turned away from Him, despite the warning of death’s consequence.  Is He guilty for accusing you of sinning against Him?  No, He “is justified in His words and blameless in His judgment.”[3]

He is the one who planned for your salvation, and fulfilled all of His saving promises.  He is the owner of the vineyard, as He also explains in Isaiah 5, “My beloved [which is God] had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”[4]  God built it and prepared it, and put us in it.  Heaven and earth are His property.  He restored us, when all we deserved was to be thrown off his land.  Still, even after this, we have no claim on His property.

By our natural birth, we are those laborers standing idle in the marketplace.  And corrupt workforce that we are, we don’t even want to be in God’s vineyard, as the Psalm says, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”[5]  But He comes out seeking us through the preaching of the Gospel.  He preaches, “As far as the east is from the west, so far have I removed your transgressions from you”[6] and He calls us into His vineyard, His Kingdom.  And He does it all by His free choice, without any merit or worthiness in us.

And because it all belongs to Him, He has the authority to do what He wants with what’s His.  He has the power to hand out His gifts of forgiveness and life to whomever He wants.  Since none of us has a claim on it, it’s entirely up to Him who He gives it to.  “For he says, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’”[7]  To prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners?  The poor, the widows, and the orphans?  To wretches like me and you?  It’s His to freely give: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[8]

God also has the power to give out His goods whenever He chooses, whether the first or the eleventh hour.  Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The Spirit moves where He wishes and you hear His voice, but you do not know where He comes from or where He is going.”[9]  God has called some of you from your mother’s arms.  This is His good and gracious will.  Others, He has called later in life, or even on their deathbed.  This is His good and gracious will.  He called people when it was accepted to be God’s people, and He called people when they would be berated and beheaded for confessing Jesus as Lord.

God gives larger or smaller burdens to be borne by each of us.  Often we take the attitude of those hired first, and grumble against our fellows who seem to have it easier, as if we were deserve better, now that we’re not bound for eternal torment.  He also portions how much work is accomplished by each laborer.  There are the famous saints—Moses, Elijah, Paul, and Luther—but the success all came from God.  St. Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[10]

God also has the power to hand out as much as He wants of His goods.  That is, He gives the heavenly inheritance to everyone, regardless of seniority.  “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.”  Seniority lists are not what we see in the kingdom of the world.  On the job, think of how much resentment comes from seeing upstarts and flatterers make it over those who worked hard! Such wrong is common to see! But not so in the Kingdom of God.  God is shows no favoritism and He cannot be bought off with gifts and flattering words. To David the noble King and Rahab the whore, He gives the same reward.  Moses and the thief on the cross stand around the same throne in paradise.  The Apostles Peter, James, and John bask the same glory as you and I will one day.

The footnote under the last part of verse 15 says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  When we bring our worldly baggage with us into heaven, we judge God.  But in fact, it’s our eyes that are evil and He is good.  God is in debt to no one.  And that makes our salvation that much more incredible.  The very heart of grace is that God chose to create you.  You owe your existence entirely to Him.  He chose to pay for your sins by the death of His Son.  He didn’t consult with you to check if it was a good idea.  And He chose to call you into His Kingdom.  You didn’t stumble through the door when your other options were used up (the point of the Prodigal Son is another lesson for another Sunday).  So rather than judge God for who He is and what He does with what’s His, we praise and exalt Him because of His grace and goodness, which He lavishes upon us.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Job 38:4

[2] Genesis 3:19

[3] Psalm 51:4b

[4] Isaiah 5:1-2

[5] Psalm 14:1-2

[6] Psalm 103:12

[7] Romans 9:15, Exodus 33:19

[8] Ephesians 2:8

[9] John 3:8

[10] 1 Corinthians 3:6-7


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

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

No doubt, envy is a powerful emotion.  It takes coveting up a notch, and is defined as, “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” (Merriam Webster) The perception of another’s advantage is behind most tantrums from ages 3 to 83. Without envy, where would all this talk of such-and-such’s privilege come from?

Can envy in fact harm another person without them lifting a finger? Many ancient people have thought so, all the way back to the time of the Israelite Exodus. Hittites, Egyptians, and Greeks were terribly afraid of the power of the “evil eye.”

I. Belief in the Evil Eye is based on a fear of evil from outside, especially caused by envy.

a. It was believed that a look could bring a curse on another person, especially the vulnerable (pregnant women, children, the elderly).  This curse would cause poor health or other misfortune. At its root, the evil eye came from envying another’s prosperity or beauty.

b. Greek philosopher, Plutarch (AD 46-119), writing just after our Lord’s ministry, tried to reason an explanation:

“Now, when men thus perverted by envy fix their eyes upon another, and these, being nearest to the soul, easily draw the venom from it, and send out as it were poisoned darts, it is no wonder, in my mind, if he that is looked upon is hurt.” (Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales, Book V, 7.4)

c. What can one do to protect against the evil eye? Solutions range from wearing amulets and painting large eyes on objects, to special gestures (akin to “knock on wood”) and avoiding the gaze of strangers.

II. Our Lord, the God of Heaven and Earth, exposes the truth about the supposed evil eye.

a. By now, you’re probably wondering why so much about the evil eye? At the heart of Jesus’ parable today about the Kingdom of Heaven is the Master’s response to the one who has worked a full day: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (v. 15). The footnote in most Bibles will offer the literal translation: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

b. Jesus also recognizes the power of envy which the full-day workers displayed, but He says it’s root is in a different place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 6:22-23, He says,

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy [generous], your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is [evil], your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

He doesn’t give the evil eye power to curse others, but makes a sad statement of one’s own condition: You are the one who suffers for the evil eye, because it means that you are filled with darkness and cut off from the life of God.

c. What of the evil eye and envy? That’s made even clearer in another place, where Jesus explains what defiles a person. In Mark 7:20-23, He says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come…envy [the evil eye]… 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Jesus lists the evil eye among things that come from inside our sinful heart and curse, not others, but defile us.

III. Through God’s truth coming to us, we see that our sin is the real peril each of us faces. Because of our sin, we deserve nothing but the reward of our evil hearts. Yet, God is gracious to offer what we could never merit.

a. Envy rises up in reaction to God’s goodness: “Is your eye evil because I am good?

i. To Cain whose face fell when Abel was regarded by God. Eventually Cain’s envy led to murder [Gen. 4:1-16]. Yet even in that, God showed grace to Cain by giving him undeserved protection.

ii. To the Israelites who ungratefully rejected God and Moses, even accusing both of evil intention. Yet to this rabble, He still gave water. [Ex. 17:1-7]

iii. It was not those who worked the hardest who gained God’s favor, but those who in repentance acknowledged their fault. Grumbling is the fruit of heart’s unbelief.

b.If there is any cursing going on, it this sin of grumbling against God and the wages of death which bring us the truest misfortune. Where pagans can only worry about bad luck and poor health, the end of this curse of sin is eternal suffering.

c. The true God is not fickle like our fallen minds imagine Him. He doesn’t leave us to figure out for ourselves what amulet or incantation will ward off the consequences. His cure to the evil eye is for His Son to be cursed for us:

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13-14)

The grace of God is higher than our ways. Our natural minds are darkened and can’t fit God’s ways into our “I deserve better” system. We envy one another, but don’t see how the evil eye is actually an accusation against our inability to save ourselves. In spite of each of our evil thoughts—while we were still sinners [Rom. 5:8]—Christ took our curse and instead gives us what He has earned: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased.” And at the last judgment, not on the basis of our works, He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matt. 17:5; Matt. 25:21).

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.


(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, 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.