Septuagesima | January 31, 2021 | Rev. James Preus | Matthew 20:1-16
The first thing we need to realize about this parable of our Lord Jesus is that he is not teaching us what a master of a vineyard is like or how a vineyard is run. Rather, he is teaching us what the kingdom of heaven is like by comparing it to a master and vineyard unlike any you would find on earth. No employer would pay his workers, who worked one hour the same as his workers, who worked all day in the hot sun. In fact, no employer would go out in the last hour of the day to hire workers for that day! Yet, this is the way God works. The grumbling of those workers who worked all hours of the day is the grumbling of the works-righteous against God and his kingdom.
The laborers who agreed to a denarius a day grumbled when those who worked just an hour got paid the same as them, who bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat. “He made us equal,” they complained. And this of course, teaches us about the kingdom of God. It makes us equal. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The reason we are all equal, is because we all receive the same gift: the same Jesus, the same Baptism, the same Lord’s Supper, the same forgiveness and salvation. This greatly upsets those who are proud of their great labor and think they deserve more than others. Instead of seeing the master’s generosity as a sign of great love, they resent him for it.
The term works-righteous refers to people who think that they are righteous before God by their own works. In other words, they think they deserve a reward from God. In several places, Jesus preaches against works-righteousness. In Luke chapter 17, he says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Would that we could say that! Would that we had done our duty! Yet, we know that we have not even done that. We have not done what was commanded of us. It was commanded of us that we love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and mind. None of us has done that. It was commanded of us that we love our neighbor as ourselves. None of us can claim to have reached such a level of selflessness. This is why St. Paul writes in Galatians 3, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”
So, while the works-righteous grumble against God, because they see that God’s grace makes everyone equal, they fail to realize that God’s Law has already made everyone equal, by condemning one and all as a sinner! Again, Scripture declares, “None is righteous, no not one;” and “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10, 23) Yet, if you do not realize that the Law has condemned us all, then you will not recognize how wonderful it is that the Gospel saves us all. Again, Scripture says in Romans 11:32, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” In other words, God has convicted everyone of sin, so that he might save them by his grace, as a gift. Just as all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, all “are justified by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:24-25)
The Law condemns everyone. No one can be saved by his own works. No one can claim to be righteous before God by his own works. No matter how good you think you are or how much better you think you are than others, the Law condemns you the same. Everyone deserves to go to hell.
The Gospel saves everyone. There is no one that the Gospel does not offer free forgiveness of sins and salvation. No matter how bad your sins are, how undeserving you are of the kingdom of heaven, the Gospel offers it to you freely for Christ’s sake.
Although the Gospel offers salvation to everyone freely, not everyone receives it. This is because it can only be received through faith. Faith is how the gift of eternal life is received. What is faith? Believing and trusting in the promise. When you believe that God is gracious to you and forgives all your sins for Christ’s sake, then you receive his grace and forgiveness. And nothing, not your sins or Satan himself can take that grace and forgiveness away from you. That it is by faith makes it clear that it does not depend on your works. Your works are riddled with sin. Your works put your salvation into doubt. But faith clings to Jesus alone, which makes your salvation trustworthy and sure.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5) It can’t possibly get any clearer than that. Your works do not earn for you righteousness. Faith makes you righteous before God by trusting in him who declares the ungodly righteous. Just so, the master of the vineyard gave a full day’s wage to those who had hardly gotten to the vineyard, because they trusted in him.
Some might accuse this of cheap grace. There is nothing cheap about it. The master didn’t hand out counterfeit money. He paid those who worked for an hour a full day’s wage, just as he paid all the works for a whole day. He gave away his money to those who trusted in him. This is how the kingdom of heaven is like. Christ Jesus paid the debt for our sins. “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’—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)
Grace is not cheap. It is given to us at the cost of the precious blood and innocent suffering and death of God’s own Son Jesus Christ. There literally is no price higher, no treasure more precious. The fact that it is given away freely to those who do not deserve it does not make it any less valuable. The denarius the last workers received was worth just as much as the denarius the first workers received. It bought just as much food and clothing. Yet, if someone were to treat faith as a cheap thing, as if the grace it receives is not expensively wrought, then that would not be faith. If a sinner were to interpret faith as a license to sin, he would not have true faith. It would be like someone hearing the call to come to the vineyard, but not entering the vineyard at all. He would not receive the denarius.
The vineyard is the Holy Christian Church on earth. One enters the Holy Christian Church through faith. Yet, in order to have faith, you must be called, just as the workers did not enter the vineyard until the master went out and invited them in. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17). This is how this free forgiveness and salvation is given: through the proclamation of the Gospel, so that it can be received through faith.
Because it is a matter of faith and not works, the master will not stop calling until the very end. Think of it. Who calls day laborers at the very last hour of the day? They hardly have any time to work! Yet, God calls until the sun goes down. Christ may return this afternoon for all we know. Yet, until then God will still be calling. He continues to send out his ministers to preach the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. And so, this parable not only teaches us that we will receive our reward from our heavenly Father by grace through faith and not on account of our works. But this parable teaches us that God is still calling more people to come to his vineyard and see that he is good and generous. Today there are people outside the vineyard we are currently laboring in. They are outside, but God wants them inside. He doesn’t want them standing around idol. He calls them as he calls you. He desires their salvation, even as Christ Jesus poured his blood for them. And this should be our desire too. We should not be ashamed of the Gospel, but desire all to believe it as we do, because it is the power of salvation to all who believe.
Jesus uses a parable about workers to teach us about grace, which is salvation without work. We are not saved by our work, but we are called to work. Yet, the work we are called to do is not like the work, which weighs down the works-righteous. Jesus calls to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). This might sound strange, when we recollect the great labors Christians bear for the sake of the kingdom: persecution, mockery, hatred, and the like. Yet, Jesus calls these yokes easy. Why? Because we bear them through faith in Christ. We do not labor under a heavy-handed master, who wants to make sure that he gets what he pays for. We labor freely under him, who desires to give his kingdom to us as a gift. We do not box as one beating the air. We do not labor in vain. We know we have a reward stored up for us, because Christ Jesus has earned it for us. If the world lays on persecution and hatred, this cannot take away our reward from Christ, rather, it gives us greater confidence that we bear his name!
Yet, those who think they must earn their way resent every pound they must carry and every minute they must labor. They resent those who get paid the same as them, because they think they have earned more. So, in their act of proving to themselves that they are righteous, they prove to God that they are not by hating their neighbor whom God loves. The Law lays on a heavy burden and only God’s grace and forgiveness can lift its weight from your back.
Those who wanted to be paid the wages of their labors were told to take their payment and go. And they left the vineyard. It is like the hymnist puts it,
“But they who have always resisted His grace
And on their own virtue depended
Shall then be condemned at cast out from His Face,
Eternally lost and unfriended.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus! (Magnus Landstad, Lo, Many Shall Come from the East and the West, TLH 415:2)
But those who received the gift through faith remained with the kind master. This is how we remain in the vineyard of our Lord: through faith in his grace and forgiveness for Christ’s sake. And through faith in God’s grace, we will be content to labor in his vineyard until we are welcomed into the heavenly eternal vineyard. Because, through faith in Christ we know our labor is not in vain. Amen.