January 24, 2016
St Matthew 20:1-16
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.' 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. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 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.' But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 'Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?' So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen." St. Matthew 20:1-16
The Bible says that you should work for what you get. St. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” You should be willing to earn your keep. If you are able bodied and you mooch off of others, depending on the hard work of others when you do little if any work of your own, amounts to stealing. The Seventh Commandment says: You shall not steal.
But in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the landowner – who represents God – treats those who have worked for twelve hours the same as those who have worked for just one hour. Those who work hard through the heat of the day are treated the same as those who hardly worked at all. Is that fair? Is that working for what you get?
No, it’s not. But the parable is not a story about how things go in this world. It’s a story about how things go in the kingdom of God. Jesus begins the parable by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The kingdom of heaven, also called the kingdom of God, doesn’t follow the same standards that apply in this world.
The wisdom of the world deals with matters pertaining to life in this world. You work for what you get. You expect an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. You expect to be treated fairly. If you work twelve hours and the other guy works one hour you expect to get paid more than he. Fair’s fair. You worked for it.
But in the story Jesus told, the fellow who worked for twelve hours did agree to a denarius for his twelve hour work day. He agreed. The landowner did him no wrong by paying him what he earned. Besides, a denarius was the standard pay for a twelve hour work day. So the workers who worked for twelve hours got exactly what they deserved. They got what they worked for.
The reason they felt ripped off wasn’t because they weren’t treated fairly. It’s because others were treated generously. The landowner put his finger on it when he asked those who worked all day and complained about the others getting paid the same amount: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” That’s a description of people who judge God by worldly standards. They see good as bad. They see kindness as profligacy. They see grace as injustice. They resent the God who deals with us according to his grace.
But God is judged unfairly. It is perfectly true that the standards that prevail in the kingdom of God are different than the standards that prevail in this world. The fact is that employers can’t afford to pay employees a full day’s wage for working only one hour. They have their own bills to pay. If an employee who worked just one hour got paid the same as the employee who worked twelve hours, the business would soon be in trouble. The employer couldn’t meet the payroll. But that’s an argument against the wisdom of him paying a man a full day’s wage for an hour’s work. It’s no argument against the justice of it. If the employer wants to give away his money, that’s his business. Foolish? Maybe. But certainly not unfair.
So then, is God foolish to be so generous? God is wise, but this reckless gift-giving appears to be a bit irresponsible, doesn’t it? You work just an hour. The other fellow works twelve hours. He endures the heat of the day. You work in the cool of the evening. For you, the work isn’t really work. For him the work is hard labor. And you are treated the same. How’s that to destroy the work ethic? Not too smart!
To which the Holy Scriptures reply:
Today is Septuagesima Sunday. It is the first of three Sundays we call pre-Lent. The themes of these three Sundays correspond to the theme of the Lutheran Reformation: Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone. Today the topic is grace alone. The teaching of grace alone is best summed up by St. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 where he writes:
When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, you live under grace. You don’t work for it. It is given to you freely by God’s grace, as St. Paul says in Romans 3,
When you work for it, it’s labor. It’s hard. It’s grueling. You bear the burden and the heat of the day. When you don’t work for it, it’s easy. It’s light. As Jesus says:
Nobody in this world can earn anything from God. The Bible teaches that death is the wages sin earns and the whole world is born in sin and bound by sin to sin and helpless to free itself from its power. That’s not God’s fault. When we resent the grace God shows to others, that’s not God’s fault. When we elevate ourselves above others by imagining that we are more important, that our labor is more valuable, that we have a higher status, or that what benefits us matters more than what benefits him – whose fault is that? It’s not God’s fault. It’s our fault.
Sin is our fault, not God’s. Those who are lost are lost by their own fault, not because God did not love them, not because Jesus did not die for them, not because the Holy Spirit did not call them, but because of their own willful rebellion against God. God does not desire that anyone should go to hell. People go to hell by their own fault, not God’s.
And those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone. Some argue that this teaching of salvation by grace alone encourages Christians to care little about doing good works. This is the argument of those in the parable who labored hard and long, sweating under the hot sun, and resented those who worked just an hour and were treated the same. If our good works don’t benefit us, why do them?
And if we do good works to benefit ourselves, how can they be good? Only when God rescues us from our sins by his grace alone and grants us forgiveness of all our sins freely for Christ’s sake, because of Christ’s good works and sacrificial death, not because of anything good we have ever done or will do, only then can we do good works. They are not done for us. They are done for God. They are done for the neighbor. They are not done for us.
And they are easy. They are easy because we are free. We aren’t laboring under judgment. We are living under grace. We don’t do good to get good. Still, God graciously rewards our good deeds. The good that we do is tainted by sin. Sin deserves punishment. But God takes the sin away so that our works are pure in his sight. Then he rewards us for them.
The last will be first. Their work wasn’t impressive looking, at least, not to the world. It looked like they worked only a little bit. That’s because it wasn’t hard work. It was done in faith. It was done in confidence of God’s grace. It was done trusting in the merits of Christ. That made it a joy to do. That made it acceptable to God.
And the first will be last. They did what they did for the reward they would get. They worked hard and long. They got what they worked for. Then they were told to leave. “Take what is yours and go your way.” In other words, “Get lost.” You want the rewards of a religious life. Virtue is its own reward. And that’s the only reward those who trust in their virtue will get.
Many are called but few are chosen. God offers his grace to everyone. Those who reject it have themselves alone to blame for their damnation. Those who receive it receive it by God’s grace alone. They are chosen by God. They are chosen in Christ from before time began. Everything God did in time to rescue them from their sins God chose to do for them in eternity. Election is a wonderful mystery of God’s grace. The elect don’t judge themselves by comparing themselves to others. They rest secure in the grace of God in Christ. Whatever good deeds they do God does in them and they don’t trust in them. They trust in the blood and righteousness of Jesus. In this faith God takes them to heaven when they die and raises them up to eternal life on the last day.
Rolf D. Preus