Septuagesima Sunday Sermon
February 12, 2017
“Salvation by God’s Grace Alone”
St. Matthew 20:15-16
“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.”
The first stanza of our hymn of the day clearly presents the heart of the Christian gospel that we believe, teach, and confess:
Jesus told parables to illustrate how matters are in the kingdom of God. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, it is called the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells a story about everyday life and from it he teaches us about the nature of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is his rule. God doesn’t run things the way we do. This is why the gospel is foolishness to those who do not have the Holy Spirit.
More than foolish, the gospel seems downright unfair. The way things work in this world is that you get what you work for. If you work for twelve hours and get a day’s wage, then the fellow who worked for one hour should get less. If he got a day’s wage, you should get more. It’s not fair that you are treated the same as the person who did much less work than you did. You might make allowances for the fellow who was disabled, or couldn’t find a job, but if you saw someone who stood around doing nothing for eleven hours receive the same pay you received after you had worked for twelve hours through the heat of the day, you would think that was unfair. It would be unfair, wouldn’t it?
That depends on your perspective. If you’re working for pay you see things a certain way. You do the work. You earn the pay. It’s your money. You earned it. You deserve it. The employee has a certain perspective on the money he earns.
The employer may have a different perspective. In the story Jesus tells us about the workers in the vineyard where some worked twelve hours, others nine, others six, and others just one the employer took the position that he had the right to do with his money what he pleased. He had agreed with some of the workers on a denarius for twelve hours work. They had nothing to complain about if he gave the same amount of money to those who worked just one hour.
What do you think? Is that fair? What if you were the one who worked for twelve hours? Would you think it was fair if somebody who worked just one hour received the same wages as you? Or would you begrudge the employer his generosity? Jesus’ parable teaches us that the one who gives his gifts has the right to give as he sees fit. He has the right to treat everyone the same, regardless of how much work they do. God says, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” God has the right to be generous with what is his. If you don’t agree, he asks you another question: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Merit has its place. Status is indispensable in the running of any efficient organization. Much of what is wrong with America can be traced to the loss of traditional manners where one’s status was recognized. For example, people used to be addressed by their titles. It was considered a matter of respect to address a man as Mr. and a woman as Mrs. Nowadays everybody calls everybody his or her first name. Nobody is given any special status.
But you know that’s not true. The easy familiarity of our day can’t change the fact that we are all status seekers, looking for, asking for, and eager to grasp recognition for our achievements. Whether it is something as solid as a good paycheck, or something more symbolic, such as a special appointment or honor, we want status bestowed on us and we like it when we are set apart as particularly deserving.
Status, recognition, and a generous salary are not necessarily bad things. If you want to run a business profitably, you need to reward activities that will help the company make more money. Paying people by a fair standard where the one who works harder and longer gets paid more is good business.
But what we need to understand as we come before God as his children is that the kingdom of Christ, that is, the Christian church, is not a business. It isn’t run like a business. It is the rule of Christ and he rules differently than any business. It is true that we, the church in this place, must deal with matters of business that are required of anyone who lives in this world. We must pay our bills. We must fix our roof. We must balance our budget. That is life in this world and we live in this world.
But the business matters we must address are not what make us the church. What makes us the Church is that we are all baptized into the same name. We all drink of the same spiritual drink. We all eat of the same spiritual food. We confess our sins together and together we are absolved by the authority of Christ himself. We all trust in the same sacrifice on Calvary. We all rely on the same grace.
We share in the sin of Adam and have followed the evil impulses of our hearts. We have envied others instead of rejoicing with them. We have sought status for ourselves at the expense of others. We have divided ourselves into factions and have quarreled, judged one another, and set ourselves above one another.
This is sin. We confess our sin together. We all receive, personally, individually, through faith, the righteousness of Christ that covers all our sin and sets us before God as righteous. You cannot be more righteous than Jesus. And Jesus gives us his righteousness. You cannot receive more grace than to have all your sins forgiven on account of Christ’s obedience and suffering. This means that you cannot have any greater status than what God gives you in Christ.
All the workers in the vineyard are paid the same. Jesus said that the last will be first and the first last, for many are called but few are chosen. The equality in the kingdom of heaven is not because of what we are. It is because of God’s grace.
By nature, we are not equal, despite the American creed that says otherwise. When it comes to civil law we could appeal to Thomas Jefferson. He would make a fine teacher of civics. But we certainly don’t look to him or the American creed to teach us theology. If you want a free country in which everyone is treated fairly by the civil authorities, perhaps we should talk about all men being created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. But if you want true peace with God and eternal life, forget about claims to equality. Rely on God’s grace. Natural law is fine for this world, but you cannot depend on the law of nature and nature’s God if you want to belong to the kingdom of heaven. Trusting in natural law to lead you to heaven will send you to hell.
We are not all created equal. That’s one reason why we fight and bicker and envy one another. This one has more. He’s smarter, he got better breaks, she’s prettier, he’s healthier, his parents have the political connections, her home is nicer, and her kids are treated more favorably than mine. Oh, no! We’re not equal. And what’s more: we don’t want to be! It’s not fair that he gets what I got. I was here first. I worked harder. He hasn’t paid his dues.
Not only are we not equal; we don’t want to be. We want to be praised for what we have done and we resent the fact that the other fellow gets praised for doing less than we did. But in the kingdom of heaven, life is different. If we insist on being treated according to what we have done, according to our achievements, according to the status we have earned, when we stand before God we will be paid whatever temporal benefit we have earned, and then we will be invited to leave. “Take what is yours and go.”
On the other hand, if we lay claim, not to what nature and nature’s God entitles us, but to what the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us, then we will receive more than what we could ever deserve or hope to deserve. This is the life of the Christian in God’s kingdom, in his holy Christian Church. We, who are all beggars, are all wealthy. We don’t demand what we’ve earned because the wages of sin is death. Instead we rejoice in the gift. We rejoice in receiving it and we rejoice when others receive it.
Status dissolves into irrelevancy. What can we claim? St. Paul was a man with religious status. A Pharisee of the Pharisees, taught by the famous rabbi Gamaliel, thoroughly instructed, living a life of moral purity that set him apart from his fellows. It wasn’t just his breeding; it was his conduct by which he had attained a religious status that others envied. Listen to what he said about it all in Philippians 3:7-11,
The first shall be last and the last first.
Sometimes people fade away from the church because they think that people have a special status in the church but don’t deserve it. If people only knew! And she acts so holy. He acts so important. Hypocrites! They feel like outsiders looking in and they don’t like the feeling, so they leave.
Oh, how I wish they would stay. The angels in heaven rejoice whenever they return. The kingdom of heaven is full of people who, in our eyes, don’t deserve to belong. So what? In God’s eyes none of us deserves to belong. But that’s what his grace is all about. The very last person you would think of as holy or righteous is the first. The chosen ones of God are those who lay claim to no status at all. They had nothing to contribute, nothing to offer, no work of which to boast, and God saw them, loved them, called them, and adopted them as his own. They were nobodies and they knew it. God treasures them as his dear children. They work in the kingdom, but it’s not really work. Living under the grace of God, whatever work they do is easy and light because they know it won’t establish their status. That has been established for them by their Savior who loved them and gave himself for them.
Rolf D. Preus