Septuagesima Sunday Sermon
St. Matthew 20:16
February 16, 2014
“So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” St. Matthew 21:16
The story of the workers in the vineyard is a compelling one. Jesus knows what we think is fair. Working twelve long hours through the heat of the sun and getting paid the same amount of money as the man who worked for one hour during the cool of the day is not fair. God doesn’t judge what is fair the same way we judge what is fair. We judge according to our sinful nature and God judges according to his grace.
In Christ’s parable, those who had worked for twelve hours and had agreed to a denarius – which was the standard wage for a day’s work – received the denarius for which they had worked. Yet they complained. Why? They agreed to work twelve hours for a denarius. They worked twelve hours. They received a denarius. That’s fair. But in their mind it was unfair. It was unfair, they thought, because the landowner gave the same amount to those who had worked only one hour. They should have gotten more than the others. Never mind the fact that they agreed to a denarius and received a denarius. Never mind the fact that the landowner had been perfectly honest, straightforward, and fair in his treatment of them. They still complained. They said:
Was that unfair? Sure, it was unfair if what is unfair is determined by envious sinners. But if fairness is determined by our gracious God it was perfectly fair. The landowner replied to one of them:
God treats no one unfairly. If someone else gets better than he deserves that is no injustice to you. The landowner in this story is God. He wants to give to those who work just one hour the same amount as he gives to those who work twelve hours. That’s what he wants to do. Doesn’t he have the right to do so? Or do we complain about God because he is good? As the landowner asked the complaining worker, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
God’s grace appears to be unfair. It only appears to be unfair to those who are working to gain God’s favor. It only appears to be unfair to those who depend on their own blood, sweat, and tears to make it into God’s good graces. Those who know that they are unworthy and who know that they cannot accuse God, or demand anything from God, but must live alone by God’s grace do not think God’s grace is unfair. They love it. They find their true worth, not in their own good deeds, and not in the approval of the crowd, but in God’s grace.
Grace is the great equalizer. In God’s kingdom the slave is the equal to the master. The working man who struggles with a dead end job making little more than minimum wage is the equal to the rich executive who drives a fancy car, lives in an expensive house, and enjoys a high social status. In the kingdom of heaven the millionaire is no better than the maid. The governor has no more status than the garbage collector. The clerk at the local convenience store can boast of the same treasures as the owner of a thousand stores. All Christians have the same Savior, Jesus, the same gospel, the same baptism, the same holy Supper, the same forgiveness, the same grace, and the same inheritance in heaven. Their worth and their status are hidden from the world and recognized only by faith.
The world is impressed with the status that you earn and that others can see and acknowledge. It is measured by how much money you make, what you look like, who your friends are, what your job is or isn’t, how you talk, what you wear, and all sorts of other considerations. You do what you have to do to obtain it and when you obtain it you guard it because it’s what makes you who you are. People cling to their status as to life itself because they think that is what makes them what they are.
They’ll give lip service to equality, of course. It is, after all, a part of our political creed, is it not? Everyone is equal. People think they believe in equality. Some will even go so far as to endorse the oxymoronic and utterly perverted notion of same sex marriage because they believe that this somehow promotes equality and equality is good. So they say.
But they don’t really mean it. They don’t believe in equality. They love themselves more than their neighbor. If they’ve stood patiently in line for a long time they will not stand by and approve of someone else being served as soon as he walks in the door. It’s not fair. I was here first. These are the standards they bring before God as they call on him to be fair. By fairness they mean, “Don’t treat this fellow as you would treat me because I was here first. I’ve put in my time. Who is he that you should place him on the same level as you place me?”
No, the godless culture-wreckers who bull their way onto the public square screaming their disdain for the Christian Church and her teaching about morality – all in the name of equality – don’t believe in what they claim to believe. Like everyone else, they want to be treated unequally even as they think more of themselves than they do of those who haven’t done as much or as well or as good as they.
It is grace that is the great equalizer. Nobody is better than anybody. Only grace makes us truly equal. Only in the kingdom of heaven, that is, in the Holy Christian Church, can one live under grace. And those who won’t live under grace are told to leave. As the landowner said, “Take what is yours and go your way.” Yes, it’s yours. You work for wages and you get what your wages can buy. But you cannot buy your way into God’s heart and you cannot buy you way to heaven.
And you cannot keep what you work for because the day will come when it will be taken from you. The time will come when your strength fails, your beauty dims, your friends are all gone, and you are alone. Those you thought were beneath you are now above you. You cannot maintain the status in which you trust. But you rejected God’s call. You spurned grace. You despised it. You were first. All you wanted was what you had coming to you. It is so unreasonable not to want a bit of recognition for your hard work? What is this about grace? As if the fellow who waltzes in without having paid his dues should be granted equality with us who have been faithful and true! Who wouldn’t balk at that? Who wouldn’t object? So naturally, you did. And now you’re not first. You’re last and there you will stay. You were called. You were called and called and called. But you despised the call because it was calling you to deny yourself and that you would not do. Deny yourself. Deny your own merit, your own worthiness, your own hard-earned status. But you would not. You were called, and you refused to heed it.
Jesus is teaching us about grace. Grace is for everyone. Nobody is denied. The landowner goes out not just at the beginning of the day, but several times, up until just an hour before the end of the workday, to invite workers in. Don’t say that God withholds his invitation from anyone or that it isn’t sincerely offered to everyone.
Grace is for all. God the Son assumed the human nature of every single human being who has ever lived or ever will live. His obedience was rendered to the throne of justice in the stead of all humanity. Nobody was not redeemed. There is nobody whose sin Jesus did not bear and so there is nobody whose sin was not washed away by his blood. By offering up his obedience to God for all sinners and by suffering and dying for all sinners he justified them by his blood. His resurrection from the dead is God’s absolution of the entire human race.
Did he not die for all? Did he not bear the sin of all? Did he not take away the sin of all? Did he not die the death of mankind and rise from the dead free from the sins he bore? So then, all sin was taken away. God’s invitation goes out to everyone. Many are called. Many means all. It is a Hebraism. It doesn’t mean that some are excluded. In Romans 5 where the universal scope of Christ’s saving work is so beautifully set forth the author goes back and forth from using the word many and the word all to refer to the same people, namely, those who fell in Adam’s fall and are justified by Christ’s obedience.
Only those who believe the gospel receive this forgiveness and may rightly regard themselves as being justified by God. Many are called, but few are chosen. The theological term is election. Elect and choose mean the same thing. Christians are Christians and remain Christian not because of anything good in them, but solely because God graciously chose them. He chose them in Christ. He chose them in eternity. They are the last. Their good works cannot help them. They hunger and thirst after a righteousness they cannot do. They know their sins. They do not want to embrace them or live in them or hold them up to God as if sin is good. They are the last.
From eternity God saw them and had compassion. He knew them as a father knows his own child. Listen to how St. Paul describes this wonderful mystery of the election of grace:
God places them first. Some folks shy away from the doctrine of predestination. It makes them nervous. But it is a wonderful teaching that provides comfort to us Christians. Don’t misunderstand. There is no predestination to hell. God wants all people to be saved and Jesus died for all. The invitation goes out to all. But those that respond to the invitation in faith, repenting of their sins and trusting in the gospel of the free forgiveness of all their sins for Christ’s sake, do not do so by their own strength. They were without strength. They were outside looking in and couldn’t find their way back to God. God chose them; they didn’t choose God. God found them; they didn’t find God. God invited them; they didn’t invite themselves. They were last. Now they are first. This is God’s grace, not their own merit, strength, hard work, or dedication. It is God’s grace and God’s grace alone.
Those who are damned are damned by their own fault. It was not what God wanted for them. It was what they chose for themselves. They wanted to be first. They would not be last. But the last will be first, and the first last.
Those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone. The last are first. This is God’s doing. Those who are glorified in heaven are those whom God chose in Christ before time began to be called to faith, forgiven of all their sins, and kept in the true faith. They did nothing to deserve it or to help God achieve it. They are the sheep who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. He gives them eternal life and they shall never perish. No one can tear them out of his hand.
Rolf D. Preus