Septuagesima Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 8, 2009| St. Matthew 20:1-16
“So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” Matthew 20:16
Jesus’ parables tell us about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God exists here on earth. But, as Jesus said before Pontius Pilate, it is not of this world. It is in the world. It is not of the world. In fact, it is a kingdom whose standards fly in the face of what the world regards as fair and just.
If I work twelve hours and you work only one hour I ought to be paid more than you are paid. That’s only fair. You’d agree if you were the one who worked for twelve long hours, sweating through the heat of the day, and then I showed up in the cool of the evening after most of the work was done. It’s not fair that everyone be paid the same when some people have worked so much harder and longer than others.
It’s not fair. Life isn’t fair. We complain and we find sympathetic ears. We whine and complain about this and that while others nod their heads until we finally wind down and then they can share their own personal taste of injustice. Well, that’s the way of the world. Only the very young and naïve expect the world to be anything else but unfair. Justice is a rare commodity.
Surely God is in favor of justice! Surely the church is the one place of refuge from the injustice of this world! But it rather appears that the church is the most unjust place of all.
They stood around for eleven hours while everyone else was working. When asked why they were standing there loafing, they said it was because nobody hired them. Surely they knew there was work available. They were just too lazy to do it. By the time they were hired most of the work was done. Then, not only are they paid the same as everyone else, they are paid first. Those who did all the work have to wait. After waiting, they are insulted by getting the same amount of money as those who did hardly anything at all.
They are insulted. The kingdom of God is an insult. It is an insult to the religions of this world. The Holy Christian Church (which is another name for the kingdom of God) has no respect at all for the religions of this world. All human religions are based on human merit. You work for what you get. You are paid according to your work. The more good you do the better you are treated. To be treated the same as the one who stood idly by doing nothing is an outrage. So say all human religions. And this is why the Holy Christian Church is a scandal to every decent adherent of the religion of the flesh.
The flesh is how God’s word describes fallen humanity. The flesh desires not what God wants but what man wants. The flesh is the fallen and sinful desire of people who are estranged from God and hostile to God. But the flesh makes itself out to look very good. It constructs religious systems that appear to be as holy as holy can be. But appearances are deceiving. The sinful, fallen, blind flesh is hostile to God. It despises the things that come from God. St. Paul puts in this way in Romans 8:7-8,
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
The sinful flesh is hostile to God, but it doesn’t know it. It hates God, but it cannot see this. This is because fallen sinful human nature is not only at enmity against God. It is also blind. St. Paul contrasts the wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit to the wisdom that comes from the flesh in 1 Corinthians 2:13-14,
These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Anyone who has not been called out of the darkness of unbelief by the Holy Spirit remains in spiritual ignorance so profound that he sincerely believes that evil is good and good is evil. He looks at God’s grace and sees how it treats all sinners alike and he despises God for it. To the natural man, that is to say the person who is not born from above by the Holy Spirit, the Christian gospel is foolish, dangerous, unjust, and a serious threat to all decent religions. This is why Christians must endure persecution from this world. Our faith is offensive to this world. Our faith in Jesus requires us to say that every religion ever invented by anyone in this world is false and ungodly.
The workers in the vineyard who labor hard and long all day are those people who belong to the church outwardly but are not really believers. They labor hard to gain a reward, but they refuse to repent of their sins. And so they must carry those sins around with them. They must try and try and try again to make themselves into the kind of person God would accept and love. They must work so very hard, but never find any freedom. Some slaves have been able to work their way to freedom, but a slave to sin cannot work his way to spiritual freedom. His chains are not on his wrists and ankles but within his own heart. Even while he’s trying to do the religious deeds that he thinks will make him free he is clinging the more tightly to that which enslaves him. He can only work himself deeper and deeper into bondage.
“Take what is yours and go your way.” You work for pay. Take your pay and go. There is no home in God’s kingdom for those who are working their way into it. If you work for pay you get the pay for which you worked. The pagan Greeks had a saying: “Virtue is its own reward.” And that is true. The wages of a decent and hardworking life are the benefits that naturally come from living such a life. When you obey the rules, do your work, pay your dues, and behave properly you gain the respect of your peers. The religiously respectable life is a far better life to live than the life lived only in pursuit of pleasure at the expense of everyone else. But being religiously respectable is a far cry from being righteous. The righteousness that God demands is a perfect heart. It is a righteousness that fears, loves, and trusts in Him above all things. It is a righteousness that far surpasses the righteousness of the religious do-gooder who obeys all the right rules and yet does not love God with all his heart, soul, and strength and does not love his neighbor as himself.
Only God can set sinners free and he does so without any help from sinners. The work of those who are working for the righteousness that God demands is a work that only compounds their sin. Jesus came into this world to save sinners. Sinners cannot be saved by working because their work is sin and sin is what they need to be saved from. St. Paul writes in Romans 4:4-8:
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”
There is much work to do in the kingdom of God. But those who are justified by faith in Jesus and do not try to work their way into God’s favor are not working for pay. They are working for the sheer love of it. They have nothing to earn, but this doesn’t mean they have nothing to do. They are the “last” in the eyes of the world and the world’s religions because there is nothing they have done that they want to parade before the eyes of others. They have only the righteousness of Another and it is his merits that they want the world to see.
What is unique about our Christian faith and what distinguishes it from all other religions in the world is that only our Christian faith teaches that God rescues us from the punishment we have deserved by His grace alone. We deserve justice. Thank God he doesn’t give it to us. Were he to give us justice, we would all be paid at the door with the respectability for which we worked, but the door would then be shut in our faces and we would never find any peace with God. But God doesn’t treat us according to the demands of fairness. He lay on Jesus the demands of justice as Jesus chose to bear the punishment of the human race that justice required. He worked long and hard and under the most intolerable burden. No one relieved him of it. He bore the shame, the guilt, the anger, and the burning wrath of divine retribution against us sinners. He bore it and removed it so that we could work in the cool of the evening without having to worry about pay. He has already earned eternal life for us. Now whatever we do we do for him and not for ourselves. We don’t need to do good works for our own sake. We need to do whatever we do as Christians from an inner desire to please in both body and soul the One who has borne our burden for us. Jesus said:
“Come to Me, all you 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 11:29-30)
Jesus takes an impossible task and makes it pure joy. He does so by taking away the penalty justice required us to pay. When we set out to serve God and our neighbor we aren’t afraid of failing because we cannot fail. When our sins rise up to accuse us and our failures conspire together to persuade us that we are failures we remain at peace. We were on the outside looking in. We deserved nothing. We were last. But God in His grace sought us out and found us. He forgave us our sins for Christ’s sake. He set our consciences at rest. He made us members of his kingdom. Having nothing to earn from God we are free to work without regrets and without being excluded from God’s kingdom. We are chosen by God! We have something better than justice. We have God’s grace. Let the world despise this grace. We will cherish it as our greatest treasure in the world. It will lead us out of this world into heaven where God’s grace in Christ Jesus will be the theme of heartfelt praise forever and ever. Amen