Working in the Vineyard by Grace
Septuagesima| Matthew 20:1-16| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| February 5, 2023
Jesus’ parable for this Sunday teaches us of the first conflict in the Christian Church. As you know, God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Israel out of all the people in the world to make for Himself a special nation, which would be called by His name. God made a covenant with Abraham and gave him and his descendants after him the sign of circumcision. God called Moses and the children of Israel out of Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai, where He gave them His Law. God sent Israel into His vineyard, so to speak, with Sabbaths and Festivals to observe, plus 613 commandments. Israel labored hard in God’s vineyard, bearing a heavy load and at times scorching heat. Many of them were killed for transgressing God’s Law. Their temple was destroyed. Their people were taken exile. God accused them of producing wild grapes, when He had given them the choicest vines (Isaiah 5)!
Yet, Israel kept laboring. She bore the history of her exile with pride. The more the nations hated her, the more proudly she labored under the sun in the vineyard. When her sons were hated for their mark of circumcision, they became even prouder of it. When the nations stuck up their noses at their sacrifices and mocked their restricted diet, she became more zealous in offering up sacrifices to the Lord and abstaining from unclean meats. And all this Israel did, waiting for the Messiah to come and give to her her wages.
Yet, when the Messiah came, He invited those of the nations to join them in the vineyard in the last hour! The people of the nations, who sat idle in the market place all day, refusing hire and mocking and ridiculing Israel as she labored in the hot sun, came in the last moment. What is worse, they were paid the same wage as Israel, who labored in the hot sun!
This is the first conflict in the Christian Church. Christ made the Gentile Christians, who came at the last hour, equal with the Jewish Christians, who had borne the burden of God’s Law. So, Judaizing Christians begrudged Christ’s generosity. They insisted that Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, and to abstain from eating unclean meat, and to observe the Sabbath and the festivals, and the entire book of Moses. In short, they wanted the Gentiles to labor as hard as they did before they could be paid the same wage.
But that’s not the way Christ pays His laborers. The fact of the matter is, Christ does not pay His laborers according to their works, but according to His own mercy; that is to say, Christ deals with us by grace. Grace is God’s undeserved love for us. Grace is a free gift. St. Paul, a former Pharisee, wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “For there is no distinction (that is, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile): for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22b-24)
This grace is received through faith alone. St. Paul further writes in Romans 4, “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.”
Therefore, when the Judaizing Christians tried to force the Gentile Christians to submit to the Law of Moses, St. Peter responded, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11) This again is why St. Paul says in Romans 10, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all.” (Romans 10:12) and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, … for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)
Yet, the importance of this lesson goes beyond the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. This concerns all Christians, everywhere. We are not saved by our works. In fact, our works in and of themselves are always riddled with sin. So, what do we deserve according to our sins? Scripture tells us that the wages of sin is death! But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:23). So, we do not earn eternal life by working in the vineyard, rather we are place in the vineyard, because Christ has earned that eternal life for us.
And we should not ever grumble about others in the vineyard. Jesus tells us that we should simply answer, “We are but unprofitable servants, we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10) We should simply be grateful that we are permitted to labor in the vineyard.
St. Paul warns the Gentile Christians that if the Jews, who were the natural branches, were cut off to make room for them, the wild branches, so too the wild branches could be cut off! (Romans 11:20-21) He who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12) It is by grace that we enter the vineyard. It is by grace that we receive a reward. If others prove unfaithful, we should not boast in ourselves, because it is only by the grace of God that we remain faithful. And if others should join the work in the vineyard at the last hour, we should not begrudge the grace God shows to them, but rejoice in the generosity of our Master.
The reason salvation is by grace as a free gift is for two reasons. First, you are incapable of earning your salvation. Scripture says, “Those who are of the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8). Yet, you are born according to the flesh! (John 3:6; Ephesians 2:3) A sinner can do nothing of himself to please God. To put it bluntly, a sinner can only sin. So, if all your works are stained with sin, how can you please God with your sin? It is like a child trying to wipe the mud off his mother’s clean Sunday dress with hands covered in mud. He can only make the muddy mess worse! So, we cannot remove our sins by sinning more.
Second, only Jesus can take our sins away. Only Jesus is true God and true man, anointed by God to make satisfaction for all sins. Only the blood of Jesus can wash our sins away. This is why everyone in the vineyard gets paid the same. They all receive the same Christ. My Jesus cannot be greater or lesser than your Jesus. So, my Baptism cannot be greater or lesser than your Baptism, nor can the body of Christ I eat in the Supper be holier or mightier or closer to God’s right hand than the body of Christ you eat in the Supper, nor can the blood I drink cleanse less sins than the blood you drink. We all receive the one and the same Jesus. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father over all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:5-6)
This is why God makes all the workers in the vineyard equal, because they are not getting paid according to their own works, but according to the work of Christ, who is one and the same for everyone.
Yet, if Jesus has done all the work necessary to save us, so that our works do not earn for us salvation, then why work at all? Why not do as we please and enjoy life? Because one who lives such a way is a slave of sin and will not receive a reward from the Good Master. As clearly as Scripture teaches that our works do not save us, so clearly does Scripture teach us that our work is still necessary. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
If you have faith in Christ, you will do good works. If you have faith in Christ, you will labor in the vineyard. But if you remain outside the vineyard, you will not receive the wage Christ earned for you..
As Christians, we should be happy laborers. The paradise we will inherit was prefigured by the paradise once lost in the fall of Adam and Eve. Before the fall, what did Adam do? God put him in the garden to work (Genesis 2:15). Work, before sin or death or suffering entered the world. Adam worked in paradise. Work does not equal pain and suffering. This is why St. John tells us that God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). God’s commandments are that we believe in Christ Jesus His Son and that we love one another (1 John 3:23). Our faith in Christ is a gift from God. And the love we show to one another is a fruit produced by that faith.
Our works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living. And God then uses the good works he harvests from us to strengthen our faith, because the love we have for our neighbors combats the temptation of the devil and our sinful flesh. And the love we have for God draws us to continue to receive His grace by hearing His Word and receiving Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. And through faith our good works are pleasing to God. For one thing, they are produced by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. And, God looks over our faults and sins for the sake of Christ’s shed blood for us.
Scripture uses those who fell before us as examples to us. We should not desire evil as some of them did, nor grumble, nor commit sexual immorality. They were destroyed by God for their apostasy, that is, for their falling away, but this was recorded in Scripture to teach us! Why did they fall? Because they did not have faith (Romans 9:32). They did not trust in God to provide for them and instead trusted in their own works and ideas. Above all, this is what we must guard against. Without faith, even the grace God gives us becomes labor, as we see with so many who find it too much of a chore to come to church to receive God’s grace and forgiveness. Yet, when faith is strong, even the labor in the vineyard is like Adam working in Eden in the cool of the day.
So, when the work in the Lord’s vineyard does become burdensome, turn your eyes to Jesus who labored for you on His cross. See the grace God shows you for Christ’s sake. This alone will give you the strength to labor joyfully. This alone grants you an eternal reward. Amen.