Septuagesima - St. Matthew 20.1-16 - February 1, 2015
1) The landowner in today’s parable agrees with the early-bird laborers on a denarius for a whole day’s wage. This is the way the world works in business and trade. It is a merit-based system. The employee and employer agree to exchange work for money at the cost of labor. After this initial agreement, the landowner wants more laborers for his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace at the third hour and recruits these labors for an unspecified amount. “Whatever is right I will give you.” He goes out again at the sixth, ninth, and the eleventh hour of the day and does the same. By worldly standards, ‘whatever is right’ equals pay for the work completed. If they worked for one hour, they get one-twelfth of a denarius. This is the way the world works and the way it ought to work. There are no free lunches, no matter what the politicians promise. Even St. Paul says of earthly labor, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) These last men, the eleventh hour works, were slothful and lazy. Otherwise they would have been at the marketplace first thing in the morning to find work. When they are lined up, these men are put first in line and then comes the great shock. They receive a denarius, a whole day’s wage, for one hour, the final hour, of work! The landowner proves himself generous to a fault, if not frivolous and ridiculous. Putting the last men hired first in line only heightens the anticipation that they will receive more than they bargained for. After all, if those who work one hour get a denarius, what will those who have worked twelve hours receive? Jesus says, “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.'” (Matthew 20:10-12) Of course they would complain. They ought to complain. This is not the way the world works at all.
2) And that’s the point. The parable isn’t “Tips for a more successful business,” nor is it “How to increase productivity by employee incentive programs.” The parable isn’t about the world at all. It is about the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.” (Matthew 20:1) The worldly economy runs on a merit-based system of money for labor. That is not how the kingdom of heaven works. It is just the opposite. The Kingdom of heaven is likened to a man, the landowner, who is Jesus. He wants to bring workers into His vineyard, that is, He wants to bring men into His kingdom. But He will not allow men to earn their way into the kingdom. The first laborers hired, they wanted to earn the kingdom. They wanted their good works to avail before Christ. They demanded proper recompense for what they had done. And that is just what they receive. The landowner responds to their complaint, “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.” (Matthew 20:13-14) Take what is yours and go. Those who want to work their way into the kingdom, those who want their own work to merit something, are condemned. They receive what the bargained for and then were told to leave. Their eyes became evil with covetousness and greed because they despised the landowner’s goodness to those who did not earn the denarius. This is why Jesus ends the parable as He does, “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” (Matthew 20:16)
3) Jesus teaches us His grace today. That is the only explanation for the landowner’s actions. He wants to give His kingdom away to those who cannot earn it and know that. The kingdom of heaven is salvation in the person of Christ. We cannot earn this salvation with our good works. They help and save us never. Being born in sin and transgression we cannot do enough to please God. The commandments are impossible for us because we cannot fulfil a single one by our own will power. It is impossible for us to fear, love, and trust in God because of our sin. We would rather fear, love, and trust ourselves above all things. That initial selfishness prevents us from being able to fulfill any of the commandments of the Lord, since they are first and foremost commandments to the heart and then to our hands. If we think we can fulfill the commandments by our own powers, even in the slightest bit, then we don’t understand the true nature of our sinfulness or the true demand of the commandment. The commandment desires a perfect faith toward God and a perfect love for neighbor in the heart, the mind, the will, the motivation, not to mention the act. One who is born into sin, as all men are, are unable to do that. That is why no good work is good enough to earn us the kingdom. No merit is meritorious enough.
4) We must maintain this because it is the teaching of the Holy Scripture and it gives all glory to Christ. St. Paul teaches us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) The kingdom is given to the lazy, the slothful, and sluggish. It is given to those who cannot earn it and do not, by nature, even desire it. It cannot be earned by works. The Lord will not allow it to be earned by works. If any of our works contribute to our salvation then we are no longer saved by grace. I had a conversation this week with a man who firmly believes that faith itself is a conscious decision, and act of the will in which a person chooses to believe in Jesus and accept the Gospel. And while this is the heart of American Evangelicalism, it is lie. If faith is a decision on the part of the sinner, then the sinner contributes to his salvation and it is no longer solely in the hands of God. It is no longer by grace but grace plus the work of acceptance on our part, which is not grace at all. But the apostle says that we are saved by grace through faith and that this is a gift of God. Grace is by definition a gift and not earned. St. Paul is saying that even our faith in Christ is a gift from Christ, so that all things of our salvation belong to Him and are held by His strong right hand. This is a great comfort to Christians.
5) This is a glorious teaching, the undeserved and unmerited grace of God. What if our works could merit us God’s favor? How many works would we need? Would it be a matter of quality or quantity or both? Would it be, as the Arminians of our day claim, that only the work of choosing and accepting Jesus is needed? In times of doubt and despair, in times of temptation and those times when we succumb to temptation, how can we be sure than we really accepted Jesus into our hearts? How can we truly know if we chose Jesus when the Devil is ever-present to snatch up the seed of the Word? The answer is simple. We cannot. This was the question that drove Dr. Luther to the brink of spiritual despair and sparked the Reformation, “When do I know I’ve done enough to please God’s righteous and perfect demands?” The Roman religion offers you ladders to climb into God’s favor. The American Evangelical religion offers you ways to please God through works of reform and self-rehabilitation. But the parable is clear. The landowner wants to give the kingdom away. The church is not a business. The Lord has not ordered the kingdom of heaven in the way He has ordered the kingdom of this world. The landowner gives it to you purely by Grace. He has earned it for you by His perfect obedience to the commandments during His earthly life. He has merited righteousness for you by paying for ALL your sins upon the cross. He offers all His earned righteous and all His merit to you in His means of Grace, the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments. He even creates faith in your heart since you cannot create it yourself through your will and decision. That is grace. That is salvation by grace alone.
6) Before we leave our Lord’s parable we need to head the warning at the end. While we remain in the sinful flesh we will always be tempted towards covetousness and pride when we see the grace of God given to those around us. The Landowner asks the unthankful workers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15) We must always rejoice in the goodness of God that He demonstrates in Christ Jesus. We must be on guard against the temptation to despise others around us, thinking that they are beyond the grace of God offered in Christ. We must not allow ourselves to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, for that spiritual pride will cause us to eventually neglect the grace of God and think that we have merited the Lord’s favor. We must always be vigilant against such pride, for that is not true love for neighbor nor is pride compatible with the humility that comes from being saved by grace alone. When we think of ourselves more highly than we ought our eye becomes evil so that the goodness of the Landowner towards us is obscured and eventually lost to our sight. Be vigilant against this, dear Christians, lest through it you toss aside the grace of God in Christ Jesus want to merit grace.
7) For grace cannot be merited otherwise it ceased to be grace. Neither think of your faith as your own work or decision and so tear that blessed gift from the Holy Ghost, who alone works faith in your heart through the means of grace. In times of doubt, despair, temptation and trial, flock back to His means of grace, the Word and Sacraments, for there He strengthens your faith in the promises of God so that your faith may not fail you nor your heart falter. Stay close to these means and ponder them daily so that God may, through them, continually tell you of His grace, of His sheer mercy and divine goodness in the life, death, and resurrection of your Lord Jesus Christ. Take comfort that you are saved not by works, not by merit, nor any worthiness in you, but that you are saved by grace and grace alone. Amen.