in Sermons

27. January 2013
Septuagesima
Matthew 20:1-16

You have heard it said that parables are “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” As earthly stories go these parables are often too outrageous to be true. The parable of the laborers and the vineyard is not all that helpful for business advice. No earthly master would run a vineyard paying everyone the same rate no matter how much or little they worked. It’s bad for business, discriminatory, and alienates the workers.  The master doesn’t care about tomorrow and is only concerned about today’s harvest. The master is generous but he’ll shortly be out a vineyard. Jesus’s parable is lousy advice about how to be a business owner.

What about the laborers? Does God promise to reward diligence with a job? Or perhaps work hard and you’ll get paid? Or don’t be lazy or you might miss a decent job prospect? And maybe that God gives higher pay to those who wait? No, those seem off, too. The parable’s application doesn’t seem to have anything to do with business, labor, running a vineyard, or even the character of a decent business owner or worker.

We know these parables to have meaning for us but their point is not to be more like the characters in the story. In today’s story this would involve being a terrible businessman or to stop complaining at work.

The parable’s value to you personally is indicated by the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Jesus did not say “for the kingdom of the earth is like.” Jesus is describing for you what is true of his church rather than giving you life lessons. He is describing spiritual realities by way of comparison to an earthly setting. When this comparison is made in the parables, we learn how radically different and uncharacteristic God is. No one and nothing in this earth behaves like our God.

The comparison goes like this: God is the master of the house whose vineyard needs workers. We are the laborers in His vineyard. The foremen are the pastors of the church who distribute our the denarius wage. From this earthly comparison what are we to learn about God, his church, his nature, and your faith?

The point is not about the labor. Jesus is not teaching us that our hard work will merit his generosity in this life or the life to come. Far from it. Some came in the eleventh hour putting in only an hour of effort and yet are rewarded with the same pay of a denarius as those who labored all twelve hours. The point is not the labor but the reward. This reward is given equally and generously to all who are brought into His vineyard.

What is the reward for being made a laborer in the Father’s vineyard? You receive the gracious favor of God. Regardless of your laziness, your hard work, your faithful life, or your wickedness, God chooses you. He goes out to the obvious potential Christians and says “follow me into my vineyard!” He goes into the marketplace of ideas and calls all to place their hand at His winepress. He even goes after those who have no regard for His work or His gracious wage and sends them to work. So the Father’s grace is first manifest in His call.

This is necessary. By your sinful condition, you were separated from God. You were outside His high and protective walls. You lacked the sustenance of his fine food. You did not walk with Him in the cool of the day. Thus, grace is to be welcomed again into fellowship with God, to serve Him in righteousness and blessedness. Grace is to be forgiven and welcomed back into the shelter of His home and vineyard fortress. Grace is to taste and see that the LORD is good.

Not only does God call you into his vineyard, His grace gives you the promised reward when your labors are ended. This begins now. The kingdom of heaven begins in the holy church with the forgiveness of sins received in the very voice of God, a washing in His blood, and rich food of His body and blood. The reward is already yours, whether life-long Lutheran or newcomer. You are safely in Christ’s vineyard.

And this reward lasts into eternity. For God your life is but a day. At the end of that day, that is, when you die, he’ll give you the reward for your labors. His graciousness isn’t simply the call to be His servant here in time but also the promise of eternity. Grace begins now with forgiveness of sins, a washing of rebirth, and a foretaste of the feast to come. The promised reward is the feast, the resurrection of the body, and everlasting life.

Thus, the parable is not about the labor but the reward. When He called you He promised you a just reward. Even before you heard the call the promise of forgiveness and eternity were yours. Why? Because God the Father sent His Son Jesus Christ to earn this reward for you. This is why the hours of labor are irrelevant. The gracious denarius is yours not for the labor’s sake but for the sake of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He has already earned this reward for you and gives it to you freely as a gift.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is ridiculously generous. Jesus warns us not to begrudge our heavenly Father His generosity. Salvation and the means of God’s favor are given freely as a gift. They are not earned or merited. If someone walks through these doors having heard God’s call, I cannot say as foreman, “these gifts are not for you.” No, they are freely forgiven not for the sake of their effort but for the sake of Christ.

When they ask to be baptized into God’s holy family after being instructed by God’s holy Word and thereby saved, the faithful foreman gives to them this gift as the call agreed upon. If someone young or old—child or elderly—desires the Lord’s body and blood, confesses the one faith truthfully, and will receive the shepherding of your pastor’s care, the faithful foreman gives the gifts and feeds the child of God.

Too often we begrudge God his generosity. We think that forgiveness should only come to those who are sorry enough, pious enough, or Lutheran enough. Yet, none of us are godly enough. Despite the truth of our condition, our heavenly Father in His mercy showers his grace and favor on us in the forgiveness of sins. We are weak earthen vessels to dispense the mercy as his vineyard laborers.

We’re concerned about the baptized, not sure the parent’s heart is in the right place, and worried that the child will forsake this gift. At the end of the day, it is not ours to decide where and when to baptize. What must I do to be saved? Believe and be baptized. At that we give the gift.

The Lord’s Supper has often been polluted by thoughts of merit and worth. So-called “worthy reception” is typically understood as having to once-upon-a-time jumped through all the right Confirmation hoops. But who has received the sacrament worthily? “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” Preparedness is not a matter of work but faith. Worthy reception is believing that Christ’s body and blood are given for your forgiveness.

Do not begrudge the Father His generosity. The kingdom of heaven comes without our work or even without our prayers. God will save the whole number of the elect in His time. For some this is the first hour, for others the eleventh, and for others in between. It’s not about the work or the having “done the time” but is about God’s gracious favor to every laborer without any merit or worthiness in them. It’s not about the work but the reward.

How does God’s kingdom come, after all? The kingdom of heaven “comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” (SC, III.2)

While the truth is not complicated it is unbelievable and contrary to our nature. It requires faith to give the Holy Spirit all the credit for making you a Christian and keeping you that way. You’d rather credit the faith of your parents, your Sunday school teachers, your diligent study, or even your pastor(s). All these have a role to play but merely as weak instruments wielded by the Holy Spirit’s powerful hand.

It was not your work that made you one of God’s children, nor the hand of the pastor, nor even the water that washed over you, but rather the Word of God acting through Word and water. It is not your work of stumbling out of bed on Sunday morning, dragging out your Bible during the week, or even going on your knees in prayer that keeps you in the faith but instead the Holy Spirit enlightening you with daily, rich forgiveness of sins.

We confess that it is the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, and enlightens the Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. The call to be a member of the one holy Christian church comes from God the Holy Spirit. He is the one who gathers you to the feet of Jesus Christ. He enlightens you in all matters of salvation and life by the gift of forgiveness received by the Holy Word and the blessed Sacraments.

The way of salvation is not about the labor but rather entirely about the grace of the Holy Trinity. For the Father sent His Son Jesus to redeem you, to earn your reward in your stead. Now the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit to call you and the world to come into the vineyard, be sheltered behind those walls, washed and clothed in Christ, to be fed and nourished with His body and blood, and to patiently labor until the promised reward of heaven is yours. God might make for a terrible business man and we grumpy laborers but such is the kingdom of heaven. Thanks be to God!

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

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