9/20/2020 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 20: 1-16.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“The last will be first and the first will be last”. Often, pious Christians have struggled with this concept that Jesus expresses more than once in the Scriptures. The first time Jesus speaks this occurs a chapter earlier in Matthew where he teaches the disciples the lesson explaining why it is hard for a wealthy person to enter heaven. And this morning this same pronouncement is uttered in the parable about the laborers in the vineyard. Not only are those who only worked an hour paid the same amount as the ones who toiled a full day in the fields, the “part-timers” actually receive their wages before the full-day workers. The ones who worked in the hot sun for the entire day find this to be quite unfair.
If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m quite certain that we’ve been guilty of this feeling as well. Moses was the first to transmit the commandment from God that this isn’t acceptable; it’s called “coveting”. Being jealous of what another has been given, has been blessed with. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther took a pretty strong stance against this sense of begrudging others, also. Yet, the concept that those who have been given equal to us might not be worthy of what they’ve been blessed with, still causes us to feel those pangs of envy. Thus, Jesus’ words, “first will be last, and last, first” often causes us to squirm a bit.
In truth, the commandment against coveting what others may have is usually referenced when someone has something that we don’t; or theirs is better than what we have. “I drive a Ford; how does he deserve a Ferrari?” Or, “My adult kid is struggling to pay rent; why is my neighbor’s teenager living in their own four-bedroom house?” But this morning’s parable takes an even narrower view; both the full-day workers and those who toiled only a few hours received the same pay. This is coveting, this is jealousy, this is envy raised to an entirely new level. The whole-day laborers don’t feel that the ones who worked fewer hours were deserving of the “same” pay for their labor. Notice that the part-timers weren’t given anything more, everyone was paid the same amount.
This isn’t Ford vs. Ferrari, or tiny apartment vs. mansion; this is more like, “I have my Ford and so does my neighbor, but I don’t think he really deserves his”. Or, “we both live in a nice big house, and I’m pretty sure the guy across the street didn’t work hard enough to afford the mortgage”. “He shouldn’t have the same square-footage as me”. It’s not about being jealous of someone who has more than us, it’s being upset that another person has exactly what we have, and we’re still unhappy; because we don’t think they quite measure up to our worthiness. “They certainly aren’t as deserving as me”.
But this propensity to deny others based on our concept of their worthiness didn’t start with us, not did it begin with the grumbling vineyard workers. We heard earlier that Jonah stated he would rather die an angry, agonizing death than accept that God might be merciful to the people in Ninevah. Seems that humanity’s willingness to deny others an equal share of God’s mercy has been with us for some time. The concept that Jonah, the laborers in the vineyard, and often we, don’t get is that it’s not a “zero-sum game”. If someone receives more it doesn’t necessarily follow that somehow our portion is in any way diminished. God is telling Jonah and Jesus is reassuring the vineyard workers that the forgiveness, mercy, and love that God chooses to bestow on others is in no way related to the portion of this grace that we receive.
The old saying goes, “you get what you deserve”. This might be true when it relates to the way people treat one another. We should be thankful that this isn’t the case when it comes to God’s way of dealing with his children. Because of our sinfulness what we deserve is condemnation; what we receive is mercy, and this by God’s grace alone. If we ever begin to think that the other is unworthy, we would do well to consider our own unworthiness! We are recipients of the Father’s righteousness in spite of our sin, and certainly not because we “deserve” it. We’re no more entitled to the grace of God than the “other guy”; you know, the one who only worked a few hours while we labored a full day; or drives a Ferrari, or even the one in the Ford just like mine.
God’s grace is extended to everyone who believes that Jesus has come to establish the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Perhaps because this is so obvious, we don’t always recognize it. The love of God doesn’t depend on what we drive, where we live, or whether we work harder than our neighbor. God extends his mercy and love to all because there is always a need for more laborers to be called to work in the vineyard. God’s people are called to know that in thanksgiving for the love that God bestows on everyone, that in turn we ought to be compelled to labor to hasten the kingdom’s coming.
God spared the tens of thousands of people in Ninevah in spite of Jonah’s complaints, because the people had repented from their sinful ways. God showed them mercy in spite of their sin. This paved the way for them to become workers in God’s kingdom. The vineyard workers were rewarded equally for their labors; by this Jesus reminds us that God’s grace is unlimited and that it is freely offered. It doesn’t matter how many hours we put in, we are forgiven and redeemed for the sake of Christ. So, we are free to decide if we will respond to this gift of God’s grace by toiling tirelessly to serve others in the kingdom. On the other hand, if we determine that Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s grace have already been obtained and that we need not respond with our labors, our theology teaches that we have been equally blessed; energetic kingdom worker and idle bystander, alike.
There are many in God’s church who have been working in the vineyards of the kingdom for as long as they can recall. In parishes throughout the world legions of believers have been involved in a lifetime of spreading the Gospel; in fact, there are more than a few “cradle Lutherans” among us here at Emanuel. There are also late-bloomers, folks like myself who came back to the church after having been away for some time. And there are untold numbers of people who have yet to discover the grace that God offers and it is our hope and prayer that they will be welcomed into the fold whenever and wherever they choose to follow God’s call. Perhaps they will bless us and our kingdom work by making Emanuel their home.
And there are those who are not able to work to serve the needs of God’s people. Some of these are the very young. In a few moments we will ask the presence of the Holy Spirit as we welcome Jackson Daniel into God’s family. He is about to become the newest recipient of the promises of God. Through the grace of God that we aren’t able to fully grasp, hampered as we are by our human understanding of unmerited mercy and love, God will offer to Jackson a share in the kingdom equal to those who have toiled for decades. And in this, there will be no coveting, no jealousy, no envy. For we know that our righteous Father provides equally for all his children. For, “the first will be last, and the last will be first”. Jackson, welcome to the family! God’s family, where all hold an equal share in the grace, mercy, and love that our God promises to all.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, we give you thanks that you are merciful to us in spite of our unworthiness. Help us to recognize that your grace is offered to all and that we ought to rejoice at the blessings of others. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection have secured an equal share of forgiveness for all. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.