Sermon for Septuagesima
1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 + Matthew 20:1-16
As the saying goes, well begun is half done. It’s important to make a good beginning in whatever you do, with a solid plan for the whole project so that you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, to put things in order right from the start and to begin moving in the right direction. By the time you put in all that effort to beginning something well, you’ve already put in half the work. You’re already half done.
But you’re still not done. Imagine a runner—some people actually enjoy that sort of thing—a runner who puts in all the effort to train for a race. He registers for the race. He maps it out. He eats well. He sleeps wells. And he starts running the race well. Then, part-way into the race, he sees something he doesn’t like along the course. And so…he drops out. Well begun is half done. But it’s meaningless if you fail to finish.
The Israelites began well long ago when they came out of Egypt. They celebrated the Passover. They crossed the Red Sea with Moses. As Paul wrote in today’s Epistle, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. They had the promised land of Canaan as their goal.
But those very Israelites who began so well failed to finish. Faith quickly turned into unbelief. Trust in the promises of God turned into trust in what their eyes could see. Trust in the goodness of God turned into giving in to the cravings of their own bellies. Trust in the works of God turned into trust in their own designs, their own devices, their own strength, their own worthiness. As Paul says, with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
And so Paul issued a warning to the Corinthian Christians. You began well enough—you heard the Gospel. You repented. You believed. You were baptized. And you have been gathering around the Word and Sacrament for some time now. But it’s all for nothing if you turn away from grace before the end, if you stop running the race, if you allow your faith to be torn away from God and placed somewhere else, like in how well you think you’ve done so far.
So, too, in the Gospel. Those who began the day working in the vineyard began well, on good terms with the landowner. They worked long and hard, right up until the end of the day, even—the full twelve hours. But they still didn’t finish well. The problem wasn’t with their work. The problem was that they quit. They didn’t quit working. But they quit appreciating the grace of the landowner. They grew to despise his generosity, focusing instead on their own hard work in the vineyard, and on how unfair it was that others who didn’t work as hard should be tied with them in wages. It ended for those workers with a, “Take what is yours and go your way,” from the owner.
Let’s take a closer look at the parable and learn a lesson from Jesus.
The owner of the vineyard goes out at the crack of dawn, 6 AM, to hire workers for the day. He finds some, and they make a contract. They agree on the wages—one denarius for twelve hours of work, and the workers go to work in the vineyard. Fine. Other workers are hired as the day goes on—at 9 AM, at noon, at 3 PM, and even at 5 PM, one hour before quitting time. For all those workers, no certain wages were specified. The owner simply promised them, whatever is right you will receive.
At the end of the day, the owner brings those who were hired last to the front of the line, to receive their wages first. He treats them with great generosity, giving them each one denarius for only one hour of work.
The ones who worked twelve hours start to get greedy. They imagine that the contract that they agreed on that same morning must have been changed without their knowing it. If the one-hour workers were receiving one denarius, then their deal with the landowner can’t possibly still be valid. They worked more. They should receive more. That’s what they thought. But, of course, each of them also received one denarius. Not equal pay for equal work, but the same pay, no matter how much work was done.
Was that fair? They didn’t think so. They grumbled against the landowner. But he puts them in their place. 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. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’
All of this is, first and foremost, a story Jesus was telling about the Jews, who, as a nation, started out trusting in God, knowing they deserved nothing from Him, believing in His goodness and mercy. But then John the Baptist came, and then Jesus came. And the Jews saw people around them who hadn’t worked very hard at keeping the Law of Moses. Some were thieves. Some were prostitutes. Some were even Gentiles. They saw these people being brought to repentance by the preaching of John and of Jesus. They saw these people being welcomed into the kingdom of God, no matter how long they had worked, no matter what they had done. They saw sinners being told by Jesus, “Take heart. Your sins are forgiven.” Just like that, without putting in any of the work they had put in, receiving the same prize of God’s favor and eternal life.
The Jews should have rejoiced in the mercy of God. They should have loved their fellow man and been glad to be fellow recipients of the generosity of God. Instead, they became jealous, not unlike the “good son” in the story of the prodigal son, who stayed in his father’s house and worked hard while his reprobate brother left to live in luxury and decadence, until he repented and came back home. You remember that story? The “good son” became angry when he saw his prodigal brother welcomed back home by their father.
What’s the real problem here? What’s going on? Are business owners being encouraged to reward workers who work less? Hardly! If anything, Jesus teaches the divine principle that the owner of the business has the right to make whatever contract he wants with his own employees, to do what he wants with his own money!
But the parable isn’t addressing business. It’s addressing the kingdom of God, where no one deserves God’s grace or a place in His kingdom. But, in His goodness and generosity, He brings people into His family by faith in Christ Jesus and gives everyone the same favor, the same forgiveness, the same salvation, the same eternal life. That’s the deal He makes in Holy Baptism with the baptized: to save them for free, apart from their works, through faith alone in His Son. Repent and believe in Him! And then, yes, work. Show love to your neighbor. Keep the commandments, not to earn God’s favor, but because you have God’s favor.
But what often happens? People begin well, recognizing their own sins, trusting in God’s promise of free salvation, thankful for God’s grace in Christ Jesus. They continue for a while in faith, producing its fruits, denying themselves and giving up earthly things for the kingdom of God, running the race so as to win the prize, as St. Paul wrote, and all is well.
Until eventually, their sins no longer seem so bad in their own eyes, while the sins of others are easy to identify. They focus on what good people they have become, and grow indignant when they see “bad people” being brought to repentance and faith later in life. They somehow think that God now owes them more, because they’ve done more, they’ve earned more. And as soon as they view God in that way, they have broken from Christ. They have fallen from grace.
Why? Because salvation is either by grace or it’s by works. And faith is either placed solely in God’s grace for the sake of Christ, or it’s placed elsewhere. No matter how long you’ve lived in faith, no matter how much of your life you’ve spent running the race, serving the Lord and your neighbor in love, none of that matters at the end of the day, if, at the end of the day, you turn away from faith in Christ to rely on your own works, to want God to deal with you based on what you have earned, instead of what Christ has earned for you.
All of you here have made a good beginning in your faith. Some began sooner than others. Some have run the race more intentionally, in a more disciplined way than others. All of that is now irrelevant. What matters is how you continue the race from this point on: in daily contrition and repentance. With faith in God’s goodness for the sake of Christ crucified. Hearing God’s Word. Feeding on God’s Sacraments. With love. With prayer. With zeal for Christ’s kingdom. But always with God’s grace in view, so that, at the end of the day, you’re ready to stand before God to receive, not the wages you think you’ve earned, but the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.