Sermon for Septuagesima
Jeremiah 1:4-10 + 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 + Matthew 20:1-16
There are two kinds of workers in the Lord’s vineyard, two kinds of Christians in the Lord’s Church. Jesus describes them for us in today’s Gospel. There are those who start out first, but end up last. And there are those who start out last, but end up first. The parable about the workers in the vineyard helps us to understand how all this works, so that we don’t end up last. Because “last” in God’s eyes means losing His favor and falling out of grace.
In Jesus’ parable, there’s a landowner who goes out at the crack of dawn and finds a number of workers ready to hit the fields and work. These are the first workers, the ones who will put in their full twelve hours of work. They will work hard and long. They will bear the burden and the heat of the day. And they will be duly compensated for their work. The landowner agrees with them ahead of time on the wages he’ll pay them at the end of the day: one denarius. Fair enough.
Then there were the rest of the workers that the landowner hired at various points throughout the day. Some of them would work nine hours, some six hours, some three hours, and some only one hour in the vineyard. With all of these workers, there was no agreement for certain wages. Just the assurance that the landowner would treat them fairly at the end of the day.
At the end of the day, those who were hired throughout the day, including the very last hour of the day, were given one denarius. Those who were hired first in the day were given one denarius. And, as you know, that embittered the ones who were hired first, who worked the longest. They expected that the wages would be handed out based on the merit of the worker and the worthiness of the work. So when they saw those who were hired last receiving one denarius, they expected to get more than that. Surely their twelve hours of labor were worth more than these people’s one hour of labor.
Well, maybe that would be true, if this parable were about worldly economics or earthly business practices. But it isn’t. This parable of Jesus is about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not a business, and God, the heavenly landowner, does not reward the workers in His vineyard like an earthly landowner does.
In the end, the first workers who grumbled and complained against the landowner received their precious denarius. But they lost favor with the landowner. 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?’
Now let’s consider the meaning of this parable.
The first group of workers includes the Old Testament Jews. They were the first ones chosen by God, out of all the nations of the earth, to be His special people. He made His covenant—His agreement—with the people of Israel through Moses and gave to Israel all the commandments of the Law, the Ten Commandments and all the rest of the statutes and ordinances of the Old Testament. And God promised Israel that, if they would obey His commandments and keep His covenant, they would be His holy people, and He would be their God. By the time Jesus came, the Jews, as a nation, had been working under the burden and heat of the Law for some 1,500 years.
The second group of workers, the ones not chosen first, who didn’t work as long in the vineyard, includes the Gentiles. The Gentiles weren’t part of God’s original agreement with Israel. They never had to live under any of those Old Testament rules and regulations, and they also never had God’s promises of life and salvation, like the Jews did. But then Christ came and fulfilled God’s covenant with Israel, and opened up the kingdom of heaven, not to those who could match the Jews’ zeal at keeping the law, but to all who would believe in Him. That meant Gentiles. That also meant Jews who hadn’t worked to keep God’s law, but who had broken it time and time again, the public sinners among the Jews who knew they had no hope of earning their way into heaven, no hope of surpassing the righteousness of the Pharisees; their work would never be good enough. They were invited into the kingdom of God—into His vineyard—by baptism and faith in Christ.
That angered the Jews who thought they had worked so hard to earn God’s favor and their place in the kingdom of heaven. “Here we’ve spent our whole lives being careful to keep the commandments. We’ve given up so much, sacrificed so much for the sake of God’s Law. Why should those sinners who did hardly any work (except for evil works) receive the same reward as us?” They were proud of their hard work under the Law. They wanted to be recognized for it. And they certainly didn’t want Gentiles and sinners to receive the same reward as they. That’s why they hated Jesus so much. He made everyone equal as sinners. He made everyone’s works equally worthless for earning a place in the kingdom of heaven. And He made everyone equal in how they could be saved: only by grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits, Christ’s works, only through faith in Christ.
Grace is the basis of reward in the kingdom of heaven, not how hard a person works to keep the commandments. If God were to reward us according to our works, we would all perish eternally. As the Psalmist once wrote, O Lord, do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous. Instead, He gives His forgiveness and eternal life out of pure grace, because He is kind and generous and good.
The merits of Christ are what count in the kingdom of heaven, not our merits. In other words, in God’s kingdom of grace, Jesus—true God and true Man—is the only worker, the only laborer. His hard work at keeping God’s commandments throughout His earthly life, His hard work at suffering for the sins of mankind—that is what has earned a place in God’s kingdom and in God’s favor for mankind.
And faith is the means by which sinners receive the benefits that Christ has merited, that Christ has earned. Sinners are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. That is the simple, basic Christian Gospel.
Jesus’ parable today is a warning to Christians so that we don’t go running back to the Law, to be judged by how hard we have worked rather than by grace. Because you don’t have to be a Jew to be in that first group of workers. You can also be a Christian who has worked hard and long at keeping God’s commandments, going to church, being a good person. And you, too, can begin to be worthy and deserving in your own eyes, as if all of your hard work and the sacrifices you’ve made in order to follow Christ made you just a little bit deserving of God’s forgiveness and grace. And you could begin to become bitter when you see another Christian who has not worked very hard, in your opinion, at keeping the commandments receiving the same forgiveness you do, the same love and grace of God that you receive. You run the risk of getting to the Last Day and relying on how hard you’ve tried to live a good life as a Christian, consoling yourself on your deathbed that, you may not have been perfect, but you weren’t really all that bad, either. Surely God will accept you.
Such a reliance on your works will condemn you to hell, because to rely on your works is to reject the works of Christ. So be careful that you don’t try to buy or bargain your way into heaven with anything you’ve ever done or not done. If you become first in your own eyes, that is, if you think of yourself and your works as deserving of God’s heavenly reward, then you will be last in God’s eyes.
But, for those who know all too well that their works are insufficient, that they haven’t worked long enough or hard enough to earn God’s favor, to those who are last in their own eyes, Jesus comforts you today with this parable, because He teaches you that, when it comes to God’s grace, everyone is equal. All who rely on Christ and His merits alone are recipients of God’s generosity, of God’s grace. For Christ’s sake, God regards the lowliest sinner who repents as highly as the Virgin Mary herself. Your sins are equally forgiven, your prayers are equally heard, you are equally loved, and you are equally rewarded, because all in God’s kingdom are rewarded on the basis of the works of Another, the works of Christ Jesus our Lord. He reveals to us today a God of grace and mercy, who rewards those who don’t deserve it, and who turns away those who think they do. For those who know and rely on His grace alone, to work in His vineyard, to serve Him in His kingdom, is not a chore, but a privilege. And at the end of the day and the end of your earthly life, you will see just how generous our God truly is. In the name of Jesus. Amen.