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Sermon for Septuagesima
1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 + Matthew 20:1-16
We have before us in the parable of the landowner a certain aspect of the kingdom of heaven, that is, of the holy Christian Church on earth. That certain aspect of the Church, is summed up by Jesus at the end of the parable: Many are called, but few are chosen. Few are “elected.” The doctrine of election is taught in this Gospel. Many workers were called by the landowner to go into His vineyard. But, at the end of the day, even though they were all paid the same, not everyone left with the same thing. Only the “chosen” ended up with the landowner’s grace and favor. Why? Let me summarize it briefly, and then we’ll go through the parable in detail, where we’ll find this truth proclaimed: “Ending the day” with God’s favor has nothing to do with when you enter His kingdom or how hard you work on this earth or how much you suffer in this life. You end the day with God’s grace by continuing to rely on the grace by which you were called in the first place, all the way up to the end. Remain in the grace by which you were called!
Let’s review the parable one more time. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Again, Jesus is describing what happens in the kingdom of heaven, in the Church of God. What is the Church like? A landowner goes out early in the morning to call workers into His vineyard for the day. He finds some. They agree to work all day till sunset, about an 11 or 12-hour day, for one denarius. That was at the first hour. At about the third hour, the landowner goes out and calls some more workers, and He tells them, “Whatever is right, I will give you,” and they agree. He does the same thing at the sixth hour and again at the ninth hour and finally even at the eleventh hour, with only one hour left in the work-day. At the end of the day, He orders the workers to be paid from last to first, and He gives one denarius to each. So when the first workers come up to be paid, they’re sure He’ll pay them more, but He doesn’t. He pays them one denarius, just as they had agreed at the beginning of the day. But they were upset. They grumbled against the landowner. How dare He give them the same pay as those who had worked less and suffered less under the heat of the sun—in some cases, much less? But He replies to one of them, ‘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?’
So. All the workers in the parable share certain things in common. All were called by the landowner to go and work in his vineyard. In the same way, this is how God always brings people into His earthly kingdom, the Church. He goes out personally and finds them and calls them into His vineyard. God is the one who does it, but He does it through means. He does it through the mouths of His ministers. Repent and believe the good news! Come, follow Me!, is the word of the Gospel that goes out. The call goes out to all. And many enter the visible gathering of the Church through Holy Baptism, which takes a person off the streets, as it were, and places him in God’s vineyard, in God’s service, in God’s house.
This is a call of pure grace, because the landowner saw nothing good in the workers He found, and He saw nothing good in any of us. On the contrary, He found much evil in us, so out of pure grace, He offered us the blood of His own Son to cleanse us from all our sins. Forgiveness for the sake of Christ is the doorway into the Lord’s vineyard. That and that alone is what made us fit to enter His kingdom. That’s something we have in common with every member of the Christian Church.
Something else all have in common. All who are called by the landowner are expected to work in the vineyard. We’re not called to keep standing around idly, doing nothing, or serving ourselves, serving our own interests, living for this world. All who are called into the kingdom of God are called to work at putting to death the sinful flesh, to practice saying ‘no’ to sin and ‘yes’ to righteousness. Whether a person spends his or her whole life in the kingdom of God, or only the very last part of it, all are called to work, with love toward God and love toward our neighbor.
Finally, all are paid equally at the end of the day. All receive the same, no matter how much they work or how long they work or how much they suffer under the sun. All are given the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost. Equally. Because in God’s vineyard, God’s grace and generosity cannot be earned or deserved by sinners. It can only be earned by the Son of God in the sinner’s place. That’s the grace that is offered to all.
But there are important differences, too, among the workers, aren’t there? The workers were called at different times. So some worked longer, some worked less. Some suffered under the heat of the day, some barely broke a sweat.
We think, first, of the people of Israel, called by God early in the day. They were given the Law of Moses, not just the moral law, but also all the ceremonial and civil laws to keep. It was, as Peter called it, “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” But when Christ came, He preached salvation to both Jews and Gentiles, to those who had borne the burden of the Law for a lifetime, and to those who had barely suffered under it at all.
We think, too, of individuals who are called to be Christians early in life, who spend more of their lives in daily self-denial, fighting against sin, refusing the lusts of the flesh, living with the world as their enemy, as opposed to others who spend most of their lives gratifying the lusts of the flesh, as friends of this world, only to be converted later in life.
Finally, we think of some Christians who have suffered more—sometimes much more—in this life than others. Whether it was a hard earthly life filled with afflictions and suffering, or whether it was the blessed cross they had to bear for the sake of Christ, there is a difference in what Christians suffer in this life.
But those who are called first receive no more. And those who are called last receive no less. So what happens when all are rewarded with the same grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? In the parable, the ones who worked the longest and suffered the most grew to despise the grace of the landowner. They complained about His generosity. They wanted each one to be paid according to the amount of work he had done, which meant more for them, less for everyone else. And this is often what happens in the Church with those who have worked longer and suffered more. They begin to take God’s grace for granted. They begin to think they’re truly earning His favor with their obedience. They begin to dislike the idea of free forgiveness for those who have committed great sins in their lives. Even though they were told from the beginning that they were poor sinners who stand only by God’s grace, they begin to think that, really, they’ve stood pretty well for themselves.
So Jesus issues a warning in today’s Gospel. Yes, you were all called by God’s grace. But you still stand only by God’s grace, and you will only finish the day with Lord’s continued favor and grace if you continue to look to Him for grace. Because the moment you look to Him to give you heaven as wages for your work, the moment you despise the grace He offers to other sinners, you fall from grace. You lose Christ. And you lose salvation.
So the Jews shouldn’t be upset that God now wants to give the same kingdom to the latecomer Gentiles. Nor should the Gentiles despise the Jews. They did work hard all day, throughout the Old Testament. They had to live under the burden of the Law for over a thousand years until the coming of Christ. And there were many advantages to being a Jew.
Similarly, those who were called to the Christian faith early in life and have served Christ for many years should not despise those who are called later in life after living in many sins and much darkness. And those who were called later in life should not think less of those who have spent many years living imperfectly but penitently as Christians in the world.
Finally, those who have suffered much should not grow bitter because others suffer less—or at least appear to suffer less, as if by their suffering they were earning more favor from God. Nor should those who have suffered less in this life forget about those who have borne the cross for a long time.
Whether Jew or Gentile, whether called to the Christian faith early or late, whether you’ve suffered much for the name of Christ or little, remain focused on the grace of God. Know that His generosity is the only reason you are safe from sin, death and the devil. Know that His patience toward others is the same patience that leads you to repentance.
Many are called into the Christian Church, into the kingdom of God. And many begin as Christians. But there are few who are chosen—few who remain in God’s grace all the way to the end. What does the doctrine of election teach us? That His grace is the same for everyone, that God wants every one of you who were called and baptized into His kingdom, to be among those few. Remain in the grace by which you were called! Pay attention to today’s Gospel! Because in this very Gospel, with its warning and with its comfort, and in the Sacrament that we’re about to celebrate, you have the means by which God strengthens you to remain. Amen.