Matthew 20:1-16 (14th Sunday after Pentecost—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 18, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is our Gospel lesson appointed for the day, from Matthew 20:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
“IT’S NOT FAIR!”
Oh, how many times have you and I said that! And how many times do we get to hear those words from our children? To which we may very astutely reply, “Well, son, life’s not fair.” Okay, well if life isn’t fair, at least God ought to be, right? What kind of a God would be unfair? I don’t think I’d want a God who isn’t just and fair, yet today we are presented with a parable of Jesus that has some pretty good evidence that God might not be as fair as we would like Him to be. And that’s disturbing.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Here is a story about what life is like in God’s kingdom. The master of the house and the Lord of Vineyard is God. Now in the story there are five different occasions when workers are hired: first at sunrise around 6:00 a.m., then 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m. and finally the eleventh hour, 5:00 p.m., with only an hour left in the workday until sunset around 6:00 p.m. The vineyard owner agreed with the first group hired that He would pay them the standard wage for a full 12-hour day, a denarius. The others hired were promised, “whatever is right I will give you.” So far all seems good, right, and salutary. It’s all fair. But then comes pay day.
The Lord of the Vineyard tells the foreman to call the laborers and pay them, beginning with the last ones first. So pay is to be given out in reverse order of hiring. Those who had only worked one hour received a denarius, an amount that they should have received only if they had worked the whole day! That is major generosity on the part of the Lord of the Vineyard. These men only worked an hour and got paid for a full day. Now, all the other workers see this extreme generosity. So they are all standing around calculating how much more they had accomplished in comparison with the little work done by the last group. So that must mean that they are going to receive more pay than originally agreed upon.
You work longer and harder, you get paid more than those who didn’t. That’s how we understand fairness. I’m not going to pay you for a day’s worth of work if you only put in a hour. I’ll pay you for your hour, but it won’t be the same as I pay the person who worked for eight. Is there anyone who would disagree with that practice? I think we’d all do the same because it’s fair. But against all conventional wisdom and expectation, the workers who were hired first and had worked the 12-hour day also received a denarius! IT’S NOT FAIR!
That’s why those hired first get all bent out of shape. Wouldn’t you? “Those guys only worked an hour. We worked 12, in the heat, in the sun. And you have the audacity to make them equal to us!” These workers are not happy. That’s, I think, an understatement. They are outraged. The vineyard’s Lord has treated everyone the same. All received identical pay no matter how long they worked in the vineyard. This is offensive, even scandalous. GOD’S NOT FAIR!
Or maybe we humans don’t really understand fairness? Maybe we don’t really understand true generosity or even grace itself.
“You get what you deserve. That’s fair,” people say. I work for 8 hours; I get paid for 8 hours. That’s fair. I work 4 hours; I get paid for 4 hours, not 8. That’s fair. We get what we deserve and what we have earned because it’s fair. But, God’s not fair. And for that I am truly thankful. He doesn’t give me what I have earned. God doesn’t give me what I deserve. I have earned eternal death and hell. I deserve eternal punishment. I deserve to be condemned by God because I am a sinner. You and I stand together on that issue. We deserve to be treated the same as far as our sins go. My sins might be quite different from your sins, but it doesn’t matter. Sin against God in thought, desire, speech, and action all condemns. Sin is sin is sin. A little white lie is just as evil and wicked as a big lie. Lust is just as evil as the act of adultery, hatred just as wicked as murder. So the Bible tells us, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)
We want a God who is just and fair, and so we have one. God’s justice and fairness demands our punishment. He demands that we are paid in full for our sins and that payment is eternal death and condemnation! It doesn’t matter if you are prince or pauper, rich or poor, male or female, adult or child, young or old. God’s fairness demands punishment. God’s justice demands our death.
Yet, you and I don’t receive what we deserve. Those who worked only one hour didn’t “deserve” a denarius. But if the owner is going to pay them a denarius, it is because of His gracious generosity. They get what they don’t deserve. So do you and I. We deserve punishment and death and instead get forgiveness and eternal life! And no, it is not fair! It is grace!! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
God has taken us as sinners and made us equal in His sight. And rather than dish out the punishment on us that His justice and fairness demands, He chose out of pure mercy and grace to punish His Son Jesus in our place. God’s justice and fairness must punish sin and sinner. But God chose Jesus to be our substitute. Jesus really took our punishment of death and hell upon Himself as He suffered and died on the cross. It wasn’t fair that the perfect Son of God suffered and died because He had done no wrong. Jesus was without sin. But it was grace and mercy for you and me and every other sinful human being of every time and place. Jesus’ death and the shedding of His blood saved us from death and hell forever. On account of the blood of Jesus Christ, you and I stand before God forgiven. Our sins were charged against Jesus and so we have no marks against us. JWe receive eternal life with our Lord and God at no cost to us.
The Lord of the Vineyard looks at us and sees us as His children, with no distinctions. Christians receive the same forgiveness and the same eternal life whether they have been in the kingdom 80 minutes or 80 years! We read in God’s Word in Galatians 3, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28) In God’s Kingdom there is no room for self-promotion. There is no occasion and no basis on which one believer can say to another, “I’m more important than you are.” We have all received the identically same grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ because God IS fair and He is GRACIOUS to all of us equally.
This, then, is very important for our life of faith together in this congregation and in Christ’s Church. While we all have unique gifts and abilities, we all receive the same grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. While we all have different personalities and ways of doing things, we all receive the same forgiveness and life from our heavenly Father. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (13, 27)
As Christians, all our hands work together in the vineyard of God’s kingdom because the Lord has “hired” us in our baptism to be His people, His children. In His Gospel Word He equally speaks to each of us His abundant forgiveness. In His Supper, the Lord equally feeds us generously with the very Body and Blood of Jesus whereby we receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Perhaps this goes against all our notions of what is right and fair. And praise God that it does. He doesn’t operate according to our standards of what is fair. He gives to us generously, by grace, things we have not deserved. We all receive the same wages, and not the wages that we deserve, but the free gifts of God’s grace: forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Live always in His fair and generous grace to us in Christ. Amen.