Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Date: Septua-superbowl-gesima + 2/4/07
It is fundamental to the Christian gospel that a person, a sinner, is justified in God’s sight not by works of righteousness of our own invention but by God’s grace alone for the sake of faith in Jesus Christ alone. Every Sunday school child, every catechumen, every Christian knows this. This is, as we say in our Lutheran Confessions, the doctrine upon which the Church either stands or falls. Forget this central teaching or mess it up or dress it up with all sorts of supposed “improvements” or academic “insights” and you will have lost it. You’d think such a simple, fundamental doctrine would be easy to maintain as central to everything else that goes on in the church and the world. But there’s the rub, and there’s the challenge Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel with the parable of the workers in the vineyard: the fact that Christians, in this life, live in two kingdoms or realms at the same time, the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of heaven. It is one thing to clearly define the difference between these two kingdoms. It is another thing to resist confusing them.
The kingdom of the world operates by means of laws and rules. The kingdom of heaven operates by means of grace and the Gospel. The kingdom of the world demands inequality, that is, recognition of people on the basis of their different value or talent, wisdom or strength, success or failure. The kingdom of heaven levels the playing field and treats every individual equally regardless of their station or situation in life. In the kingdom of the world there are winners and losers, rich and poor, honor and dishonor. In the kingdom of heaven there are no differences for, on the one hand, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and yet, on the other hand, all are saved solely by the grace and gift of faith in Jesus Christ alone.
The parable, therefore, demonstrates what happens when you confuse these two kingdoms, that is, both when you attempt to make distinctions of stations, vocations and works in the kingdom of heaven and when you attempt to eliminate distinctions in the kingdom of the world.
Let’s take the kingdom of the world first. In the work-a-day world “equal pay for equal work” is expected and even demanded. Those who work eight hours in the day get paid more than those who work only an hour. Besides that, some work is considered greater or more important than other work and so the CEO’s salary is higher than the production line laborer’s, the employer greater than the employee. That’s just the way things are in the world. But that’s why social experiments in communism or socialism in all its forms fail. For even when you try to arrange it politically so that no one has anything more than anyone else, all end up equally poor and oppressed except, of course, for those doing the arranging!
The parable begins with labor negotiations. The master of the house and the laborers made an agreement, a contract that they would be paid a denarius (or a fair day’s wage) for their work. Notice, however, that when more laborers were hired at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour and even the eleventh hour the master agreed with them only to give them “whatever is right.” So what is “right”? Certainly those hired later expected to be paid less than the full-timers. The twist in the parable, however, is when, at the end of the day, the master gave everyone the same paycheck. The full-timers complained, and we would agree with their complaint except for the fact that they received exactly what the Master had promised them.
But now let’s turn things around and consider the kingdom of heaven. That is what this parable is about, after all. When it comes to salvation by God’s grace worldly distinctions are eliminated. For all our differences all have the same spiritual problem, all have sinned. And all are saved not on the basis of their works or supposed worthiness but of God’s grace alone.
When we confuse the two kingdoms, there is only social unrest in the world and there is tyranny in the church. This was the burden of so much of what St. Paul wrote in his epistles, especially his epistle to the Romans. Of the Jews we heard him say today, “I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” As the first to possess and be included in the kingdom of God, they should have rejoiced when Christ appeared and God’s kingdom opened to all believers, Jew and Gentile alike. Here is the first application of this parable. For like those who were hired first they complained when those hired last received the same, generous wage. Did you hear their complaint? “You have made them equal to us!” Yes. Jew and Gentile alike, because that’s the way it is in the kingdom of heaven.
But even in the church, among Christians, we walk in danger all the way of confusing the two kingdoms. Whenever works-righteousness becomes part of the system, the grace of God is denied. We have no problem, say, with having a pope, as long as the papacy operates on the basis of the gospel. But when the papacy (or any other form of church government) demands spiritual superiority and obedience on the basis of man-made laws and rules, then it becomes anti-Christ. We have no problem with those who have a special gift of remaining single and dedicating all their energies and life to the work of the gospel. Such was the vocation of the Apostle Paul. It is only when this gift is elevated as being somehow superior to married life or other vocations in the world, as deserving some greater honor or spiritual “rights,” as is the temptation and tendency of monastic communities of monks and nuns, that the gospel of grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone is denied.
Bring this down to the parish level. Zion congregation is in the process of calling a new pastor. On the one hand you expect a pastor to be qualified, able to preach the gospel in its purity, properly distinguishing Law and Gospel, and to administer the sacraments faithfully according to Christ’s institution. It is confusing the two kingdoms, however, when either the pastor or the people expect him somehow to be “the boss,” operating as a sort of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a business rather than as a servant of the Word. It is confusing the two kingdoms, also, when either the pastor or the people expect the members of the church to, as they say, simply “pray, pay and obey,” and not exercise their proper authority especially with the administration of the temporal affairs of the congregation and active involvement in the work of evangelism, Christian education, missions, and the care of God’s house and of his people. It is confusing the two kingdoms, also, when the members of the church consider the pastor to be merely an employee who must at times “bend” the Gospel so as not to offend their whims or fears. While the pastor and the members of the congregation each have their specific responsibilities, roles and authority, they are absolutely equal in their place in the kingdom of God’s grace.
It is because nothing in or about ourselves makes us worthy of God’s love and salvation but only because of God’s undeserved love that we can hope to be saved. That love was displayed in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, when he took on our human nature and lived that perfect, sinless, meritorious life for us, thus becoming the only qualified and powerful sacrifice that could take away all sin and its condemnation, and overthrow Satan from his claim on the world. And so it is that, “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 (ESV)].
To many the kingdom of the world is the only reality they know and the kingdom of heaven is total fantasy. The truth is this world and its kingdoms are coming to an end, and the kingdom of heaven is the only everlasting kingdom. In the end the kingdom of heaven will transform the world. But not yet! Only “in the end.” For now, it is not our task to try to make the world over into the image of the church, and certainly not to make the church over into the image of the world. The two, for now, are distinct, even though we live and move and have our being in both kingdoms.
So let us be about our tasks, our vocations and stations in the world not complaining but thanking and praising God, going our way and doing everything my station in life requires with joy, courage, enthusiasm, and love—all because I have such a great treasure in Christ my Lord—the treasure of forgiveness and the bright prospect of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven which will have no end.