Let Me Not Doubt

Date: Pentecost XV Proper 20a + St. Matthew + 9/21/14
Text: Matthew 19:27—20:16

Today we encounter once again that mystifying aphorism or saying of Jesus, “the last will be first, and the first last.” Most often, of course, heard in church basements where people are lining up to go through the buffet line, the actual meaning is quite the opposite. Back in the last chapter Jesus said, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30). Here He says the reverse, “the last will be first, and the first last.” Either way the meaning is the same, namely, in the kingdom or rule of God no one is going to be first and no one is going to be last. Rather, by God’s amazing grace, the playing field has been leveled. All are equal.

I’m going to ask you a question. But first I’m going to give you the answer to the question. The answer is, “I don’t know.” Say that with me, “I don’t know.” Now give me that answer as I ask the question: “Are all Christian pastors going to be saved?” Answer: “I don’t know.” And that’s, of course, because we cannot read other people’s hearts. Salvation has to do with God coming to a person through His Word, through holy baptism, calling, gathering and enlightening each person with the gift of saving faith. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe [note: whether they’re baptized or not!] will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

But don’t we make distinctions? I mean a Christian funeral for a pastor, a bishop or a pope is usually a grander event than a funeral for a “regular” Christian, right? So it seems to stand to reason, our reason, that if anyone is going to be saved surely pastors are first in line.

That’s what the apostle Peter was thinking in the words just before our Gospel reading today. Recall the rich young man who couldn’t bring himself to do what Jesus said, namely, “to, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (19:21). When the discouraged young man went away Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

That’s when Peter (speaking on behalf of all the apostles) made the comparison with those who are rich, saying, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27). Now at first we may rightly think, “There goes Peter again, speaking before thinking.” His question implies that, in comparison to that poor rich young man, certainly they in their poverty ought to be highly rewarded. Surprisingly, Jesus responds positively to Peter’s question. Pointing to Judgment Day He says the twelve apostles will have the distinction of assisting their Lord. Jesus Himself addresses the kingdom of heaven in the new heavens and earth of eternal life.

The Scriptures teach that there will be degrees of glory for the saints in heaven corresponding to differences of work and fidelity here on earth.[1] Martin Luther said, “It is true, there will be a difference in yonder life, according as they have labored and lived here. For example, St. Paul was an Apostle, Samuel or Isaiah a prophet, etc. One will have greater brightness than the other because he worked or suffered more in his office…. Yet in his person none shall be more or have more than the other, St. Peter no more than you and I” (VIII:1223). Of course degrees of glory in heaven will not call forth envy, but only praise of God.

The first little word was left out of the beginning of the Gospel reading on your insert. Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like….” That is our parable is His explanation not as much about how things of God’s rule will be in heaven following the Day of Judgment as about how things are currently, now. For “the kingdom of heaven” is not as much a place as it is the way God rules and deals with individuals now in this day of grace.

The parable (the second longest in Matthew’s Gospel) while detailed is easy to understand. God treats all Christians the same. All are saved by God’s grace alone without distinction. It is the answer to Peter’s question and ours of making distinctions among us. “So the last will be first, and the first last,” that is, no one will be last and no one will be first.

The danger, however, is in making distinctions between people now on the basis of anything but the grace of God as this affects the witness or testimony or love we bear toward others. It is as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “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” (Gal 3:27-28). Now the apostle is not speaking about our earthly vocations where there are very definite distinctions, as for instance being a man or a woman, a father or a mother, a business man or farmer, a child or an adult. Note how this passage has been misapplied by those church bodies that have introduced confusing vocations by the ordination of women to the ministry. Rather we are talking about the fundamental issue of the conversion of sinners. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:22-24). In the parable the lord of the vineyard paid everyone the same wage regardless of how long they worked in the day; which ought to make the faithful say “Thanks be to God,” for even those who come to faith “in the eleventh hour,” that is, just in the nick of time before the Judgment will be saved.

I have conducted funerals for blessed saints of God who have been believers for decades, for their entire lives. But the same grace and deliverance is also for those whom I baptized as adults, for those young men and women, boys and girls who died because of a tragic auto accident or by suicide, for revered pastors like Pastor Richard Schlecht, and also for those whose mental retardation or diminished capacity limited their ability to know or understand anything more than the very basics of the Word of God and faith. So no, we do not begrudge the generosity of God who said to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19). And that grace and mercy is for all.

[1] 2 Cor. 9:6f.; Dan. 12:3; 1 Cor. 15:35-41.