Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Date: Pentecost XVI (Proper 20) + 9/24/17
Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer. (LSB 555)
Today we are asked to put away our calculators, time clocks, and bucket lists. For these are the things of the work-a-day world, of employment, of union negotiations, of wages, bonuses and paychecks, the world of equity and fairness. And indeed, when we gather here as a Christian congregation this morning we gather, to quote The Great Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. When the first thing we say here are the baptismal words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we are declaring our identity all other distinctions and differences aside. We all are equal to each other in Christ, for we stand before God as sinners-all, redeemed-all by God’s grace alone, by God’s free grace and favor.
As we prepare for the quintcentennial celebration of the Lutheran Reformation next month we are reminded already today of the fundamental foundation of Evangelical Lutheran theology, namely, the three “solas,” sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, that is, scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone. Let us add to that also Christ alone. This parable of the laborers in the vineyard testifies how the kingdom or reign of heaven is not a reign merely of equal rights, minimum wages, or grades of work, not rights, wages or work at all. “The kingdom of heaven is” now and forever built on the basis of grace, the grace of God, sola gratia.
In this parable Jesus brings out in each of us mankind’s common, universal, fundamental misconception that the forgiveness of sins and salvation is somehow based on our works, being qualified for the kingdom by some quality in us or in our own preparations, works, merits or accomplishments.
This is what the kingdom or reign of heaven is like right now and forever. He tells us a story of a master who hires workers for his vineyard. He spends all day looking for those he can hire. So he hires some first thing in the morning for the twelve-hour work day. We’re even told the wage he promises, “a denarius a day.” But then we see him hiring more workers at 9, Noon, and 3. He promises to them only to give “whatever is right,” these being merely incidental to the story. It is that last group hired at “the eleventh hour” that creates the problem, a problem for those who worked all day, and a problem for those of us who spend our time and energy comparing ourselves to others instead of standing together in awe and praise of the great free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation and salvation that is ours sola Christus, sola fide, in Christ alone by faith alone.
Those hired first came, and when they saw that those hired last received the wage they were promised, a denarius, they thought they would or should receive more. But why? “Makes sense” we say. Fair is fair. Doesn’t it seem unfair for those who come late and who do not put in a whole day’s work still to receive 100% of the wage promised us? So they grumbled. The Greek word even sounds like grumbling, “goggizo” (γογγζω).
They grumbled at the master of the house comparing themselves and their presumed rights with others rather than to see the truly good before them in their master. The master answers them, “Friend.” This address occurs only three times and only in Matthew’s gospel, once here, once in the parable of the wedding feast to a man without a wedding garment, and once, finally, to Judas as he led the captors to Jesus when he betrayed Him (Mt 20:13; 22:12; 26:50). “Friend.” It has a certain bite to it answering a person who is clearly in the wrong. This is not, of course, the same meaning as when we sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or when Jesus says elsewhere, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong,” says the master. He gave them what they agreed on. This reminds us of Jesus’ instruction, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:10). And our “duty” is not only to live our own life by faith in God’s Word but to see others, one another, in the same light in which God sees us, namely, the light of His grace. Jesus has the master ask, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” God is certainly generous with His salvation that He gives to the whole world. But here we are to see more, namely, God’s grace, that is, that none of us enter the kingdom of God by our own merits at all, but all of us solely because of God’s grace, that is, God’s favor, blessing and kindness solely on account of His love, His love that doesn’t only overlook sin or excuse it, but love so deep, so broad, so high that it actually removes our sin by the blood of the Lamb of God, His Son, shed on the cross.
The One telling this otherwise simple story to His disciples is the same One, the very One who will open the kingdom of heaven to all believers by shedding His own blood for them and for the world, both those we consider “big shots” in the kingdom and those who only show up at the eleventh hour, like you and me!
Those who reject God’s grace, who, standing in judgment of others, who spend their lives grumbling at the Master, will face a day of judgment. Being rejected because of their own rejection of God’s grace, they will scream, “That’s not fair!” But it is fair. The master gives us what He has promised.
By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;
My soul, believe and doubt it not.
Why stagger at this word of promise?
Has Scripture ever falsehood taught?
No! Then this word must true remain:
By grace you too will life obtain. (LSB 566)