For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: 18th sunday after pentecost 2011

Many times the world of the Bible can seem far removed, remote, totally unlike our own — until you take a second look and then things begin to seem awfully familar. Take this Sunday’s Gospel. You have angry workers disgruntled with their pay, wanting to protest. Is this sounding familiar yet? Although as you look closer, you see that the workers in the parable are grumbling for a different reason than today’s workers are — the landowner in the parable is generous, and that’s why they’re grumbling.

It hardly needs to be said that people aren’t exactly complaining that their employers are too generous nowadays. An awful lot of people are barely making ends meet, and a lot of people have more than one job — more than one poor-paying job. Yet the good Lord still provides for all of us, just as He’s promised to, even when it seems like the economy or our employers or whoever else won’t come  through. The Lord always does.

Off the topic, but those Occupy Wall Street people are fascinating. First, why do they have so much time to camp out in the park and hold demonstrations and go on the Internet to complain about corporations? Don’t they have, you know, jobs to show up for? Who pays for their wireless? Where do they bathe and eat? (Maybe they don’t bathe…I don’t know.) How long before we have a full-scale revolution? Probably a good long while. Americans generally let other Americans be loud or make fools of themselves, but usually things can be resolved without violence. If this were South America, they would have had about two and a half coups already out of this assembling of the peoples. Plus Occupy Wall Street’s platform is so incoherent. They’re mad, sure, but what are they asking for? Who knows? I think they’re at best a little naive about the role big corporations play in modern society. You just can’t get rid of big corporations. They employ people. What are we supposed to do, all go live off the land and raise our own food, make or barter for everything we need? Hardly anybody knows how to do that sort of thing anymore. (But we can jailbreak our smart phones and go on the Internet and use computers like nobody’s business.) I sympathize in general with some of their complaints, but it doesn’t seem like anybody’s taken very much time to sit and think these things through.

I was thinking the other day what it would be like to have something like Occupy Wall Street happen in our town. We live in a town of under 900 on the Minnesota prairie. We have one bank. Everybody knows everybody else here. If you started marching around on Main Street in front of our one bank, you’d look pretty silly, and you’d be marching by yourself. Everybody else is too busy working for a living or raising their kids or talking to their neighbors or volunteering to help others. And perhaps therein lies the problem — not everybody lives in a town like ours. Maybe if they did they’d be happier and not so inclined to vent their spleen at faceless corporations.

This parable strongly emphasizes that divine grace is monergistic — it’s God’s working through and through, and it comes to us without our having earned or deserved it. Only our Lord could pull off using a parable about working to illustrate God’s grace, which only and always comes to the person who gives up working for his or her salvation, and simply trusts in Jesus — but He does. That’s one of the neat things about reading the Bible. You never know what you’re going to find, even in something you’ve read twenty times already. The twenty-first time (and the thirty-first, and fifty-first, and so on) always reveals something new.

In verse 15 the NIV does the work of interpreting the Greek for the reader. The KJV keeps the Greek idiom: “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” Perhaps this is where the phrase “the evil eye” comes from. Also in this parable is the phrase “the eleventh hour”, which even atheists and agnostics use in their everyday language. Thus have the words and phrases of the Bible, if not necessarily its message, permeated our culture even to this day, despite determined attempts to lead society down an increasingly secular path away from God.

Parables like this help you to be thankful for what you’ve got in God’s grace. Everything we have is a gift from His gracious hand. He is the landowner, the Lord, who bestows His largesse on His workers, even when they’re unworthy. Lenski makes the point that even though the workers were unworthy — some grumbled and some were shirkers loafing around — the landowner still took them into his service. Our God also calls us into His service, despite our manifold faults and failings. That’s comforting. Jesus uses ordinary sinful people to build His church. We don’t have to be super-Christians to begin with; He calls us to faith, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith, and He equips His called servants to do His work. Often we’re amazed what God has done through us, when we apply our talents and our sweat in the vineyard of the Lord and then look back at all God has allowed us to accomplish.

This parable also led me to contemplate the doctrine of vocation — that God has work picked out for each of us to, and it doesn’t have to be specifically ‘churchy’ work to be service to God. It can be washing dishes, doing laundry, answering phones at work, dealing with angry customers yet again, working long and hard and then having weather or accidents or a shift in the economy wipe out your labor. It doesn’t matter; when you’re a child of God through faith, whatever you do is pleasing to Him. Jesus forgives your sins and He purifies even your good works. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good — that’s the doctrine of vocation in a nutshell. Because we are justified by faith in Christ, even our day-to-day existence is glorifying to God and serves Him. This key Reformation doctrine has been rediscovered or revived again in recent years, and I try to bring it up whenever the text warrants. Like every other part of doctrine, it ties in with justification of the sinner for Christ’s sake through faith. If you get that key doctrine right, a lot of other things fall into line. Knock that core doctrine out of line, and everything else goes askew and out of whack. (Try it and see; it’s true.)

Luther had a couple of marvelous sermons on this text. One especially was valuable for my preparations. He stressed that although the world is unequal, we all have the same gifts from God in Christ, and therefore we can be glad in our several callings. I think you’ll see those ideas in my sermon. He also had some extremely illuminating and penetrating comments on “the first will be last and the last will be first”, so look for more of that material in future posts here.

My father used to say that frequently — “the first will be last and the last will be first.” Usually it was when we kids were bickering over some minor privilege, like riding shotgun in the van. I always wondered what it meant, and I remember thinking about it when I was younger. Now I’ve gotten to preach on it, several times in fact. I look back now and I see that that was a shining example of a Christian layman educating his children in God’s Word without being preachy or fake about it. Just share it with them when the occasion arises. They’re listening and they’ll remember. (Thanks, Dad.)

The fathers (the church fathers, that is) weren’t as helpful for this sermon. They were too inclined to allegorize the details of the parable. They gave interpretations that didn’t really help provide any clarity. In fact, they muddied the water more often than not. Even Chrysostom, who nearly always supplies me with some nugget of usable gold, fell into those unprofitable habits with this text. Luther had it right: “Such talk [i.e. allegorizing and spinning fanciful interpretations where none are meant] is all right for pastime, if there is nothing else to preach.” What Luther didn’t add, although he was probably thinking it, was there’s always something in Scripture to preach — not made-up glosses and far-out opinions of men, but the simple, plain, direct truths of Scripture, as well as the deeper truths of the faith (meat as well as milk — not wax fruit.) I’ll keep reading the fathers, but their usefulness varies with the text — as indeed with many preachers and commentators. They’re good only insofar as they agree with the holy Scriptures.

One of the things I would have liked to explore if I had gotten a chance was the joy and gratitude of those servants who got a full day’s pay for only an hour or two of work. If you’ve ever known someone who came to faith later in life (or if you’ve been that person), you know what a special joy they have. For those hired at the eleventh hour, they experience the sweet freedom of serving God as a contrast to all their wasted years and wrong choices of the empty way of life handed down to them by their forefathers. Those who come to faith later remember to appreciate the gospel, because they remember what life was like when they didn’t have it — and they don’t want to go back there. They’re grateful for the good news of Christ and value it in a way that lifelong Christians simply don’t get.

May Jesus give you joy as you contemplate His grace to you and me, sinners though we are. Amen.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went.

“He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (matt 20.1-16 niv84)

            By now you’ve probably seen them on the news or heard about them on the radio. Protesters all over the country are camping out in parks and massing on city streets. A group calling itself Occupy Wall Street has taken over a corner of New York City and they’re making a ruckus. They’re organizing, they’re angry, and they want something – what it is, isn’t always clear. Mainly they seem angry at big faceless corporations. They want better jobs, more jobs, and more rights – or something. It’s not only here at home – it’s starting to happen in other countries too. You wonder if the protesters would be happy if they got what they wanted. It’s hard enough to pin down what they’re demanding, but even if they got it, would they all go home and live peaceably again?  In our gospel for today we hear about another group of angry workers. They, too, make demands, and even when they get exactly what they asked for, they’re not happy. When it comes to God’s grace, there just is no pleasing some people. In an age of rampant unemployment, bad economies, and attempts to create more jobs, Jesus is going to teach us an entirely different way of looking at our relationship with God. God’s grace is not something we earn; instead we have The Privilege of Service.

            The first thing we notice about the parable Jesus tells is that the landowner starts the entire thing in motion. He’s the one who goes out first thing in the morning looking for workers. He goes out very early, then a few hours later, then a few hours later, then a few hours later. Throughout the day he keeps going back to the marketplace and hiring more workers. This shows us that God wants all people to be saved. He doesn’t have a limited window to get into His kingdom. He calls people in His own way and in His own time. God knows what He needs done in His church, and He calls people to faith and to service in His church as He sees fit – even if it’s at the eleventh hour.

            So the landowner hires all his workers – some of them just for an hour or two – and they work all day. Then evening comes. It’s time to get paid. In Leviticus the law stipulates that workers were to be paid each day, to avoid abuse. The landowner does that here – only there’s a twist. The last hired come forward first, and they receive the full day’s wage. Those who were hired first probably started glancing at each other, thinking about how much they were going to get. They’d been very picky as they negotiated their pay earlier. They’d pinned the owner down to a denarius, but now it looks like he wants to give bonuses. This is good. If that’s what the last hired guys got, how much am I going to make? But it doesn’t work out that way.

            They all get the same thing. Whether you worked twelve hours or one hour, you got a denarius. Naturally those hired first don’t like this. “They didn’t hardly do anything! Why are you making us equal to them? We worked harder!” The landowner has to remind them that he is being honest. He says to them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you.” If the landowner spoke English the way we do he’d say, “Look, buddy.” The landowner’s measured rebuke has a hint of menace in it. They got exactly what they thought they’d earned, and nothing more. Justice was what they wanted, and it’s what they got.

            What was wrong with those first workers’ attitudes? They groused because they didn’t see their work as a privilege. It was drudgery to them. They didn’t take joy in what they did, and they didn’t see their opportunity to serve as a gracious invitation of their Master’s goodwill. For them, it was just a chance to get something – to earn something.

            Do we look at what we do for God in the same way? Just keep your ears open around church some time. We can easily a chip on our shoulder about the way things are done in the church. We want to rise up in indignation and verbally slap our fellow workers around: “What’s wrong with you people? Why don’t you care? Get it together!” The basis for our haughty rebuke is often our own works. “Look at all I do around here. I do this and that, I volunteer, I show up, I stay late. I do what nobody else will; why don’t I ever get any recognition? Why doesn’t anybody else but me ever do anything around here? Nobody wants to help! Nobody volunteers! The rest of you had better step up and start pulling your share of the load around here!” We all want to be the one who makes the rest jump and get to work. It’s not just lay people in the church – both pastors and people alike can talk and think that way.

             Brothers and sisters, that’s how Pharisees talk. The Pharisees were the ones who expected equal spiritual pay for equal spiritual work – and they accordingly flattered themselves by valuing their own works as more deserving, more worthy, more pleasing to God than their neighbor’s. The Pharisees also lost God’s grace when they thought that way, because God’s grace can never be earned, it’s given to those who don’t deserve it – and if you think you do deserve it, you’ve already lost it or you’re about to lose it. The first will be last and the last will be first. If you think you’re first, you’re last. When we insist on special treatment from God, we risk eternal life itself.

            Sometimes our frustration revolves around the fact that we can’t make other people do more in the church – that there are no penalties for not helping out or volunteering. There’s a good reason for that. God’s kingdom is not a business enterprise or a military unit. God’s kingdom doesn’t run on rewards for hard work and punishments for those who don’t work hard. It’s very equal in an unequal way. God deals with people based only on His grace. God gives exactly the same thing to all His children: full and free forgiveness of every sin, the wiping out of the voluminous list of unique sins that you rack up every week. I often think of that as I’m walking back and forth along the Communion rail distributing Holy Communion. Whatever sins you’ve done during the week – I usually don’t know what they are, and in a sense I don’t need to know, because we all get the same thing at the Communion rail. We get God’s forgiveness along with the bread and the wine, and the body and blood of His Son. We each get the same blank slate, the same clean start. Each of us is made new again, pure again, holy again, through faith in His Son. A crowd of sinners, a multitude of sins, and only one forgiveness: the ransom price of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. We all share one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

            The world runs on inequality, and we know that. We all spend our days or our nights at different jobs. We all make different amounts of money. We all have different people we answer to, who aren’t always rational or pleasant or nice. Yet none of that matters when you’re a Christian! Even if your job is boring or doesn’t seem particularly useful, even if your children tax your patience or try your sanity at times, even if your parents or relatives drive you crazy – you still have a precious treasure in Jesus your Lord! What He promises you is worth more than anything the world can heap up in His place. When you’re a child of God, you know that everything you do is pleasing to Him, He cares for you, and one day He’ll take you to Himself. What could be better than that?

            The workers in the vineyard all received the same call to work and they all received the same pay. We all receive the same call to faith in our Lord Jesus and we all receive the same grace of God. But there is one difference among the workers, and among us. The only difference between all the workers is the length of time they were permitted to serve and the amount of work they were permitted to do. That’s it. Some were allowed to work more and some worked less, but they all got the same thing in the end. The ungrateful workers turn that around and complain about how they worked so hard, and for less pay than the other guys, based on the amount of work they did. Actually they should have felt honored or blessed that the Master would ask them personally for more service. They got to do what those hired later didn’t get the chance to do: work long and hard for their Lord.

            God is good, both to lifelong Christians and to those who come to His grace later on. He certainly is gracious to those who live against Him, maybe for decades, and then later are brought to faith and repentance. For those of us who have been Christians our whole lives, we get to serve the living God. In some small way, we get to show Him our thanks. We get to wake up every morning and go about our normal daily activities, and at the same time we’re serving the God who made us. We know who He is, we know what He’s done for us, and we know that our lives are valuable in His sight in a way that most of the world can’t see. Each of us can say, God has been gracious to me; He has called me personally and made me His valued and trusted servant.  The work I do is not in vain; it’s for my God, and I know that He delights in it – because of Jesus.

             The world is inherently unequal and unfair, yet by faith we each have total access to God and forgiveness, peace of conscience, and joy and gladness through Christ our Lord. Brothers and sisters, let’s accept the grace God has given us in His Son. As long as it is day, we must do the work of Him who sent us. It’s nearly evening, and night is coming, when no man can work. Go and work with all your might, because the outcome does not depend on your working – it depends on the mercy and generosity of our God. That’s the privilege of service in His vineyard. Amen.