+ 16th Sunday After Pentecost – September 24th, 2017 +
Series A: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:12-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We’ve all heard it (or said it) before. On the playground, in the classroom, or at the dinner table…that famous phrase, second only in our early childhood vocabulary to the word NO!
That’s. Not. Fair.
We say it at work, home, school. We say it when we watch news, sports, or our neighbors. We say it when we’re outraged, offended, or scandalized.
That’s not fair.
We hear the same complaint from the workers at the end of Jesus’ parable of The Laborers in the Vineyard.
‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’
Did you hear it? We worked longer, harder, and accomplished more than those 11th hour bums. That’s not fair.
This parable reveals yet another shocking, outrageous truth: the Kingdom of heaven isn’t fair. But that’s a good thing. Fairness is the Law – you get what you deserve. Grace is Gospel, Good News of outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners – you get what you don’t deserve. And that’s the Kingdom of heaven. If fairness is what gets us into the kingdom of heaven, then it’s all on us. But if God’s grace is what gets us in, then that’s Good News. Salvation is God’s gift for you. The last are first. The guilty go free. Sinners are justified.
When Jesus tells this parable, the fairness police, or the Law-hungry Pharisee within each of us, is offended by this parable. It doesn’t fit into our way of thinking. “You get what you deserve. You reap what you sow. A day’s work for a day’s pay.” That’s how we think. That’s the way of the world, we say. And we expect God to play by our rules. To be fair.
This parable reminds me of another story, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When the Pevensie children are in Narnia, having supper with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. The dinner conversation quickly turns to Aslan, the true King of Narnia, who would come to defeat the White Witch. When Lucy Pevensie finds out that Aslan is a Lion, she asks, “Is he safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. And he’s the king, I tell you.”
So, what about the Landowner in this parable, is he fair? Of course, he isn’t fair. But he is good.
Listen to the way Jesus begins his story:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (Think something like 6 AM) Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.
Whatever is right, our English translations say. Better said, whatever is good, righteous, or better yet…justified. Remember that word later.
Again, the landowner goes out and does the same thing at noon and 3 PM (the 6th and the 9th hour). He found some laborers still hanging around and hired them for some unspecified just wage. And they agreed. At 5 o’clock, as the sun was setting, there was still work to do. So, he goes to a local bar where some deadbeat losers were hanging out all day doing nothing because no one hired them.
He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’
6 PM finally arrives. It’s beer-thirty. The workers head to the steward to receive their money. And here’s where the fun begins.
The vineyard owner lines them up in reverse order, from last to first, from the eleventh hour losers to the first hour workers who agreed to work for a denarius a day. When they eleventh hour workers opened they pay envelope…surprise! A shiny denarius! Wow! One hour’s work and a full day’s wage.
Imagine what happens as the other workers start to hear the news. “He’s paying a denarius an hour!” The twelve hour workers at the end of the line are busy rubbing their hands together. Hmm…a denarius an hour. This is great! But as the workers are paid, reality kicks in. Everyone gets one denarius.
The workers are bumfuzzled at the Landowner’s behavior. But they’re also livid. “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. Imagine a youth soccer league where the last place team gets the same big trophy as the undefeated first place team, in that order. That’s crazy, ridiculous, not to mention…it’s not fair!
And then the vineyard owner pops the Gospel cork and pours a strong one. “Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius a day? Take what belongs to you and go. It’s my money and I do with it what I please. If I choose to give these last ones a full day’s wage, what’s that to you? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
You see, this parable is a story of Judgment and grace. Judgment for those who resent and reject God’s grace. And God’s grace given to all who least deserve it.
Like the workers, we expect God to be fair. But here’s the rub. If we want God to be fair, to deal with us according to our works, our achievements, our accomplishments and all the things we do, then we will be condemned. That’s fair. Those are the terms of the Law. The wages of sin is death. We love to keep score and carry our spiritual punch cards around with us, always comparing and measuring ourselves to others, especially their faults and sins. Thank God I’m not like that murderer, adulterer, homeless guy, illegal immigrant, and so on down our list.
It’s not fair, we say. How can God forgive someone like that? But he does.
Think about it…if God was fair, we’d all get what we deserve.
Thank God that his thoughts are not our thoughts, Nor our ways his ways,” as the prophet Isaiah reminds us. Thank the Lord we don’t get what we deserve.
Thank God, he’s not fair. Because if there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for hookers, murderers, and tax collectors; for Peter the denier and adulterous David, for doubting Moses and faithless Israel, the thief on a cross and 11th hour workers – then there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for me and you.
Like the 11th hour workers in the parable, we live off of the work of another: the Landowner who was crucified at the 3rd hour, who from the 6th hour was hanging on the cross under the heavy burden of our labors, as darkness covered the land, and at the 9th hour he cried out “It is finished” as he died to save you. By the 11th hour Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb for you, his work on the cross complete for you.
With God we receive equal salvation for unequal work. A denarius just for being there, regardless of what you did. Everyone receives the same death and resurrection, the same Baptism, the same Body and Blood, the same forgiveness. All by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.
So the last will be first, and the first last.
With these words “The first shall be last” – Jesus takes away our pride, and then takes away our despair by promising “the last shall be first”.
We’re the 11th hour workers, the last ones, the losers and failures, the broken sinners who make it into the kingdom by the skin of our teeth.
And this laborer, our savior Jesus, worked his hands to the bone and the nail for you. He worked himself to death for you. He rested from all the labors that he had done for you.
We who are the last ones are made first because He who was first became last for us. In his mercy, Jesus does not give us what we deserved – the wages of sin is death. And in his grace, Jesus gives us what we don’t deserve, the denarius of his forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Scriptures repeat this promise:
God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. Romans 4:5
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10
Is it fair? No. He’s not a fair God, but he is good and righteous and in Christ you are justified.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.