“Whatever is Right”
Matthew 20:1-16 (2/1/15)
Matthew 20:7 He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.
What is the difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard? Some would say that it is simply a matter of greed and jealousy, that the first workers did not get what they thought they deserved in comparison to the others. This is the greed that shows itself in all of us at the first hint that we are being treated unfairly in financial matters, the jealousy that creates in us a knee-jerk reaction against a tax cut for anyone making more money than we do. But that’s not the real difference in today’s text. It goes deeper than that.
The first laborers had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a denarius, which was the going rate for a day’s work. This was a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor. The other laborers, however, had no such agreement or contract. Rather, the landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.”
Now if that was you, would you have gone to work for this landowner? Would you work for him not knowing what your wage would be, if all you had to go on was His promise to do what was right? Well, that all depends, doesn’t it, on what kind of person you think him to be: is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad? It depends on whether or not you trust him. For if you did not trust the landowner, you probably would not go into his vineyard. If you did trust him, you would go.
That, ultimately, is the difference between the first and the last in this parable. The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness. The first wanted to deal with him on what they considered to be fair; they wanted things on their terms only. The last dealt with him on the basis of what he considered to be good and right; they were happy to receive whatever they got.
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is, of course, God the Father. By His Word and Spirit He sends out the call of the Gospel to come into His vineyard, which is the church, and for His people to be about the things pertaining to His Son. Some come into the church from the first moments of their life, baptized as infants, remaining faithful their entire lives. Others are converted as adults. And some people are not brought to faith in Christ the Savior until their lives are almost over.
But here’s the deal: God gives the same thing to all at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven. He doesn’t do this because He is unfair; He does it because He is generous and loving and merciful. He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly. For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
The problem arises when some in the vineyard of the church begin to think that their length of time and service deserves some special reward; they want God to work on the merit system. But this is a problem for two reasons. First, it destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people. For love has nothing whatsoever to do with what is owed or deserved. Real love is a freely-given gift with no strings attached. As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end one of manipulation, where we try to get God to do what we want by pulling the right strings. We put in the good works, like a coin into the slot, and out pops the blessing. To treat God like that is to treat Him as nothing more than a puppet or a cosmic gumball machine.
Furthermore, if we want God to deal with us on the basis of what is fair, then we put ourselves in terrible danger. If we demand to get what we deserve, we had better be careful, because those who want the merit system with God have no idea what they’re asking for.
You want fair wages? Fine; then here’s what the Scriptures say: “The wages of sin is death.” Those who go to hell are really only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their sins. In their unbelief the damned will bitterly disagree with God’s judgment and spend all of eternity growing angrier and angrier with Him whom they consider to be unfair.
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or because of something that has happened to you? Is your personal religion like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds? Do you negotiate with God in your prayers? You know how this works: “I’ll do this for You, God, if You’ll do this for me.” If that’s the way you deal with God, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent. Turn away from ranking yourself above others; turn away from your own works, and turn to the works of Christ. Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing at all from the Father. Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.
That, dear friends, is the difference between the first and the last; it is the difference between unbelief and faith. Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they want nothing to do with Him. Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him. Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there. They consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard. They are not jealous of the newcomer or of the one converted in his dying days, but rather they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them has also saved another.
Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that, of himself, he deserves nothing, and that it is only because of Jesus that he has any forgiveness at all. As St. Paul writes in Romans 6:23, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” And again in Ephesians 2:8-9, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Remember, the landowner said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” The word “right” in the Greek can also be translated “righteous.” “Whatever is righteous I will give you.” That puts a little different perspective on that phrase, doesn’t it? God is not simply saying, “I will give you whatever is fair,” but, “I will give to you according to My righteous plan of grace. I will give to you what My righteous Son Jesus won for you.” Or most simply, “I will give you My righteousness.” It is written in Romans 3, “You are declared righteous freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Do you trust the owner of the vineyard to give you what is right? Do you rely on your own righteousness, or do you seek His righteousness which He gives as a free gift in Christ? Do you believe that He will be good to you at the end of the day? Faith says, “I trust You, O Lord, to give whatever is right, for I know You to be One who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
It is as we prayed to God in the Introit, “For You will save the humble people, but will bring down haughty looks.” Or as Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.” For this is His way.
He who is the first and the greatest is the One who humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross. He was treated unfairly so that you would be treated graciously. He Himself was the one who did the work in the vineyard that brings you the generous reward at the end of the day.
Indeed then, Jesus Christ is the true Laborer in the vineyard. See how the work was all done before you were even brought to the faith. You need to add nothing, for Jesus said, “It is finished.” Only receive and cling, by God-given faith, to His mercy and grace. Lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you, the forgiveness and life and salvation which He gives to you in His words and His Supper. Come in penitent faith to His table to receive the rich blessing He gives with His body and blood – not because it’s fair, not because it’s owed, and not because you deserve it; but simply because it is His good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.