Matthew 20:1-16 (1/24/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Today’s Gospel is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. As with every parable of our Lord, it seeks to teach us something about the kingdom of God. The vineyard is the church. The owner of the vineyard is Christ. The laborers are those who are called by the Gospel to enter into the church and live under Christ as their Lord and Redeemer.
The key to understanding this parable is given by our Lord in the very last words of the Gospel, “The last will be first, and the first last.” Those who had worked the longest, those who had borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day, grumbled against the landowner. They were perturbed and unhappy; they believed they were wronged. They had high hopes when at first they saw the johnny-come-latelies getting paid a full day’s wage, those who had been hired later in the day. They assumed that they in turn would get more than was promised to them. They didn’t mind the landowner being generous to others as long as he was equally generous to them. When things didn’t turn out as they hoped, they became very angry.
I submit to you that the point of this parable is simply this: the Gospel is not fair. In fact, the Gospel cannot be fair. For if the Gospel was really fair, then it would not be the true Gospel.
To help you understand what I mean, consider this: A father has several children. He loves each of them very much. One day when he is out with one of them, he gets his child an ice cream cone – not because he is playing favorites, but simply because an occasion arose to be gracious in that way.
Now suppose that the other children get wind of it. What is likely to be their reaction? Of course, they will want to be treated “fairly.” They will feel that their father practically owes each of them an ice cream cone. They may plead their case before their father with begging and fussing. But if they manage to get some ice cream in that way, it is for an entirely different reason than for the first child, isn’t it. To one it was a simple gift; to the others it was owed. To one it was an act of love; to the others it was an act of coercion.
You see, God does not want to be coerced – indeed, He cannot be coerced. He cannot be put into the position of owing anybody anything; otherwise, He would not be God; and then there would be a power controlling Him. No, God cannot and will not be intimidated or manipulated. Instead, God wishes to deal with us according to the abundance of His grace. He wants us to receive everything from Him as a gift – not because He owes us nor because we deserve it, but simply because He is the God who loves us and who desires to be gracious toward us.
It really is a difference between faith and unbelief. Unbelief tries to get things from God on the basis of its own standard of fairness. Since it does not rely on God or have any confidence in Him, it tries foolishly to control Him by what it does. On the other hand, faith trusts in God to give all that is needed. Faith believes that God is good, even in times of testing. And so faith is sure that God’s goodness will be shown to those who wait on Him.
If something is owed in order to establish fairness, then it is no longer a gift, is it? And if it is not a gift, then it is not truly the Gospel; for then it is not being received by faith, and of course it is through faith alone we are saved. The Gospel of Christ is not given in terms of fairness. It is not bestowed by a Lord who is an arbitration expert, working out a contract in a rancorous labor/management dispute – just as the Lord was not bound by law to heal every leper or perform the same number of miracles in every city to which He traveled. For if something is required of someone, then it is not truly a gift. Such a God would not be a God of grace.
This is what we mean when we say that the Gospel is not fair. Fairness comes under the category of God’s Law. God’s Law is about justice. And for the sinner who has fallen short of the Law, justice means judgment. But God does not wish to deal with us according to His justice or His fairness, but according to His mercy in Christ. The fact that the Gospel is unfair, then, is very good news indeed.
Within this world the pursuit for fairness is sometimes justified, sometimes not. One can observe, however, that those who seek fairness often use that as a cover for their lust to have more for themselves. “Fairness” becomes a tool for greed and power and self-advancement. In other words, it is often a symptom of sinful discontent. Especially in eternal matters, those who insist on fairness from God demonstrate both arrogance and ignorance – arrogance because they think that they know better than God or that they can manipulate Him by what they do, and ignorance because they simply do not realize what the real results of divine fairness would be. To those who think they can get themselves somewhere with God, the Scriptures say (Rom. 6:23), “The wages of sin” – what we’ve earned by our works – “is death,” separation from God and His goodness. Fairness is a function of the Law. And it is written, “By the deeds of the Law no flesh will be declared righteous in God’s sight.” (Rom. 3:20)
Rather, Holy Scripture says this: A person is “declared righteous freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:24) Indeed, Ephesians 2:8-9 also declares, “For 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.” That is the real key: do you boast in yourself and your own works or do you boast in God and what He has done? Do you rely on your works or on God’s works? Who is glorified by what you believe and do?
All honor and glory for your salvation and for everything in your life belongs to God. Therefore, the Lord Himself counsels us: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am Yahweh, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight.” (Jer. 9:23-24)
This is the chief difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard in today’s parable. The first workers who had labored the longest wanted to deal with the landowner on the basis of their own merits and efforts in comparison to the others. But the last workers – those who were only in the vineyard at the end of the day – trusted that the landowner would give them, as he said, “whatever is right.” In other words, they believed in the landowner’s goodness and righteousness, and in so doing, they received more than they ever expected or deserved.
It is the same way with God. Those who want to deal with Him on the basis of their own works and measurements of equality will be sent away from God’s presence forever. In fact, well-known author C.S. Lewis once described hell as the place where the damned suffer the anguish of growing infinitely more angry with God, whose judgment they do not consider fair. But those who give up trying to deal with God on their own terms and rely instead on His goodness and mercy, those are the ones who will receive from Him much more than they ever expected or deserved.
And that, dear friends, is the way of faith – not to gum up the works by telling God what to do or how to do it, but simply to receive His gifts with gratitude and praise. Faith does nothing else than to say, “Amen, gift received.” And we find that His eternal gifts are more than we ever thought they would be. If hell is as C.S. Lewis described it, then heaven is the place where God’s people experience the joy of the infinitely increasing love and goodness and life that the Lord causes to abound to those who are His forever.
This is what the saying means, “The last will be first, and the first last.” Those who come before God with pride and self-sufficiency will be last and will be left standing outside of God’s kingdom. But those who come before God with lowliness as humble beggars will be first and the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Is this not the way of Christ? He who is the greatest made Himself to be the least of all on the holy cross for you. He was treated unfairly so that you would be treated graciously and receive His forgiveness by faith. He Himself was the one who did the work in the vineyard that brings you the generous reward at the end of the day.
And this is how Christ worked in the vineyard for us: He was handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn. He was crucified at the third hour of the day, taking all our sins with Him to the cross. Darkness covered the land at the sixth hour. Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for all of our sin. He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown. Then Christ arose on that third day defeating death and the devil forever.
And now that Christ’s work has been done, He directs His stewards, His pastors, to give to you your denarius, the denarius of Christ’s life and salvation, which He bestows through His Baptism, Absolution, Gospel and Supper. Do not despise this denarius as those in the parable did, and thus miss out on its benefit. Rather, receive it with faith and thanksgiving. Trust that behind these simple elements of Word and Sacraments the Lord gives rich blessing – not because it is fair, but because He is generous and loving towards you.
This is the true way of the Gospel. And those who have His Gospel have everything that they need.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.