St. Matthew 20:1-16
February 16, 2014
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The defining character of grace is that it is unfair. Some work less than others but they all get paid the same. Now that should not create a problem for those who were treated fairly. Those who worked all day for a denarius did not bear any injustice. The vineyard owner bore all the injustice in himself. He paid for labor that was not performed. He allowed Himself to be cheated but no one else was cheated. Those who worked all day got what they had agreed to. They got just what they deserved and it was perfectly just.
And, yet, when they saw the vineyard owner’s generosity some became envious, jealous, and angry. They thought that the vineyard owner owed them a similar generosity. This did not come because they had been misled or cheated. It came because others were fortunate. They didn’t consider His generosity, but considered instead their imaginary rights and how they’d been slighted. The modern word we use for this is entitlement.
Thus are we exposed. Our eyes are evil. We do not want justice or generosity. We want license. We don’t want to work or be beggars, we want to be the vineyard owner himself. We want to decide who gets paid and how much. Thus did the devil say to Eve, “Eat of this and you will be like God.” And thus do we join the evil chorus with Eve and say: “I should protect myself. I should take the things I want. I should not be denied what seems good.” And we make ourselves our own god without even knowing it.
That is the underlying problem. It results in envy and self-righteousness and discontent. In our fallen flesh, we do not believe that God is good or that He has right to be generous. He is too irresponsible, giving too much to the undeserving and too little to us. We think we would be better gods that He is and we disdain Him for His generosity. Repent.
As amazing as it is that the vineyard owner pays for labor that was not performed, it is also amazing that he calls the complainer “friend.” He would receive him at his table with no less joy than he has had for the prostitutes and tax-collectors and the idle men who stood about the marketplace all day. It turns out the one who worked all day is lying about how hard he worked. The vineyard owner gives to them both the same. One receives it as a gift, the other as a right, the just reward for bearing the burden and the heat of the day, but he is lying. The vineyard owner does not pay them both the same, He gives to both the same. The word matters. When the vineyard instructs the foreman to pay the workers, he says that he should pay them their wages. But when He talks to the complainer He speaks of giving gifts. He gave to both the same, that is, not according to what was earned, but out of His generosity. It wasn’t wages, it was a gift, but the complainer did not receive it as a gift because his eye was evil.
If there is injustice, the vineyard owner has taken it all on Himself. He is the one who is cheated, whose kingdom melts away in charity and generosity. He pays for labor that is not performed and bestows gifts upon the ungrateful. The defining character of God’s grace is that it is a gift and is given to those who don’t deserve it.
The defining character of faith is that it accepts this generosity and believes that whatever it gets, whatever God does, is good. Faith expects God to be good and insists that He is even when it seems that He isn’t.
The Church is rife with seeming inequities. Barabbas is guilty but he goes free. The repentant thief is likewise guilty, but he has a virtue Barabbas lacks: faith. He believes that Christ is suffering innocently. He asks for grace not because he deserves it but precisely because he deserves the very punishment he is suffering. He is not more guilty than Barabbas is, but Barabbas got away with it and went free while the penitent, believing thief died. In both cases, God did what was right, what was good, even though it was not equal. In both cases, God was generous. Jesus took the place of guilty Barabbas and died for him. Whether Barabbas believes it and comes to faith or not, doesn’t matter. Jesus did it for him in perfect love. Jesus also died for the penitent thief. He took that thief’s sin and guilt into Himself. He reconciled the thief to the Father. He forgave him and through death He brought the thief to paradise.
Should the thief’s eye be evil because Barabbas got the better deal? No. The thief got what was best for him. He got paradise. If one child contracts Leukemia and wracks up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, the other children do not get an equal amount of money spent of toys. The parents do what is best for each child, as best they can, according what is needed and is appropriate. It is not equal, it is love.
Our heavenly Father customizes crosses and blessings according what is best. It is best for the thief if he be taken out of this world before he can fall away. It is best for Barabbas that he have a chance to consider his life and what the Lord has done for him. It is best for us to work in the vineyard, to bend our backs to the task and not complain, for we see that we are safe and provided for, that the Lord is preparing a banquet for us, and that He will do what is best.
He did not just die for Barabbas and the thief, for Adam and Eve, He also died for you and for me. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. He does all things well.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.