January 24, 2016 A+D
St. Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The parable of the vineyard workers sets up the doctrine of grace. The workers are not paid according to what is just but are paid instead from the owner’s generosity. They are given unearned wages.
The parable gives two possible responses. These unearned wages can be received by faith, in joy and gratitude, or they can be despised. There is a third possibility. The wages can be rejected out of hand. That is hinted at in the parable by the men who stood idle all day and never answered the summons to come and work in the vineyard. Those who never answer are not as bad as those who seem to answer, that is, as those who live within the Church, and yet feel entitled to a reward. To mix parables, it is better to not come to the wedding hall at all than it is to come and yet refuse the garment. These men who worked all day refuse the garment. They look upon God’s gifts with contempt for they feel that they can make their own way and earn at least equal to, it not better than, God gives.
The parable is not contrasting Christians and heathens, believers and unbelievers, but true believers and hypocrites within the Church. This is a not a parable about how to save the lost or even that we need to witness. It is a parable instead for the catechumens, for those within the Church. It is about how to not lose grace. In other words, it is a warning.
St. Paul’s classic statement of grace is recorded for us in Ephesians 2: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
This phrase “not of your own doing” is essential to the definition of grace. By it Paul exposes and refutes two errors. The first is to think that faith originates within ourselves, that it comes from our will or our intellect or even our emotional intensity. But all of that is inadequate. Our will is too weak to cause grace, our intellect cannot comprehend it, and our emotions are too self-absorbed and flighty to contain it. The contents of faith are above the strength and depth of human will, human reason, or human emotion. Our salvation is not of our own doing.
Faith – that is that we should believe in God’s goodness, that we should expect this grace and gift, that we would trust in God’s goodness – is itself a gift of God through His grace. It does not come from within us. It comes from outside of us. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed in Baptism. That is what St. John saw descend upon the Lord in the Jordan. That then is what descends upon those who are baptized into Christ. The Spirit, and not we ourselves, is the source of faith. Faith then receives grace and grace is the means of salvation.
The second error which Paul rejects is that faith is somehow given on the basis of preceding actions or merits. This is the problem of the vineyard workers. They worked all day. They figured that was worth something, that God owed them. But God saves by faith without any preceding merits. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.” Therefore there is no room for human boasting. Even if you have worked and borne the heat of the day, so what? You only did your duty. So even then all glory must be given to God. If not, it is not grace, for grace is not of our own doing.
This parable also skirts near the problem of evil and the terrible question of why some are saved and not others. Both are answered in the owner’s response to the ungrateful workers: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to Me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” The answer to both questions is yes. He is allowed to do what He wants with what belongs to Him, but that doesn’t necessarily stop our fallen flesh from begrudging and second-guessing Him. Repent.
Again, it is of the essence of grace that it be undeserved and given as a gift – not that it satisfy the human sense of fairness or the philosophical demands of our intellect. If you can’t reject something it isn’t a true gift. It is an obligation. So also it isn’t a gift if you have the right to demand it or you earned it.
The heroes of the parable aren’t those who worked hard all day – so much for the Protestant work ethic. The heroes are those who lined up politely and waited their turn, who trusted that what they’d been told in the marketplace was true. They would be given whatever was right. They made no demands. What a happy surprise: they got paid for work they did not perform. By grace you have been saved.
Justice would require us to pay for our own sins. But the generosity of the Father has sent the Son as our Substitute. He has borne the burden and the heat of the day for us. He has been tortured on Hell’s cross and He wasn’t let out till He paid every last penny. Thus the Lord has delivered us according to His merciful goodness. He does look not upon our works and our sins, our doubts and intellectual wrangling and frustrations, but upon the Sacrifice offered by the Son in Himself for us. He is the Vine. Let us be the branches. His Kingdom isn’t a quarry or sweat shop or an office full of cubicles. It is a vineyard and He gives His produce, wine to make glad the hearts of men, to the workers. Let us drink His wine. He is the keeper of the Law who did not sin. Let us be the beneficiaries. He is the Creator. Let us be His creatures declared righteous by His grace. This is the gift of God – the Son given on the cross and raised from the dead hidden in bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins and communion with the Father. Here is a reward for those who do not deserve it. Here is the re-kindling of gratitude and faith in the unworthy.
“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.”
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
This idea about Ephesians 2 was gained from Thomas G. Weinandy, Daniel A. Keating, and John P. Yocum, Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 142.