Septuagesima 2019

St. Matthew 20:1-16
February 17, 2019

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, X and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

With parables, one should not look at every detail, but at the main point for which it was chiefly intended.[1] In many cases, with the parables, the chief point becomes apparent only from the immediate context in which it is recorded. Therefore, I must take issue with the way our Bibles lay out this parable. The division of Matthew chapters 19 and 20 does not set us up for understanding Christ’s intention, if we simply begin to read at 20:1. The last two verses in Chapter 19 are structurally necessary for our understanding of Matthew 20:1-16. In fact, we really need to go back seven verses to Matthew 19:23 before we can understand why Christ is telling this parable. The Greek and English grammar of 20:1 even supports this, because it starts with the connecting word “for”. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” That “for” tells us that this instruction is based upon what has just happened.

And what just happened is that the Evangelist records that Christ had promised a certain rich, young man great treasure in Heaven if he sold everything, gave it to the poor, and followed Him. This prompted St. Peter to say: “Lord, we have forsaken everything and have followed You; what will we get for that?” The Lord Jesus gave him the following response: “All this shall be richly rewarded to you in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, and you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. But watch out, many who are first will be last, and the last first.” That’s the end of chapter 19.

And if you caught it, that warning is how our pericope, this morning ends in Matthew 20:16, although in reverse order, which makes sense from the parable. “So the last will be first, and the first last.” That phrase creates book ends for Jesus’ parable to the disciples. So it’s Peter’s question about what great things they will receive in eternal life for their obedience to Jesus, their labor in His vineyard, and their sacrifice of all earthly comforts. In Peter’s mind, he might be able to understand, with teaching, why it would be difficult for a rich man to enter into heaven, but surely the disciples, who left everything, will come out on top; surely they, above all will be first.

And now Jesus tells this parable: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early to hire laborers for his vineyard. This is a parable about eternal life—about the reign of Christ that teaches us how it is when God invades the world in Jesus to reestablish his royal rule.[2] This parable is at the same time a gentle rebuke to Peter, who thinks he, and his colleagues, will be shown preference at the judgement, AND it’s about the generosity of God, who has a different form of justice than this world.

The point of this parable is a gentle warning to Peter, the disciples, and you, that you should not be among those who seek a special reward for their labors. Instead, when you are called into the vineyard of God, you should labor at the work given you and trust in God. He will richly reward you not according to your labor, but purely according to His immeasurable generosity. For the fact that He called you out of sin and death into the work of His vineyard, the Church, was only out of pure grace and mercy.

And while we mustn’t try to squeeze necessary meaning out of every detail in this parable (for if we did this, we would damage the purpose for which Christ gave it), we can now understand the details that contribute to Christ’s point. In this parable, the Vineyard Owner is strikingly generous. Not only does he seek out workers and pay a fair wage to those who worked all day (he kept his bargain), but then he goes on and chooses to seemingly overpay the ones He sought last, who only worked 1 hour. This vineyard owner is the Divine character. And the Divine character seeks people for His kingdom all day long, constantly going out, looking, and calling. It helps paint the picture for us of God’s constant search for sinners to bring to salvation.

Jesus is placing the disciples in the group who worked the whole day, and says “watch out, don’t demand to be paid according to your works. Don’t demand justice according to the world. You were born in sin, infected with original sin, and add to those by your own volition, and according to earthly justice, you deserve to die for those sins.” But the ones who were called out of the marketplace of this sinful world into the body of Christ, the Church, were called by grace without any merit or worthiness in them. The fact that we are in the vineyard is an act of mercy and generosity by the Lord of Heaven.

In the parable, those who were called first understood the apparent injustice at the end of the day when the denarii were distributed. It was not fair in the eyes of the world for the last ones to get paid as much as the first ones. This is clear. But as we see in all the other parables, the kingdom of heaven is different from the kingdom of this world; God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts—thanks be to God for that. God’s sense of rightness, righteousness, and justice is to give wages to those who did not earn them. He does not reward people according to what they have earned, or how much they have labored or else the first and last would have been rewarded differently. Here’s the point of the parable, God is generous in calling all people to faith, granting all those who believe salvation apart from works. The calling of these workers into the vineyard, is the invitation into the Christian Church. Salvation does not depend on how long of a “day” you have worked. It depends solely upon the gracious inviting, and gift of God in Christ’s sacrifice. God wants to be generous with the things that are His. He can do what He wants with what are His, and here’s the Gospel for Peter, for the disciples, and for you: He wants to give those things to you, invite you into His Kingdom, give you a place of honor, and elevate you from workers to sons.

Those workers, who bore the heat of the day, at first, were happy to do so, because they trusted that the owner was good and just. They were happy to work for what was agreed upon. It was only when they took their eyes off the owner and shifted them to their fellow workers, that the problems began. That’s when they became jealous and grumbled. “There is no room for self-promotion, no occasion for competition, no basis on which one disciple can say”[3] to another, “I’m better than you and deserve more.” There’s no room for holding up your good works in comparison to your fellow Christian’s good works to boost yourself above another. The master’s actions are good, upright, and extremely generous, even unexpectedly and surprisingly generous. His actions are only insulting or hard to swallow, if you take your eyes off of the owner.

For if we keep our eyes on Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” we will see that He bore the entire burden of our Salvation. He bore the “heat of the Father’s wrath” for your sin, so to speak. He labored from the beginning of the Word for your salvation; and if there’s any man who ever lived who had the right to complain about things not being fair, it would be our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It was not fair that He should bear our sins, being sinless Himself. It was not fair that the Lord of Life should die in our place. But He did so willingly, willfully, and unbegrudgingly. He is not like us. He does not seek pay equal to His labor. He seeks to give what is His to those who crucified Him. He humbled himself to be the lowest in order to promote us in the presence of God.

Now, by His grace, we are invited to a seat at God’s table to partake, as sons, co-heirs with Christ, equals with each other, and equals with our Savior according to His rich blessing, in the feast laid out for you this morning. And because evening is coming, when the wages will be distributed, take care to keep your eyes on the Lord, who is here with us this morning in His Word and under the bread and wine. Come you who were last, according to sin, and kneel as first ones for the gift of salvation from this altar.

In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.

[1] Gerhard, p. 189.

[2] Gibbs, p. 980.

[3] Gibbs, p. 9991.

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