February 9, 2020 A+D
St. Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Kingdom of heaven does not operate according to the economies of men. No merely human business owner willingly gives away his profits to employees for not working. The anger of the workers who worked all day and received the same wages as those who did not is perfectly understandable. In heaven there is an equality of grace that is shocking to men. God pays the idle as though they were virtuous. He gives away His vineyard to the lazy and shifty. He makes no distinction based upon sin or works.
This is only good news if you’re a sinner, if you are one of the lazy and shifty and idle. The only people excited about the idea of the government paying off student loans are those who took student loans and don’t want to pay them back as they promised. That is why the workers who worked all day protest. It is not fair.
But it has been so pounded into us that we are sinners and that God is generous that this parable doesn’t shock or disturb us. We tend to side with the heroes in the story. We know who the good guys are. But the parable is meant to shock and accuse and shake us out of our self-absorption and self-righteousness so that we do not make the Gospel into something that isn’t costly or which we expect.
There is more than one way to be self-righteous. It is possible to self-righteous about not being self-righteous. It is possible to be proud of sins or at least of a keen awareness of your sins or what you’ve overcome, much in the way that it is possible to be proud of your humility. Consider how easy it is to elevate not taking yourself seriously into an imaginary virtue. It is not a virtue to not take yourself too seriously and it is not real anyway. We all take ourselves seriously. That is why we get mad when we think that we have been insulted or not given credit when it was due or even when there is a lot of traffic and they are in our way. If you didn’t take yourself seriously then you wouldn’t mind sitting in traffic or listening to bores because you wouldn’t think your time was valuable. Repent. Not only do you take yourself seriously, but your insistence that you don’t and looking down at those whom you judge as doing what you yourself do is insufferable.
We are baptized. We belong to Christ. We have faith. That is why we are here. Yet we are still infected with original sin. The guilt of our sin, original and actual, has been forgiven for the sake of Christ. It is not counted against us, but it has not yet been completely removed. There remains, for a while, a selfishness in us that is always after pleasure and gain and is ever trying to measure ourselves against one another, judging one another as to how seriously we take ourselves and such. Though we are Christians, we still suffer from an inclination toward sin and wicked memories of sin’s false pleasures. We are diabolically clever at the use of words and imagination inside our secret thoughts to appease our consciences, hardening them against what is good. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are better than we are, that our motives are pure, that we don’t know what we are doing, that we are acting innocently, that we are more humble, more decent, more kind than others. All men are liars and the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
The point is that we can twist almost anything into pride and self-righteousness. We can even be sinfully proud of pure doctrine. What hope then for us? The hope of grace, the life of faith that lives in repentance and forgiveness, that abides in the Word and Sacraments, the hope of those who stood idle in the marketplace or the hope of those who worked all day and knew they had it good so they didn’t complain.
Jesus died and paid for the sins of the whole world. There is no sin for which He did not pay. Therefore there is no sinner so bad, or even so deluded and self-righteous, that he can’t be redeemed. We might think that we are better than other people, that we’ve worked harder or made more sacrifices and been more disciplined, or that we are inhumanly “busy.” We might think that our understanding of the Gospel and our love of truth is greater and more sincere, that our plans are wiser, but God is no respecter of persons. He is not impressed.
He is, however, generous. If He wants to send His Son to die for the benefit of the abortionist and child pornographer and the flag burner, along with the legalist and antinomian, the speaker of the house and the president, and treat them with honor fit for the martyrs, what is that to you? It costs you nothing. He can do what He wants with what is His. What He wants is to win humanity back for Himself. He wants to pay for it Himself. He wants to offer it for free. And He isn’t just offering it to them, to obvious sinners who need it, He is also offering it to you. Don’t be so surprised. He has always loved the Pharisees. Repent and believe. It is too bad that “let go and let God” has become such a saccharine cliché because it is actually what we need to do with our righteousness.
That is the gist of the parable. God gives away His kingdom for free to those who don’t deserve it. No one comes in by right or merit. We therefore should repent and ask for grace and rejoice that we even don’t deserve it and aren’t the right sort of people or the right ethnicity, we get it for free.
But there is something deeper here that could be missed. Those who live by the contract and complain, who agreed to the terms, “work all day and get a denarius,”: and then complain are told to take what is theirs and leave. That is a terrible sentence in the allegory. For what is ours? And to where do we go if cast out of the vineyard? But is also a wonderful sentence because the implication is that those who were over-payed, who did not invoke their rights or complain about the inequality of the vineyard owner’s generosity, they remain in the vineyard. They didn’t just get a denarius, one day’s wage without work. They get the whole vineyard. They aren’t treated as workers, but as sons.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a transaction that cancels debts. God doesn’t simply forgive Adam and Eve and stick them back in the garden. God becomes a Man. He did buy us out of slavery. He won us. We belong to Him. But we don’t belong to Him the way a cow belongs to a farmer or a hammer belongs to a carpenter. We belong to Him as family. God became a Man, one of us. He has united Himself to us, weds us, in the most familiar of ways. We are bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. His ascension elevates us. He brings us into the intimacy of the Holy Trinity Himself. He calls us His friends, His brothers, His children, His Bride. So it is that as a Man, He gives us His Body and Blood in the Holy Communion, and the two, we and He, become one in that Flesh, joined together by God. That is we call it “communion.” There He makes us One with Him.
Of course, we come to the vineyard by grace. Love isn’t earned. A husband doesn’t hold auditions or give his bride tests that she must pass. He loves her. Of course, we stay in the vineyard. Where else would we go? The vineyard was made for us and us for it.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.