Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 20)
September 24, 2017
Text: Matt. 20:1-16
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Well, it’s not like anything that would really happen in the kingdoms of men. This is where we go wrong with the parables. You have heard it said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. As I’ve told you before, that doesn’t quite capture it. A parable is rather a ridiculous earthly story by which we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven turns everything on its head, upside down, the first are last, the last are first, the Least is the greatest, the greatest are the least. The rich go away empty and the hungry are filled with good things. The despised and weak and foolish are the instruments of God. The mighty are cast down from their thrones. Those who work hard and bear the heat of the day get no more than those who work very little, and those who work very little get no less than those who have labored for hours. They all receive of the Master’s generosity. By grace. Which is, by definition, unearned, undeserved. The Master’s treatment of His workers isn’t fair by any earthly standard. The Union would strike. The media would breathlessly cover the scandal. Congress would pass legislation. We’d all agonize and argue about it endlessly. And God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9; ESV). We always think we’d make a better god than God. Beloved in the Lord, repent.
When it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, the point isn’t how long and hard you’ve worked, but that you’ve been called into it. By grace. This is what the laborers who worked all day missed about the Master’s generosity. They, too, were standing by the roadside unemployed and penniless. And the Master sought them, came to them, found them, called them into His vineyard, gave them to work in it and to share in His abundance. Not content, however, to limit His generosity to those who were called in the early hours of the day, He went out again in the third, the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh hours. He sought, He found, He called those who were standing there idle, with nothing of their own, to come into His vineyard and share in His abundance. Whether they worked all day, or only one hour, the point is, He called them. That’s grace. That’s God.
God sent His Son into the world to redeem sinners, to redeem you, by His holy precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. In the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to man. The vineyard is planted, the Church. And the Holy Spirit is sent to call sinners by the Gospel, enlighten them with His gifts, sanctify and keep them in the vineyard, which is to say, work in them to will and work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13) and to remain in the Church where He daily and richly forgives their sins and gives them eternal life and salvation. The Word is the call. The preaching of the Gospel is God’s call to come into His vineyard, to work it, and to receive of His abundance. Many of you, myself included, were blessed to be called from the beginning of the day, when your parents and sponsors brought to you to Holy Baptism and raised you here in the vineyard, week after week in Divine Service and Sunday School and Catechism Class and home devotions and prayers. God be praised for that. That is a gift. The temptation, though, is always to think of it as a work, something that makes you special, more impressive, more Christian. This is especially a temptation for those who plant mission congregations. I’ve heard it many times from many Missouri Synod Lutherans: I was here from the start. My children were baptized here, confirmed here, married here. And I intend to be buried here. Nothing is wrong with that as it stands. Thank God for that. It shows a great love for your congregation. My grandfather and my dad and their fellow Lutheran patriarchs built my home Church building from the ground up with their bare hands. I love the stories about that, and I love that congregation, and that building will always be my home. God-willing, our children and grandchildren will say the same about us generations later when they sit in the pews or sip their coffee in the fellowship hall of Augustana Lutheran Church, Moscow, Idaho. But at some point, it becomes a matter of pride, doesn’t it? Rather than thanksgiving for God’s grace in calling us into the Church in the first place? And those of us who were baptized as little babies forget how helpless and useless we were to God when He brought us into the vineyard. But He called us and He brought us in by grace. And He pays us, all His riches, not because we’ve earned them by our work, but because He is good. He is generous. He delights to give us gifts.
Others came into the vineyard later. A friend invited them to Church, or their grandparents brought them. Someone gave them a Bible and told them about Jesus. Maybe that’s your story. Whether it happened when you were a child, a teenager, middle aged, or elderly, it happened by God’s grace. It was the Holy Spirit calling you by the Gospel. And it does happen, and I’ve seen it myself, that the Holy Spirit calls by the Gospel and a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ at the eleventh hour, which is to say, on their death bed. The classic example is the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus promised, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He didn’t just hear the Gospel, he saw it happen before his very eyes. And here he was, this thief, justly dying for his crimes, while next to Him an innocent Man, his Savior, his God, was dying for His forgiveness and eternal life. And when the thief breathed his last and died on his cross, he opened his eyes in the heaven won for him by Jesus on His cross.
In my case, I was a young seminary student when I met a woman, the sister of a member of my summer vicarage congregation, who had been hospitalized with a violent illness that turned out to be pancreatic cancer, stage 4. She asked the pastor to come, and I came along for the ride. She had been baptized as a child in a different denomination, but hadn’t been to Church as an adult. She turned her back on the faith. Now it turned out she had days to live. And she wanted to know how it was between her and God. Could anything be done to save her? Even her? Even after all she’d thought and said and done against Him? Here the sun was setting and she stood alone on the side of the road, idle, without a good work to her name. And the pastor, sent by God, was given to tell her the life-giving news: Something had already been done to save her, even her, after all she’d thought and said and done against God. Jesus died for her. Jesus died for the forgiveness of all her sins. And He lives for her, and loves her, and is with her. She is not alone. She will not die apart from Him. He is risen from the dead and gives her eternal life. And then the pastor asked her, “Do you believe this?” “Yes,” she said from her hospital bed, tears in her eyes. “Do you want me to be your pastor?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, as she nodded with what little strength she could muster. This was the sum of her confirmation ceremony in the Lutheran Church. “Do you want to receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper today, the body and blood given and shed for you, for your forgiveness and life?” the pastor asked. “Yes,” she sighed with more tears, and cathartic relief, and even joy, from her deathbed. And so she received her first Communion. As a post-script to the story, she was soon moved home with hospice care where Pastor and I visited her daily, several time a day, to speak the Gospel into her ears and heart, and Pastor communed her as long as she could swallow. Pastor was out of town one afternoon as I visited her by myself, green seminarian that I was. “I’ll be back this evening,” I said. I had to teach Bible study. When I got back to the Church the phone rang. The angels had taken her home to Jesus. And she shines brighter than many life-long Missouri Synod Lutherans, for she knows, and she knew before she departed to be with Christ, that this is all by grace, all unearned, undeserved mercy and kindness because the Lord is good. She’ll be with us today at the Supper.
Now, the Lord does bring us into the vineyard to work it. There are works to be done. Good works are necessary, as our confessions remind us, but they are not necessary for salvation. Still, we are to do them. The unhappy laborers in the parable did not understand that they weren’t earning the denarius with their work. They weren’t earning anything anymore than those who worked the one hour. That’s why everyone got a denarius. They didn’t earn it. The Master gave it. Freely. Out of His goodness. To those who worked and to those who didn’t. Rather, they were in the vineyard because the Master called. At whatever hour. At whatever time, whatever place. He called. He brought them in. And yes, He bid them work. But they were already in the vineyard. Here we learn the order of faith and works. Faith is God’s gift. He brings you to faith by grace, by His call, by the Gospel. And you have all of the Master’s riches by grace. And then, after all of that is true, He gives you work to do. Love your neighbor. Provide for his needs. Give him a Bible and tell him about Jesus and invite him to Church. Start a mission congregation and build a Church building. Raise your children in the faith and to be good citizens. Go to your job and do it faithfully. Vote. Drive the speed limit. Give a big tip to your waitress. Be generous, because the Lord, the Master of the vineyard, is unfailingly generous to you. Trust in Him. Have no other gods before Him. Call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. And get to Church to gladly hear and learn His Word. That’s the work He’s given you to do. Don’t keep track of it. Don’t compare your work with that of others. You aren’t earning anything. You’re doing what members of the Master’s household do. But you are a member of the household, by grace.
That’s finally what it’s all about. The Master didn’t just hire you to be cheap labor. He called you to be a member of His household! To live with Him and be His own! To inherit the vineyard! Now, here is the warning. Those who want what they have coming to them, what they’ve earned, will get just that. A few temporal rewards for outward good works maybe, but no place in the house. They will be told to depart. “Take what belongs to you and go,” the Master says (Matt. 20:14). But here is the comfort. Those who know they have received what they have not earned, who know that the Master gives from His generosity, by grace, are not told to take what belongs to them, and they are not told to go… They belong here, with the Master, in His vineyard! Beloved in the Lord, that is you! At whatever hour of the day you were called, however hard or much you’ve worked, or not worked, you are here. By grace. Because the Holy Spirit called you by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who purchased you for the Father, to be His own child. Not because you are good or useful or doing Him any favors. But because He is good. And He loves you. And here in His vineyard, in His Church, you are home. Yes, even you. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.