Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

Jesus tells us a parable today that He knows is going to make us grumble if we’re really paying attention.  He is deliberately setting us up by telling a story that strikes us as unfair.  How can we not side with the workers in this story who feel cheated because they worked, in some cases, twelve times as long as other workers – including working at the hottest time of day – only to get paid the same wages?

No labor union would endorse this parable.  Nobody who has ever been treated by a boss unequally compared to other co-workers is likely to be happy with the ending of this tale.  It just sounds like some kind of propaganda designed to justify unfair labor practices, a perpetuation of the power of wealthy business owners to lord it over those who must work with their hands for a living.

The workers who felt cheated “grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” We can resonate with that, and with the children of Israel in the Old Testament reading, unhappy with the leadership of Moses, who brought them out into the desert with no plan as to how they would drink water.  We would likely be grumbling right along with them.

But when we grumble at what has or hasn’t been given to us, when we grumble because we covet what has been given to others, we are really grumbling at God Himself.  We are saying to Him: “You don’t know what You’re doing; You should be doing things My way.”

But the children of Israel did get water to drink.  For God was with them and had not forsaken them but was testing them.  By God’s grace and mercy, Moses delivered water out of the rock.  We are told in today’s Epistle that “they drank from the same spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ,” who allowed Himself to be struck with a spear on the cross so that living water would wash away the sins even of grumblers.

Jesus explains what the kingdom of heaven is like by reminding us grumblers that God is in charge; He determines what is fair, and He gives according to His will, His mercy, and His bountiful goodness.  All things belong to Him, and we have no claim on anything.  And really, if God is merciful to someone else, how does that affect us negatively anyway?–any more than if an employer were to give a needy coworker a special bonus just out of the kindness of his heart.  God owns everything.  Is He not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him?  Who are we to begrudge His generosity?

It’s important to remember in this parable, though, that no one was treated unfairly.  No injustice was done.  The first workers got a fair day’s wage.  That was good and right.  It’s just that the others were the recipients of the landowner’s great generosity.  People might expect that Jesus’ message would be different, that He would side with the workers seeking equal pay for equal work.  However, it turns out that Jesus is like the landowner who has every right to do what He wants with His own things and to be generous to whom He wants to be generous.

You could try to make a political point out of this parable about socialism or capitalism or liberalism or conservatism.  But, of course, that would be missing the main point of this parable, which is not about politics or economics but about what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  Jesus says that “fairness” according to the ways of the world is not how His kingdom operates.  In fact, it’s turned upside down.  Those who think God owes them something more than what He’s given are gravely mistaken.  His ways are both just and gracious.

Here’s really the key spiritual point to take from the Gospel reading: the difference between the first laborers and the later laborers is that the first had a specific contract, a legal compact, with the landowner, whereas the last workers had nothing specific, just a promise that the landowner would give them whatever is right.  That’s a big difference, isn’t it.  Would you work for someone without knowing in advance what your wage was going to be?  You might.  It depends on the character of the one hiring you, doesn’t it.  Is the person greedy or generous?  Are they trustworthy or not?  Is it a stingy next door neighbor wanting to get their snow shoveled on the cheap, or is it grandma and grandpa looking for an excuse to give their grandchild a big gift?

So you might say that the first laborers were operating under the Law, and the later laborers were operating under the Gospel.  The first laborers were relying on their own works, the last laborers were living by faith in the goodness of the landowner.  That’s why the last are first, because their confidence is not in themselves but in the Lord and what He does.  Remember what the landowner said, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  The Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever.  

The truth is, we should thank God daily that He doesn’t judge us by what is fair; He doesn’t give us what we deserve.  For we deserve death and hell.   We may be considered good people in a worldly sense.  But how often have we been idle and lazy in doing good works?  Have any of our words or deeds perhaps even done damage to Christ’s vineyard?  We deserve wrath.  “The wages of sin is death.”  However, because of and through the atoning work of Jesus, God shows mercy to us.  He is free to do good to us which we have not merited or deserved.  In the death of Jesus, justice (what is fair) and grace (what is undeserved) come together.  At Golgotha, the just punishment for sin is carried out.  Justice is done; Jesus pays the price.  And at the same time grace overflows.  Your sins are forgiven; you are treated as if you worked perfectly and tirelessly all day.  The merits of Jesus are credited to you.  “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation.  Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  So see how the work was all done for you, simply for you to receive by faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”

One more point: Very often when we hear this parable of the laborers in the vineyard, those of us who have been lifelong Christians and lifelong Lutherans like to think of ourselves as having worked the whole day.  We didn’t come to faith later in life; we were baptized as infants and have been a part of the church right from the very beginning.  And that’s certainly an acceptable application of this parable–although it is also a warning.  Remember what happened to those hired at dawn!  Let us never grumble at the grace of God shown to sinners and to those who repent and receive the denarius of salvation later in life!  

But there’s another way to think about and apply this parable, too.  And that is that we ourselves are actually among the last workers hired.  Those who have really borne the burden and the heat of the day in the Church have come before us in history.  We’re not the ones who fought the early heresies and formed the Scriptural Creeds of the Church.  We’re not the ones who faced the power of emperors and the power of popes, risking death for our faith (though that day may soon be coming).  We’re not the ones who crossed oceans and sacrificed everything to be able to practice our faith and raise our children according to the truth.  We’re not the ones who preserved the liturgy and penned the great hymns of the Church.  Truly an astonishingly rich heritage has been handed down to us which we are privileged to carry on.  And here we are near the close of the age, at the end of the Day, eagerly waiting for the Last Day, relying on the goodness of the Master, mercifully called to work in the vineyard and to be a part of the one, holy, Christian, apostolic Church.  Truly, it’s all a gift of God’s grace.

Our Lord does what He chooses with what belongs to Him.  And that is true here again today, as Jesus freely chooses to give you His very body and blood, once offered up as the atoning sacrifice for all of your sins.  Here at the altar you all are paid the denarius of salvation, regardless of how long you’ve been in the vineyard.  For in truth we are all those last fortunate workers who just squeaked in, though we do not deserve it.

The Lord is just.  The Lord is gracious.  The Lord is good.  Blessed is the one who trusts in Him.

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)