Bible Passage: Matthew 20:1-16
Pastor: Pastor Berg
Sermon Date: September 24, 2017
They say you should, “strike while the iron is hot,” and “make hay while the sun shines.” So you get up before the crack of dawn. You make your way to the marketplace. It’s harvest season, after all. You know the farmers and landowners will be coming today, looking for temporary help. And you could sure use the money. It’s been hard to make ends meet lately. This extra income will go a long way.
You’re not alone as you stand in the marketplace, waiting, hoping that someone will come and find you and give you a job for the day. Just as the sun is about to crest over the horizon, you see a landowner coming. He offers you a deal: Twelve hours of work for $15 an hour. He’ll pay you in cash at the end of the day. You’d be a fool not to take such a generous offer for such simple, but hard work. And so you jump at the chance.
Once in the vineyard, you’ve been working for about three hours now, when you notice the landowner coming back with new recruits. They, too, look excited for the opportunity to be in the vineyard, harvesting, working for a change. At lunch time, another batch of workers appear. At least they’ll be able to work for half a day, you think. Better than nothing. Three hours later, three-fourths of the day is done and more workers show up. You’re just about out of energy, but you’re going to stick it out to the end. It will be worth it. And then eleven hours into your day, still more workers come for an hour’s worth of work. Not that you mind the help, but would it really be worth it for an hour?
Finally, the horn sounds. Your twelve hours are over. You’re sweaty and filthy and exhausted from being out in the sun all day long. You worked your tail off and that $180 bucks is going to be awesome. The foreman has the money and he’s calling everyone around. He starts with those who were hired last. They worked only an hour. He counts out $180. A whole day’s worth for an hour of work! You can’t believe it! ANd then your mind starts to race. If they got $180 for an hour, then surely you’re going to get more than that. $180 time twelve is $2160! Even half of that is $1080! What a day of work! As you make your way up to the foreman, expecting your big payday, he counts out $180.
You look down at the money, and back at the foreman, waiting for him to keep going. But he doesn’t. He’s packing up his stuff ready to go home. You can hardly believe it. How could those bums who only worked one hour get the same amount of money you did! You worked the whole day. You worked your tail off! You deserve more! This isn’t fair, you think—you say!
Jesus had just finished talking with a young man, a very wealthy young man, who wanted to go to heaven. He wanted to go to heaven based on what he had done. And all outward appearances showed him to be an upstanding young man. You couldn’t find fault with him, outwardly. But inwardly, God was not in first place in his heart. Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the money away and come and follow Jesus. But those possessions were that young man’s future. He trusted in them for his well-being. He’d worked hard for them. He deserved them; he feared losing them even more than he feared losing eternal life. So he went away sad. This encounter shocked the disciples! Peter asked the question that was on the mind of all the disciples. “Look, we have left everything and followed you! What then will we have?”
It was a fair question. The disciples left their homes, their families and friends to follow Jesus and they need to know that it was worth it. But ultimately, the question that Peter and the disciples were dealing with was much more dangerous: Is God, our King really gracious? Is God really going to be fair when he deals with me?
Why do we question the fairness of God? Is it because God sometimes seems unfair in our eyes? When you think about the way you love and serve, does it seem like God should be giving you an easier life? When you so desperately want to love and raise a child, but can’t, and yet there’s people who in your eyes have no business raising children, but get to, is that fair? Is it fair that people who live their lives in the gutter and are happy never to leave it, yet they could repent and enter heaven?
When we look at parable of Jesus, like Pastor Schlicht said last week, we are drawn into the story. We identify with the characters. And as Jesus was telling this story to his disciples, not to the Pharisees, we like to place ourselves right with those disciples. We’re the ones hired first. We’re the ones who have worked hard to serve God. We’re the ones who have “endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And so, perhaps this parable leaves us feeling a little blah. It doesn’t seem fair that we put in all the effort, all the sacrifice and those who sneak in at the last minute get the same as we do. And therein lies the problem. We find ourselves thinking that God owes us something because of what we’ve done. We think our wages should be greater.
However, this isn’t just a story about a vineyard. This is a story about how God deals with his people. What if God really gave us what we deserved? What would that look like? What do the Scriptures say? The picture isn’t pretty. “There is no one who does good, not even one…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…the wages of sin is death.” That’s truly what we deserve. That’s truly what we’ve earned. That would be a fair payment for what we’ve done. You see, when we put ourselves into this parable with those who were hired first, it’s easy to think that our works are somehow going to earn us favor with God. But those first workers had no right to complain. They had agreed to work for a price. And they were thrilled at the beginning. It’s only after they saw the generosity—not unfairness—the grace of the landowner did they become dissatisfied with what they had been given.
No, instead of identifying with the first people hired, try putting yourself in that last person’s shoes. They say you should, “strike while the iron is hot,” and “make hay while the sun shines.” So you get up before the crack of dawn. You make your way to the marketplace. It’s harvest season, after all. You know the farmers and landowners will be coming today, looking for temporary help. And you could sure use the money. It’s been hard to make ends meet lately. This extra income will go a long way.
You’re not alone as you stand in the marketplace, waiting, hoping that someone will come and find you and give you a job for the day. Just as the sun is about to crest over the horizon, you see a landowner coming. But he doesn’t hire you. So you keep waiting, still hopeful that someone will show you kindness. That same landowner comes back three hours later, but again, you’re overlooked. Now you’re starting to lose hope. You’re wondering if you’ll be able to feed your family tonight. He’s back again at lunch time, and again at three, but each time he chooses someone else. By now you’ve given up all hope. You’re convinced you’ll go hungry again tonight. You don’t even know why you’re still standing there. Who will choose you for such a short time?
But at 5, with just an hour left in the workday, that same landowner is back. He asks you why you’re still standing here, waiting. You tell him, “Because no one has chosen me! No one has offered me a chance.” And he says to you, “You also go into the vineyard.” So you go. Anything is better than nothing. You work hard for that hour. And then the horn sounds. The foreman calls you over to receive your wages. You’re expecting a couple dollars, at least you’ll be able to eat for one more day. You go up to the table and he counts out $180. A full day’s pay for one hour! You look down a tht money and again at the foreman. You can hardly believe it! What a generous man! What undeserved, gracious payment! How blessed you are to have been chosen by this landowner.
Isn’t it amazing how the perspective changes when we place ourselves last instead of first? Isn’t it amazing how unfair God is, check that, how gracious God is! This isn’t just a story about a vineyard. This is a story about how God deals with his people. God isn’t unfair, he’s loving. He took the sins of every person and put them on his Son. He was completely fair and just as he punished Jesus for every wrong we’ve done. That’s true for you, that’s true for me, that’s true for everyone in the world.
What we receive for being part of God’s kingdom, for being workers in the vineyard is not what we’ve earned or deserve. We don’t receive wages, we receive grace, the exact opposite of what we deserve. We receive Christ and all that he’s done for us. When we look at this parable from the perspective of the last one hired, we can’t possibly focus on the work that was done. No the focus becomes the generosity, the graciousness of the landowner, the king. And that’s the point. Every Christian, great or small, rich or poor, the first called or the last receives the same new birth into a living hope through the same cleansing waters of baptism. Every Christian, regardless of the number of their sins to confess, receives the same forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection. No Christian has a bigger or better Jesus than another, but the same Jesus who can’t be any bigger or better than he was on the cross. Every Christian, every worker in the vineyard receives the same thing, the same Jesus, in the same beggarly hand of God-given faith.
God has called many different people to work in his vineyard. But at the end of the day, he gives to each one exactly what he promised. He gives his undeserved love. He gives his one and only Son. He gives faith in that Son. He gives eternal life.
God is not unfair, he’s gracious! May we treasure that inconceivable grace! AMEN