“The Wages of Grace”
Sermon, Septuagesima, Gospel, Matthew 20:1-16 Feb. 1, 2-15,
We love justice and hate injustice and unfairness, especially if we think we have been wronged or treated unfairly. Nothing quite gets our hackles up like someone depriving us unfairly of what we believe is rightfully ours. We want people to play by the rules, whether it is inflating game balls the proper amount, or referees applying penalties fairly and equally. And beyond simple fairness, it seems that everybody feels entitled nowadays, feels that they have certain things due them, and these entitlements are growing year by year. We certainly do not take lightly someone depriving us of our entitlements or what we feel is due us.
When I was in my twenties I worked one summer when for an opera company in Baltimore. I was one of two rehearsal pianists and I also had other responsibilities. I was paid a small salary and given room and board for two months. Toward the end of the season, the other pianist had to leave unexpectedly, so a replacement had to be hired. A local pianist was found whom I helped to learn the ropes. I had a feeling that this pianist was getting paid more than I was, and found out that was the case through conversation with him. I was deeply offended. Here I was, the guy who had worked so hard all summer, arranging the two-piano version of the opera scores, faithfully and professionally playing for the rehearsals and performances, and the director rewarded me by paying someone more than me. I grumbled to the director like the workers in our parable.. He answered that I was paid less because I had a package deal. I was guaranteed two months work, and besides, I had already agreed upon the price. So I can identify with the workers in today’s parable who complained to the master of the vineyard. Maybe you have similar stories.
We want our fair share. We want equal pay for equal work. We want just wages.
We want to rewarded for what we do not for who we are. And in the kingdom of this world, this is a reasonable and just desire. Being paid fairly encourages work and self-discipline and initiative. But the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Grace that Christ came to inaugurate operates on a different system, and with a different incentive. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are rewarded not for what we do, but for who we are, or rather whose we are. And in joyful gratitude for this freely-given reward, we work out of gratitude and obedience, to do the will of the One who rewarded us. And we work to bring that free reward to others, so that they may also share the joy we have with us.
Today’s parable is aimed at Peter and the disciples, and, by extension, all disciples, you and me. It helps to see what happened just before today’s text. A young rich man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to to obey the commandments and sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Him. The young man goes away sadly because he trusted in his wealth more than Jesus. In situations such as this, where we have to make a decision about holding on to one thing or giving it up for another thing we see clearly where our heart lies.
I heard a story recently by a pastor who had counseled a couple who were thinking about divorce. This happened many years ago. No names were given, so it was completely confidential. The pastor suggested to the couple that they go to ten sessions of professional marriage counseling. The husband objected that he didn’t have the money for the sessions, $100 apiece. The pastor asked him, “Don’t you have a boat and two cars? You could get $5000 for one of them, I would think.” The man didn’t like that idea at all. God may have given him his wife, but he worked hard for the boat. He didn’t sell anything to get cash for the counseling. The couple ended up getting divorced. Whether they could have saved the marriage through counseling we can’t know, but we see clearly that the man cared more about keeping his boat and cars, than keeping his marriage.
After the young rich man leaves sadly, Jesus tells the disciples that it is difficult for a rich man, or anybody, for that matter, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. With man it is impossible, He says, but with God, everything is possible. Then Peter pipes up and speaks for the others, “See Lord, we have left everything for you.” Jesus reassures Peter and the rest that all who have left their family and possessions for Him will be rewarded a hundredfold. But He doesn’t want them to get puffed up about their sacrifices, as if they deserved to be rewarded. Jesus says that some in the the Kingdom who are first will be last.
To explain how that works, He tells today’s parable, so that Peter and the disciples, and we can see that the wages we receive from Jesus are the wages of grace, and that we should not begrudge others the grace of God. .
In the parable the master of the house goes out at the beginning of the day and hires a number or workers to work in his vineyard. They agree on the wages and the workers begin working. Then, at various times of the day, 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm, and hour before the sun goes down, the proverbial eleventh hour, he goes out and hires others who are standing around idly in the marketplace. Not a very good businessman, but this parable isn’t about how to run a vineyard, but about God and His Kingdom. When it comes time to pay the workers, the master tells the foreman to pay them in reverse order of being hired–the last first. If he had paid the first hired first they would have taken their pay and left, without seeing what the others got. So the last hired get a denarius, the standard pay for a whole day’s work. The first workers would have been a little surprised. What’s going on? These guys only worked an hour, and after the heat of the day had passed. Then the others are paid, again with a denarius. The first hired start to think, “We have to get more than a denarius, now. It’s only fair.” So when it comes time for them to be paid they expect to get more. But they don’t. They too receive a denarius. And so they start grumbling at the master of the house. “‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and jthe scorching heat.” But the master of the house says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’
This is the lesson for Peter, and for us. We are not to look on what we receive from the Lord as something due to us, our fair wages. And we really don’t want to ask the Lord for the wages that are due us. For the wages that are truly due us are the wages of sin, death. (Romans 6:23). But God has chosen not to pay us what we earned but what His sinless Son Jesus earned. For we could never work hard enough or long enough, if we lived a million years to earn our way into heaven. So God sent His Son to do the work we couldn’t do, and receive the wages we deserve, death. Christ gives us what He has earned, eternal life, to all who believe in Him. This is called the glorious exchange. We give Jesus our sins, which He takes to the cross, and He gives us His righteousness. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair in the logic and wisdom of the world. It’s what Paul calls the folly of the cross, that God would die for sinners, for His enemies, that He would exchange His righteousness for our sinfulness. But that’s what happened. We are rich because God became poor. We didn’t earn our riches, We don’t deserve them, but they are ours to receive through faith. Faith is simply receiving God’s promises, His forgiveness, His mercy, the wages of grace, through Christ. And even this faith was given to us by God, so that we can’t even boast about that. All we can boast of is Jesus, who died for our sins on the cross, and rose as a confirmation that we will rise with him.
Jesus said we Christians will have our own crosses– confirmation that as we suffer with Him we will rise with Him. Some have heavier crosses than others. Some of us bear the work of the heat of the day and the great burden. Some of us come late in the day. Most of us came to faith a babies in Baptism. But some Christians convert on their deathbeds. Some of us live long lives. Some of us die young. But the wages of grace is the same for all believers, forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. Whatever Christians lose in this life they gain back a hundred, a thousand, a million fold in the life to come. If we give a tenth of our income to the church, the traditional tithe, or if we give less, we are not earning anything, but showing our trust that God will provide for us. We are showing gratitude for our salvation and for the blessings of this life. God doesn’t need our works or our money. But our neighbor does. God wants us to use our time, talent, and treasure for our neighbor, for the poor, the poor in spirit and the poor in body. Most importantly, our tithes and offerings and service are helping the Church, the body of Christ, to spread the Gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, not by works.
God has promised to reward us with the wages of grace, and He never breaks a promise. He has given us the keys to His eternal Kingdom, where death is no more, only love and peace and joy, and a wealth and weight of glory that far exceeds a hundred or a million times what we have given to Him. He has already given us the down payment of the infinite wages of grace in the gift of the Holy Spirit received in our Baptisms, a seal and promise of our inheritance in Christ. Now we get to work in His vineyard. Since Jesus has come, we are living the last days. This is the eleventh hour. Let us rejoice that He is bringing more workers into His Kingdom in this last hour through the work of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel and the receiving of the Sacraments. The master is coming soon with His reward, Himself–the wages of grace for all those who believe in Him. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.