Wages and Grace
St. Matthew 20: 1-16
1″For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the
morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius
for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever
is right.’ 5So they went.
“He went out again about the
sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour
he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you
been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
no one has hired us,’ they answered.
to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers
and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the
9″The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour
came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first,
they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12’These
men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made
them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the
13″But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being
unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go.
I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have
the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am
16″So the last will be first, and the first will
Growing-up in Chicago I am familiar with the unions. AFL-CIO, Teamsters, Ironworkers, Dockworkers, Electrician’s Union, Plumbers Union, for awhile I was even a member of the Industrial Chemical Workers Union. All organized to negotiate and ensure the workers got what they think is a fair wage—a days work for a days wage.
But the unions serve another function. Their rules and guidelines enforce a ranking among their members so that a journeyman electrician will always make more than a novice and a master electrician will always make more than a journeyman. Not only will an employer or contractor be able to gauge the experience of the worker he employs through the rankings used by a union, he is expected to pay the worker commensurate to his experience and grade. This practice is called “paying scale.”
The collect expresses the situation we find ourselves. Look again at the collect for this morning, printed on the bulleting insert: “O Lord, we beseech You favorably to hear the prayers of Your people that we, who are justly punished for our offenses, may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness, for the glory of Your name.” This is the key note not only for this Sunday’s Gospel—all in the two phrases justly punished for our offenses and mercifully delivered by Your goodness.
Here in this short prayer, in these two phrases is a confession of sins and a prayer for absolution. We confess that we are under punishment. Perhaps we would prefer the word ‘affliction.’ But while we may receive them as afflictions, As children of God we acknowledge the suffering of this life as God’s just punishment for sin. We confess that there are offenses, sins that stand out in darkest contrast against the holiness of Him who has borne our grief’s and was wounded for our transgressions. Our punishment is just, deserved, merited. But we are ‘Your people’ and our merciful deliverance reflects not what we deserve, not what we, on account of our sin have earned, but instead, we receive merciful goodness that brings glory to the reputation of God.
II. The workers want their wages (malady)
The crux of Jesus’ parable is based on the simple theory used by the unions: ‘A fair days wage for a fair days work,’ and ‘pay scale.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.” The vineyard owner went out early in the morning and negotiated with the professional fieldworkers. Like going to a union office, the Householder knew where to go to find these workers. After negotiating a wage: for 12 hours work they would get a day’s wage, a denarius. They set off to work.
“About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” At 9 am he returned to the place where prospective workers gather and, without a set wage, hires them to work in the vineyard. They go trusting the promise that they will receive whatever is right. So they went.
“He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.” Both at noon and at 3 pm the lord of the vineyard returns to the marketplace and hires more workers. They are glad to be hired so that they would be able to work, even if only for part of the day. With respect to the Householder he did the same thing. He hired them with promise ‘I will pay you whatever is right.’ They ask no questions but join the work in the heat of the day
“About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “ The day wears on until it is 5 pm, an hour before quitting time. The Vineyard Owner seeking more to benefit the unemployed than to benefit the vineyard, graciously hires those whom everyone else has not. There is no bargaining. What a strange thing to hire men at 5 o’clock for one hour’s work. Gladly the men accept the invitation to work in the vineyard
The day ends, and it’s time to collect. Do the math: If those who work the whole day get a day’s pay, then it stands to reason that those who worked one-twelfth of the day will get one-twelfth of a day’s pay. But when those who worked the least collect their pay, they get it all. Those who worked only half a day still collect all. Surely those who worked the whole time are going to get something extra, aren’t they? It’s only fair. Yet, when it’s time to collect, these weary workers only get what was promised-a day’s pay, as much as everyone else.
It’s then that the mutterings and grumblings begin from the full-day workers. “It isn’t fair, what this lord of the vineyard has done. We worked a lot more, so we should get paid a lot more; but instead, all we got was what we were promised. “Look at the guy who killed all but the last hour of the day before coming to work, walking around with a whole day’s pay and a smile on his face. Maybe next time we’ll just waste the day and come in at the last moment; it sure worked for him.”
“If nothing else, we’ve still got our pride. We know who was here the longest; we know who the real workers are around here, not the wannabes. They don’t deserve the same status that we do, and at least we can feel good about ourselves.”
“But still, it’s so unfair that it just grates on us. We’ve got to punish the lord of the vineyard for what he’s done. Let’s form a union. Let’s join together with workers from all sorts of different vineyards, and together we can prove how unfait this landowner’s being. By the numbers of our unionism, we’ll prove that our efforts deserve recognition. We have to make it clear: The lord’s way of running his vineyard is just not fair.”
So goes the reasoning of the mutterers, and you have to agree that the landowner hasn’t acted all that fairly by the standards of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” and “pay scale.”
However, consider the same day from the perspective of the lord of the vineyard. He’s the one who has paid for the construction of the vineyard, and he’s made it big to accommodate a lot of laborers. He goes to the marketplace and finds workers who are idle-they have no place, no security, no reward for their idleness. He could look for others who show more initiative-he could stick to those who arrive at his gate; but these idle men need a place, or else all that they have will be taken from them.
So at the marketplace, he “hires” laborers; but note the terms of the hiring. He’s already built the vineyard, and now he calls them to work in it. He gives them a place, security, and protection. Furthermore, he promises that, because they are in his vineyard, he will give them a reward at the end of the day.
As the day wears on, he returns to the marketplace; and each time he goes, he finds more idle workers. He wants them in his vineyard, where he can provide for them security and peace. Therefore, each time he finds idle workers, he calls them into his vineyard and offers them a reward. He even goes back at the eleventh hour; he won’t get much work out of those who have remained idle this long, but he still wants them in his vineyard anyway.
When the end of the day comes, the workers are gathered for the time of reckoning, and here’s the surprise: The lord of the vineyard does not pay them based upon their work. The lord of the vineyard pays them based on his own generosity. Whether the worker has labored for twelve hours or for one, he still needs the same reward; that’s what is necessary for his well-being. Therefore, that’s what the lord of the vineyard gives.
It is fair? Not at all.
But what troubles many is not that the lord is less than fair with those who worked the full day. He is fair to them, and faithfully gives them exactly what he has promised. No, what troubles many is that he is more than fair to those who didn’t work that much; even though they haven’t earned it, he still gives them the same reward. Therefore, many are mad at him not because he is evil, but because he is good; they are ticked off because he is nicer than they expected.
So, how would you assess this vineyard in the parable? It all depends how you look at it. If you measure the vineyard by the efforts and attitudes of the workers, it’s a crummy place to be. But if you measure the vineyard by the efforts and attitudes of the lord, there is no place better. This is especially true when one considers a factor that doesn’t appear in the parable: The all-day workers complain that they deserve more because they have borne the burden and the heat of the day. Focused so much on their own efforts, they have missed the most important thing. They have not borne the greatest burden or the severest heat. The Lord’s Son has: He has borne the burden of their sin to the cross; He has endured the heat of hell while suffering for their transgressions.
The only reason they are even in the vineyard is because the Son had died to bring them in.
Because, you see, this parable is about the kingdom of heaven. If you are a businessman, do not use this parable as a guide for conducting your business; there are few better ways to tick off your long-term, faithful employees than to reward the new guy in the mailroom as much as them. This is not how things operate in this world; in fact, St. Paul declares, “If anyone will not work, neither should he eat” (II Thess. 3:10). This parable is not about business in this world; Jesus makes clear that He is speaking about the kingdom of heaven.
III. The Kingdom of Heaven
The kingdom of heaven isn’t fair. For this we give thanks to God.
All are lost in sin, and the Lord desires to save sinners. Therefore, He sends His Son, Jesus, to establish His kingdom. He desires to save sinners-to bring them into His kingdom, to give them a place, security, and the reward of eternal life. The cost is steep for this royal vineyard to open: The Lord must sacrifice His only Son for the sins of all the world.
Because the Son pays this price by His death on the cross, the Lord then calls out to all who stand idle outside His kingdom, bidding them to leave their worthless activities behind and enter His vineyard of grace. He gathers them in to be His, and within His kingdom they are free to do the tasks that He has given them to do. Husbands and wives are set free to go about the task of serving each other. Parents are set free to care for their children, while children are set free to obey their parents. Employees are set free to do their best on the job, while employers are set free to make sure employees are taken care of. All are set free to hear the Word, to tell others, to support the Church with tithes and talents. These are the sorts of tasks that the Lord gives to those within His kingdom.
And for all who are in His kingdom, the reward is sure. He promises them the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The reward is guaranteed in full, because it is not based upon the efforts of the workers. It is based upon the work of the Son-the only-begotten Son who bore the burden of the sins of the world, who suffered the heat of God’s day of wrath.
The Lord calls all who will hear into His vineyard. He does not need them in his kingdom for his profit or good; He desires them in His kingdom so that they might be rewarded with the life His Son has won. Therefore, He would wash them in their infancy with the waters of Holy Baptism that they might be safe and secure in His kingdom throughout their lives. He would have them hear My Word of salvation continually, and He would have them feed on His holy Supper all their days, for He has given His Son to bring them into His kingdom.
He also knows that some will not enter His kingdom in their youth. They will come in later on—perhaps at their 11th hour when they are breathing their last breath. When this happens, should He forgive them for 1/12 of their sins? Should He give them only fraction of faith, only a bit of salvation. May it never be! This reward is not based on their work, but on God’s Son’s!
Whether they come into His kingdom near the start or the end, they have eternal life in all its fullness-because the Son has died to make it so.
This is why, the prophet Isaiah cries out to all who will hear, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7). Is it fair? Not by human standards. But the prophet continues with the Lord’s declaration: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways” (Is. 55:8). The Lord is far more than fair.
For us who have been gathered into this vineyard-kingdom of God, there is much to rejoice. The Lord has brought us in for the sake of Jesus, who died for us. As we anticipate the glory of heaven, in the meantime we are set free from sin to go about the tasks that God gives us. All thanks and praise and glory be to God.
Unfortunately, sin still attacks those who labor in the vineyard in this world, and so we are tempted to a false measurement of God’s kingdom. We are tempted to measure it not by the abundant grace and pardon of our Lord, but upon the works of the workers instead.
How many and tragic are the false teachings when we seek to measure God’s kingdom by the works of man! There is, for instance, the common teaching that the Lord’s ways are just too good to be true! Before we can be the Lord’s, it is often taught, we must do our part and earn the right to be His. We must show our worthiness and qualifications before He will ever let us into His kingdom in the first place. In other words, we have to work our way into heaven. This teaching is sensible according to the ways of man: you get what you work for. However, it is not the way of God, who has paid the price for our sin with His Son. If we teach that we are saved by our own efforts-in whole or in part, then we teach that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t good enough to get the job done.
On the other hand, there is the teaching that we are brought into the kingdom by what Jesus has done; but once we’re inside, we have to work hard to keep the privilege. We must daily prove our worthiness to God by the clothes that we wear, by the things that we do and by the things that we avoid. If we fail to prove our worth daily, then the reward isn’t ours because we’ve failed to earn it. Once again, this teaches that Jesus hasn’t done enough to save us: He’s done enough to get the ball rolling, but now we have to work hard to earn a continued place in His kingdom.
There is, of course, the old-fashioned hypocrisy that lurks in the sinful corners of a Christian’s old Adam. This is the shadow that whispers, “Sure, Jesus died for me, the long-time Christian; and Jesus died for that guy who was just baptized. But we both know that the Lord appreciates me more for all I’ve done. ”What tragic silliness is this, when we take the credit because the Lord brought us into His kingdom sooner.
One might as well take credit for being born before his brothers and sisters, as if he had anything to do with that.
The most perverse rebellion against this abundant pardon of God, however, goes something like this: “The Lord declares that he gives salvation freely because His one and only Son has died on the cross to pay for the sins of the world. Frankly, that’s just not good enough. Why? Because this means that this God has only provided one escape from sin and hell. He’s provided only one way of salvation, through Jesus Christ. Well, we’ll show Him. We’ll get together with a bunch of other vineyards of differing religions and form a coalition of sorts. And by our good efforts and that unionist team, we’ll show by our numbers that there are other ways to heaven.” This is perverse indeed: The Lord sacrifices His only Son for sinners, and sinners want some other salvation instead.
In all of these cases, there is a common, terrible misunderstanding: In each case, sinners try to base the reward of heaven on the works of the workers, not on the abundant grace of the Lord. In each case, sinners make the claim that the Lord’s lovingkindness and His Son’s sacrifice aren’t near as important as what we do. This is a terrible sin indeed, trying to steal the glory of Jesus.
So we gather here for worship, sinful laborers and belabored sinners that we are. Gathered in Divine Service, we do not trumpet our great efforts, the things that we have done for God. Even if we have managed to do what He asks, we are still unworthy servants, nothing more. Therefore, rather than boast of our works, we confess our sins-the many times that we have preferred our works to His will. We do not attempt to prove that we have cooperated with God in order to be forgiven; rather we announce that salvation is sure because Christ has done all the work for us. If salvation depends-even a little bit-on our own efforts, we can never be sure we are saved. But if Christ has done it all, then you can be certain of your salvation.
We do not boast if we have been in the kingdom longer than others; rather, we give thanks that the Lord has provided us with such a haven for so long, and that He continues to gather His people for the sake of Jesus.
We do not maintain that you must do good works to keep your salvation, for that would say that Jesus’ cross was not enough. However, we also condemn the notion that we can sin however we wish; for such an unrepentant attitude would move us out of the kingdom into a different vineyard. No, instead we rejoice that, forgiven for all of our sins, we are set free to serve the Lord in the tasks that He has given us to do.
And always, the Divine Service points you to the Lord of the vineyard, the God of abundant pardon who has worked your salvation by His Son’s death on the cross. The Lord who has called you into His kingdom by Holy Baptism, who saves you by His Word, who feeds you with His Supper to strengthen your faith. The Lord who, by forgiveness, sets you free to serve in His kingdom-not to earn your salvation, but to do those things that your sin prevented you from doing.
This is how His kingdom works: He pays the price to bring you in. He keeps you in His kingdom by His grace. He rewards you with eternal life because of the work of His Son, your Lord Jesus Christ.
Is it fair? Absolutely not, and for this we give thanks to God.
If it were fair, we would be lost. But because the Lord Jesus Christ has unfairly paid the price for your salvation, you can be absolutely certain that you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.