Sermon for Pentecost 17 – 9.24.23
+ 17th Sunday after Pentecost – September 24th, 2023 +
Series A: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Kids say it on the playground when someone cuts them off in line for the slide. Adults say it as a car zips by you on the shoulder instead of zipper merging onto the freeway. Three little words. That’s not fair.
That’s how we think isn’t it. In terms of fairness. You wait your turn in line. You get what you earn. Equal pay for equal work. I want what I deserve. And so on. Those are the ways of man. and that’s not all bad. It’s how the kingdoms of this world are supposed to work.
But as Isaiah the prophet reminds today, the kingdom of heaven is far different. my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
Right before Jesus tells this parable (at the end of Mt. 19), and right after it in vs. 16, he says those famous words: “The last will be first, and the first last.”
That hardly sounds fair. That’s because it’s not. Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard isn’t about the ways of the world, but the kingdom of heaven. And the kingdom of heaven doesn’t operate by our sense of fairness, by what is earned, or deserved, but rather on God’s justice, righteousness, and grace.
Let’s see how it all unfolds in Jesus’ parable. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (Think something like 6 AM) Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.
Whatever is right, our English translations say. The word behind that word is the word for righteous, and justified, and justification. Remember that word for later. “whatever is right/just, I will pay you.”
Again, the landowner goes out and does the same thing at noon and 3 PM (the 6th and the 9th hour), and he did the same. Later on, say around 5 PM, the sun was setting, there was still work to do. And he finds some guys bumming around, just standing there because no one had hired them.
He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard too.’ 6 PM finally arrives. Quitting time. Beer-thirty. But before that, time to get paid. The workers head to the foreman to receive their money. And here’s where the parable gets interesting.
The vineyard owner lines them up in reverse order, from last to first, from the eleventh hour late-comers to the first hour workers who agreed to work for a denarius a day. When they eleventh hour workers opened they pay envelope…surprise! A shiny denarius! Wow! One hour’s work and a full day’s wage.
Imagine what happens as the other workers start to hear the news. “He’s paying a denarius an hour!” The twelve hour workers at the end of the line are busy rubbing their hands together. Hmm…a denarius an hour. This is great! But as the workers are paid, reality kicks in. Everyone gets one denarius.
The workers are bumfuzzled at the Landowner’s behavior. But they’re also livid. “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. Imagine a youth soccer league where the last place team gets the same big trophy as the undefeated first place team, in that order. That’s crazy, ridiculous. It’s not fair!
“Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius a day? Take what belongs to you and go. It’s my money and I do with it what I please. If I choose to give these last ones a full day’s wage, what’s that to you? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
This parable is a story of Judgment and grace. Judgment for those who resent and reject God’s grace. And God’s grace given to all who least deserve it. Judgment for those who, like the pharisees, and even the disciples from time to time, get it in their head that the kingdom of heaven is somehow something they deserved, or earned, or had coming to them. But in the kingdom of heaven God doesn’t operate by our sense of fairness, but rather his justice and righteousness. If the kingdom of heaven
Fairness means you get what you deserve. Grace is the exact opposite Good News of outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners – you get what you don’t deserve. And that’s the Kingdom of heaven. If fairness is what gets us into the kingdom of heaven, then it’s all on us. But if God’s grace is what gets us in, then that’s Good News. Salvation is God’s gift for you. The last are first. The guilty go free. Sinners are justified.
Like the workers, we expect God to be fair. But here’s the rub. If we want God to be fair, to deal with us according to our works, our achievements, our accomplishments and all the things we do, then we will be condemned. That’s what’s fair. Those are the terms. The wages of sin is death. That’s what we deserve. That’s what we confess every Sunday. “I justly deserved you’re your temporal and eternal punishment.”
Ever notice how our confession has that word in the past tense? Deserved. Death. condemnation. That’s what we deserve. That would be fair.
Isn’t it comforting to know then, that God’s ways are not our ways. That in Jesus’ death and resurrection we get what we do not deserve.
Thank God, he’s not fair. Because if there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for sinners, tax collectors; for Peter the denier and adulterous David, for doubting Moses and faithless Israel, the thief on a cross and 11th hour workers – then there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for me and you.
Like the 11th hour workers in the parable, we live off of the work of another. Jesus Landowner was crucified at the 3rd hour, who from the 6th hour was hanging on the cross under the heavy burden of our labors, as darkness covered the land, and at the 9th hour he cried out “It is finished” as he died to save you. By the 11th hour Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb for you, his work on the cross complete for you. Not to give you what is fair, but to give you what is just and right, his life for yours. Our wages of sin in exchange for his free gift of eternal life.
With God we receive equal salvation for unequal work. A denarius just for being there, regardless of what you did. Everyone receives the same death and resurrection, the same Baptism, the same Body and Blood, the same forgiveness. All by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.
So the last will be first, and the first last. With these words “The first shall be last” – Jesus takes away our pride, and then takes away our despair by promising “the last shall be first”.
We’re the 11th hour workers, the last ones, the losers and failures, the broken sinners who make it into the kingdom by the skin of our teeth.
And this laborer, our savior Jesus, worked his hands to the bone and the nail for you. He worked himself to death for you. He rested from all the labors that he had done for you.
We who are the last ones are made first because He who was first became last for us. In his mercy, Jesus does not give us what we deserved – the wages of sin is death. And in his grace, Jesus gives us what we don’t deserve, the denarius of his forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Scriptures repeat this promise:
God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
Is it fair? No. But all that Jesus gives you is good and righteous and just. In the kingdom of heaven you are not saved by fairness, but by the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.