Sermon on St. Matthew 20:1-16
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
20 February 2011
+ Jesu Juva +
On Righteousness Judgment and Outrageous Grace
A vineyard owner goes out one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He has a vineyard full of grapes, ripe for the harvest. It’s picking time in Napa Valley and there’s no time to waste. So the owner goes to the local union for hired hands and hires every available worker for a denarius, a typical day’s wage for manual labor. But then he looks over his vineyard and realizes that his faithful workers have barely made a dent in his vast crop of grapes. So about 9:00 in the morning, he gets in his truck and goes to the local street corner where non-union workers are waiting for hire. “Work in my vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is right.” The terms here are vague – “whatever is right” – and would not satisfy the local union. But these are just guys on the street corner, who probably don’t want a W-2 and don’t pay their taxes. And off they go to work in the vineyard. And they’re joined by other groups at Noon and 3:00 in the afternoon.
But it’s still not enough manpower for the plentiful harvest. At 5:00 the sun is starting to sink in the west and there are still grapes to pick. If the owner leaves them overnight and there’s a freeze, the crop could be destroyed and his vineyard business disgraced. So he heads to the local tavern where he discovers – how shall we say? – a few town drunks who are basically paid by the government not to work. Not the cream of the crop, by any means, but maybe they’ll put in one hour of work. And they too go to work in the vineyard. As they’re working, the first group of workers is probably thinking to themselves, “Well, I worked a full day for a full day’s wage. The guys picking grapes on the back 40 only worked half a day, so they’ll probably get a half day’s pay. And these boys from the bar who showed up at 5:00 and never even broke a sweat, well, they’ll get some beer money and be on their way.”
And then what happens? Evening comes, the union bell rings promptly at 6:00 p.m., and the workers line up to receive their pay. (Recall from Leviticus that workers must be paid for their work at the end of the day.) And then the turning point in the story: everyone is paid one denarius. Remember the different classes of workers: some worked the full twelve-hour day, others three quarters of a day, others a half day, others a quarter day, and a few others just one hour of the working day. Moreover, the owner says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” This is unusual practice. Most CEO’s would start with the first and then work their way to the last. But what’s really outlandish is the equal amount of pay for vastly different working days. One of the guys from the bar who only worked for one hour (probably even had his buddy save his seat at the bar) got a full day’s pay. He opened the envelope, thought it was a mistake, and walked off... really fast! One of the quarter day workers probably saw the full day’s pay, ran some numbers in his head, and expected a bonus for working three hours. But he got the same as the one-hour worker. And no doubt it soon became obvious that the owner of the vineyard was paying everybody the exact same amount.
In the midst of their anxious score-keeping, the workers had not factored in one important thing: the owner’s abundant grace. He is not paying them based on their work, their education, or their merit. Rather, he’s paying them based on His own goodness and mercy. “Not fair!” cry the sweatiest, twelve-hour workers. “We’ve knocked ourselves out in the heat of the whole day, and these deadbeats only worked for one hour! Not fair!” But the owner will hear nothing of it. He says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” The word translated as “friend” (εταιρος) is very rare, used only a handful of times in the New Testament. It is used in Matthew’s Gospel of the man in the Parable of the Feast for the King’s Son, when the King noticed someone who slipped in without a wedding garment (Matt. 22:1-14). It is also used of Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Matt. 26:50). So the essence of this word is more like “pal” or “buster,” as it is used in Brooklyn. So the owner basically replies, “Hey Buddy, a denarius is what we agreed on, and a denarius is what you got. If I want to give a full day’s wage to some eleventh-hour deadbeats, that’s my business, not yours.”
Do you see how this vineyard owner operates? It’s not a merit-based system, but a grace-based mentality. He is the owner and he is allowed to do as he pleases with what belongs to him. This is not a lesson on how to run a business. Jesus was not a CEO or an example-setter, so we should not rush back to work tomorrow morning and insist that everyone be paid the same thing regardless of education, experience, or job performance. This parable does not teach us how to run a business. Rather, here we see two dynamics of God’s character at work in our lives: righteous judgment and outrageous grace.
We see ourselves in this parable as standing under God’s righteous judgment when we become scorekeepers in the Christian life. One of my spiritual fathers once told me an old proverb that went something like this: “Whenever anyone starts a sentence with the words, ‘I’ve been a Lutheran all my life,’ watch out! The next words out of their mouth will be heresy.” Take it or leave it as a hard and fast principle, but it does remind us that the Christian faith is not about comparing ourselves to others, keeping track of who’s been in the faith the longest, or speaking of some people as having greater faith than others. Historic confessional churches, for instance, who practice closed Communion out of love (and nothing could be more loving than closed Communion) have probably seen this scenario played out in their narthexes on several occasions:
Visitor: Pastor, I’ve been a Lutheran all my life and I’d like to take Communion this morning.
Pastor: Excellent! Are you baptized, instructed, and a member of an orthodox Lutheran church body?
Visitor: Well, no, I don’t go to an orthodox church anymore, but I’ve been a Lutheran since before you were born, young man, and I have every right to receive the Lord’s Supper!
Do you see how this “I’ve been a Lutheran all my life” mentality can be a bad thing if it becomes an end unto itself? The gifts of the gospel – crucifixion and resurrection, word and sacrament, forgiveness and eternal salvation – are gifts, not rights. If they are rights, they are no longer gifts. If they are no longer gifts, they are no longer gospel.
As it goes for us poor sinners during the daytime of this life, so it goes for us in the evening of the final judgment. The owner’s doling out equal paychecks to everyone in his vineyard reminds us that we are all equal under the law. And, apart from God’ grace, we stand in danger of condemnation in the final judgment. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the unbelievers in the final judgment as saying, “Lord! Lord! Open to us!” and “Lord, when did we see you hungry?” and claiming many other excuses not to be condemned. But it will be too late. The daytime for repentance and faith in our Lord and Master is now. Now is the day of salvation! Now is the time to repent! Now is the time to get yourself and your kids out of bed and go to Sunday School and church to see Jesus. Now is the time to talk to people about their sin instead of talking about them. Now, the hour of worship, is the time to put arts, academics, and athletics aside for a few moments to stand in God’s presence and receive His gifts. Yes, I say, now is the time to bank your entire existence on God’s mercy, before whose righteous judgment we are equally condemned under the law.
But the mercy of this vineyard owner preaches Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Did you notice how the times of day that the owner hires workers correspond to the hours of Jesus’ cross? Very early in the morning, Jesus was on trial, tossed to and fro from Pilate, back to Herod, and finally back to Pilate for His condemnation. At the third hour (9:00 a.m.) He was led as a lamb to the slaughter and made to carry His own cross to Calvary, where He died our death. At the sixth hour, there was darkness over all the land, that we might be delivered from the darkness of death and have the light of life. At the ninth hour, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and yielded up his spirit, winning full and free forgiveness for the entire world. And about the eleventh hour (5:00 p.m.) He was buried, taking all of our sins into His tomb and leaving them there for eternity. Do you see how the outrageous grace of the vineyard owner is based on Christ and His cross? There’s nothing “fair” about it, so there’s no sense in keeping score. It’s just outrageous – the innocent One dies for the guilty, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that we might freely receive the denarius of God’s mercy.
And just as the owner made good on His promise to give His workers whatever is right, so God fulfills His promise to give us the gifts of His righteousness. Whatever is right, He will give to us by His outrageous grace. And so in the wake of Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, He pours water on our heads three times in the name of the Trinity. And He gives us forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. Whatever is right He will give to us. Baptized into His name, we make regular and salutary use of individual confession and absolution. We know the Scriptural substance of the church and ministry: it exists not to keep records, but for the pastor to place His hands on the head of the penitent and say, “I forgive you all your sins. “Whatever is right, I will give you.” He takes the same body and blood once crucified for our sins and risen from the dead; He joins it under simple bread and wine, and places it into our mouths for salvation. He can do whatever He wants with what belongs to Him, and He chooses to use the body and blood of Christ for us and for our salvation, yes, to strengthen us in the faith while it is day and to preserve us steadfast in the faith until the night comes when no one can work. It’s not fair, I say – to forgive the sins of dying sinners like you and me. But that’s our owner, our God, our Lord – the worst CEO in the history of business, yet the One who is so rich in grace that He can’t help but share it with us. So from baptism to eternal life and all the work we do in His vineyard in between, it’s all about God’s abundant grace to give us whatever is right.
And so this Septuagesima Sunday, the 70th[-ish] day before Easter, we see a vivid and earthly portrait of Law and Gospel. God our heavenly Father gives us righteous judgment, condemning our sin and bringing us to repentance. But He also gives us outrageous grace; a gift so outlandish, so contrary to our expectations, that it makes those who don’t have it or who don’t understand it so envious, that they lose their denarius of mercy. But for us who believe and are baptized, this abundant grace in Christ – His death and resurrection, His word and sacraments, His forgiveness and eternal salvation – is our light and our life. And so today we pray, “that we, who are justly punished for our offenses, may be mercifully delivered by Thy goodness, for the glory of Thy name” (Collect). Amen.
Nota Bene: The writer of this sermon is somewhat indebted to Robert Faror Capon for his The Parables of Judgement (Eerdmans 1989/1999).
Rev. Brian Hamer