Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sermon: Septuagesima

8 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 20:1-16

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

If our Lord’s labor practices are anything like the home-owner in His parable, our Lord Jesus would likely get a scolding from the President of the United States.

For we grumble about CEO’s making lots of money – especially when they’re being subsidized by tax dollars. Our sense of fairness is violated by people who make a lot of money for very little (or shoddy) work, while others, who bear the “burden of the day and the scorching heat” don’t get the wages we believe are coming to them.

Our Lord uses this sense of fairness that seems to be universal to mankind as a way to make a profound point about the kingdom of God. For according to our own sense of fairness, we don’t get what we deserve. We always think we’re entitled to more. We always think we’re being short-changed. We’re always looking at what others have, what others make, what others enjoy – and we think we’re getting the short end of the stick.

Listen to the grumbling of the workers at the end of the story, when they find out that the workers who worked a single hour are making the same wages as they who worked all day: “You have made them equal to us.”

And so here you have it. For all of our talk about equality, it’s actually equality that we complain of. We want more than equality. We want to be treated not fairly, but unfairly. We couch our covetousness in the talk of fairness, but in reality, we walk the walk of unfairness.

We want what we don’t deserve, and expect others to get less than we get.

And we do indeed get what we don’t deserve, but so do others. In God’s kingdom, we’re not paid according to our abilities, we’re not on a salary based on our skill or industry – rather we are paid, in the Lord’s words in His parable – “whatever is right.” Perhaps a more accurate translation would be: “Whatever is righteous.”

If we are to be paid fairly for what we deserve, the Word of God as revealed to St. Paul is clear: “The wages of sin is death.” But we are not paid according to what we have earned, but rather according to “righteousness” – not ours, but rather the righteousness we have received as a gift – that is, “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We do indeed get a higher wage than we have deserved. We deserve death, but we get life. We deserve hell, but we get paradise. We deserve separation from God, but we get communion with Him instead.

We are way overpaid, and if the kingdom of God were getting a bailout from the government, God would not be permitted to give us such an “unfair” bonus.

But our Old Adam is not content to be paid like a king – we want others to be paid less. Our warped sense of fairness dictates that we, who think we deserve more than others, should get more than others. And we, in our sinful flesh, don’t want others to receive the same inflated wages, the same grace, the same gift of a benevolent God – as we have received.

Our Lord willingly “took the form of a servant,” and yet “did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Nevertheless, He dies for us, accepts the wages of sin that we deserve, only to pay us according to His own worth. But this is still not good enough for our sinful nature. For rather than even grasp at equality with God, we complain when we are made equal with those who have done less. Like the villain in the Lord’s parable, we “begrudge” the Lord’s “generosity.”

For what business is it of ours if the Lord shows mercy and kindness to someone else in an even greater measure than He has shown us? What kind of hateful people must we be to mutter against God’s kindness in keeping people out of hell? Where is our sense of love not to rejoice with all of our fellow sinners who have been redeemed although we have all deserved death and hell?

Dear brothers and sisters, this is good news! This is the Gospel! This “inequality” and this “unfairness” are causes for rejoicing. As the Psalmist asks: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”

Rather than begrudge those who have perhaps been forgiven even more than we have, rather than seek praise for our deeds by expecting a reward for what we have done – we should be rejoicing that we have not been treated fairly, that we have not been truly rewarded according to our deeds, that we have not been given the really fair and just wage for our sinful nature – but rather, we are given a free gift, a “righteous” wage, a compensation based on mercy and charity rather than what we deserve.

For we all know what we deserve. And we all know what we have been given.

The Lord’s story is only a story. Instead of a denarius, a day’s wage, we have been given the gift of redemption, of forgiveness, of salvation, of eternal life. We have been paid handsomely with the promise of life in paradise, with a recreated universe, with never being separated from the love of God for eternity. And this wage has indeed been earned, not by us, but by our Savior Jesus Christ, “not with gold or silver,” as we learn from the Catechism, “but with His holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” For the wages of sin is death, but the wages have already been paid out to the One and only One who did not earn it.

Thanks be to God that we are paid according to righteousness, the Lord’s righteousness, and not what we have deserved by our unrighteousness. Thanks be to God that in His kingdom, what is fair in the eyes of the world is not enforced against us, not even when we, in our sinful flesh, grumble and demand that God act in a way that seems fair to us.

For if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we are that last worker, who has idled all day long, who has squandered opportunities to work for the kingdom, who lounged around while others did the work, who is lazy and undeserving, who shirked while others slaved away – and yet, who is given the free gift of eternal life anyway.

That, dear friends, is what grace is all about. That is what we call the Gospel. That is the Christian life in a nutshell – the death we deserve was given to Jesus, and the life He has earned has been given to us.

This is what the Lord means when He says that in His kingdom, “the last will be first and the first last.” Thanks be to God.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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