12 February 2017
Text: Matt 20:1-16 (Ex 17:1-7, 1 Cor 9:24-10:5)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Our Lord wants to shock us. He tells us a story that He knows is going to make us grumble. He is deliberately setting us up by telling a story that strikes us as unfair, if not exploitive. How can we not side with the workers in this story who feel cheated because they worked, in some cases, twelve times as long as other workers – including working at the hottest time of day – only to get paid the same wages?
No labor union would endorse this parable. Nobody who has ever been treated unfairly by a boss is likely to be happy with the ending of this tale. It just sounds like some kind of propaganda designed to justify unfair labor practices, a perpetuation of the power of the wealthy to lord over those who must work with their hands for a living.
The workers who felt cheated, “grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘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.’”
And so we too might grumble along with them, and along with the children of Israel in our Old Testament lesson, unhappy with the leadership of Moses, who brought them out into the desert with no plan as to how they would drink water.
Is their grumbling unreasonable?
Dear friends, when we grumble at what God has given us, when we grumble because we covet that which God has given to others, we are grumbling at God Himself. We are saying to Him: “You don’t know what You’re doing; You need to do things My way.”
But the children of Israel did get water to drink. For God was with them, had not forsaken them, and was actually testing them. By God’s grace and mercy, Moses delivered water out of the rock, and we are told by St. Paul that “they drank from the same spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ,” who allowed Himself to be beaten to preserve the lives of the grumblers.
This same Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven by reminding us grumblers that God is in charge; He determines what is fair, and He gives according to His will, His mercy, and His bountiful goodness. All things belong to Him, and we have no claim on anything.
And worst of all, dear friends, is when we grumble because of the Lord’s mercy. For if God is merciful to someone else, this does not affect us, any more than if an employer were to give a needy coworker a bonus out of the kindness of his heart.
God owns everything. Is He not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him? Who are we to begrudge His generosity?
The parable has many meanings, but one of the interpretations is the fact that God opened up the kingdom to the Gentiles, to our ancestors who were worshiping trees and fictional mythical characters thousands of years after the true God had revealed Himself to the children of Israel. For Jesus did not come to die for the sins of any particular ethnic group, but rather for the sins of the world.
God used the children of Israel to be a blessing to all nations, even as our Lord came into our world as a Jew, a Son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the royal line of Judah. And while nobody deserves God’s grace, nevertheless, He offers it to all: to the loyal son who served the Father faithfully his whole life, as well as to the humbled and repentant prodigal son who has shamed the family and squandered his inheritance.
For when evening came, all received a denarius, all received the wages due for a righteous day’s work – even the unrighteous who only worked for an hour instead of the full twelve. What matters is not what we think this worker or that worker deserves.
What matters is God’s mercy.
And instead of grumbling that God is not giving us more, we ought to be grateful for the denarius that He did give us: the denarius of the admission price to eternity, to everlasting life, a denarius not truly earned by our lifetime of labor, but rather by the all-atoning labor of our Lord upon the cross: His suffering, His death, His sacrificial atonement “for us men and for our salvation.” For not a one of us truly deserves to receive the denarius of salvation. For the wages of sin is death. That is our just earnings; that is what we deserve by our works. But instead, dear brothers and sisters, we are not paid according to our deeds. Rather, we are all recipients of God’s mercy by Christ’s blood.
Indeed, while we identify with the twelve-hour grumblers who feel entitled to more, if we are honest with ourselves, we are really more like the seemingly-overpaid one-hour wonders who have won life’s lottery. Instead of grumbling, we ought to devote our lives to showing gratitude to our benefactor, we who were invited to partake of the banquet while lacking any quality that would make us worthy to sit at table and dine with the King of the Universe.
This is what it means, dear friends, that “the last will be first, and the first last.” The world has it entirely backward. In God’s kingdom, all are saved by grace, and those who think they have earned their way to a large salary are fooling themselves. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” For to the one who knows that he is not deserving of the denarius will receive it – not as a salary, but as a gift.
And we dare not grumble, dear friends, for those who grumble do so because they know neither God not themselves. They are wrong. They know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For the power of God lies in His love, mercy, and forgiveness. The power of God is the cross. And it is in the cross that our wages of death are paid in full, paid to all not according to our perceived works, but paid to wipe out all of our very real sins.
And so when we are paid at the end of the day, and the end of the life, and the end of the world, we will not receive a just payment for our lives of labor, but rather the amount “that is right” – not according to the world’s measure of fairness nor our own inflated view of ourselves, but the amount “that is right” according to the body and blood of Christ – the body and blood slain and shed as a sacrifice, and also received physically by us as a wage for labor – not our own, but Christ’s.
So, dear friends, let us not be shocked and appalled at how our Lord treats us poor, miserable sinners, let us instead be joyfully surprised! Let us not grumble, but let us give thanks! And let us never begrudge the Lord for being merciful to those who do not deserve it – for though we do not deserve it, we are recipients of the gift of everlasting life! Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.