Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sermon: Septuagesima - 2018

28 January 2018

Text: Matt 20:1-16

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

We live in a culture of contradictions. 

On the one hand, we live in the age of the participation trophy, where everybody gets a prize just for playing.  On the other hand, we practically worship the players and coaches of the teams that win the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the NCAA National Championship.

On the one hand, we live in the age of expecting equal outcomes for everyone based on every imaginable way to categorize people.  On the other hand, we’re a status-driven culture, where we’re judged by our houses, our cars, our watches, our tennis shoes, and by just about any other silly way to establish a pecking order between people, where having bigger and more expensive stuff adds to one’s personal value and reputation.

So it’s especially interesting to see how people respond to the truth of what Christianity is, what Jesus actually teaches, why our Lord came into our world, and why it makes a difference to be a Christian instead of something else.

Almost nobody really understands what Christianity is, and that includes a lot of Christians.

Christianity is not about being nice.  Sometimes Jesus just plain isn’t.  Christianity isn’t about being a good person and going to heaven.  Nobody is that good.  Christianity isn’t about short-term political and social considerations.  Those change with every generation, and as it seems now, with every month.  Jesus isn’t here to validate your feelings about sexuality, or to promise you a private jet if you have enough faith, or to teach the world that everybody gets a trophy and nobody is wrong, nor to only bring people into His kingdom who happen to be the right ethnic background.  Jesus is not here to reward you because He is impressed with you, because He’s really not.

All the attempts to make Jesus into one’s own image fail.

And this is why our Lord tells parables.  He teaches us about Himself, about us, and about His kingdom.  “The kingdom of heaven is like…” begins many of His parables, including this one: the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  This story is delightfully shocking, as it has the power to offend just about everyone: those on the Left who think Jesus offers “social justice” to people based on identity politics, as well as those on the Right who think that somehow they earn God’s favor for being right.  The Lord’s kingdom is based on equality, but not the kind that most people say they want.  The Lord’s kingdom is based on the right of the property owner to do whatever he wants, but of course it is God who owns everything.  There is something here to scandalize everyone in our fallen world.

The kingdom of heaven is not like anything on this earth!

The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house,” says Jesus, who goes out to hire workers.  This master pays them each a denarius a day, the going rate set by the market – not by law, not by intimidation, not by a sense of charity.  He offers a denarius a day, and strikes a contract with these all-day workers.

Two hours later, he needs more workers.  He offers them “whatever is right.”  And they agree.  There is agreement about “what is right.”  There are no arguments based on “your reality” and “my reality” or objections that “right” is subjective and unknowable.  The deal is struck, and the workers enter the vineyard.

He finds more workers at noon, and then at three.  He makes the same deal with them.  And then, with one hour left in the twelve hour workday, the master hires these poor guys who have been passed up all day, and they work only an hour.

“And when evening came,” says, Jesus, “the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.”

And here, dear brothers and sisters, is where things get really interesting.  The guys that worked only one hour were paid a denarius.  A whole denarius!  That’s a whole day’s wage for one hour!  The guys who worked all day heard about this, and they were excited, as they presumed that they would get a lot more than a denarius.

But they didn’t.  They received just what the master told them they would receive: one denarius.  A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.  And they are furious.  They grumble.  They object that it is unfair to pay them a denarius, the same as the guys who worked one hour.  After all, they bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

And here is where Jesus teaches us about the kingdom of heaven.  The master replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

Dear friends, we have an over-inflated view of what we are worth.  We really think God “owes us something.”  We really think that we deserve God’s grace.  We really think that we are better than others.  It’s called sin.  And if you don’t suffer from it, then you don’t need a Savior.  But if you do need a Savior (and you do), then you need the Savior’s grace.  That is what this parable is about.  That is what the kingdom is about.  That is what Jesus is about.

That’s what the denarius coins represent, dear brothers and sisters.  God graciously “pays” his workers not what they deserve, but what they need.  Because, frankly, if we were paid what we deserve, we would be cast into hell.  But instead, we are baptized and redeemed, paid the “denarius” of Christ’s blood that admits us into the kingdom – whether we live to be a hundred, or die in infancy, whether we suffer martyrdom for the sake of Jesus, or whether we live a long comfortable life.  It isn’t our business how God shows mercy to others.  He is allowed to do what He chooses with what is His.  And far be it from us to begrudge His generosity! 

Instead of grumbling, dear friends, let us rejoice!  Instead of complaining that someone else got a denarius, let us live a life of joy that we have been made rich by the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, offered as an atonement for your sins, and even poured into the cup for you to drink as the very Word of God delivered to you in Holy Communion.

Don’t begrudge someone else eating the body of Christ and drinking His blood!  Don’t be offended that someone else receives Holy Absolution!  Don’t look at the screaming baby at the baptismal font with contempt that he also receives the denarius of salvation even though he has arrived at this world in the eleventh hour.  Rather let us enjoy the kindness of our master and the richness of His grace!  Let us be grateful that the Lord calls others to work in His vineyard and join us in the field to work for Him who makes us rich beyond measure! 

Let us remember that the kingdom of heaven is not like this fallen, brutal, dog-eat-dog world.  Rather the kingdom of heaven is the realm of our King, who knows all, who sees all, who loves all.  And in His mercy, “the last will be first, and the first last.”  And that is not a contradiction, but rather a demonstration of the Lord’s boundless grace and mercy, a denarius given to us for His labor, though we don’t deserve it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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


Peter Rowe said...

Father Hollywood, you mentioned receiving grace through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. What is your opinion on John 6? Is Jesus referring to the Eucharist? I know my Church - the Roman Catholic Church - definitely teaches that dogmatically; but I have heard Lutherans say both things - while believing in Christ's Eucharistic Presence, they don't want to insinuate Christians of denominations which believe in a purely symbolic Eucharist are outside of eternal life.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Peter, thanks for the question!

The controversy among Lutherans about John 6 is largely an esoteric scuffle between academic theologians. If you read the text to ordinary Lutherans - whether Sunday School kids, confirmands, or members of an adult Bible class - what they think Jesus means when He talks about being the bread come down from Heaven and that we eat His flesh and drink His blood, there is no confusion or controversy at all.

The text is pretty obvious in light of the Eucharist!

I think the academic controversy stems from an academic debate between Luther (who acknowledged the Real Presence) and Zwingli (who argued that the presence was symbolic) in the city of Marburg. When they were discussing John 6, Zwingli challenged Luther on verse 63: "the flesh avails nothing." Luther was temporarily stymied, and rather than get bogged down in debate, simply took John 6 "off the table" in discussing the Eucharist.

Elsewhere, Luther (and our confessions!) interpret John 6 as eucharistic.

I have never heard of an explanation of the controversy as being rooted in not wanting to condemn those who don't acknowledge the Real Presence by seeing the Eucharist in John 6. In fact, Luther had no problem making such condemnations of the "sacramentarians"! (We don't agree with him on that).

In fact, to treat John 6 as a condemnation of those who don't take the Eucharist would be to condemn baptized children who die before communion to hell. I don't think the context supports a reading that one who dies without the Eucharist is condemned. I think it is more like those who willfully reject Christ - as those who refused to walk with Him any longer because of their unbelief at the end of John 6 - that are condemned.

We Lutherans see God's grace delivered through the channels of Word and Sacrament: the preaching of the Holy Gospel, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Eucharist. God uses all of these "means of grace" to deliver the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that He won at the cross to sinners according to His will and providence.

Hope this clears things up!

Pax Christi!