Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
In Christ Jesus, who gives us holy food and drink to strengthen us for the race of this life that we must run, dear fellow redeemed:
Our country is serious about its sports. A survey from 2017 indicated that the American people spent about $100 billion in a year’s time on sporting events, athletic equipment, and gym memberships. For the Super Bowl last weekend, advertisers didn’t mind paying millions of dollars for a 30-second TV commercial. They knew people would be watching, and more than 100 million viewers were.
But our obsession with sports is not simply an American thing or even a twenty-first century thing. Athletic competition goes back in ancient history, probably all the way to Adam and Eve, or at least their kids. Humans have always been concerned about who is the fastest, who is the strongest, who is the most skilled. The Olympic Games were created in 776 B. C. as a way to measure these things on a grander scale. About 200 years after that, a similar event called the Isthmian Games was started. This was held in Corinth and featured recognizable events like racing, wrestling, boxing, and discus throwing.
The Isthmian Games made Corinth a hub of athletic activity. The athletes likely trained and participated in competitions throughout the year. The Apostle Paul spent an extended time in Corinth during his missionary journeys—more than a year and a half (Act. 18:11, 18). He saw firsthand the dedication of the athletes and may have even been present at one of the national Games.
He knew when he referred to athletic competition in today’s text that he was “speaking the language” of the Corinthians. It’s our language too. We understand what he is talking about when he mentions racing and boxing and the training needed to succeed. He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
If you are serious about sports, you don’t put in all the time and hard work, push through injuries and pain, to come in second. You train to win. A kid who is content with a participation ribbon is not serious about winning. And there is nothing wrong with competing just for the fun of it and not caring about winning or losing. But if the goal is winning, that requires sacrifices.
Paul writes that we should go all out to obtain the prize. But he is not really talking about athletic competition. He is talking about our life of faith. He urges us to dedicate ourselves to spiritual training and exercise, so we do not lose the prize the Lord has prepared for us. And what is that prize? It is the imperishable crown, very different than the perishable wreaths won by the athletes in those days, whose leaves soon withered. The imperishable crown is everlasting life which Jesus secured for sinners through His death and resurrection. This crown is reserved for all who believe in Jesus. He assures us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
But how exactly can we “train” or “exercise” our faith? It is not simply a matter of going through the motions. Even athletic training requires more than muscle. It requires heart and strength of will. All the physical, mental, and emotional resources of a person must be focused on the goal if he wants to succeed.
We need to approach our spiritual goal in a similar way. We can’t take for granted that the prize will be ours if we make no effort to obtain it. It would be absurd for a fifty-year-old to think he could compete in a marathon simply because he “ran a couple times” as a kid. This is like the adults who feel they are in good shape with God simply because they got baptized and confirmed at a church many years before. They figure as long as they are on the congregation’s books, they are on their way to heaven.
Saving faith, though, is hardly a matter of “checking certain boxes” or of doing certain “churchy” things because “we are supposed to.” It is certainly good to attend church, but simply being present does not mean faith is being exercised. You could be sitting here physically, but your thoughts could be a million miles away. Or in your mind, you could be rejecting the things you hear: “Oh, I’m not really as sinful as that!” Or, “I don’t go along what the Bible says on this point.” Or, “I’m a good person; I deserve to go to heaven!”
Or you could come to Communion and bow your head with the rest of us, but you come more out of obligation than anything. You are not especially troubled by your sins. You don’t have a strong desire to be nourished and strengthened by the body and blood of Jesus. You just feel it is important to keep up appearances.
Does this sound far-fetched, like something that wouldn’t happen to you or the people around you? Then listen to what Paul wrote about the Israelites, the chosen people of God. He said that all were delivered from slavery in Egypt. All were led by Moses through the midst of the Red Sea. They all looked up to him as their leader. They “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” But not all of them remained believers. Not all of them were saved. Paul said that “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Do you see why our spiritual training and exercise is so important? We cannot take for granted that we will inherit heaven simply because we are connected to a congregation or because we have generally tried to live the way Christians live. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus. It comes from knowing, trusting in, and being comforted by what He did. It comes from recognizing that there is no other way for us to be saved (Act. 4:12).
Salvation does not come from our work. Jesus made this abundantly clear in the parable in today’s Gospel reading. All the vineyard workers received the same wages no matter how long they had worked. The ones who worked the longest weren’t cheated, because they were paid exactly what they had been promised (Mat. 20:1-16). It is a parable that expresses the grace of God, that He saves us out of the abundance of His love.
It was His love that caused God the Father to send His only Son to us. Jesus came with no ambitions for personal success or glory. He came to redeem us from our sin and death by giving Himself in our place. This was no easy thing to do. He had to resist countless temptations to sin, fully keep God’s law, endure great anguish and pain, and die on a Roman cross. He maintained His gracious resolve, and He accomplished His goal: our salvation. The author of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
Jesus finished that bitter race for you. He carried your sins to His death and suffered the torments of hell on your behalf, so you would have forgiveness and eternal life. On the third day He rose again to show that the victory over sin and death is yours and all who believe in Him. But if He already won the race, if He already obtained the victory, what more is there for us to do?
There is nothing we can do to win the victory. The victory is ours by faith in Jesus. But as we learn from the example of the Israelites, that faith can be lost. It can be lost by spiritual laziness, by not taking time to hear and study God’s Word at church and at home. It can be lost by letting our guard down, which makes us vulnerable to the attacks of the devil and our sinful flesh. It can be lost by rejecting our training and running off into sin.
This is why Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, urges us to “exercise self-control in all things.” The very term “self-control” tells us that we need to maintain spiritual discipline, so our “self” does not lead us in the wrong direction. Paul clearly recognized the harmful desires of our sinful nature. This is why he diligently disciplined his body and kept it under control.
He did not run without purpose. He did not box for show. In a letter to Timothy, he said his spiritual training and exercise bore fruit. The Lord strengthened and kept him in the saving faith until his earthly end, so that Paul could gratefully say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2Ti. 4:7).
Our spiritual growth as Christians is always by the grace of God. We cannot get ourselves to heaven. But Jesus promises to visit and strengthen us through His powerful Word and Sacraments. These are the means He uses to carry us to the finish line in this life and on into His eternal kingdom. We stay focused and connected to Him by repenting of our sins, filling our hearts and minds with His Word, and applying our will to His work. We are not running to lose. We don’t want to lose what Jesus won for us.
We Strive for the Imperishable Prize. It may seem a long way off in the distance, but we will be there before we know it. We confidently run forward saying with Paul, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2Ti. 4:8). God grant us all the grace and strength to finish this race in faith and to receive the blessed crown of life.
+ + +
(picture is ancient street in Corinth)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who chose us by grace to be first in His kingdom though we are considered last in the world, dear fellow redeemed:
The presence of our circuit visitor at our churches last weekend was a new experience for all of us. He was here to observe how divine services are conducted, to learn about member participation in the work of the church, and to discuss the blessings and challenges we face in the church and in our community. His goal in each of these areas was to encourage us to remain faithful to the Word of God, and to grow in love toward God and one another.
In a sense, his “parish visitation” functioned as a sort of “performance review” for our congregations. This was healthy for us to take part in. We know we do not operate perfectly as a congregation, and that there is always room for improvement. We are also glad to receive encouragement to keep the good things going. A performance review done well can help to sharpen the focus and strengthen the purpose of an individual or organization.
In today’s text, Jesus administers a sort of performance review for the entire Christian Church. He uses a parable to talk about the motivation for our work, our attitude toward the work, and our reward for the work. He said that “the kingdom of heaven is like” the owner of a vineyard who went looking for laborers. The first ones he found agreed to work for a denarius a day, which was a fair wage. He found more standing idle at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours and hired them with the promise of compensation, but with no specific amount set.
All the laborers were glad to be employed. More than likely, they were waiting in the marketplace because they hoped someone would come looking for workers. If they did a good job, they knew they would receive payment and would likely be well-positioned to be employed in the future.
These laborers signify Christians, those who have been called by the Gospel to work in the Lord’s vineyard. This includes the work done in and for a congregation. But it also includes the work you do in your vocations in the world. The Lord has called you to confess His truth no matter what you are doing, and to reflect His love no matter what you are involved in. This includes your interactions with your spouse, your children, and your extended family. It includes your work and behavior at your job, among your friends, and in your community. You carry out each of these vocations as a Christian, as one who has been called out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of God’s grace.
But the work is not always easy. The laborers hired at the first hour described themselves as those “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Those are challenging working conditions. It’s hard to work on a blistering hot day. The harder the conditions are, the more energy is expended by the worker.
You may not feel much discomfort as a Christian as long as you are respected and valued by others. But when you are criticized or attacked for your beliefs, the heat is much more intense and the working conditions more unpleasant. Working in the Lord’s vineyard—living out your calling as a child of God—is difficult, and there are many controlled by the devil who want your work to fail.
Still, there is plenty of motivation for being a Christian, such as the comfort of knowing your sins are forgiven and life has been won for you by Jesus, and the confidence that your life of faith is pleasing to the mighty God who made everything good.
The motivation is there, but our attitude does not always reflect our confession. Of those working in the vineyard, some do not endure the scorching heat as well as others do. They constantly complain about their pain and troubles. They imagine that no one has it as bad as they do. Every burden, both the heavy and the relatively light, elicits groans and tears. These Christians need more training in the Word to bear up under troubles with patience and to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus while they carry their cross after Him.
Other workers are tempted to take it easy and let others do the heavy lifting. This includes a laid-back attitude about hearing and learning God’s Word and supporting the work of the church. They figure they can slide by on a little faith. They tell themselves that they could always pick up the pace down the road if the situation calls for it. These Christians are lazy. They need to be reminded what trials and torments the Savior endured to redeem them from their sins.
Others are hard workers. Despite set-backs and obstacles, they keep plugging along. Sometimes the heat is intense, but they know relief will come. They meet challenges one day—or even one hour—at a time, knowing the Lord has not forsaken them and will come to their aid. But these Christians are not perfect either. They grow tired of the Christians around them who don’t seem to put forth the effort they should. Or they become resentful of those who don’t know how good they have it, those who did not have to go through the hard times they did.
It is this last category of workers that Jesus especially talks about in the parable. The workers hired at the first hour assumed they would receive more than those who were hired later. After all, they worked longer and harder. Their raw fingers, sore muscles, and burnt skin proved it. If those who worked just one hour were paid a denarius, then those who worked all day should receive a great deal more.
Instead, they received exactly what they were promised: one denarius. “This isn’t fair!” they said; “this isn’t right!” You can imagine the looks on their faces – quite different from the looks on the faces of those who received the exact same pay for much less work. These would have looked at one another with astonishment and joy and said, “What good fortune! Look what we were paid for so little work!” The vineyard owner turned toward one of the grumblers and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me 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?”
We wouldn’t like this so much if it happened where we work. But we give thanks and praise to God that this is the way salvation is distributed to sinners. We sang about this in the chief hymn for today, “Salvation unto us is come / By God’s free grace and favor” (ELH 227, v. 1). Salvation is given not to those who have the best attitudes or work the hardest. Salvation is given to all who trust in Jesus for their salvation.
It does not matter how long you have been working in the Lord’s vineyard or the amount of work you have accomplished. What matters is not your work. What matters is Jesus’ work. If you want to talk about bearing burdens and feeling heat, think about Jesus. He bore the burden of every sin—every wicked thought, every wrong word, every sinful action. He took the full weight of your sin, my sin, and everyone’s sin on Himself and carried it to the cross. On the cross, God the Father poured out every ounce of His wrath against sin upon His only Son. There, Jesus felt the heat of the eternal fires of hell in the place of all sinners.
Looking to Jesus and everything He suffered for our salvation lightens our burdens and troubles. When we see what He endured, we are assured of His love for us. One who would go through all that for us is not going to forget about us. His sacrifice in our place also inspires us to work harder and to think more about the needs of our neighbors. Since He has already completed the work of our salvation for us, we are free to serve Him and others. We don’t have to worry about impressing the boss. We don’t have to put on a show. “It is finished!” (Joh. 19:30), said Jesus. The work is done. The reward is yours.
And what is that reward? The reward is the same for everyone who believes in Jesus alone. The reward is “the crown of righteousness” (2Ti. 4:8), “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10), which is bestowed on all believers. It is eternal salvation in the presence of the holy God. It is never-ending joy with all the saints who humbly counted themselves last. The saints in heaven do not begrudge the Lord’s generosity. They know that no one would be in heaven except by His grace, His undeserved love toward them. They deserved eternal punishment but received eternal life instead.
So, dear friends in Christ, It’s Time for a Performance Review. Each of us can see where we have not been the best workers for God. We have complained about our burdens instead of relying on the Lord’s mercy and grace. We have taken His goodness for granted instead of honoring His gifts with our best effort. And we have judged others as being lower than us, while expecting greater reward because of our better efforts. There is plenty of room for us to improve.
But in Christ, we are forgiven for our impatience when the burden seems too heavy. In Christ, we are credited with perfect righteousness even when our faith is weak. And in Christ, we are redeemed from our self-righteous attitudes and our pride. We deserve no reward for our own flawed efforts. But Jesus’ performance in our place is perfect, and He gladly shares with us His eternal reward. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
+ + +
(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who bore the burden of sin and the scorching heat of hell to save you, dear fellow redeemed:
It is at a very young age that children begin to develop an eye, a keen sense, for fairness. If a child sees his mother holding a different child in her arms, that isn’t fair. If you have a toy and I don’t, that isn’t fair. If the piece of dessert you get is bigger than the one I get, that isn’t fair. If Mom or Dad tell me to clean up a mess I did not make, that isn’t fair. But that keen sense for fairness is troublingly inconsistent. If things are going the way someone wants—like receiving a bigger piece of dessert or watching someone else clean up your mess—then there is no protest.
If only this is something we outgrew. But that eye for fairness stays as sharp as ever—at least in certain situations. If a co-worker gets a raise, then I should too. If I work hard, I should be rewarded. If I go out of my way for my neighbors, they should go out of their way for me. But who is to say what is fair and what isn’t? Some say it isn’t fair for one person to have more money and another to have less. They say everyone should have the same amount, regardless of ability, experience, or work ethic. That might seem fair to those who have less, but not to those who have more. Who gets to decide?
Similar questions can be asked in spiritual matters: How does God decide whom to give blessings to and when? How is it determined who will be saved? Do we always receive what we deserve from God?
These questions are addressed in Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard. A parable is an earthly illustration that teaches spiritual truth. When Jesus spoke His parables, they always had a context. The context of today’s parable is found in the previous chapter of Matthew, chapter 19. There, we learn about a rich young man who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19:16). Jesus told him that he would enter life by keeping the commandments. The young man felt that he had kept them. Jesus replied, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 21). The man went away sorrowful, because he could not bear to give up his possessions.
Thinking about Jesus’ response, the Apostle Peter said, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” If heavenly treasures could be gained by giving up earthly goods, then the disciples should be in good shape. Jesus did not deny that the twelve disciples would be rewarded for their faithful work. He said that anyone who left the comforts of this life—including home, family, and possessions—for His name’s sake, would “receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (v. 29). “But,” He cautioned, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (v. 30).
Then Jesus spoke His parable, “For the kingdom of heaven is like.” The parable was a further explanation of His prior teaching. It was meant to expand on the warning that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” These were good words for the disciples to hear. They were often concerned about being first, about being the greatest. They would even argue about this among themselves. But they didn’t feel so great when they ran away from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and hid away in fear following His death. Then this parable, which might have been difficult for them to swallow when they heard it at first, would have become a comfort to them.
It should also be a comfort to us, but we have the same sinful inclinations that the disciples had. We are overly concerned about being the first in line and getting our fair share. Many of us here can recognize ourselves in the laborers who agreed to work for the vineyard owner for a denarius a day. There was no unclarity about the compensation. The payment offered for a day’s work was fair. They willingly went to the vineyard.
This is like us who were baptized as infants and have been church-going Christians as long as we can remember. We were sent into the vineyard at the first hour. We have endured “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” that comes from confessing Christ. We have experienced the disconnect from the world and the discomfort of following Jesus. We have been willing to do this, because we know we will have a heavenly reward, the gift of eternal life.
But we are not the only laborers in the Lord’s vineyard. Others are brought in at the third hour and the sixth hour, and the ninth hour, and even the eleventh hour. Some might live wildly through their teenage and young adult years before they repent of their sins. Are they of the same quality of worker as those who did not do these things? Some reject and blaspheme Jesus for better than half their life before they are brought to repentance. Shouldn’t they be held accountable for their years of unbelief in some way? Some leave a trail of lies and abuse and manipulation before they are converted. Should they really be allowed in the vineyard? These are fair questions.
But it is also fair to ask about the quality of work done by each laborer. Is the longest-tenured employee of a company always the best worker? Sometimes this is the case, but not always. A long-time employee can develop bad habits and get by on the bare minimum, while a newer worker may be grateful for the job and motivated to work hard. The same can be true of life-long Christians compared with new converts. It is also fair to ask what each worker is actually entitled to. Did the owner of the vineyard have to hire the people in the marketplace? Couldn’t he have looked for workers in some other place, or not at all?
It is a lot easier to think of reasons why others should not be called to work in the vineyard, than it is to acknowledge the things that disqualify me. But Jesus spoke this parable because He clearly perceived the plank in His disciples’ eyes, just as clearly as He perceives the plank in mine. He knows I am inclined to judge myself softly and others harshly, and that my sense of fairness is skewed in my favor.
This is how it works: If I fail to show love for my neighbor, I will tell myself that the fault lies with him or her. If someone harms me, I will justify the revenge I take since “they had it coming.” If I sin, I shrug it off as unintentional or an honest mistake, but if someone else commits the same sin, they won’t be let off so easily.
You and I are not reliable judges in spiritual matters, but God is. He knows exactly how our life matches up with His labor standard. The job of every single person is to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, and to love one’s neighbor as himself. Sometimes we have worked hard at this, other times we leaned on our shovel and expected someone else to take care of the job, and sometimes we just ignored our responsibility altogether. What would you do with an employee who had work habits like this?
It would be fair for God to dismiss us from His vineyard. He gave us a job to do, and we have not done it. He brought others to work side-by-side with us, and we looked down on them, treating them like they were second-class. The only wages we have earned are the wages of sin, which is death (Rom. 6:23). Eternal death is the fair compensation for the sinful life we have lived.
But the Lord is merciful. Without changing His standard, which is holy, just, and good, He planned a way to fulfill it for us. God the Father sent His only Son to do the job we had failed to do. When He went about His work, He was not treated fairly. He was innocent in every way, and yet He was charged with all sorts of wrongdoing. Peter writes that “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:23). He went to the cross to suffer and die for sins He had not committed—for your sins and mine. That was not fair, but it is your salvation.
You are not saved by making sure you get your fair share in this life, or by making sure that others do. Social justice is no one’s ticket to heaven. You are not saved by working long enough and hard enough in the Lord’s vineyard. No amount of your imperfect work can get the job done. You are not saved because you are somehow better-natured, less obstinate, more receptive, or any other way that human reason tries to explain why some are saved and others are not. As Paul writes, your salvation “depends not on human will or exertion” (Rom. 9:16).
You are saved solely and entirely by the grace of God. You are saved because “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). You are saved because “He does not deal with [you] according to [your] sins, nor repay [you] according to [your] iniquities” (v. 10). You are saved because Jesus did a perfect job of fulfilling God’s standard on your behalf, and because He applied His bloody sweat and selfless work as the full atonement for your sins.
Are you in any position, then, to grumble about how and to whom the Lord dispenses His treasures of grace? Is it not an honor to work for Him in His vineyard, and an even greater honor to work there for the full span of one’s earthly life? We do not deserve this honor. We deserve to be left idle and penniless in the marketplace. That would be fair. But the Lord chooses to give to the last worker what He gives to the first. He gives the opposite of what we have earned by our sin, which “Isn’t Fair!” But it is grace!
+ + +
(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who repays our sins with a double measure of His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
My first job off the farm was in the frozen and dairy department of a grocery store. This was my first taste of what it was like to work with people who had very different backgrounds than my own. If you have ever been employed somewhere away from home, you know what this is like. You have to figure out how to navigate the personalities and moods of your co-workers while still getting things done together. This is not always so easy. Not all have the same work ethic, the same ability, or the same focus.
It may not be fair to lump workers into broad categories, but certain types do emerge. There are:
- The worriers, who are always fretting about their deadlines and their job security;
- The talkers, who will gladly occupy you, your co-workers, or customers for as long as possible;
- The whiners, who complain about their fellow workers, their pay, and their duties;
- The go-it-alones, who get their work done well enough, but would just as soon avoid any human interaction;
- The lazy, who would be quite productive if only they worked as often as they checked the clock.
- And then there are the rest of us—hard workers, noble-minded, loyal—worth every penny (and probably a bit more).
In truth, there is no such thing as a perfect employee. None of us is perfectly focused and perfectly efficient. We all have our foibles and weaknesses. This is important to keep in mind as we consider Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Imagine if the scenario Jesus described actually played out today. How long do you think it would take the laborers who worked all day to go online and trash the landowner’s business practices? A legal challenge would not be out of the question to address such “wage discrimination.” But the workers receiving significant pay for just an hour of work would be singing a different song. They would be shocked at their good fortune. Some of them would talk about their intentions to pay this kindness forward. Others would see the landowner as an easy target for future windfalls. If a person actually conducted business this way, he probably would not be in business very long.
But this parable, along with Jesus’ other parables, is not meant to be applied in a literal way to earthly matters. Jesus began by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like….” So what follows after that statement is not about the earthly realm, but the spiritual one. Jesus is describing how God functions, not how businesses and employers must function. First of all, we see that God communicates clearly. When the master of the house went looking for laborers, he told them what would be required of them and what their reward would be. These laborers agreed to a denarius a day. We also see that God is generous. He was not obligated to give the later workers a denarius each, but He chose to treat everyone the same.
The central thought of this parable is that whether you have been a Christian your entire life, or you become one shortly before your death, you receive the same reward. All believers in Jesus are saved by grace, and not by any works of their own. The Apostle Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). No person can be good enough for God, because God requires perfection. “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 23-24). We do not deserve to be among those working in the Master’s vineyard. We should rather have been forgotten in the marketplace of the world, sitting there idle and hopeless.
Still, we cannot help but wonder if this is all entirely fair. As the all-day workers said, “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!” Our natural sensibilities tell us that the longer we endure the heat of the devil’s temptations and the scorn of the world for following Jesus, the greater should be our reward. And Jesus seems to confirm this in His words just prior to today’s text, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt. 19:29-30). Jesus says He will reward faithfulness, but He also warns us about self-centeredness and pride. If our motivation for living according to God’s Word is simply to get a greater reward someday, what does this have to do with love for God or neighbor?
We should recognize that we deserve no good thing from our Lord. Why among all the unbelievers of the world should the Holy Spirit have worked faith in my heart through the Gospel? Why should I be saved when I have sinned and still sin just as much as anyone? And even if I have worked in the Lord’s vineyard for a long time, who says my work has been done well?
I mentioned before the different types of workers that many of us have known: the worriers, the talkers, the whiners, the go-it-alones, the lazy. As much as they are present in the workplace, they are also present in the Church. You won’t have to look too far into your past to see yourself in each of these types:
- You have been a worrier, fretting about the pressures you feel as a Christian, wondering if God still loves you, having doubts about the future of the church.
- You have been a talker, one who can sound like a world-class Christian, but who does not always back it up with the kind of righteous life that God requires.
- You have been a whiner, who complains about your fellow Christians, about your lot in life, and about your God-given responsibilities.
- You have been a go-it-alone, one who looks out for yourself and has little interest in the needs of others.
- You have been lazy, letting the good tools of the Christian trade sit unused—God’s Word and Sacraments—, which equip you to carry out the tasks you have been assigned.
But despite your distinction as an unworthy worker, you still get a denarius. You still get a reward. Jesus opens His chest of holy treasurers and shares His riches with you—His forgiveness, His righteousness, His life. Jesus was not a worrier; He obeyed His Father’s will and did what He was sent to do. He was not a mere talker; He backed up His promises with a perfect life and a sacrificial death. He was not a whiner; He said, “[Father,] not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). He went to the cross alone but not for selfish purposes; He suffered alone for the sins of all people. And He certainly was not lazy; besides winning your salvation, He also actively rules over the world and the Church for your well-being.
Jesus willingly bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” for you. His reward for His perfect keeping of the law and His innocent suffering was God’s wrath. If anyone has been compensated unfairly, it is Jesus. But His compensation was not for His failures on the job, it was for yours. Your weak efforts and idle behavior, whether in the home, the workplace, the church, or the community, all these failures were laid upon Jesus. He received the wages of your sin. He was given the payment of your death. Everything you earned was assessed to Him, and everything He earned was assessed to you.
All that was lacking in your spiritual resume was filled in by the work of Jesus. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But that does not mean there is no work for you to do. The next verse in Ephesians says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The Master has work for you whether you are enlisted at the first hour, the third, the sixth, the ninth, or even the eleventh hour. There are people to pray for. There are neighbors to love.
This is work that you can do cheerfully, knowing that in Christ, your reward is already secure. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (3:23-24). You serve your Master Jesus, the One who gave Himself up for you. He is not harsh but is patient and kind, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9). And when evening falls on the vineyard, the reward—the denarius—is the inheritance of eternal life that He obtained and gives to each one of us.
The Master Is Merciful to Unworthy Workers. Seeing what Jesus accomplished for us, we have no reason to envy one another in our work or to consider ourselves better than others. Everything is by grace. This is why we humbly count ourselves as the last, as the ones who merit nothing good. It is Jesus who calls us to the front of the line and presses into our hands the great riches of His grace.
+ + +