The Ninth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 16:1-9
In Christ Jesus, whose saving light shines in the world through our clear confession of the Gospel and our humble service, dear fellow redeemed:
If we did not live at a time with access to electricity, our lives would be very different. All the things we rely on appliances for would need to be done by hand. There would be no digital screens to look at for work and entertainment. There would be no fixtures in place to flood each room with light. We could make use of oil lamps and candles. But for the most part our daily activities would be determined by the light of the sun and the occasional light of the moon.
In a scenario like this, it would be foolish for us to sleep until noon and stay up past midnight. By not using the daylight, we would squander our best working hours. It’s much easier to work when everything is lit up and in view than trying to get things done in the darkness.
In today’s text, we might say that the manager of the rich man’s goods stumbled because he was doing his work in the darkness. We know the manager was wasting his master’s possessions, but we do not know how. It could have been that he was lazy. Maybe he was too passive and not as involved in the work as he should have been. Possibly he was even embezzling some of his master’s riches.
Of the little we know about him, we can say that the manager was most concerned about himself. When he was being relieved of his duties, he showed no remorse for his mismanagement. Instead he worried about keeping up his standard of living going forward. “What shall I do?” he said. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” That’s when he hatched the plan to mismanage his master’s goods still further in a way that would benefit him personally.
He did not act nobly and honestly. He acted selfishly. It is the kind of behavior we might expect from an unbeliever with a dull conscience. You maybe know someone like this, someone who does not think twice about using others to get what he wants. He doesn’t care about fairness or kindness or whether his actions cause harm as long as he succeeds. These are works done in darkness by someone who “does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1Jo. 2:11).
Believers in Christ, God’s own children, are called to act differently. They are not to be concerned only about their own needs, but about the needs of their neighbors. And their goal is not to try to outdo or even just keep up with others in their materialism. Believers know that having the biggest house on the block, the nicest possessions, and the greatest wealth is not important. Those riches are fleeting and one day will belong to someone else or will be buried in a landfill.
What we are called to do in each of our vocations is to work honestly and diligently and be thankful for whatever God gives us. This is how “the sons of light” should conduct themselves. Jesus contrasts “the sons of light” with “the sons of this world.” The “sons of light” are those who walk in the light of Jesus. They are not afraid or consumed with their own self-preservation like someone lost in deep darkness. They clearly see what is around them, both the good and bad. They see neighbors in need. They see the many blessings the Lord gives them along the way. They clearly see the path leading to the kingdom of everlasting light.
In these ways “the sons of light” have every advantage over “the sons of this world.” The sons of this world do not know where they are going. They have no clear purpose. They have no clear goal. When they reach their earthly end, they are without hope. They ultimately find that all their dealing in the darkness resulted in no lasting good.
This shows how crucial it is for “the sons of light” to shine in the world’s darkness. Jesus said, “[L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16). We let our lights shine by supporting those around us and helping them keep what is theirs. We let our lights shine by being generous with what we have and sharing with those in need.
But the primary way we shine the light of Jesus in this dark world is by sharing the Gospel individually and by supporting the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments both locally and around the world. We have the means to break sinners free from the chains of sin! We have the answer for the troubled conscience and despairing heart! We have Jesus, who shed His blood to redeem all people and rose in victory over death and hell!
We have the greatest Treasure that mankind has ever known or ever could know! It is ours! But what have we done with this Treasure? Have we buried it so no one knows we have it? Have we acted like it was everything to us one day but cast it aside the next? Or have we given our time, our talents, and our treasures to promote the work of the Gospel?
Look at what the world does when it finds a cause worthy of its attention. Look at how much money and energy people commit to their health, to their hobbies, and to their entertainment. The “sons of this world” are relentless in their pursuit of their interests, their causes, and their pleasures. We should be just as relentless in our confession of the truth and in spreading the Gospel to all corners of the earth. This is the point Jesus wants us to take from today’s text.
But first of all He says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” This is an indictment. Jesus is telling us that unbelievers are better at doing evil than we are at doing good. They are more shrewd about things that serve themselves than we are at things that serve our Lord and our neighbor. This is because sin is in us too. We know what is good, but we struggle to carry it out.
And yet, despite our mismanagement of the great riches God has given us, He has not removed us from our position. We are still “sons of light” by faith in Jesus. We are still His kinsmen. He claims us as His own. By His blood He has blotted out all of our wrongdoing. And by His righteous life He has credited to us all the good works we lacked.
He forgives us for the times we have been lazy about hearing and learning His Word, for the times we failed to speak up for the truth, for the times we sold out entirely and let sin overcome us. His perfect stewardship of God’s holy gifts counts for all who are guilty of mismanagement. All sinners who trust in Him alone for their salvation will never have to experience the terror of standing before the righteous God and hearing Him give the eternal verdict, “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.”
Because of what Jesus has done to save us, we have no work to do to get ourselves to heaven. But we do have work to do on earth. Jesus explains, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Now take note that Jesus does not say, “make friends for yourselves by unrighteous means,” or by doing what unbelievers do, as though we should try to fit in with the world. He says to make friends by “unrighteous wealth.”
“Unrighteous wealth” is another term for earthly riches. We are to be shrewd and wise with our earthly means, so that the things of God—the good and holy and pure things—are promoted. This does not mean every penny needs to go in the offering plate or to a charitable fund. It does not mean we must live in a leaking shelter and get by on one change of clothes and simple bread and water for every meal.
But we can do more with what God has given us. We can be better managers. We can cut back on some of the things that are less important and focus on what is more important. You could purchase Bibles or devotion books for family members or friends. You could contribute toward our college or seminary or other educational institutions in our fellowship. You could adopt a home or foreign mission that our synod oversees. You could support efforts to assist the poor and hurting with both their physical and their spiritual needs.
Jesus promises that these efforts will bear fruit. His Word does not return to Him void. And when your efforts are exhausted and your earthly end has come, Jesus says that those who heard the saving Word and believed it will “receive you into the eternal dwellings.” They will welcome you into heaven, so that together you can praise God for His abundant grace and mercy.
In another place Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (Joh. 9:4). As long as we are here, we have the privilege and responsibility of managing all the spiritual and earthly riches God gives us. Now is not the time for getting lazy or failing to utilize the light. We Work While It Is Day.
We work in the bright light of Jesus, who puts no heavy burden on our shoulders. He has done the heavy lifting for us and for all sinners by sacrificing Himself in our place. We work knowing that He forgives our failures, and that He will accomplish great things even through our humble efforts. God grant that we may be continuously diligent and joyful in this work. Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“Parable of the Unjust Steward” etching by Jan Luyken, 1649-1712)
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).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who did the work we had hardly even begun and were not about to finish, dear fellow redeemed:
A relative of mine once gave a ride to a man looking to head west. Along the way, the man shared details about his life, which might be described as “professional homelessness.” He decided at some point that he would rather beg than work a paying job. And whenever he had built up enough money, he would spend it on an airline ticket to Hawaii. He had done this multiple times. It takes work to beg, so it wasn’t that he would not work. What he rejected was honest work. In the end, I think my cousin may have regretted offering the ride.
It was wrong for this man to take advantage of the charity of others when he could have easily gotten a job. He did not see the value in this kind of work. On the other hand, some place too much value in their work. They are constantly seeking to climb higher on the corporate ladder and improve their life with greater riches and nicer things. They may even neglect their family and friends to do this. They will let nothing get in the way of their drive to succeed.
But in the end, what good is an attitude like this? Does a person ever get to the point where he is satisfied with what he has? And what will happen to those precious belongings when he dies? The wise King Solomon pondered these very questions. He considered all that his hands had done and the toil he had expended, and concluded that “all was vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:11). He said that “there is more gain in wisdom than in folly,” but in the end, “the wise dies just like the fool!” (vv. 13, 16). He also recognized that everything he had worked for would one day be turned over to another to keep and manage, “and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?” (v. 19).
When Jesus visited the fishermen by the lake of Gennesaret, they understood better than ever that work is meaningless apart from Jesus. These men fished not for leisure but for their livelihood, which made a night’s work with no return especially frustrating. We might have expected Simon Peter’s response to be a bit saltier than it was when Jesus directed him to row to the deep part of the lake and let down his nets. For one thing, it was not the right time of day for fishing. And the deeper parts of the lake were probably not the best places to find fish. But Simon replied respectfully, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at Your word I will let down the nets.”
It wasn’t long before the fishermen saw the nets start to drag along as though they were filling up. In a short time their nets were so full, that two fishing boats could not handle the load. So much for all their fishing wisdom! This stranger Jesus came along and prompted the greatest catch of fish they had ever seen! Now they were keenly aware of a power in their presence that was much greater than their own. They did not doubt that they had just witnessed a miracle, which meant Jesus was either a prophet of God or God Himself. Simon fell to his knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
What Simon had forgotten at that moment is something that we lose sight of too. This is that we are always in the presence of God, and that we cannot prosper in work without His blessing. So often we experience some success at work and are praised for what we accomplish, and we think of this as well-earned recognition. We worked hard for this and did what others could not do. It is not wrong to take pride in a job well done. But it is wrong to take full credit for it. If you are a farmer, who is it that sends the sun and rain for your crops? If you work for an employer, who gave you the mental and physical abilities you have? If your kids grow up to be reasonably responsible citizens, who granted you the patience and care you needed to raise them?
To act as though God has nothing to do with our successes—which is what every unbeliever thinks—is to greatly dishonor Him. Unbelievers see their success as entirely dependent on themselves and even flaunt their riches in God’s face, as though He had nothing to do with it. But unless He opens His merciful hand and gives His blessings, no creature could live. He satisfies the desire of every living thing, as the Psalm says (145:16).
But we do not always feel satisfied with His gifts. Sometimes, like the disciples, we work hard and come up with nothing. Why is that? Why do we wear ourselves out and lose ground while the unrighteous appear to prosper? Has God forgotten our need? It is easy to question God when we are struggling, but it is just as easy to forget Him when we prosper. This may be why God sometimes gives us more and sometimes less—to remind us to trust in Him.
No matter how hard you work, if your work is not done to the glory of God, it is empty. No amount of money and goods will satisfy you without Jesus in view. Peter, James, and John recognized this. Even after the greatest catch of fish they had ever seen, they left it all behind. “[T]hey left everything and followed [Jesus].”
They followed Jesus because He called them to a different kind of fishing. Now they would be “catching men” for God. But they were not prepared to help fill God’s net until they were caught themselves. When Simon saw the great catch of fish, He begged Jesus to leave him, because he was a sinner. What sin do you suppose was on his mind? Was it that he doubted any fish would be caught when he “put out into the deep”? Or was it just a general awareness of his sinfulness as He stood before his Lord? The prophet Isaiah reacted in much the same way in the presence of God in heaven, “Woe is me! For I am lost” he said; “for I am a man of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5). But the last thing Simon Peter needed is what he requested. When he said, “Depart from me,” he should have said, “Save me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Being in the presence of God and hearing His Word forces us to reckon with our sins. We hear the standard that God sets and realize how far we fall short of meeting it. But instead of crying out to Jesus, “Save me!” we try to make things better on our own. We know that the sin we have fallen into is condemned by God, and we want to stop doing it. But instead of trusting in Him, we put our trust in ourselves. “I am strong enough to overcome this,” we think. “I know I am better than this, and I will prove it!” And what happens? We fall again and again. And eventually, we lose the will to fight anymore. Sometimes we continue in the sin despite the conflict we feel in our conscience, or we begin to justify the sin in an attempt to rewire our conscience.
Our flailing attempts to get free of God’s accusing law are like a bird caught in a fishing net. The harder it tries to get away, the more tangled up it becomes. This is how it was with Martin Luther. We focused on his life and work last week at camp. Luther had tried to get right with God by his works. He even gave up a promising career in law in order to become a monk, so that he could dedicate his life to righteous living full-time.
But the harder he worked, the more his net of righteousness came up empty. He expressed this painful realization in a hymn verse which the campers memorized this past week: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; / Death brooded darkly o’er me. / Sin was my torment night and day; / In sin my mother bore me. / Yea, deep and deeper still I fell; / Life had become a living hell, / So firmly sin possessed me” (ELH 378, v. 2).
It wasn’t that Luther was more sinful than the common man. But he was more honest about his sinful condition than many are. No matter how hard you and I try, we are still sinners, who deserve death. “[T]he wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23).
By God’s grace, Luther eventually understood that the righteousness God requires of sinners is supplied by Jesus. To try to get to heaven without Him is to come up empty. But to place one’s entire life and being in His hands through repentant faith is to obtain everything. By faith in Jesus, your net is filled with forgiveness for your many sins, with eternal life for your death, and with salvation from your enemies. Faith receives such abundant blessings from God that you sink beneath their glorious weight. God’s grace surrounds you and covers you, so that your flimsy attempts at righteousness can no more be seen. All that is now in view is the righteousness of Jesus and His cleansing blood.
That is why we follow Him. He gives us what we could never get on our own. Our Constant Toiling Nets Nothing without Jesus. Romans 4:5 declares, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” It is not your work that justifies you before God, but faith in Jesus. Do not in willful disobedience ask Him to depart, but in humble repentance beg Him to stay.
And He will stay. He worked hard to save you, and He isn’t about to let that hard work on your behalf go to waste. This is why He comes to you still and continues to work in you through His Word and Sacraments. There, He supplies forgiveness whenever your God-given work falls short, and He grants the strength that you need to carry out your work to His glory alone.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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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.
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