Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost – Vicar Schleusener
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
There are two important concepts in translating a passage. First, say what the text actually says, and second, do so in a way that makes sense. Knowing that this oversimplifies the complaint of those who were hired at 6 AM and then performed manual labor until 6 PM, I find myself wanting to translate their words into the vernacular as follows. [Use a somewhat whiny voice] “It’s not fair!”
And in a sense, they’re completely correct. The workers who weren’t even hired until 5 PM have worked about a twelfth as long as they have. Even ignoring questions about which hours are harder to work due to the heat of the sun, and questions about why those late arrivals weren’t in the marketplace when the master went out at 9 AM, noon, and 3 PM to hire those who happened to be there, surely these first workers deserve at least a little extra!
But. As a parable, this story points to something far beyond an unfair act of generosity on the part of a wealthy landowner. It points to a heavenly truth that our sinful human hearts naturally reject out of hand. In fact, this rejection is so ingrained that accepting this truth and believing it literally requires a miracle.
Before we go on to talk about this truth directly, let’s take a minute to go over some of the key elements of the parable so we can see who and what is being portrayed here. To begin with, the Master of the house, who is also referred to as the Lord of the Vineyard, represents God. The laborers are believers who’ve heard the Gospel call and come to faith, some at the very start of their lives, others in their last days on this earth, and others at any and every point in between. The vineyard is the Church. The denarius is the righteousness of Christ that God gives to us by grace through faith.
And now the heavenly truth takes shape. This is why these laborers who were hired first are so right on the one hand and yet so very, very wrong on the other. Their mistake, so universal to the human condition, is to assume that the denarius, the righteousness that makes them worthy of eternal life, is something they earn through their own efforts of laboring in the vineyard. They think that the reward they prize is given to them because they’ve earned it, and that those who’ve done less than they have somehow deserve a lesser reward. And in this, they’re gravely mistaken.
They’ve earned no righteousness through their labors. Rather, the Master gives them the righteousness that they’ve no more earned than the workers hired at the end of the day. It’s a gift of pure grace. And it’s this fundamental truth of the kingdom that the human heart rejects with all its might. All our works are worthless in the matter of our own salvation. No amount of labor, no matter how good or how noble, merits justification. No amount of abstaining from sin earns eternal life. No amount of human effort to obtain God’s righteousness succeeds. Rather, God’s word through the prophet Isaiah proves true, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
God’s ways and thoughts are bent to pure grace, while our ways and thoughts are bent toward our own works. Our own efforts. Our own wisdom, insight, knowledge, and skill. And “as the heavens are higher than the earth” so too do our best ways and our brightest thoughts utterly fail to match up to God’s ways and God’s thoughts.
And when faced with God’s ways and God’s thoughts, we usually wind up confused, wanting to know why things are the way God has made them. And while there are many “why” questions that can’t be answered while remaining faithful to what God has and hasn’t revealed to us, some questions at least can be given an answer. For example, why does He give us labor to do in the Vineyard if our labor will earn us nothing?
One obvious answer that carries some truth is the validity of the popular saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” By giving us something to do, God does indeed protect us from some of the attacks that we would otherwise face. But the real answer is that giving us work to do in the Vineyard of the Church keeps us in the Vineyard. It keeps us in the place where we’re constantly reminded of the promise of Christ’s righteousness which is already ours by faith. It keeps us in the place where the final fulfillment of that promise will come to pass, when God will clothe His Church in Her bridal clothes of Christ’s righteousness forever.
For the workers, if they’d wandered off and never come back, they wouldn’t have received the promised denarius because they never would have heard the call to come and receive it. The labor was never the point, but it kept them in the Vineyard until it was time to give them what had been promised.
And so it is for us. Some labor in churchly tasks. Ushers. Sunday School teachers. Organists. Pastors. Counters. Altar guild members. Others labor at mundane tasks, but all who labor in faith to fulfill their God-given vocations are themselves also laborers in the Vineyard. Employees and employers. Teachers and students. Parents and children.
For the Master knows that those who labor in the Vineyard will stay in the Vineyard. And if you stay in the Vineyard, you’ll be reminded constantly of the One shed His blood for you on the cross, cleansing you from all of your sin and guilt. You’ll hear of the righteousness of Christ that God delights to give you freely. You’ll be immersed in the sights, the sounds, and even the taste of pure grace. Sights like the cross that remind you of Him who died on your behalf. Sounds like the words of absolution, the words of the Gospel both read and preached, and the words of the institution of the Supper. The taste of the body and the blood of the Lord of the Vineyard who sacrificed Himself on your behalf and who bestows His forgiveness and His righteousness upon you in the Supper. All of it the fruit of pure grace.
So do your labor in the Master’s vineyard with joy and gladness, knowing that He delights to reward you. Your labor may not seem like much, and perhaps the Master is calling for you to take up a new kind of labor in His Vineyard, but in the end, His ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. So it’s not about the labor. It’s about staying in the Vineyard where the Master who loves you delights to give you the great reward that comes through pure grace. Hear and believe, and you will be saved.
And may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.