Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

When I was teaching on today’s gospel lesson in seminary, someone asked me, “If the first men who were called to work didn’t get good pay, why did they even go? I would have gone to work somewhere else.” I thought that was a legitimate question. Questions like this that dig into the meaning of the parables are great. Too often we just take parables, or any scripture text, as is and in a sort of piety say, “mmm…hmm…yes, very true. Very wise. Nice lesson.” We act as if since we are Christians everything in the Bible should just be obvious and non-threatening now.
What’s exciting, what is cool about scripture is that it’s not just written as a list of proverbs of common sense sayings that we hold to. Yes, the overall point of the Bible is simple enough even for children, but it also stands up to scrutiny and examination. Even the parables, which have their interpretation, can be examined as stories - which they are. Jesus’ parables aren’t like fragile modern art pieces in a gallery that we look at but don’t touch, and then have a quick look at the artist’s interpretation on the wall to find out what it means. No, they’re more like a trusty tool you keep finding new uses for around the house, or a worn Chilton manual for your beater car when you never know when a page will come in handy.
Hear from God. Have His Word in your life. That Bible that sits on the shelf, collecting dust? Take up and read. Examine, ask questions. Have you ever come into a sermon or a Bible study with questions you wanted answered? Is what the Bible says important to you? Read, hear, and consider. Our Lord who died and rose promises you will find word of life that will bear much fruit.
I digress – back to the parable at hand. These workers called out of the marketplace early in the morning – why did they agree to that amount if it was not enough? Why not work somewhere else? Both are answered in the story itself.
We are all naturally the idle workers in the marketplace. We would accomplish nothing lasting if Christ had not called us. Just as the workers begin in the marketplace doing nothing. People can do what appear to be good or evil things, even great or infamous things, and are remembered for awhile. But even the greatest and most powerful eventually dwindle in significance. As time marches on all our works fade as if they never were. Alexander the Great conquered the world, you probably know his name, but does what he did really affect you now? Can you name one person (not in the Bible) from five thousand years ago? There are entire empires that have been forgotten.
Only Christ is eternally relevant. Only Christ is beyond a historical event, although he was truly historical, and calls in the present day to every man, woman, and child. For Christ has died for our sins and risen from the dead, as decreed from the foundation of the world. He now through His Word and Spirit effectively calls us to no longer be idle. Like the master he calls all to work in his vineyard, to abandon the idleness of their own works and worries.
The master who calls is Jesus Christ who calls us to believe and follow him, and his call gives the power to do so. It calls us into works that are not idle, that do not fade away, that are eternally important because they are those we have been given by God to do. Baptized into Christ’s death, we rise into Christ’s life and our works to serve our neighbor and call others to work are eternally important and will never fade away. Yes, the work is hard and we have to bear the heat of the day and the scorching sun, but the reward is worth it. It is a reward we did not deserve, but one we receive out of the Father’s compassion, that he would send His son to earn it for us.
Yes, the pay is worth it for the work. So why did the first-hired complain? Well, the master continues to go out throughout the day and hires more idle laborers from the market. Every couple hours he goes out for a few more, promising to pay what is right. Even at the eleventh hour he hires some to work for barely an hour, promising a just wage.
Here we could answer the question – why didn’t the first hired go somewhere else? There is no one else hiring, at least as we hear in the story. Workers are just standing idle in the market unless the master comes and calls them. There is no other vineyard, no other master, no other true work. Jesus shows that he is the only way, truth and the life, and no other comes to the Father except through Him. His workers receive the wage he gives.
When time for pay begins, the last, working barely an hour, are paid first. Much to the delight of the first-hired, each of the last-hired received a denarius, what the first had agreed to. ‘How wonderful!’ They think to themselves. ‘We’ve been working hours longer than these last ones, surely we will get a bonus.’
Yet at their turn, the first-hired are paid the same as the rest. They grumble to the master, “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.” You made them equal to us! These lazy men who spent all day lying around and worked for barely an hour are considered equal to us, your hardest workers! We are greater than them and deserve more than them!
The master replies, “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? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” The Master does not bargain, does not compare, but refocuses the first-hired. His generosity to the last is between him and the last, just as he generously hired the first. The truth is that neither the first nor the last had the right to anything the master gave them. He called them both out of their idleness. He gave them the work. He told them the wage. His relation with the other workers is none of their concern.
Therefore, this parable refocuses us when compare ourselves to others. In the kingdom of God, all comparisons are evil, and show a spirit of envy whether it is “why did you make them equal to me” or “make me equal to them.” Rather, as the master points out, we should focus on Jesus and what he has given us.  If the first focus on the master, they see they have been delivered from idle living and are rewarded as he promised. If the last focus on the master, they see the same.
We know then that the kingdom of God is truly by grace, that everything we have we have been given out of our Father’s compassion, on account of the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Some may hear and believe very early in life, even at their baptism as an infant, and live eighty, ninety years working in the master’s vineyard with all the struggles and benefits that brings. Some may never hear until they are eighty or ninety. Some may fall away after high school and return when they have kids. Some like the thief on the cross may only heed the call in their last moments, at the eleventh hour.
There is a warning in this, but also comfort. Do not think that because Christ calls in the eleventh hour that you can wait until then to heed His call. Tomorrow is promised to no man, and Christ will return at a day you will not expect. Ignore Christ long enough and you may irreparably deafen yourself to His call. Instead, hear and believe. Christ has died for you. He gives everything you need, things which the world will never give. Pray that others may heed the call as well, for he has compassion on the ungrateful and evil. Even lifelong Christians who grumble and complain. Truly wonderful is the generosity of Christ. The One who made Himself last to save idle sinners. “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Amen.
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