Pentecost 16 – Proper 20 – Series A (Setember 24, 2017)
“God Gives Whatever is Right” (Matthew 20:1-16)
We have an amusing little custom here at Messiah. At the Lord’s Supper, after each group or table has received the Lord’s body and blood, the question is always, “Who leaves the table first?” This would not be a problem if we had side aisles. But here, everyone has to return down the center aisle while the next group is lined up. So, our rule of thumb is, “The last will be first, and the first last.” You probably recognize that from Jesus’ concluding words of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
What prompted Jesus to tell this parable? In the verses just prior to our text, Peter seems to smugly suggest that the 12 deserve more than anyone else. “Look, WE left all things and followed you. What, then, will WE have?” Peter wants what he deserves! And I’m sure the others felt the same way.
Jesus affirms that the apostles do have a unique role. He even says the Twelve will have a role to play in the final judgment. At the same time, he also says that many who are first will be last and last, first. Of course, Jesus is not telling us how to line up at the communion rail and how to return to our pews. He is not telling us how to line up at the food line at a wedding reception. Instead, he is taking a “poke at any prideful comparisons that may be lurking in the hearts of the apostles” (Gibbs, Matthew, 987), thinking that they DESERVE any better treatment because of who they are and what they have done. Even their call to apostleship is a gift of grace. They did not choose Jesus. Jesus chose them. Same for us.
Then Jesus tells the parable where a master of a house goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hires the first group for a denarius a day, a typical day’s wage in those days. Then he proceeds to hire four other groups of workers, at 9, Noon, 3, and around 5, just before quitting time. No amount is agreed upon, but the master says, “Whatever is right I will give you.” At the end of the day, each man received a denarius. No matter what time they started working, each received the same wage. Of course, that didn’t sit well with the guys who started at 6 in the morning. But the master responds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” And then, Jesus rephrases what he said just before the parable, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
This parable is about God’s generosity. Those of us who have been Christians since the day we were baptized may feel cheated when we see someone in the resurrection who converted on their death bed. Why should that guy get the same heavenly reward as me? I went to church every Sunday (well, almost every Sunday) … I gave my offerings … I taught Sunday School … I mowed the lawn and pulled weeds … I served on this board or that board … I volunteered for all sorts of things. We’re just like Peter. “Look at all we’ve done for you, Jesus. Now, what will WE have?”
But that which is just and fair to God does not often match up with our ideas. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (Is 55:8). God would not make a very good business owner, according to our standards … paying everyone the same wages. Where’s the fairness in that? Our standard is every man for himself, scraping and clawing to get ahead of the other guy, comparing ourselves to others and figuring we are better.
“Whatever is right, I will give you,” the master said. Actually, the workers received a gift, even the ones who were hired early in the day. They were just standing around. This reminds me of a summer when I was still in high school. My friend and I worked as gophers for a building contractor from my church. But early in the morning, on the way to whatever project he was working on, he would stop at a spot along the road where a group of men would stand around, waiting to be hired for the day. No one forced my boss to hire them (let’s not get into the legalities of hiring people who may be undocumented … that’s another issue). They don’t have to be picked up by anyone. He knew nothing about any of those men, unless some had worked for him before. So, in one sense, even stopping to hire these guys was a gift.
“Whatever is right I will give you,” our Master says to us. In fact, the word for “right” can also mean just and righteous. It’s related to the word for “justification.” And in Christ Jesus, God gives us what is right and just. Because of what Jesus has done for us, by dying on the cross to atone for our sins, God declares us righteous and holy. That’s a gift. We weren’t looking to become a part of God’s family. We were sinfully idle. God is the one who sought us out. He is the one who sought us out and placed us in his family, in his kingdom, in the waters of Holy Baptism. Even the call to faith is a gift of grace, not to mention our wages, our reward, of grace. It’s a reward given for the sake of Christ, not for our own sake.
And praise God for that. If forgiveness and eternal life were dependent upon our performance – how long we worked, how hard we worked – we would all have been fired a long time ago. “Whatever is right I will give you.” Punishment, condemnation, eternal separation from God would be just for our sins. Scripture says that God will “render to each one according to his works” (Rom. 2:6). God will give us our just wages. And the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
Instead, God’s forgiveness and eternal life is based upon the performance of one man … Jesus Christ. He was called from eternity. Sent into the vineyard to work. Labored faithfully for three years. Worked himself to death, in fact. Called forth from the tomb, in fact, with his reward for his faithfulness … which will be our reward one day, too … a reward totally and completely given by grace for the sake of Christ.
Jesus became the last and the least for us … so you and I could be first in him. Now we can be last for others, letting “your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ … standing firm in one spirit … with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). In Christ’s Church, there is “no room for self-promotion, no occasion for competition, no basis on which one disciples can say to another ‘I have no need of you’ or ‘I am more important than you are.’” Each of us are “simply laborers in the vineyard like every other baptized believer in Jesus.” (Gibbs 991)
“Whatever is right I will give you,” our Master says to us. And we respond, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” Nothing other than a heart prepared to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. Because the life and salvation that God gives to you is all a gift. So give thanks, and “lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Introit; Ps. 116:12-13).
Now, you can come to the table today, remembering our little memory device about who returns from the table: “the last will be first and the first, last.” And I hope that little memory device takes on a whole new connotation for you. As it is here at the table, so will it be in eternity. We are all the same as we gather to receive Christ’s gifts. No one is greater. No one is lesser. No distinctions. Only sinners saved by grace.