September 18, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“[The master said]: ‘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?’”
Jesus tells a parable to describe another aspect of the kingdom of heaven. He does so to show that the matter of being made part of the Lord’s people and given salvation is not a transaction like the world makes. No, what Jesus puts forward shows that the Lord’s ways and thoughts are not congruent with how the world operates. Instead, Jesus talks about the actions of grace that God performs in the world. He tells the parable, so that His followers will be shown the mindset that must be found in His people, the Church.
Jesus’ parable begins this way: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hired laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” Jesus depicts a scene that His audience would have often seen in their own towns and villages. A vineyard owner goes to the marketplace where day laborers could be found. He goes to employ a workforce, and upon finding some willing to work for a day’s wage, the vineyard owner contracts with them. With that illustration, Jesus is describes an incorrect concept that some people have about membership in the Church. They have been called to be His disciples, but it is done seeking an agreeable earthly benefit, what they will get out of the deal. And that sets up a future conflict.
Jesus’ story continues: “And going about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” The vineyard owner determined that he wanted more workers. So throughout the day, he goes back to the marketplace, finds other people to employ, and puts them to work. But this time, the contracted wage amount is not spelled out. No, the hired laborers are only told: “Whatever is right I will give you.” There is no haggling, no spelling out what the pay will be, yet the laborers go off into the vineyard to work. Again, Jesus is describing the call of people to be His disciples, to be people of God, but these are those who are not seeking a matter of wages, what they will get out of it. No, these are the people whom the Spirit calls, enlightens, sanctifies, and gathers into the Church, who trust that the Lord will give what He deems to be right. They are the elect who are truly incorporated into the body of Christ.
As the day draws to a close, the vineyard owner still wants to hire more people, still wants more laborers: “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” This is an interesting exchange! The vineyard owner decides to hire new people for one last hour of work. When he gets to the marketplace, he asks why the people there have been laying about, doing nothing. They had been, because they had nothing to do, no purpose, no belonging to anyone. So the vineyard owner gives them a task, a direction, an identity: they are now his workers, even if they are only so for an hour. These are those who been incorporated into God’s people, even after so many others had been made so.
Jesus’ story then comes to its high point: “And when evening came the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” The vineyard owner does something totally unexpected: he pays a whole day’s wage to people who had only worked for an hour! No one in his right mind would do that! It is a form of lavish generosity. And that generosity gets the attention of the other workers: “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it, they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘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!’”
The doling out of pay causes great distress between the first workers and the owner. Those who had put in the whole twelve hours of work are upset. They had done more work than those hired just before the final whistle, but they all receive the same wage. Everyone gets the denarius. The vineyard owner doesn’t seem to think about all the hard work that had been done for him by the laborers. Can’t he at least show some consideration for all the sweat and strain put into his vineyard? Aren’t their greater efforts worth more?
The master’s response first answers the complaints of the first-hired: “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.” The owner shows that he has not cheated anyone. He has not gone back on his word. He has not taken away anything that belongs to the laborers that worked all twelve hours. Their contract, their covenant has been fulfilled. The owner made good on his promise; the workers had gotten what they agreed to. The fairness sought, the wage that they demanded have both been given to them.
But then the master speaks about the mindset that had crept into those who were first hired: “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?” Those who had been hired at the beginning of the day are demanding justice and fairness. That is what the owner gave to them. They are paid exactly what was agreed. But what is just or fair about laborers telling owners what they can give to other employees? What control should these workers have over what the owner does with his money, if that action does no harm and does not break their contract? The real issue with the workers hired in the morning is that they have a problem with the master’s generosity. They have a problem with grace, thinking that it is injustice and not right. They have a problem with the master’s will, the will that desires to show compassion and mercy, not to give people what they might deserve.
Jesus’ parable is a way of teaching what the Lord had said centuries before: “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.” Jesus’ parable shows that the seeking of benefit, the desire for what is just as mankind thinks of fairness leads to a bitter end. It is not how His Church should think or operate. It is a reply to the question that a rich young man asked: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” It is also a response to Peter’s question: “See, we have left everything and followed You. What then will we have?” The looking for a fair exchange, an equitable transaction will only leave a person in the condition of the first hired: grumbling at the Master and complaining that what was right wasn’t received. And how does God respond to this? “Take what belongs to you and go.” It is a statement of judgment and dismissal.
Instead, the Lord would have you consider the words that call you into His kingdom: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” These are the words that move your hearts and minds away from haggling with God, from demanding to know exactly what the benefit of discipleship will be, from making membership in the kingdom of heaven some sort of exchange of your efforts for blessings. No, the Lord wishes to have an unfair transaction with you: His mercy for your injustice, His pardon for your sin, His innocence for your guilt. That is what the Lord has given already to you through the work of Jesus, as He became substitute for you. His righteousness is now yours. His efforts have made you His people. But it was not an agreed upon contract; rather, this is what the Lord’s will for you has always been. And He freely calls you to share in it, to benefit from what He has done for you.
The recognition of the Lord’s graciousness is what this parable of Jesus is meant to show you. The entity created by that graciousness, the Church, cannot have the mindset of seeking benefit in it. Being called to be a worker in the vineyard, being chosen to be a follower of Jesus should turn you away that way of thinking. The raving about how much service I have done in the Church, the demand for recognition of me from others, the statements about how my work is greater than what others have done, the comparing of how many hours I have put in to what others have done: such actions that arise among the community of Christ’s people are all forms of the same complaining that the first-hired laborers did in the parable. They are not examples of what the apostle Paul exhorted his audience to show: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. . . .” Just the opposite, they are the actions that have workers striving one against another, seeking the way of the law, complaining about the Lord’s grace: “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.” Such actions will receive the Lord’s response of dismissal: “Take what belongs to you and go.” If that is what you desire from the Lord, He will pay you in full and send you away.
But the recognition that you were even called to be a worker in the vineyard is a matter of grace is what Jesus wishes to see among His people. That understanding given by receiving the way and thoughts of the Lord is what leads you to say the words of today’s collect: “Lord God . . . we cannot stand before You relying on anything we have done . . .” You cannot demand wages from the Lord. Mankind has no standing to haggle with Him. No, you are those who have been turned, who have been led to a new way of life that is not dependent upon what you have done, but what has been done for you. Without the Lord’s calling, you would have been idle in the marketplace, having no task, no direction, no identity. But it is the Lord’s will to have you among His people, to put you to work in His vineyard, to give you activity in connection with the gospel of Christ.
So you and I must learn from this parable of Jesus, so that He will not say to us: “Do you begrudge My generosity?” We must see that salvation and blessing from the Lord is not a matter of fairness, but of grace. We must have our hearts and minds not set on our efforts, seeking recognition and reward. Instead, we should find our glory in the fact that we have been chosen by the Lord to be recipients of His compassion. We must see that our place in the Church is a matter of privilege, something granted without any merit or worthiness in us. Then the lavish generosity that the Lord shows to all His people will not become a matter of grumbling and complaint. Instead, we will thank Him that He sought us in the marketplace and made us His workers, so that we may not only receive a denarius, but His grant of life everlasting.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.