Sunday, February 12, 2017
Matthew 20:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 10:5; Exodus 17:1-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The kingdom of heaven is not a noun, but it is a verb. When we hear or read the word kingdom in an English translation of the Scriptures, we typically think of a place or a thing, however, the word used here is not a place or a thing, but it is an action. Indeed, a more accurate translation of the kingdom of heaven would be the reigning of heaven. Thus, when Jesus begins His parables saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…,” you should hear Him saying “The reigning of heaven is like [thus and thus]….” In today’s parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the reigning of heaven “is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” – the entirety of the parable is meant to communicate something about what the reigning of heaven is like.
The very first thing that you should take away from Jesus’ kingdom parable is that He is the actor in it; Jesus is the one reigning in and through His kingdom. Jesus begins the parable with a master hiring workers for his vineyard. Without the master there is no vineyard and no work. Moreover, those hired were not hired because they applied, or because they had certain skills or talents, but they were hired because the master went out and hired them. Though Jesus says that the master agreed with the laborers for the typical daily wage of a denarius, this is simply His master story-telling in action, for He concludes His parable with the master giving the same to all, not because of their labor or merits, but because of his grace saying, “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.” It is clear that Jesus Himself is the master in this parable, even as He is the sower of the seed in the two agriculturally themed parables which precede it in Matthew chapter 13: The Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Weeds. Jesus is the sower and His Word the life and faith creating and bestowing seed; we are the more or less receptive soil. Jesus is the master “who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” We are those standing around idle and passive, unable to earn or merit anything but death. Thus, the reigning of heaven is undeserved, unmerited grace, completely and entirely the work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has called us out of sinful idleness to fruitful service in His kingdom.
Indeed, this is how Luther understands and confesses the Second Petition of The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” God’s kingdom comes,” Luther confesses, “when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” God’s kingdom, God’s reigning, comes to us – not the other way around; we do not come to it – and we receive God’s kingdom, God’s reigning, by bearing His fruits, when we “lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” There were no workers in the master’s vineyard prior to the master’s call, just as there was no fruitful soil until the sower sowed his seed. We all stand in sinful idleness, which is death, having no ability whatsoever to become fruitful or alive. We are Lazarus, dead in the tomb four days so that we stinketh. Were it not for the Word of the LORD calling us, and the Holy Spirit delivered through that Word creating faith in our hearts, we would remain the hard packed soil of the path, we would remain Lazarus’ stinking, rotting, decaying corpse decomposing in the tombs of our own making, the true wages we have earned, merited, and deserved for our works, the best of which, apart from grace, are no better than filthy rags. Oh how we value and idolize and worship the false god of equality, while there is truly only one thing that we are equal in: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; and the wages of our sin is always, and only, death.
Equality with those hired first in the day is what the workers hired last in the day received – they each received a denarius regardless of how long they worked. Cleverly, however, the master had the workers hired last paid first, and then those hired earlier in the day. Those hired last do not complain, but they receive their wage and go contentedly on their way, while those hired first “began to grumble 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’.” Here our Lord gets directly at the root of what causes us so much misery and suffering in our lives and in our world: Greed, jealousy, entitlement, which bear the fruits of resentment, hatred, and lack mercy, charity, and, worst of all, love. And, all of that is but the sin-sick and diseased-unto-death fruit of idolatry, a failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. All of this is endemic of your false delusion that you have anything that you can offer to God, anything of value that is truly yours of which you may boast or earn or merit or place your trust in.
What did Lazarus have to contribute to his resurrection? What did the soil have to contribute to its fruitfulness? What did unemployed, idle workers have that would earn them a denarius, let alone much less or anything at all? What did the heavens and earth contribute to their creation? Nothing! God creates ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing. Likewise the Holy Spirit creates faith in men’s hearts when and where He pleases through the goodly seed of the Word of God, which the Sower sows here and there equally, without discrimination, and causes to be fruitful when, and where He pleases. The vineyard is the Lord’s. The seed is the Lord’s. The fruit is the Lord’s. But, the good news is that you get to bear it, and that the Lord will credit you for it – which is something considerably different than insisting that you have earned it and merited it. That is to steal from God, an absurd and blasphemous notion, but one that you are tempted to do daily and often do willingly or unwillingly in sinful rebellion or ignorance.
Truly we are equal in the eyes of the LORD, but not because of our works or merit, or even because of our faith. Equally, we are hopeless sinners. Equally, we are forgiven in the blood of Jesus, who chooses to give to the last the same as the first. Do you begrudge the LORD His generosity? Is the LORD not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him? First or last – what concern is this of yours? It is the LORD who is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End – and, frankly, everything in between. Take what belongs to you – not what you have earned, merited, and deserved, but what the LORD has freely and graciously given you at the cost of His Son – and go in His peace bearing His fruits, chief of which is love and its fruits: mercy, compassion, charity, kindness, forgiveness.
The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of grace. The reigning of heaven is a reigning of grace. The workers thought that they were earning their wages, but in the end all received the same, without works or merit, by grace. The only thing that you earn or merit for your works is death: “The wages of sin is death.” Thanks be to God that He doesn’t give you what you deserve! Instead, the LORD gives the first and the last, all whom He calls to faith and fruitfulness in Jesus Christ, eternal life in His kingdom. Being in the LORD’s kingdom means bearing the LORD’s fruits in good times and in bad, in times of prosperity and in times of dearth, in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Think about it – Jesus is the vine and you are His branches. Branches only produce fruit because they remain connected to the vine; the life of the vine flows through them and makes the branches fruitful. The fruit you bear – your good works, love, mercy, etc. – are the LORD’s fruit, not your own, no more than you would say that the grapes are the fruit of the branch. No, grapes are universally called the fruit of the vine. Moreover, vines often have to endure and persevere through drought and flood, through disease and blight. If the vine suffers these things and endures, so do the vine’s branches. Nevertheless, the life of the vine continues to sustain and preserve the branches and make them fruitful.
“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.” So what. What is that between Me and you, thus saith the LORD? Let such thoughts be far from your hearts and minds and mouths. When you do think and speak them, repent. As we prayed in today’s Collect, we justly deserve the consequences of our sins, but we pray that we might be mercifully delivered by the LORD’s goodness to the glory of His Name. We are all runners in the same race and, if we finish, if we die in the grace of the LORD, we all receive the same prize, eternal life with our Holy Triune God in heaven. What an absurd and scandalous grace we enjoy and bask in! That is why it is all the more absurd and scandalous that you should judge others as less worthy than yourself, that you look down your nose at them and their misdeeds and consider yourself superior – you hypocrite! Rather, in this race, if you see your brother stumble, help him to get up and finish the race. You will not forfeit first prize. There is no first prize, or last prize, but there is only the perfect and holy life of Jesus for all who finish the race. Oh, the temptations to quit midway are enormous and relentless, but the LORD has provided this hospital, this Church for you to bind up your wounds when you are injured and sick, pouring on holy wine and oil and water in forgiveness, to strengthen your faith, and to equip you with His gifts that you may persevere, more than that, that you may help others to persevere. Indeed, we’re all in this together, for we, like those who have gone before us, are under the same cloud of the LORD’s glory, have passed through the same sea of Holy Baptism, eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink. Yet, as the LORD was not pleased with most of them, even so the LORD will not be pleased by those who fail to produce His fruits, leading “godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”
The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of grace. The reigning of heaven is a reigning of grace. Come, eat and drink deeply of the fruit of the True Vine Jesus Christ, our Spiritual Rock who is with us, and be renewed in His grace, cleansed from your sins, strengthened in your faith, and equipped and sent to be fruitful with His fruits. Let His life flow through you and make you fruitful, for He is your life, there is none other, and bear His fruits of love, mercy, grace, charity, compassion, and forgiveness and so enliven others to the glory of His Name.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.