Hired to Serve in God's Vineyard
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our gospel parable, the owner of the vineyard wasn't under obligation to hire the men that he did. He could have gone to a neighboring town and rounded up some laborers from there. And so they were hired by his choice, by his grace, as a favor. All of the hired workers should have been tremendously grateful to have employment, period. Clearly no one else was hiring, so working in His vineyard was a privilege, a gift, not deserved by the workers.
But the parable points beyond the realm of the workplace and economy; it is really about the Kingdom of God. The Lord is the one who seeks out, finds, and chooses His laborers, and then He puts them to work in His Vineyard. Here is how the parable applies to our lives: The Lord is the owner of the whole world, the Creator of the universe and of you in particular, and so it is impossible for you to deserve anything, since this world and your life are totally gifts from God. As St. Paul asks the Corinthians, "What do you have in life that you didn't receive from God?" (1 Corinthians 4:7, author's paraphrase). Answer: nothing! And then consider that we are sinners, who have rebelled against God and are by nature children of the devil (Ephesians 2:3), and the only conclusion we can reach is that we are not worthy in the slightest to be hired into the Lord's vineyard, His Kingdom. Surely Dr. Luther hits the nail on the head when he says in the Small Catechism that "we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment." And in our Collect today (on your bulletin), we confess that we "justly suffer the consequence of our sin." For our sin, we all deserve nothing but eternal damnation in hell. "The wages of sin is death," wrote St. Paul. And that is why we desperately cry out the Lord for deliverance from our guilt, for forgiveness and salvation, "Lord, have mercy!"
But even before we cry out, God the Father has already answered in His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, our Lord. As St. Paul writes in Romans, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Romans 5:8-10).
Christ died for us sinners—that means that He died in your place, under the punishment that your sins have deserved. Instead of treating you as your sins have deserved by condemning you to eternal death in hell, God treated Jesus as your sins deserve by pouring out His wrath against the sin of the world upon Jesus on the cross. Instead of punishing you for breaking His Law, God takes the perfect obedience of Jesus and credits it to your account; He takes the wages that Jesus earns and gives them to you for nothing. Instead of letting you be drowned in eternal death, God baptizes you into the death and resurrection of Jesus so that you are saved by His resurrected life, not by anything you have done.
Now does any of that sound fair? No way! Not to our worldly way of figuring things out, but God's ways are higher than our ways, and it's a good thing that He isn't fair by our standards! If we got what is fair, what we deserve, we would be doomed. So we give thanks to the Lord that His goodness and mercy trumps our standards of justice; His lovingkindness accomplishes justice for us by Christ's perfect obedience to the Law and His saving, bloody death; and He generously pours out forgiveness of sins and righteousness in the Word and Sacraments, by which He hires you into His Kingdom, His vineyard.
This is where the parable really starts for you, since in Baptism you have been hired on as permanent workers in the Lord's vineyard, to serve in His Church and in your day to day vocations as His child. Oh, perhaps you were hired at 6:00 a.m. in infant Baptism and you have labored for 80 or 90 years in the Lord's vineyard. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit brought you to faith later in life, at the 11th hour. But the point of this parable is that in God's Kingdom, no one is before or after, the last and the first are treated the same, with the same incredibly generous gift of everlasting life in Christ Jesus.
But the parable also warns that those who first entered the Kingdom can at the last disqualify themselves by thinking of themselves first, and by forgetting that eternal life is all a free gift. In the parable those who had been brought into the Vineyard at 6:00 a.m. thought they would receive a greater wage than those who came at 5:00 p.m. "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.' " And according to human ideas of fairness, we can sympathize with those who worked the twelve hour day, who did the most work and in the heat of the midday sun.
But then the Lord says to one of them—and notice how He singles out one, as if He is talking to you directly, if you have ever considered yourself more worthy than another Christian—He says, "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?' So the last will be first, and the first last."
The last will be first, and the first last—there's a double meaning here. The last will be first, and the first last—that is, all who believe and are baptized will receive an equal share in the Kingdom of God in heaven. But also, the last will be first means that those who humbly consider themselves unworthy of God's Kingdom will enter it, and the first will be last also refers to another group, those who think they are first, who think they have earned entrance into God's Kingdom by their works—they will at the last be told, "Take what belongs to you and go." That is, take your own faithless self-righteousness and get out of God's Vineyard, and go get what you deserve, what your unbelief has earned—hell. That is the warning to us if we smugly begin to think that we are more deserving of eternal life than any other sinner.
How dare we look with an evil eye upon God's goodness? How dare we begrudge His generosity in giving everlasting life to those who come first or last? We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and so we are all equally undeserving and dependent on the Lord's incredible generosity. As Jesus says in Luke 17, "When you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.' " (Luke 17:10). As sinners, we haven't even done our duty, so we are less than unworthy servants. So let us repent of any idea that we are worthy.
But self-righteousness is not the only sin that plagues our sinful flesh, as our Epistle reading reminds us. There is another way that the first can be made last, and St. Paul shows us that by comparing the Christian life to a race, and to a prize fight. We as Christians have not been hired on to be lazy, undisciplined, and aimless in our day to day lives, but rather God has hired us for disciplined service for Him. We are to work faithfully in His vineyard, learning His Word and worshiping and praying and doing whatever our vocations call on us to do. We are to run through the marathon of this life with a focus on the prize of everlasting life that we are looking forward to, not getting distracted by things that would take us off on rabbit trails that lead to hell. And we are to fight against everything that would get in between us and Christ, anything that would keep us away from His Word and Sacraments in the Church; we are to fight against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, which continually seek to destroy our confidence in Christ.
St. Paul says, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things," and so we are to exercise self-control in all our working, running, and fighting. Paul says, "I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). Paul and all of us have been qualified into eternal life by Baptism into Christ and by being nourished on His Word and Sacraments, but our sinful flesh can lead us astray and disqualify us if it controls us rather than the Holy Spirit. The warning Paul gives us is based on the example of the Israelites in the wilderness, the ones that we heard grumbling to the Lord in the Old Testament reading. Paul says that even though all of them had been God's chosen people, "Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness," that is, they did not get to enter the Promised Land.
And then he goes on in the verses that follow to explain what happened: "Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, 'The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.' We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry" (1 Corinthians 10:6-14).
There are major pitfalls on our race through life that can disqualify us, that can destroy us in the wilderness before we reached the Promised Land, and here St. Paul lists four of them as examples. The first pitfall is idolatry: that is, placing anyone or anything before the Lord—for example, the Israelites put partying, playing, and leisure ahead of God; they valued the pleasures of this life above disciplined service to the Lord.
The second pitfall is sexual immorality—that includes adultery, sex before marriage, cohabitation before marriage, pornography, and all sexual sins; notice how thousands of Israelites died for their sexual sins; this is reinforced in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which says, "God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous" (Hebrews 13:4). That is a grave threat against all sexual sin.
The third pitfall is putting Christ to the test, which is, according to our Old Testament reading, being faithless and asking, "Is the LORD among us or not?", that is, doubting His gracious care over your life.
And the fourth pitfall is grumbling, being discontent with the life that God has given you.
Examine your heart, and repent of all the ensnaring sins that keep dragging you down. But as you think about these sins, remember that St. Paul isn't saying that these are unforgiveable sins—if you have committed them or are caught up in them right now, it is not too late to repent. But Paul is warning that these are deadly sins because they can destroy faith in Christ. They can destroy the disciplined service the Lord hired you on for. But take heart! St. Paul goes on to say, "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
The "way of escape" is in your Lord and Savior. He is your only hope in this life and for the next. When you are tempted to self-righteousness and sins of the flesh, pray to the Lord for His help to overcome the temptation, as Dr. Luther says in the Large Catechism, "Take hold of the Lord's Prayer, and speak to God from the heart like this: "Dear Father, You have asked me to pray. Don't let me fall because of temptations." Then you will see that the temptations must stop and finally confess themselves conquered." (Large Catechism III, Sixth Petition, Concordia, 421).
But when you have given in to any temptation and have sinned against your gracious Lord, run in repentance to the Gospel, run to your Baptism into Christ, run to Confession and Absolution, run to the Sacrament of the Altar where Christ gives you His true body and true blood under the bread and wine, given and shed for the forgiveness of all of your sins. And when you have grown weary in the struggle, when you are worn out from working in God's Vineyard, from running the Christian race, and from fighting against the devil, then listen to your gracious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who assures you of His free grace and favor, that He has done everything to save you: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.