Septuagesima – Historic Lectionary – Matthew 20:1-16 – January 28, 2018
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
We usually miss the boat when it comes to our Lord’s parables.
The reason for this is not because we’re not intelligent people or because we’re really bad Christians, the reason is simply that we don’t really know what parables are; for we don’t live in a culture that speaks in parables, and so we don’t really know why they’re told, or what function they’re supposed to serve.
Instead, they sound to us like stories, maybe a little bit like Aesop’s Fables, and so we might think that they teach us about virtue and morality, they teach us the do’s and don’ts of faithful Christian living.
And if we aren’t led in that direction, then perhaps they sound to us like the movies we watch or the books that we read, where we spend half the time imagining ourselves to be the hero.
And therefore, we think that the parables are given so that we would place ourselves into the characters of the ‘good people’, identify the hero, find the kind of person you want to be and learn from them.
This is why most preaching and teaching on the parables of Jesus usually boils down to such wisdom as:
Be merciful, Be kind to your neighbor, Love your enemies, Don’t complain, Have faith.
Those are certainly nice things. They are even godly things, but they are not what our Lord comes to bring in His parables.
For our Lord does not come down to us from Mt. Sinai as the new Moses giving us more commands.
His Gospel to us is not, “Straighten up and look busy!”
Rather, He comes as the Lord and Giver of Life, He comes bearing redemption,
He comes preaching in parables and revealing His true Kingdom.
It is about Him. Who He is, and who He is for you.
And so today, as we hear this parable, don’t get distracted, don’t get lost,
And in fact, this isn’t actually all that difficult to do.
Instead take seriously the words of Jesus that we hear at the very beginning:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a Master” (Matthew 20:1)
That’s it. This parable is about the Master; don’t worry about the workers or the wages just yet, don’t think about the hours of the day or the grumbling hearts of the laborers hired first.
Instead, follow the Master, who He is and what He does. See in Him, the Kingdom of Heaven.
For the Master defines the entire parable, everything receives its form, its importance and place from Him.
And just who is this Master? How does He define everything around Him?
Simply this: He is the generous One, that is to say, He is full of grace.
For it is His grace that holds the entire story together. It is His grace that moves the parable along. It is His grace that oozes off of every word on the page.
For in Grace the Master goes out to hire men into His vineyard, and not just once, but throughout the entire day, even at the very last minute. He is faithful, He does not give up, He never stops coming out to invite them in.
It is His grace that defines what is good and right to give as wages, to pay for work that his laborers did not do, to bear the price in Himself, to be cheated of His Kingdom and instead give it away to those who did not earn it.
It is His grace that answers the indignation of grumbling and arrogant workers, with instead the words of peace and compassion, calling even these, the haters of grace: His friends.
And it is His grace that defines for us and divides the ‘first from the last’, the grumbling from the gracious, the arrogant from the humble.
This is the definition of the parable, it is seen through His eyes, through His generosity and sacrifice. So don’t get distracted, keep your eyes on the Master, follow His grace into the workers, and see the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yet, at the same time, this is exactly where we get distracted, this is where we toss the Master to the side and sit down to scratch our heads about who these people might be.
Some suggest that the first workers are those Christians who have been born into the Church, the ones who were perhaps baptized as infants and children, and have remained committed and faithful all their days.
On the other hand, the last are then those who are brought into the Body of Christ at the very last minute, whether later as adults, or in the final moments of this earthly life.
Another possibility is that following the theme work and effort in the parable, so the first are those in the Church who volunteer all of their time, they agree to be put on every board and council, they break their backs in the heat of the church’s mission and witness.
And so on the other hand, the last are those Christians who show up to receive the Lord’s gifts, but to the eyes of the Church leaders, don’t ever do anything.
In both interpretations, the point of the parable is to remind both groups, but especially the first, whether they be the life-long Christians or committed volunteers, the point is remind them that in Christ, everyone receives the same gift, so don’t look down on your neighbor.
Those are perhaps nice thoughts, and they might even be helpful words to remember, but they are not the point of the parable, they do not reveal anything about the Kingdom of Heaven, for they are not defined truly by the Master’s grace.
The first and the last is not some foreign phrase, and the meaning of it isn’t actually all that difficult, this isn’t about groups of people, but simply about grace, and how mankind lives, how he receives it with thanksgiving or rejects it with contempt.
For our Lord preaches that first will be last and the last will be first, by simply saying, that, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
St. Mary sings as well in the Magnificat that, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly, He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.” (Luke 1:51-53).
The first are those who think themselves to be first, they are good enough for God, they do not need grace, but have earned for themselves true justice, they look not to Master’s generosity, that doesn’t matter to them, instead they look to themselves and to their work, and they believe the lie that they are owed every good gift by right.
The first are Christians, they are those brought into the Vineyard initially by grace, but those who have learned in their pride that grace no longer matters, only work and effort win the day.
The work of the first is hard work, they bear the pain of the heat of the day, for this is what means when you reject the grace of Christ and work out a faith for yourself.
That is an impossible life, it is a grumbling and miserable life. It is to think not only that God owes you something by right, but that all will come crashing down if you do not break your back and do the work.
This is a Christianity that calls itself Christianity, but lives without Christ, without His grace, without His kingdom. It works and lives in the same field, but it serves a completely different Lord.
The first will be last. Those who throw away the grace of God, those who spit upon the labor, the blood, sweat and tears of the Messiah will be humbled, they will be brought low. Repent.
For the parables are not given that you would identify as one of the characters and count yourself good enough for God.
The first and the last are found in the same Christian. No one is exempt from sins of pride. No one is spared from the temptation to cast aside God’s grace and start believing that you making it on your own.
Repent. Be humbled. Follow the Master and see again the parable through His eyes.
The Last are those who deserve nothing. They are paid for work that they did not do. They are those who count themselves as nothing, who receive the gift as a gift, not as a right, not as something that they are owed, but as pure and total gift.
And for that, for their humility, for their perhaps difficult life of counting themselves as nothing, their burden is light, their work is easy, they are not burnt by the heat of the sun, but they labor with joy, it’s as if they’re not really doing anything, it’s as if the Master is providing and doing all things.
Their eyes are fixed simply on the Master Himself, they are those who seek first the Kingdom of God, and in their surprise find that all of these things denarius and a place in the Kingdom are added unto them as well.
Be at peace, O Christian, your Lord has called you into a Kingdom that He wills to give away for free.
He does you no wrong, He gives you what is good, He pays the price Himself, He bears the injustice completely and fully, He takes the Firstborn and makes Him the Last, the despised, the one counted as nothing, that you the least of these might in Him be counted First.
Be given His yoke, and receive it upon you, for He is gentle and lowly in heart, and you do in Him, find true rest for your souls.
This is the difficult-easy Baptized life. This is the difficult-easy dynamic that we are rightfully reminded of just before Lent.
For it is difficult, as we hear the Word and recognize our many temptations to be exalted, it is difficult as we take our rightful place as the last of all.
But it is also easy. You don’t have to bear the heat of day. It is already borne for you.
You don’t have to add anything to what the Lord has done. It is already finished, the Master Himself will call with His Word more workers into the vineyard.
You get the life and the work of rest, to receive from Him, to take your place as a saint at this altar, not by right, but according to grace.
And in that easy life, you might be looked down upon, you might receive no small amount of scorn.
So it is in the vineyard. We do nothing, the Lord does all. We follow the Master, we live in the utter simplicity of the Baptized life, it looks ridiculous to those bearing the heat of the sun and trying to add more to the work of the vineyard.
It looks ridiculous that the mission of the Church would be found in the knees that hit the steps of this altar, in the mouths that confess this faith, and are filled with good things, in the simple vocations that God has actually given you to do, to rest in, to receive from His hand grace upon grace, to live in repentance and be humbled at the start of everyday.
It seems strange that this would be the work of the Kingdom. But so it is. He does you no wrong, He gives of Himself, and He calls to Himself.
Be at peace, your burden is light, He has already borne it, and he bears with you still.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.