Sermon based on Matthew 20:1 – 16 for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Dear beggars who will receive your wages: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father, and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The life of a day labourer in the time of Jesus was not an easy one. They didn’t have a steady income, so they would be delighted to be called into someone’s service, so that they could eat along with their families. Day labourers could not afford to be without work. Too many days without work could well mean going without food.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells the parable of a master of a house who went to hire day labourers for his vineyard. He goes and hires labourers first thing in the morning and calls them into his service. Undoubtedly, these labourers would have been glad to receive work for the day, knowing that they have secured their livelihood for the day.
The master goes out again about the third hour, which would be 9 in the morning. He sees others standing around idle, so he graciously calls them into his service also, so that they don’t have to waste their day without purpose and without means of support.
By noon, those still looking for work would start to see hope fading. Half the day is gone and they have nothing to show for it. What are the chances they will still get hired? Even more so for those still loitering around at the ninth hour, or 3 in the afternoon. Desperation starts to set in. What are we going to do? We can’t go home with nothing.
Those remaining in the eleventh hour had undoubtedly given up hope completely, but having nowhere else to be, they just stood around. With only one hour left in the day, the only question on their minds is where they will get food and drink, maybe a place to rest.
When the master shows up and calls them into his vineyard, we can imagine them breathing a sigh of relief – at least they can hope to get some food with what they might earn in this last hour. Their excitement was undeniably greater than the excitement of those hired first, who didn’t have to go through most of the day suffering doubt about their unknown future.
On top of it all, they end up receiving a denarius each, a full day’s pay! They understood the graciousness of the master in hiring them in the first place when the day was nearly over, and now he pays them what they certainly did not deserve, a full day’s pay. Though they were hired last, they got paid the same as those who were hired first.
When it was their turn to get paid, those who had been hired first expected that they should get more than they were promised. They had been promised a denarius – a day’s pay – but seeing those who were hired for only one hour receive a denarius, they thought they deserved more. After all, they carried the burden of the day and the scorching heat; they worked 12 hours instead of one. The pay seemed unfair to them. They were hired first; they thought they should get paid more than those who were hired last.
We, like these first workers, are so ready to calculate our cost of following Jesus; what it has cost us to be in His kingdom. We may have friends, co-workers, or family that ridicule us because of our faith. Our honesty in work situations may have cost the company profit and caused us personal loss and the displeasure of our boss and co-workers. Our standing up for the truth of the Word of God on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and living together outside of marriage may have caused us to be unpopular and even despised. We are so quick to notice what following Jesus has cost us. Many of us may want to ask Jesus if He has forgotten all that we have sacrificed to follow Him. We want Him to notice what following Him has cost us and pay us our reward.
But we must always remember that we are on the receiving end. Jesus is always giving to us. In our spiritual poverty, Jesus gives us His Spirit. We, who have nothing to offer God, receive everything from Him. Eternal life is a gift given to us, poor spiritual beggars that we are.
The last thing Martin Luther wrote before he died is a mediation in which he wrote, “We are beggars. That is true.” He understood the cost of following Jesus. He spent much of his life sick. He faced the disappointment of his father because he became a monk instead of a lawyer. He spent time in hiding for his life because there was a bounty on his head. He was excommunicated by Rome, and faced opposition everywhere. But the very reason he was so willing to suffer and work in the service of his Master was because he had come to realize that he was a beggar. He had come to realize that forgiveness is a free gift. Luther was happy that he had been called at noontime into the master’s service, and was eager to work the rest of the day to ensure that those standing idly by might also be called into the vineyard.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as beggars. We take great pride in our own accomplishments and self-sufficiency. We don’t even like to ask anyone for anything. But in our relationship with God, we have nothing to offer. We cannot point to anything we have done in our lives and claim merit for it. Whether He calls us first or last, before God, the only thing that’s great about us is our sin.
Jesus says that many who are first will be last to humble those who think they are great before God, so that they would not trust in themselves, but only in the mercy of God. Someone who has been blessed to be in God’s kingdom since his baptism as an infant might be tempted to think that he deserve extra rewards in heaven, at least a few extra square feet compared to some others. Someone who suffers persecution and a martyr’s death might feel that he deserves a greater reward than one of his persecutors who turns to God in his final hour. But Jesus is teaching us not to focus on our cost of following Him, or anyone else’s cost. He is the one who paid for our heavenly reward. Our entrance into His eternal kingdom cost Jesus His life. And this payment is good for those who enter His kingdom early in their lives and for those who enter in their eleventh hour. This payment is for those who are first and those who are last.
Jesus also says that the last will be first so that those who know they are nothing before God will not despair; so that the spiritual beggar will trust in the goodness and mercy of God and know that he will get a reward that he does not deserve. Jesus equalizes all the servants that are called into the vineyard. He abolishes all human merit, leaving only the graciousness of the master to be praised.
And whose day was really better – those who were called early in the morning or those who had doubts throughout the day; those who knew they were secure in the master’s mercy or those who went the whole day wondering if they would be shown mercy? Whose life is better, those people who have served God from baptism as infants or those who wander their whole life without God, idle and without purpose, and finally receive forgiveness on their deathbed?
Here too, we see the love and graciousness of God. He doesn’t stop calling people into His kingdom. He doesn’t say that since you didn’t grow up knowing Him, you have no place in His kingdom. You may even have wandered away from Him, but He is always calling you back. He wants you in His kingdom, where He will reward you with wages that you do not deserve.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Rom. 6:23]. The wages that we deserve for our lives of sin is death. But God, our heavenly master, gives us wages that we do not deserve – the free gift of eternal life in Jesus. He calls you to receive your wages. Whether He called you early in your life or is only now calling you, perhaps even in the eleventh hour, He wants to give you what He earned for you – eternal life. And those of us already in His kingdom should be more than overjoyed that God is still calling people out of lives of idleness and sin into His kingdom. No, they do not deserve it. But neither do we. We are all beggars. It is true. But we will receive our wages, even though we do not deserve them. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.