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It’s All About Grace (St. Matthew 20.1-16)



“It’s All About Grace”
Reverend Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

St. Matthew 20.1-16

13 February 2022



It is sinful to envy what God has given to others. God calls it coveting. An even greater sin is to disparage God for his generosity because it throws his kindness back in his face. The kingdom of God does not operate that way.

The workers in the vineyard believed they had the right to demand something from the master of the house. Because those who were hired last received the same wage as those who toiled all day, the all-day workers aimed their anger at the master because they thought they deserved more. Yet, it was never a matter of deserving. They had agreed on their wages.

We in the Church—pastors and lay people—serve at God’s gracious pleasure. God calls us to our various vocations. Some serve longer, some shorter times. It has nothing to do with length of service. One doesn’t earn more because of length of service. It has only to do with God’s gracious call. There were those who despised latecomers such as the Apostle Paul. He hadn’t been there at the beginning. Even worse, he had been a persecutor of God’s Church. Paul received God’s grace like all the rest.

The literal translation of v. 16 is an idiom. “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The good that God does is turned into evil by envious people in our parable. In the Parable of the Tenants Jesus takes the vineyard metaphor further. [Matt. 21-33-44 Trinity 20] The tenants believe that they owned the vineyard. It is no longer merely about wages; it becomes a rebellion. God’s authority and power are usurped. They murder the owner’s son, a picture of the religious leaders killing Jesus to hold on to what they mistakenly believed is theirs.

The Church is not ours. We don’t own it. No pastor owns it. No congregation owns it, contrary to much unholy thinking. For this congregation the name on the cornerstone says it all—Immanuel’s Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche. Immanuel’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Possessive. Immanuel’s. That’s the One to whom it belongs. You can read it for yourself, both on the cornerstone from the original sanctuary inside the narthex, as well as on the cornerstone for this sanctuary on the outside. I encourage you to look at it and let the words sink in.

You and I are merely workers in God’s vineyard. The Church belongs to our Lord. The term steward points to this. Stewards are managers. They take care of what belongs to another. We manage what belongs to our Lord. It is his to do with as he pleases.

Those who come in at the very end receive God’s grace, just like those who came as same day or one day old infants. God deals with all solely by grace, undeserved forgiveness. The parable is not about what you and I earn. It is not about wages. Earning has no place in God’s kingdom. Grace does, however. God chooses to dispense forgiveness and eternal life to all, no matter when they arrive. That way, no one is before or after another. 

For the past few months there have been signs at nearly every business establishment: Help wanted. Employers are begging people to get hired. How different it was before Covid! Because of government money people don’t want to work. In this parable the master needs workers to gather in his harvest. In Palestine the grape harvest happens toward the end of September, and close on its heels comes the rain. If the grapes aren’t harvested, the crop is ruined. It is a critical time. So the master goes out at various times to find vineyard workers. Any worker will do. 

A colleague of mine who lived in San Mateo,California, became a wine connoisseur. He charted weather reports for the Napa Valley with great scrutiny. By doing this he knew which vintners would have the best wines. If harvested too early the wines were so-so. If harvested too late they were ruined. Timing is everything in growing grapes. That’s the situation in our parable. Timing is everything. The master of the vineyard wants workers to bring in his harvest. The harvest is critical.

At the end of the day the workers who were hired earliest rebelled. They worked hard and got the wage to which they had agreed. So, too, those who were hired near the end of the day. But when the end of the day came those who were hired first were looking at the wages of those who were hired last. They believed that they deserved more than those hired last. They deserved it! The whole idea of works came up. They were scandalized at the owner’s generosity. They believed that they should determine who was more worthy, and of course, they didn’t have to look far. They were convinced that they should receive more than those who came in late. After all, they had borne the heat of the day and worked longer and harder than all the rest.

The point of comparison in this parable is that grace is never earned. Everything depends upon the generosity of the Master. The parable of the Waiting Father with the two rebellious sons also makes it plain that heaven is not earned. The younger son, also known as the Prodigal Son, has wasted his father’s inheritance, but he repents. The older son does not repent. He’s been watching his Father’s grace in forgiving his brother. He is scandalized. 

There might even be some who think that after a pastor has toiled in the vineyard of the Lord for 40 years, he deserves a special place in heaven. Some pastors might even begin to believe it themselves. It’s not a new idea. In fact, the whole monastic system of the Middle Ages was built on the premise that those who worked harder for God by going into monasteries and convents were earning more credits than the lay person, the lowly person who tended the animals or worked the fields or kept the master’s house clean. They committed even worse sin by buying and selling their supposed extra merits for forgiveness. 

Our Old Adam keeps score. It is that simple. We keep score of the slights and wrongs that others commit against us. We keep score of our neighbor’s possessions over against ours. We keep score of the favors shown to others as opposed to those shown to us. Siblings keep score as to who seems to get the most or the most expensive gifts at birthdays or Christmases. Even husbands and wives keep score. Especially husbands and wives keep score! Very simply the world lives as though every human interaction were a business transaction, a kind of quid pro quo, tit for tat. We understand the game all too well. We’re on the lookout for cheaters. We’re watching other people in our own self-interest!

God, however, does not work that way. The danger for us lies in begrudging others what Christ gives. We would elevate ourselves and demote others, introducing the idea that we somehow deserve more. Fairness, as we view fairness, is not fairness at all. It’s merit. It’s keeping score. Rather, listen to God speak through Isaiah:

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. [Isaiah 55:8 ESV]

God doesn’t judge as we do, and for that we should be thankful.

There are those last minute repenters who manage to squeeze into heaven at the 11th hour, kind of like that guy who muscles his way into the merge line on the interstate right before you get there! As I have mentioned previously, there were some Nazi war criminals who repented before their executions. Did they deserve heaven? Or the worst murderer on death row? Does he deserve heaven at the last minute because he repents?

Our answer is “No! He doesn’t deserve it!” The world itself doesn’t believe them worthy of eternal life and pronounces its anathema on them. They don’t deserve forgiveness and eternal life! But, my friend, neither do you nor I. It was never earned. It has always been by grace. Everything that God does is by grace. All people fall under the same condemnation, and all people fall under the same grace. The idea of merit or, in this case, longevity, has nothing to do with the result.

So what does God look at? He looks at Christ alone and what he has done. The five stanzas of the hymn, Thy Works, Not Mine, O Christ sum up nicely:

Thy works, not mine, O Christ

Thy wounds, not mine, O Christ

Thy cross, not mine, O Christ

Thy death, not mine, O Christ

Thy righteousness, O Christ

LSB 565. Text public domain

God doesn’t give us what we have earned or it would have to be eternal death. Rather, he gives us what Christ has earned. He bestows it by grace, freely, overflowingly, here in his Word of Absolution, in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Father gives heaven away for free because of Christ’s own sacrifice. It’s all by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. It’s what our catechumens learn as The Great Exchange. It’s a scandal to the world. The world stumbles over it, rejecting it, preferring merit instead, but the world will never have eternal life on its terms. God has done no one wrong by removing merit. Quite the opposite, God has opened heaven to all because of Christ’s merits. It’s a scandal to the world, but everlasting joy to us!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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