Text: Matthew 20:1-16
This week we begin the long walk to our Lord’s cross and resurrection. In our closing hymn last week, we bid farewell to the Alleluia, and already its absence is felt in the service today. We will continue to refrain from singing it until we sing it with joy at our Lord’s Easter. This Sunday, with its long Latin title Septuagesima, marks about seventy days (nine Sundays) until the Resurrection. This week, along with the next two Sundays, forms its own little season in the Church Year called “Pre-Lent,” which is basically what it sounds likes. One seminary professor described Pre-Lent as packing your bags before going on a trip.
In this season we “pack our bags,” by remembering three important teachings of the Christian Church. We know them as the three Solas of the Reformation: grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone. We are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, and the Scriptures alone are necessary for salvation. This week our Lord’s parable teaches us about our God’s abundant grace. Though the servants in the parable were called to work at different times and to perform different tasks, they all received the same wage – for the master of the house was generous with what was his. So, also is our Lord toward us with the forgiveness of sins. In our God’s vineyard, by His grace, all receive the same forgiveness of sins in Christ.
This idea, that our God looks upon us in love and grace and that entrance into His kingdom is by grace, is all throughout Scripture. What we mean by saying that we are saved by grace alone is that our good works, even though they flow from a living faith, nevertheless do not contribute anything to our salvation. We receive the forgiveness of our sins entirely, freely, by God’s grace through faith in Christ. This is taught in all of Scripture, and it’s brought up in the context of our text today. Remember the number one rule for interpreting a passage – take it in context. To do that, let’s stretch back to Matthew 19.
Matthew 19 is where people were bringing their little children to Jesus. This included younger children, infants, and even unborn children. St. Matthew writes that they were bringing them so that Jesus might, “lay His hands on them and pray.” When the disciples got wind of this, they rebuked the parents and blocked the children from Jesus, thinking they weren’t worthy of His attention. Jesus, in turn, rebuked them. He said, “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” The point being, since we are received into God’s kingdom by grace – and not because of who we are or what we do – even children are welcomed to Christ’s side.
After this was when the rich young ruler came up to Jesus, asking Him what good work he could do to earn eternal life. Jesus taught that if he wanted to earn his way in, God demands complete and total obedience to the Commandments. The man went away sorrowful, not wanting to part with his many possessions. The disciples were astounded by this because it was taught that, if anyone was worthy of heaven, it was the rich. The rich didn’t have to worry about money but could be totally given to works of charity. But, that’s not how it works with God, Jesus said. Instead, “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Many who think they are first because of their works will be last, and many who think they are last because of their sins will be first.
“For,” Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” With these words, Jesus is illustrating what He just taught. The master of house goes out to hire workers for the vineyard. He went out first thing in the morning and, after agreeing with the workers for a denarius – which is a day’s wage – the workers are sent into the vineyard. The master went out again around 9, and said to the workers he hired then, “whatever is right I will give you.” He went again around noon and 3 and did the same. Finally, with one hour left in the day, he hired the workers no one else had and sent them into the vineyard, too.
At the of the day, the owner said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” When the last ones hired came, they each received a full denarius – even though they only worked an hour. This made those hired at the beginning of the day think they’d receive more. But, when they, too, received a denarius, they began grumbling against the master of the house. He responded to one of them, “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?”
In the parable, God is the master and the vineyard is His kingdom. The wages are the forgiveness of sins and the workers are us. Our God, in His great wisdom and goodness, has sent His Word into all the world. He works faith in the hearts of those who hear it and bids them come and work in His vineyard. To work in the vineyard is to bear the fruits that flow from a living faith, providing a loving witness to Christ wherever He has placed us in life. As the workers were called at different times, so we, too. Many of us were first called as infants in Baptism, others at different points in life. Though we were called at different times and to do different things, we all receive the same wage – the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in Christ. This doesn’t depend on our works or station in life, but entirely on God’s grace. As it said in the parable, He chooses to freely give what is His to give.
There are a few things we should take away from the text this week. As we said at the beginning, our text calls to mind that we are saved by God’s grace alone, and not by our works. This means that our salvation is earned for us entirely by Christ’s good works and by His death – not ours. We all receive the full forgiveness of our sins and entrance into His eternal life through faith in Christ. No matter who we are or how great our sins may be, our savior is greater, still, and we are redeemed. This should also keep us from looking down on or sideways at others. In Christ’s Church there is no one who is more saved than another or less saved than someone else. We also know from experience, that even those who seem the greatest saints can very quickly fall in need of repentance.
Lastly, as in the parable, we are called by our Lord at different times to perform different tasks. We are called in the same way – through the Word – but not always to do the same things. But, that doesn’t mean that any are worth more or less than another. As St. Paul said, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” We are each called by Christ through His Word. Through the Word, He creates faith and gives us the forgiveness of sins. This faith produces in us the good works of love, which are many, varied, and different. Yet, our God choses to give freely out of what is His. By His grace alone, we all receive the full forgiveness of our sins through Jesus Christ, our Lord.