Matthew 20:1-16 (Pentecost 17A)
St. John, Galveston 9/24/2023
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus told His disciples the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in response to a question Simon Peter asked Him in the section just before today’s reading. Just before Peter’s question though, Jesus encountered a rich man who thought he could get into the kingdom of heaven by how well he kept God’s commandments. He was sure he had done everything right in life but, of course, He was sadly mistaken. As it turned out, he had stumbled most grievously over the first commandment. His money had become more important to him than anything else in life, even God. “It is easier (Jesus said) for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

It was at that point that Peter asked Jesus his question. It was a reasonable question, although a bad one. “See (he said to Jesus), we have left everything and followed you. What then will WE have?” Peter apparently reasoned that if the rich man couldn’t get into heaven, in effect, because of his riches, then he and his friends should be able to get in because of their poverty. Or, perhaps he reasoned that he and his friends should be able to get into the kingdom of heaven because they gave up SO much to follow Jesus.

Either way, Peter was wrong, because the thing is, God doesn’t delight in giving us what we deserve. Rather, He delights in giving us what we don’t deserve. That’s the whole Gospel, isn’t it? “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin, that you might be the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus became what He was not, that you might be what you were not. And so, once again, in this parable and in this part of Matthew’s Gospel, we’re back to the distinction between the things of men and the things of God, the very thing that got Peter into trouble back in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel. In this case, Peter confused the things of men and the things of God regarding justice and fairness. 
A master hired workers to go and work in his vineyard throughout the course of the day. The first workers he hired were told that they would receive a denarius for their days work. The last one’s hired, those who only worked an hour, weren’t told what they would be paid. At the end of the day, the master paid his workers, beginning with those who were hired last. Those hired last received a denarius for their work. Those who were hired first were glad to see how much the master paid the last workers, because they assumed they would be paid much more than a denarius, since they worked the entire day. But the master paid them each a denarius as well. They cried foul. They said,‘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.’ To which Jesus said, “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?’

It’s an interesting parable, isn’t it? The one group of workers were paid what they were promised. Another group was paid the same, though they didn’t work as much as the other group. Since the parable is about the Kingdom of God, and since the master in the parable represents God, we can only conclude that God isn’t fair! That doesn’t seem right though. How can God not be fair? But the truth of the matter is, God isn’t fair. I mean, if He were fair, every one of us would be confined eternally to the torment of hell. Why? Well, because we would all be guilty of every sin we ever committed in life. We’d also be guilty of the sin into which we came into this world. God isn’t fair because He doesn’t give us what we deserve.

The fact is, God’s isn’t fair and there is nothing fair about this parable either. But then again, forgiveness and grace aren’t fair either, are they? Grace, after all, that’s merited, or earned, is no longer grace.

Why did God choose Abraham? Why did He not rather choose one of those who faithfully followed the holy patriarch Shem and retained the true worship of God? Undoubtedly, in order to commend and glorify His mercy, which truly is, as Paul says later, “God’s unsearchable riches.” Just so God calls Paul in later ages to be the apostle to the Gentiles— a fact to which Paul himself refers in the same passage—though he had been a very bad man, a murderer, a blasphemer, burning with hatred against Christ and His church. Yet God called him, whereas He might have called one of the seventy-two disciples or some other pious man. But He does not do this. By choosing Paul He shows us the super-abundance of His mercy.”

“But this fact has certainly not been recorded in order to confirm the godless in their impiety or to make them feel all the freer to go on sinning. It is written that the fearful and the timid, who are troubled to the point of despair by their sins, may have comfort and that, encouraged by such examples, they may also learn to hope in God, who merciful.”

In John 1, John the Baptist called out as Jesus approached him in the river. He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Luther preached on that passage in 1537 and said, “Either sin is with you, lying on your shoulders, or it is lying on Christ, the Lamb of God. Now if it is lying on your back, you are lost; but it it is resting on Christ, you are free, and you will be saved. According to law and justice, your sins should no doubt remain on you; but grace has cast them upon Christ, the Lamb. If God were minded to reason with us on other terms, we would be done for.” So, God isn’t fair, but that’s a good thing. We know God’s unfairness toward us as grace.  

So, Jesus tells this parable, not for us to sit and ponder it from every angle, or for us to try to figure out how much we each deserve in the Kingdom of God. Rather, He invites us to join Him in His Father’s mission. He knows that working in the Kingdom can be difficult and that justice and fairness can often be difficult for us to apply. So, He reminds us what the Kingdom of God is like: God is good and merciful. The kingdom of God is like an orphan being welcomed home; it’s like a person who is dying of cancer being treated like a person who is loved by God; it is like an enemy receiving the welcome of a friend. We could go on and on, and we should go on, but not just in words, but in deeds.

Today, Jesus calls you away from begrudging the generosity of God to sharing His generosity with others. The ways that you can do that are virtually endless. I think at the core of it though is the realization that, in the mysterious reckoning of the Gospel, God really isn’t fair. And, that’s a good thing. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. Rather, as the psalmist says, “He opens His hand and He satisfies the desire of every living thing.” “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +