Sermon for Septuagesima

Septuagesima
Matthew 20:1-16
February 16, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

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

1.

Standing vigilant in courtrooms around the country, and even around the world, are statues of Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding a sword in one hand and balanced scales in the other.  The statue is a depiction of the qualities of justice—justice is blind; it’s maintained by force of the Law; and it is fair and equitable.

The statues of Lady Justice are not a recent innovation of modern judicial theory.  Many of the ancient civilized cultures such as Rome, Greece, and Egypt had depictions of gods of justice quite similar to our own, and believed these gods to be living embodiments of the moral force of judicial systems.

2.

These are qualities of justice that are held in the highest regard in our society.  Justice is blind—it is meted out irrespective of appearance, identity, power, or status.  It is one of our society’s great faux pas to discriminate against someone because of his or her skin color—and it’s certain to make a sensational news story when it does happen.  But there’s another side of that coin as well—thinking that you deserve a reward because of your skin color.

But justice isn’t as blind as we’d like to think.  In fact, the color that gets the most favorable judgment is green.  Have you ever written a letter to your congressman?  I did on several occasions in Illinois.  I always got a response, but it was clearly written by an aide, who copied and pasted a cobbled together some form responses.  But let’s say I were to put a couple million dollars in your bank account, fly you out to Washington, set you up at an exclusive restaurant with a promise of campaign donations, I’m sure you could get your congressman’s ear for a few hours, and maybe even some favorable laws for yourself.

Despite the socially progressive campaign to try to convince us that discrimination based on appearance or ethnicity is a learned behavior, the fact that it just won’t go away is an indication that it’s human nature to judge people based upon how they look.  It’s human nature to judge based upon appearance, identity, power, or status.  Lady Justice may be blindfolded, but she sure likes to peak when no one else is looking.

This is all merely symptomatic, though, of our even greater idolatry of equality.  Our United States declared her independence based in part on the belief that all men are created equal, that we all begin life on the same foot, and that this initial equality guarantees certain rights.  But in the 238 years since, we’ve come to flip that around.  Now whenever our society perceives inequality, it is bent on creating new rights in order to guarantee equality.

Consider, for a moment, that popular new term, “marriage equality.”  The question of homosexual marriage is framed as an issue of equal rights.  But if the state has no business restricting the rights of two men to marry each other, what business does it have restricting the rights of two siblings marrying each other, or cousins, or minors, or the right of a man to marry another man’s wife?

The idolatry of equality drives the liberal progressive agenda in our society, but it’s not something that’s only limited to the political left.  Perceived inequality drives the conservative just as much as his political counterpart, though perhaps not as overtly.  The fair and balanced debate is the way one conservative news station attempts to compete against the liberal mainstream media.  And conservative political candidates in Illinois make a living criticizing the Chicago political machine awarding work contracts to friends without equal opportunity for other businesses.

The idolatry of equality isn’t just a political problem; it isn’t just an American problem.  It’s a human problem.  Human nature has a hard time distinguishing between the Lord of all creation and Lady Justice.  It starts off early.  One of the first and go-to arguments of school children is, “That’s not fair!”  And it’s true.  Parents know the answer to this complaint: “Well, life’s not fair.”

Because we confuse the Lord for Lady Justice, we have a natural affinity to haggling with God for fair wages according to the Law.  But we forget that God is not blindfolded, and the scales that He holds have the history of humanity’s rebellion already weighing against us.  There is, however, one thing that Lady Justice shares in common with the true God of all creation.  She bears a sword just as the Lord bears the Law—which is the great equalizer, which does not discriminate on appearance, identity, power, or status.  If you negotiate your wages with God according to the Law, you will earn the wages of sin.  And the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23a).

3.

The parable of the workers is addressed to the disciples who think they’re owed a reward equal to their commitment to Jesus.  After witnessing a rich young ruler go away sad when Jesus told him to sell all his things and follow Him, Peter says, “Look, we gave up everything and followed You; what will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27).  Jesus then begins a parable of the Kingdom with a negotiation.  For the reign of the heavens is like a man who was a ruler of a house, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a denarius, he sent them for the day into his vineyard (vv 1-2).

This first group haggles for equal pay for equal work.  A denarius is a day’s pay for a day’s work.  But then something striking happens when the man goes out again.  And going out around the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace and to these he said, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give to you.” So they left.  Again he went out around the sixth and ninth hour and did the same (vv 3-4).  No longer does he haggle with them for a wage; he simply sends them to work in the vineyard with the promise of a just gift.  Often this turning point is overlooked for the irony that comes later in the parable.  But it is the point that shows how the Kingdom of Heaven departs from the kingdoms of this world.  He does not repay you with a reward equal to your work, but rather promises a just gift.

The Just Gift of the Lord Is His Gracious Promise to Reward You Apart from Your Work for Him 

4.

The turning point of the parable is the lord of the vineyard’s promise of a just gift, but then it just gets absurd.  Going out around the eleventh hour, he found others standing and said to them, “Why have you been standing in the marketplace the whole day?” They said to him, “Because no one hired us for himself.”  He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard” (vv 6-7).  Now there is no longer even a promise of a gift; neither is there really an expectation of work.  Think of it.  There’s only one hour of work left to do.  By the time that these ones get to the vineyard, find out who’s in charge and what’s going on, the other workers are probably hauling in their harvest for the day.  The lord of the vineyard is effectively sending this last group into his vineyard for payday only.

And then the just gift.  The astounding, unbelievable gift.  When evening came, the lord of the vineyard said to the steward, “Call the workers and give over to them the wage beginning from the last until the first.” And when the ones from the eleventh hour came, he gave one day’s wage (v 8).  These guys, who maybe lifted a crate or two of grapes get a whole day’s wage.  Presumably on down the line the wage is the same for the others who were hired at various times of the day and put in various amounts of work, because when the first ones came, thinking that they would receive more, he also gave them one day’s wage (v 9).

This causes quite a scandal for the first ones hired.  And they began to raise complaints about the ruler of the house, saying, “Those who were last did one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.” And answering one of them, he said, “Friend, I did not treat you unjustly.  Did you not agree with me for a day’s wage? Take what’s your and go.  I desire to give to the last as I gave to you.” Or is it not allowed to me what I desire to do among my own?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

There is a justice—or a righteousness—that is revealed in the Kingdom of Heaven that is a justice apart from the Law.  The just rewards of God’s Kingdom are not something you can haggle for. They are not determined by your fidelity to the Law, or your fulfilling a two-way agreement with God.

Inside the Kingdom of Heaven, the scales of justice tilt astonishingly in your favor, for Christ has redeemed your work with His work.  All of humanity’s guilt that counts against you is balanced out and finally overwhelmed by the cross of Christ.  You get equal pay for very unequal work.  For Christ is paid your wage for sin, and He gives you the just gift of His righteousness.

A wage paid apart from the work put in is a gift, and gift is grace.  By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless.  The justice of God’s Kingdom is not blind, for God looks upon you through the blood of Christ.  This justice is not equitable, for you receive far better than what you have earned.  This justice is not achieved by the Law, but by way of grace, by way of gift.

5.

Thus the last will be first and the first last (v 16).  Jesus ends His parable with the same words He spoke just before the parable.  It shows us how the reign of God in Christ utterly turns on its head everything we think we know about God.  His Kingdom is for the last, the least, the lost.  In the kingdom of Christ, in His Kingdom of Grace, many who are last according to the Law will be first according to grace.

So if your negotiations according to the Law break down—and they will—fear not.  Your reward is great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In + Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
VD+MA