We live in a world of debts and debtors, of favors given and favors owed, where you get what you pay for and employment law insists you be paid what you are owed. So it is rather easy for us to get the idea that God owes us something. We give up our Sunday mornings so God owes us a decent Monday. We put up with sermons so God has to put up with our whining prayers. We admit we screw up once in a while so God has to take His responsibility for all the things that are not what we think they should be. We deserve to be happy at least some of the time so God’s job is to give us a little happiness every now and then. Do I need to go on?
In our world, God owes us something. But in reality God does not owe us anything – except to punish us for our sins and leave us alone to our chosen miseries. That is the world in which we live. We go to church and say an occasional prayer and give a dollar or two and so God owes us a little something in return. That is the way our economy works on earth. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. But that is not the way of God. Ours is not a God of justice and but of mercy. This is both the joy of the faith and the scandal of the faith at the same time.
The parable of the vineyard workers describes an outlandish economy in which wages are not earned but given as gifts, where people do not get paid what they are owed but receive more than earned or dared to expect, and where the last are made first over and over again. The shock of this parable is that Jesus is not talking about or to people outside the Church but is talking about us Christians. He is contrasting those who truly believe with those whose hearts still betray the lie that they did something to earn God’s favor. This parable is a warning to Christians who might be tempted to think that justice is a better deal than mercy and who might presume that God owes them something for all that they have had to put up with in the faith.
Every heresy is in reality the same heresy. No matter how it sounds or what it says, every heresy is about deserving God’s kindness. Every heresy is about the idea that faith itself is a good work that deserves to be rewarded by God. Every heresy either adds something to the cross or takes it away in order to show that we have done something, earned something, and deserved something of the grace shown to us sinners. We think the heroes of this parable are the people who worked in the heat of the day and all day long for the Lord and the grave injustice of this parable is that they did not get more than those who worked less. Human fairness says that they deserved more. But the real heros are those who agreed with the owner for nothing and simply trusted Him to be generous with them and that what He gave them would be good enough.
You grow tired of hearing and I grow tired of preaching this same Gospel of grace and yet none of us can afford to hear anything but this Gospel week after week. Our hearts are not places of transparent virtue but dark dens of desire. You may leave here on Sunday having been absolved of your sins, having heard the Word of God, and having been fed upon the Body and Blood of Christ. But it will not take long before all of this will translate into demands that God listen to you, that you are not as bad as most folks and you are only slightly less good than the best of them, and that you give more and do more than most folks and therefore you have earned a little better treatment from God than most folks. You would be lucky to get out those doors before these thoughts start creeping into your hearts and minds. I know I never even get to those doors before I begin to grumble like those who got their wages and then complained because less deserving folks got the same.
You may think that you have grown up enough that you are well beyond hearing the simple Gospel of God’s favor and kindness but you are not. That is why we must hear the cross every Sunday. That is why we must hear of justification by grace through faith every Sunday. That is why we must endure the sermons that strip away our pride and expose our sinful hearts and lives to the Lord and why we must hear again that we are saved by grace and not of ourselves or any of our own doing but solely and completely through the merits of Christ alone.
Two things appeal to us. One is the idea that those who are saved are better people than those who are not. The other is that it does not matter what you do, God has decided to love and save you and so you are in like flint while God has decided He just does not like those other poor souls. The doctrine of election is not an explanation of why some are saved and not others. It is the doctrine that comforts us by reminding us we are not saved because we have believed longer or better or lived holier than others. We are all saved by grace and nothing else. You cannot make sense out of mercy. That is why the parable includes this sentence. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Do you begrudge my generosity?”
Christ bore the heat of the day on that lonely cross. He lived the one and only righteous life that deserved God’s favor. He died as the innocent for the guilty. He rose so that sinners marked for death might live forever. There is no place for you in this Gospel EXCEPT to rejoice that Jesus did it all for you, that He did it solely out of great love for you, and that He did it quite apart from what you deserved. Every one of us are the Johnny come latelys whose suffering is nothing compared to Christ, who are clothed with His holiness, who are forgiven for His sake, and who live solely because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Jesus did not die for good people or for those who would come to faith or for those who might be rehabilitated into decent folks. Jesus died for the world, for the whole sinful world, for sinners whose sins deserved only punishment and eternal death. Unless you count yourself among these people, Jesus has nothing whatsoever to give you except what you deserve. And you better think long and hard about whether or not you want to risk getting that.
Everywhere in the world, “first come, first served” but in the Kingdom of God the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Everywhere in the world you should be able to get what you deserve but in the Kingdom of God you are shown mercy and grace beyond. Everywhere in the world, you ought to get paid according to how hard you worked but in the Kingdom of God, you are paid the wages of eternal life because Christ worked Your salvation all by Himself upon the cross. This is a scandal to the mind but to the heart of faith that repents, it is the best news anyone can ever hear.
Now before you get the idea that it does not matter then how you live, remember what St. Paul says. “Shall we sin more so that grace may abound?” Of course not. For the miracle of the Spirit’s work is that when our hearts have been convicted of sin and confronted with all that Christ did to save us, faith is born – faith that desires more than anything else to actually live up to and as if you were the people Christ has declared you to be. Yup, you got it. Fear of punishment cannot make you stop sinning but a new heart planted in grace can make you try. You may think the one with whom you are angry does not deserve mercy, but be merciful as God has been with you. You may think that people have to prove themselves to you but be generous as the Lord has been with you. You may think that forgiveness must be earned but give it as freely as the Lord has forgiven you.
There is no free lunch. Somebody always pays. Even the hamburger and hotdogs we will eat at our Grill and Chill. But the one who has paid the price so that you may eat freely of the eternal banquet is the Lord Jesus. So eat believing and drink rejoicing that He has chosen to be merciful beyond measure and generous beyond all reason.
We are not workers expecting just wages but people who deserve nothing, to whom God has given everything. It is not simply that Christ earned salvation for us but that the Father gives to us freely what it cost Christ everything in suffering and death to earn. Rejoice in God’s mercy, counting Christ’s merits as yours and wearing your flesh so that He might suffer, die, and rise for you. There is no justice in this and it is not fair at all. But it is good news, indeed, the best good news anyone could ever hear. Amen.