The Generosity of the Lord of the Vineyard
|"The Workers in the Vineyard" by Rembrandt|
“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?” (Matthew 20:14-15).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s just not fair what the lord of the vineyard does! Consider it from the perspective of the workers who are hired at the start of the day—you’ll sympathize with them pretty quickly. They’re the early birds who get the worm. The lord of the vineyard comes along and offers them the standard deal for a twelve-hour shift. They’ll work in his vineyard for a day, and receive a day’s pay at the end. So, off they go. As they labor and toil, the lord of the vineyard keeps going back to the marketplace. Each time, he finds more who are idle and he calls them into his vineyard. He even goes back when there’s only one hour left in the day.
The day ends and it’s time to collect. The bean counters do the math: If those who work the whole day get a day’s pay, then it stands to reason that those who worked one-twelfth of the day will get one-twelfth of a day’s pay, right? But when those who worked only an hour collect their wages, they get it all—a full day’s wages. Surely those who worked the whole time are going to get something extra, aren’t they? It’s only fair. Yet, when it’s time to collect, they only get what was promised—one day’s pay, the same as everyone else.
It’s then that the grumbling begins. “It isn’t fair, what this lord of the vineyard has done. We worked a lot more, so we should get paid a lot more; but instead, all we got was what we were promised. Look at the guy who killed all but the last hour of the day before coming to work; he’s walking around with a whole day’s pay and a smile on his face.” So goes the reasoning of the grumblers, and you have to agree that the landowner hasn’t acted all that fairly.
However, consider the same day from the perspective of the lord of the vineyard. It’s his vineyard. He’s the one who goes to the marketplace and finds workers who are idle. He could look for others who show more initiative—he could stick to those who arrive at his gate; but these idle men need a place, or else all that they have will be taken from them. So he “hires” laborers. But note the terms: He promises he will give them whatever is right. As the day wears on he returns to the marketplace; and each time he goes he finds more idle men. He wants them, too, in his vineyard, where he can provide for them security and peace. Therefore, he calls them into his vineyard and offers them what is right. He even goes back at the eleventh hour. The lord has to realize that he won’t get much work out of them, but he still wants them in his vineyard anyway.
When the end of the day comes, the workers are gathered for the time of reckoning, and here’s the surprise: The lord of the vineyard does not pay them based upon their work. The lord of the vineyard gives to them based upon his generosity. Whether the worker has labored for twelve hours or one, he still has the same needs. So, that’s what the lord of the vineyard gives—what each one needs! Is it fair? Not at all. And thank God it isn’t. Focused so much on their own efforts, the full-day workers miss the most important point. The only reason that they are even in the vineyard is because the lord has given them a place.
You see, this parable isn’t about life in the world; it is about the kingdom of heaven. And the kingdom of heaven isn’t about getting what you deserve; it’s about the generosity of the Lord. Don’t look for the world’s justice in the kingdom of heaven; it doesn’t apply. What passes for justice in this world just doesn’t fit the kingdom of heaven. As God says in the Old Testament reading for today: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The Lord is simply not fair in the way that the world measures fairness. And thank God He isn’t! The world wants an eye for an eye, a life for a life; but the Lord takes the nails and lays down His life for the forgiveness of our sins. The world wants the punishment to fit the crime; but the Lord, who has committed no crime, bears your punishment in His body on the cross. The world demands retribution and revenge; but Christ prays for His enemies and takes on all of God’s wrath for our sin. The Lord is generous, forgiving, and kind. He repays evil with good. He does not seek the death of a sinner; instead, your Lord desires to show mercy. That mercy was accomplished by the Father’s just punishment of His Son on the cross. Justice for Jesus means mercy for you. Christ has atoned for all your sins by His innocent suffering and death, and in heaven you will live for all eternity in your Savior’s love. There is no worldly justice beyond the pearly gates. Heaven is filled with the Lord’s mercy and grace.
But there is a place where perfect worldly justice will reign forever. There is a place that is filled with all the pain and misery that our sins truly deserve. In that place each person will receive in his or her body the just reward for every lie they’ve ever uttered, every lustful or covetous thought, every idol they’ve secretly worshiped, every vain work they’ve ever done, every hurtful word they’ve ever spoken, every act of love they’ve failed to do. In that place the fire is never quenched and the worm never dies. In that place eternal pain and torment are each man’s portion. In that place each sin is punished eternally. That place is hell!
But our generous Lord would not have anyone go to hell. That place was prepared for Satan and his evil angels who rebelled against the Lord. God never intended it for man. But those who stubbornly reject His mercy and grace—those who choose their own standards of justice over God’s—will be condemned to hell. God takes no pleasure in the death of sinners. God does not want anyone to suffer the torments of hell. But Satan does!
Satan is not like the Lord. The Lord finds His joy in mercy; but the devil delights in what the world passes for justice. The evil one wants a chance for you to reap the rewards of your evil. Satan is s a liar and a murderer, and has been from the beginning. Satan knows no mercy. He knows nothing of grace. He knows only God’s perfectly just wrath against him and wants you to share the same.
But the kingdom of heaven does not operate under the world’s system of justice. The kingdom of heaven comes under God’s grace. It comes to us in God’s means of grace. And so, when the Lord sends His Church out into the world, He does not send it to dispense the world’s justice. He sends it to share His mercy and grace. There’s no firing range at the seminary. Pastors are not police officers or prosecuting attorneys. The Church does not train us to enforce the laws of men. Instead, we are called to be heralds of God’s mercy and grace in Christ.
The justice of the world is tit for tat. Crimes are punished, and good deeds are rewarded. But the Lord doesn’t want to punish you at all. Christ has already suffered every bit of God’s wrath and eternity in hell that you deserved for your sins. There are no scales in heaven that the Lord uses to weigh your good deeds against your evil ones. There are no lists of when you’ve been naughty or nice. The Lord has sent His Son to destroy the scales of worldly justice. The Lord sent His Son to live a perfect righteous life and exchange it for your sin. The Lord has blotted out all of your iniquities from the ledger of your sins. Jesus has won forgiveness for all your sins, and freely gives you life and salvation by His grace.
Many turn Jesus’ parables into moral lessons. They try to draw lessons for stewardship or outreach, how to live a purpose driven life, or how to live your best life now. But there is no worldly wisdom in our Lord’s parables. They do not even speak of what goes on in heaven. They were designed to tell us what goes on here, among men, when God is busy reestablishing Himself as our King and Lord. They tell us of Christ’s work on our behalf to win our salvation and make us His own.
No earthly king could ever afford to be as generous as your Savior is. The ways of Wall Street and Main Street are ignored in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus didn’t follow a business model or practice the latest management techniques. Jesus never learned the art of buying low and selling high. In fact, Jesus was so careless with accounting that He picked a thief named Judas to keep the disciples’ books.
The parables show that the kingdom of heaven is not at all like the kingdoms of the world because the King of heaven is not at all like the kings of this evil age. The Lord is ridiculously reckless with His gifts. In today’s parable the Lord gives just what He promises. He pays no one according to their deeds, but rather, gives to them abundantly according to their needs. Oh, the generosity of the Lord!
Some of you were baptized as infants. You entered the vineyard when you were just a few days old, and there the Lord promised you eternal life and salvation. You have never known a day outside of your Savior’s forgiving love. You’ve always known the comfort of the Gospel. What a blessing!
Others of you may have come into the vineyard a little later, at the third hour, the sixth hour, or the ninth hour. He found you in the marketplace. You heard the saving Word of the Gospel from a friend, a family member, or a co-worker and came into the vineyard. And a few of you may have come at the eleventh hour of your life, when you don’t have many years left. And to each of you, God has said the same Word: “Come, work in My vineyard! I will give you what is right.”
It is worth noting that the Lord does not say that He pays the vineyard workers; He gives to them. He gives to them according to His promises. The Lord does not keep a time card for you. There are no annual reviews or performance bonuses or commissions. No bookkeeping is allowed in the kingdom of heaven. The Lord of Life keeps one book, and in the Book of Life there are entries only in the credit column. Nothing is ever counted against you because Christ’s blood has blotted away all the debt of your sin.
The Lord is not a worldly landowner, and He’s not paying any attention to His bottom line. He doesn’t want you in the vineyard because of what you bring to the table. He wants you in the vineyard because of what He brings to the Table—His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. He wants you in the vineyard because that is where all the good stuff is.
What is good in this world is not even worth comparing to what the Lord has in store for you in His kingdom. Here and now, He gives you faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. When His kingdom of heaven reaches its fulfillment, the Lord will raise you and all the dead. He will bring you to Paradise and give you every good gift He has won for you on the cross.
Hear of the generosity of the Lord! His mercy knows no bounds, and His love never ceases. He gives to the last even as He gives to the first. He loves you. He keeps His promises to you now, and He will keep them to you for eternity. What good news! You never need to worry whether you have done enough to earn God’s mercy, or whether you deserve it. God’s grace is a gift. He gives wonderful things to you, not because you have earned them, but because of His mercy and grace. And among the very best of His gifts is this Good News you hear week after week: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.