*Septuagesima marks the beginning of the season called Pre-Lent in our lectionary. The word means, “seventieth,” and stands for the seventieth day before Easter. It is three Sundays away from Ash Wednesday.
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Life isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. Either you’ve said this yourself, or you’ve heard it spoken by someone around you. I must confess that those words crossed my lips many times when I was a child. I wish I could say that I only uttered them when a real injustice was committed against me. But really, I was just upset at one thing or another. What I actually meant by, “Life isn’t fair,” was more like, “Why don’t things work they way I want them to?” You might’ve thought this way from time to time. This sort of feeling was common in the Bible, too – if I can speak a little candidly about King David and our other fathers in the faith. Though, for David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Solomon, and others, the question was more often phrased in terms of, “Why do other people prosper and I fare so poorly?”
However, as I look back on these long 26 years of my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably for the best that I don’t always get what I want. But, just as I don’t always get what I want, neither – by the grace of God – do I always get what I deserve. Actually, it is far more often that I don’t get what I do deserve. Meaning: When we confess in the liturgy that we have offended our heavenly Father with all our sins and iniquities, we also confess that, because of those sins and iniquities, we justly deserve God’s wrath in both the eternal sense (hell) and the temporal sense (afflictions, diseases, and death). By the grace of God alone, we are spared the majority of the terrible things that we deserve as the consequences of our sins. And by the grace of God alone, we are also invited into His heavenly kingdom. Jesus illustrates this for us in the parable of the vineyard. In it Jesus shows us that there is only one way to heaven, grace alone, and this grace is given equally to all sinners. As Jesus said, many who are last will be first.
Our text today is part of a larger chunk of teaching. After the Transfiguration, Jesus’ teaching was amped up a little bit; things got more serious as He drew nearer to the cross. Just before our text, Jesus was teaching His disciples and the crowds about getting into the kingdom of heaven. The conversation went like this. A rich young man came up to Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus, being the model preacher and knowing when to give either the Law or the Gospel, gave the man the Law. He knew the Commandments. If the man desired to enter eternal life by works, he must keep all of the Commandments perfectly. The man insisted that this was already the case. However, it was not. When Jesus instructed him to sell all his possessions and follow, he went away sorrowful. He was not rightly honoring the First Commandment. He did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
This caused no small ripple among the disciples, for if a rich person could only scarcely enter the kingdom of heaven, how could anyone be saved? The rich were looked to as the ones most able to do good works. They didn’t have to labor in the hot sun all day, and then worry about doing good works after. Instead, they could just do the greatest work of all and give away money. Surely the wealthy were on the short list to heaven. Not so. St. Paul clearly writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The way into heaven is not by works, but only by the grace of God. That is why Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven belongs even to little children. Everything a child has he receives as a gift. So also is the kingdom of heaven. In this way, many who are last are made first.
Since this parable is the second longest that we have recorded for us. I’ll let it stand as read before; I’ll just remind you how it goes. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. The first bunch are called early in the morning, and it is agreed that they will work for a day’s wages. A few hours later the owner goes out again and he finds workers standing around in the marketplace. He hires them to work, offering to pay them what is right. A few hours later he does the same, and again even later. Then, finally, when there is only one hour left in the workday, he goes out and hires a last round of workers.
Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. God is the master of the household and the vineyard is His kingdom. We are the workers. We see that life in Kingdom, life in Christ’s Church, is like being called to work in a vineyard. Throughout the Scriptures we are exhorted to serve to the Lord. Psalm 100, for example, teaches us, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” Like the master in the parable, the Lord, in His gracious wisdom, sees fit to call workers at many times throughout the day. The morning is probably the most expected time, but the master is gracious. He goes out many times during the day, calling to himself many who would not have been hired otherwise. We, likewise, have all been called to serve. That call has come to us at different times. Some of us received at Baptism while we were children. Some of us may have received it as adults or in other times of our lives. The Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace in many times and ways to call laborers into the vineyard.
Eventually, the end of the workday does come. The owner of the vineyard calls his foreman and says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” Then, beginning with those who started in the last hour and finishing with those who started first, each received the same wages, a denarius. After the laborers who started first received their payment, they began to grumble. They figured that if those people who only worked an hour received so much, they should definitely receive more than that. That’s understandable. It’s fair, even. But, remember what I said before: life isn’t fair. Or, perhaps a better way to frame it today is: God’s fairness is not the same as our fairness.
That is to say, Jesus uses this parable to show us that with God things are reversed. In our world you work to get paid; in the kingdom of God, payment is given apart from works. In our world, your own hard work merits you a reward; in the kingdom of God, Christ’s hard work earns you the reward. In our our world, you work longer and you get paid more; but, in the kingdom of God, all are paid the same. In our world also, we all earn the same wage. The Scriptures say that the wage that we all earn is death. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, regardless of who we are, where we’re from, or what we’ve done. And, if life were fair, we would all die in our sins and trespasses, having justly deserved the earthly and eternal wrath of God.
But, life isn’t fair. Instead of getting the punishment we do deserve, we get the wage that Christ worked for. When someone gets that we’ve worked for, we get upset and grumble like the workers in the vineyard. But Jesus, He is happy when people get what He worked for, because otherwise they wouldn’t get it at all. What I mean is, in the kingdom of God everything is a gift. We are neither worthy of the things that we have, nor have we deserved them. Instead, God gives us all things freely in Christ Jesus. He blesses us with food and drink, house and home, clothing and shoes. He gives us all that we need to support this body and life. And, above and beyond that, He gives us the most precious gift in all creation: the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Him. And that, He gives to us not because we’ve worked for it or earned it, but because of the sacrifice of His only begotten Son on the cross.
When I was child, I used to complain that, “Life isn’t fair,” often. Mostly, it was just because things weren’t going my way. But, today I realize that might be for the better. In Christ, things don’t go our way; They go His way: grace. Through the sacrifice of Christ, we don’t get what we deserve (the punishment of our trespasses) and we do get what we don’t deserve (forgiveness). Having been forgiven our sins, we are called to be workers in God’s vineyard, sharing the grace and love of Christ with the world around us. And, whether we’ve been in the vineyard a long time, and worked many long hours, or whether our work is still mostly ahead of us, we all receive the same gift. As it says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Therefore, in Christ, life isn’t fair. Thanks be to God.