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Matthew 20:1-16

There are only four more weeks until we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation, and for the next four weeks we are going to highlight certain characteristics of God. When we understand God—the way he thinks, the way he feels, the way he loves—it changes our way of thinking regarding how we are saved. Luther picked up on this truth early on in his ministry. He realized that although God is just and punishes the evildoer, his preferred way of dealing with man is to forgive him his sins. He doesn’t require humans to earn their forgiveness, rather he is gracious in dealing with them—some may even say inconceivably gracious. He forgives them for Jesus’ sake. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

The parable before us today highlights God’s grace. Grace is love that is undeserved. It is love that loves another person for its own sake, not because the person is loveable. It treats the other person according to generosity as opposed to merit or fairness. We say it so often: “By grace I am saved!” But it doesn’t always register. For if we are saved by grace, that means we don’t deserve to be saved. It means that we acknowledge that we are not worthy in the least.

Which is exceedingly difficult to do, because the entire operating principle of our sinful world is not grace; it is merit. Our world functions and thrives on merit. The most athletic can play professional sports. The smartest receive the status of “doctor”. The most trustworthy are given billions of dollars to manage and to grow. In other words, hard work gets rewarded.

The thing that makes this parable so shocking, however, is that it goes completely against the way of the world. In fact, it is illogical to the way of the world. No company will get ahead by giving the least deserving the same as the most deserving.

But here is the thing that Jesus is trying to point out: God’s kingdom does not operate according to the same principles that the world uses. It functions and thrives on a reality entirely different from merit. Indeed, the only merit that works in God’s kingdom is Christ’s merit. Not only does human merit get a person nowhere, but it also ruins whatever God has put into place.

If you base a marriage on merit, for example, that marriage will not last very long. Marriage will never thrive using the principles of this world. It was instituted by God for this world, but it was done so as a reflection of God’s love for us, which has nothing to do with merit; it has everything to do with grace. You do not deserve to have the person you are married to. That person does not need to earn your love. You choose to love them, and so you choose to forgive them—again, and again and again. It is a love that reflects God’s love for sinners. It is a love that will only last if it is based on grace.

Because it is so difficult for us to understand anything of life in terms other than payment and merit, Jesus uses an outrageous example. He does so to show us how different life functions in the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of this world. He does so to teach his disciples, “This is how God treats you. And therefore, this is how you are to treat each other within the kingdom of heaven.”

The example is titled The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. A man hires various workers at different hours of the day. Their expectation is that he will naturally pay more to those who worked longer hours. Why do they think that way? Because again, that is how the world works. The world does not operate according to grace. God’s kingdom, however, does.

Now, it is important to keep in mind that we are part of two kingdoms. We often don’t understand this. We live here in this world, and yet, at the same time, are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. So, Christians must learn to operate according to two kingdoms. It is okay to look for merit in the one, but not in the other. In other words, it is entirely proper to hire someone based on merit. It is entirely proper that the best team wins. At the same, however, it is also entirely proper to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it. It is entirely proper to be generous with the abundance of forgiveness that God has forgiven you.

You see, Jesus came to preach the kingdom of heaven. He is saying, “This is the way it is with God. He does not treat people according to merit. He does not treat people according to fairness. In his mercy he treats them according to grace.” So, the worker who worked the least in the parable receives the same as those who worked the most. We can hear the others saying, “It’s not fair.” And it’s not. As we said last week, “Neither is it fair that God shows his kindness and love to you.”

You say, “That doesn’t happen in real life.” No. Not often. And that is because we live in a fallen world. Before the fall into sin, the operating principle of was grace, that is, the love of God. After the fall into sin, the operating principle is one of payment and merit. You must give, produce, or do something in order to receive something. You must show yourself worthy for others to consider you worthy.

Which is the very reason why Jesus uses such an outrageous illustration to define God’s character of grace. Because grace is inconceivable to the sinful heart. The sinful heart has no concept of undeserved treatment and love. But the essence of God’s heart, that is, his main characteristic is 100% rooted in undeserved treatment and love.

That is why the universe exists today. That is why you exist today. He loves you! But he doesn’t love you because you are a finer specimen of humanity than your neighbor. You weren’t even born—you didn’t even exist—when he first gave you love. You didn’t exist when he sent his son Jesus to die for your sins. You didn’t exist when he built you a mansion in heaven. And when you did come into existence, he washed you in the waters of baptism and now daily and freely forgives all your sins, even though you sin against him.

Some people (and this is the real shocker for sinful humans) spend their entire life mooching off and taking advantage of others. They care very little for others. Their main concern is for themselves. They are not generous with others. They make every offender pay. And then at the last hour, God changes their heart, and they are saved. They are saved with the very same salvation as those who were Christian their entire life.

What? Can’t God do what he wants with his own gifts? “Or are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner says to the workers (v. 15). Well, quite frankly, yes, we often are.

So, on the one hand, people hear this parable and say it is outrageous. It is inconceivable. “That just doesn’t happen in life!” And yet, on the other hand, this type of treatment happens every single day as God deals with the people of this earth. We may not see it happen in those things pertaining to the kingdom of this world. But we do see it happen in those things pertaining to the kingdom of heaven.

And here is the application: by God’s grace you and I are part of the kingdom of heaven. Not everyone is. Most of the unbelieving world is blinded to the concept of grace. The operating principle of their life is merit. But you are a Christian, and therefore, Christ lives in you. And so, while Christians are free to treat employment, grades, trophies and salary on the basis of merit, we treat people—we treat relationships—on the basis of grace. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). We love because God is love and God lives in us (1 John 4:8). As Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Straddling these two kingdoms as a Christian is not easy, so keep struggling. May we as a collective congregation treat each other and treat those outside of us according to grace. May we put the best construction on things. May we tolerate each other’s quirks and annoying traits. May we think in terms of developing each other so that we grow into mature and more capable Christians. We are all a work in progress.

Last comment.

The story preceding this parable in Matthew is the story of The Rich Young Man. You will remember that this man thought very highly of himself. He thought that because he was successful, he deserved or could be deserving of going to heaven. His entire way of thinking was based on merit. Remember his question: “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (19:16).

When Jesus told him what to do, the man went away sad. He couldn’t do it. The price was too high. He could not give up his wealth. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (19:23).

Now here is the point. Peter immediately picks up on that statement and says to Jesus, “We are not rich. We don’t have anything! Verse 27 of chapter 19: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Do you see how Peter still didn’t get it? “What then will there be for us? We left everything to follow you! What then, will you give to us? We must deserve something.”

And then Jesus launches right into The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. And his answer to Peter is “No, you don’t. You don’t deserve anything based on how much you’ve given up to follow me. Because the kingdom of heaven is not based on your merit; it is based on Christ’s merit. He alone is worthy. And in his grace God the Father sent him to be the world’s Substitute.”

That is the meaning of the statement: “The last will be first, and the first, last” (v. 16). The “first” according to the world are the rich young men and women of the world. Those who deserve it. The “last” are those living on welfare. That is how the world thinks.

But Jesus is for all. The landowner gives a denarius to those who worked the entire day as well as to those who worked only one hour. He says (v. 14) “I want to give the man who has hired last the same as I have you.” That is the key phrase of this text: “I want to give …”

What God wants (his character, his nature, his essence) is to be generous. That is why we are saved. Now, let’s be generous when it comes to sharing God’s word of forgiveness with others. Amen.