Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If ever there was a parable that demonstrated the stark contrast between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world, it is this one. As we try to scramble to the top of the heap in our dog-eat-dog society, effort and initiative in our chosen field usually pays off better than idleness in the marketplace.
Our economic system—and America’s core values of opportunity for all who live here—are based in part on a key idea: Given a chance, you can work harder and more effectively than others, and you will likely reap greater rewards, regardless of age, sex, race, religion, or national origin.
It’s also true that if you work at comparably the same tasks as another, with roughly similar levels of effort and accomplishment, you can expect—indeed, you can demand—equal pay for equal work. The government even requires it.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives the disciples a lesson in the economics of the kingdom of heaven. And it seems that the rules of divine business aren’t going to meet the approval of the National Labor Relations Board, the Teamsters, or Donald Trump.
As the story begins, we are just coming off of a couple of other events which illustrate heavenly commerce. In the first, a rich young man wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. In spite of his supposedly exemplary life in keeping the commandments, he is confronted with the reality that he is still not perfect enough to enter the kingdom through his own efforts. His heart lacks the faith to follow Jesus, for he cannot let go of his love for his wealth.
In the second situation, Peter follows up with Jesus on the aftermath of this discussion with the rich young man. Jesus had said that those who were wealthy would find it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven. Peter pointed out that he and the other disciples had left behind all they knew and cared about to follow the Lord. Surely, then, this was an indication that they deserved some sort of special consideration in the kingdom to come.
Jesus agreed that those who followed Him early and faithfully would certainly be given a special place in heaven. Yet Jesus makes clear in Matthew 19:29—just before our text for today—that it is not the mere act of giving up worldly things which grants an individual heavenly rewards—it is the giving them up for the sake of Christ, and not for our own interests. We cannot “humble” our way, or “give” our way, or “work” our way, into heaven.
But let’s get back to the landowner and the workers. The story certainly starts out conforming to our economic expectations. During the harvest time, labor would be in scarce supply due to the level of demand. Knowing that, the landowner gets to the marketplace early to hire workers. The laborers are on top of things, too. They know that by showing up early, getting hired would mean getting a full day’s work in, and thus would ensure getting a full day’s wage. The early bird gets the worm, and the early employer or worker gets what he’s looking for, as well. The parties agree to their terms and conditions, and a contract is made. So far, so good.
As the day continues, knowing he has a large harvest, and needing sufficient labor to bring it all to his storehouses, the owner continues to recruit more and more workers. He does not promise a full day’s compensation to those hired at the later hours, but he does indicate he will treat them rightly in regards to their pay.
Perhaps the laborers of the community knew the landowner to be a just man. Or, perhaps they were simply in no position to bargain after not being given an opportunity by anyone else, and were desperate for whatever he could provide. Regardless of the reason, they join those hired early in the morning to bring in the landowner’s harvest.
Our human reason and values begin to have problems with the parable in verse 6. The landowner comes to the marketplace late in the afternoon. The sun was already sinking in the sky, and—to our way of thinking, anyway—there was not much chance that anyone hired at this time would be able to contribute very much to the harvest effort. They’d most likely just disrupt the process and get in the way of those already working. Finding there were still several available laborers who had not been put to good use, however, the landowner sets them to work as well.
It seems the landowner is happy to provide gainful employment for anyone who was willing to receive his offer and participate in his harvest. He knows that his harvest is highly valuable, and every little bit helps.
At the end of the day, however, we note something a little bit strange. Although the landowner had done all the negotiating and hiring himself, he delegates the task of giving out the wages to his foreman. This is not that unusual in and of itself, of course, because busy entrepreneurs often delegate administrative tasks to others. But note a couple of things: While the landowner does specify how the laborers wages are to be given out—the last hired to be the first paid, and vice-versa—he does not tell the foreman how much each group is to be paid. Thus, it can only be that the foreman, who is trusted by the landowner and aware of his intentions, already knows what his boss has in mind to pay each worker.
This pay surprises us, just as it surprised the workers in the parable. Regardless of effort or hardship or duration of labor, each and every worker receives the exact same wage!
No wonder those who had been hired first grumbled! It seems clear that either they should have received far more than those Johnny-come-latelys who arrived at sunset, or else the stragglers should have received far less.
This is how the kingdom of heaven works, we’re told? That’s not right! We’re supposed to get what we deserve, equal pay for equal work, not equal pay for unequal work. That’s market forces at play. That’s how the economy functions. That’s what’s right and equitable. What this landowner did is just not fair!
No, it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all. This isn’t how things are supposed to work, we think. We deserve our wages, fair and square. We’re entitled to them. We’ve earned them, God. With all the effort we’ve put forth in being good Christians, good laborers in your vineyard, you ought to give us what we deserve, Lord.
In 2nd Samuel 12, after being told the story of the taking of the poor man’s lamb by the rich man, just as he has done with taking Bathsheba from humble Uriah, King David tells the prophet Nathan:
“As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die.”
And St. Paul writes, to the church at Rome and to all of us:
“The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a)
You may often grumble, like the workers hired early in the morning, that you do not get what you deserve. You might whine that the Christian life is too hard, too demanding, too embarrassing to live out in this world. You might resent the fact that you are sometimes left out of the fun, the riches, the glory.
When these feelings come, it would be wise for you to heed the words of Isaiah from our Old Testament lesson once again. To forsake your evil thoughts. To turn to the Lord in repentance, so that you might experience once again His mercy and His freely-flowing pardon. To be infinitely thankful that,
[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9, NIV)
You see, God does not always direct that which is deserved upon those who deserve it. As Psalm 103 says:
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities.”
The thief said to his condemned fellow criminal as they and Jesus hung on their crosses that painful, horrible, and yet glorious day:
“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41)
Before we completely disregard God’s sense of economics, we would do well to remember that all good works originate in Him, especially our salvation. Likewise, all the good we do as Christians after He has received us into His kingdom originate not of ourselves, but of the Holy Spirit.
As Paul wrote a few verses earlier than the text of our Epistle today:
“[H]e who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
God is hardly ignorant of the worldly laws of supply and demand. We learn pretty early on in studying economics that when demand is high, the price goes up. Well, then, think about this: What greater demand has ever existed for you than the demands of the Law—to be perfect and holy and without sin? This is a demand you cannot possibly fulfill, and the price of failing to meet that demand is death—your own death and the deaths of all those who sin and fall short of the glory of God. Yet there is a greater price, a more precious asset with which this demand has been satisfied for you: The blood of a sinless, uncomplaining laborer; the very life of the holy and perfect Son of God.
Yes, those impossible demands, that infinite price, have been offset in the Great Exchange by a supply which is even greater: Abundant grace, and boundless mercy. And the presence of this unlimited supply of grace and mercy allows the price to be kept very low for you.
Peter quoted this price to the Jews who listened to him on that Pentecost morning:
“Repent and be baptized, all of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)
The Landowner has come to the marketplace of your life. He has called you to work in His vineyard. And while you labor, you need not worry that those who have been called early and worked hard through the heat of the day will be treated unfairly.
Others may come to faith later in life, and some in our human frailty consider that those late-coming believers are getting a better deal—forgiveness and eternal life without paying the full price of the Christian life.
But remember that, while you labor, you regularly receive the peace and comfort and joy which His daily providence and His eternal promises give you, while others still live in desperation, fear, or ignorance. You are renewed by His Word and refreshed by His sacraments, while they still search. God has not agreed to pay you a denarius for a day; He has promised you everything you would need in this life, as well as unlimited forgiveness, undeserved salvation, and unending life in heavenly splendor.
This all is provided without your works, merely for your trust that He will forgive you and spare you for Jesus’ sake. You receive His promises both every day and forever.
It certainly doesn’t make sense in economic terms the world understands. It doesn’t meet anyone’s rational expectations. But, in Jesus Christ’s atoning death for you, God’s law is perfectly kept and fulfilled, even as all the rules of human commerce and economics are broken. It isn’t right; it’s righteousness. It’s more than fair; it’s faultless.
Let praise and thanks flow from our hearts and from our lips, then, that
God is not fair; He does not give you what you deserve. He is gracious and merciful to you, a poor sinful being.
And may this truth give you the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, and may it keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.