“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our consideration this morning is from Matthew chapter twenty, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Dear friends in Christ, we in America have a problem that I will call the “arrogance of the present.” We have an ignorance of history that causes us to think that what is happening today is more significant than whatever came before. We are so impressed with our advances that we look down on those who preceded us. And this can go in both a positive and negative direction. On the one hand, we can think that our world today is so much better than any other period in all of history. We are so much more enlightened than those who lived centuries or millennia ago, so much so that the human race today must be the pinnacle of all that God created us to be! We have this sense of superiority, the arrogance of a culture that dismisses people who lived in the past. On the other hand, the romantics among us believe that our society is so much worse than what came before. We have reached the pinnacle, alright, but the pinnacle of decay and moral depravity. Both extremes are quite simply wrong. In every facet of our society we are building off the advances of others, and those closer to the front of the chain were often much smarter than we. On the negative side, we can find plenty of moral decay in every society on earth, from Adam and Eve on. Even the 50’s weren’t as perfect as I hear people say…
We do not find this arrogance of the present only in our society, but also in the Church. Once again, the primary culprit is ignorance of history. We can often have this sense in the Church that our situation today is like nothing the Church has ever seen before, forgetting the wise words of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Jesus’ parable for today can apply to that sort of arrogance. If we view the time scale of this parable as the entire history of the Church, then we see that those who labored with the apostles receive the same reward and work in the same vineyard with the same tools as those who serve today. The Church is a unity that extends throughout all time. Next week when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the liturgy we will use is nearly 2,000 years old, and it has been a vehicle for proclaiming Christ’s supper for almost the entire history of the Church. We will worship with all those who have come before us. Christ continues to build His Church as He always has, through the proclamation of His Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
This parable can also be viewed in the scope of a person’s lifetime. Some of us are called by Christ as infants, when our Lord used those around us to bring us to the blessed baptismal waters. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” Some of us come into the Church as children, perhaps through the witness of a Christian day school. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.” Others of us are brought to the faith as adults of any age, brought into a relationship with Christ through the witness of friends or family. “Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” Finally, some only confess Christ upon death, and are washed with the waters that bring us life as life itself is fading. “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” The Holy Spirit does the hiring, working faith in a variety of ways, at a variety of times in a person’s life, but humans have this bad habit of making judgments on how he does this. The new convert will often look down upon those that have been in the Church for life as not enthusiastic enough. On the other hand, those who were baptized as infants and raised in the Church can look down upon new converts, wondering what took them so long, and thinking that they are somehow lesser Christians. Both groups look down on death-bed conversions, and wonder whether it was legitimate. It is for us just as the text says: “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” Our parable teaches us that no matter when in our lives we entered the vineyard as a Christian, we still are equal in the kingdom of heaven. Our age at conversion does not matter, and neither does the century we live in. We are all equal in God’s eyes, as our text says: “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?”
Within the Church, we can also have this haughty attitude toward those who hold different roles. All Christians are equal, but our roles in the Church are different. If you read throughout the New Testament, you will find that different people are given different roles. Paul talks about wives being in loving submission to their husbands, and husbands giving up their entire lives in love to their wives. Children are to love and obey their parents. A pastor has a different role than a layperson, and a vicar is stuck somewhere between. Conflict comes when we view our roles as an opportunity for power, and use it to dominate other people. On the other hand, conflict also comes when we attempt to take over the roles given by God to others. God wants us to respect the roles given to others, and to not abuse the roles He gives to us.
It is so easy to look down upon one another for any reason, whether it is the century they lived in, the age they came to faith, or the role they have been given. In doing this, we are letting our pride get in the way, and we are demonstrating that we do not deserve God’s good gifts. All we deserve is His judgment, because we are rejecting His overflowing love and generosity to others. As God says through the landowner in our text, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 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?” Our haughty attitudes, our arrogance toward others in the faith, deserve for Christ to simply tell us, as the landowner did, to ‘go’- out of the Church, out of the kingdom, away from Christ’s gifts. But when we humbly repent, Christ brings us back in. The reward we deserve is punishment, but the reward we receive is something immensely better. When the landowner called the second group, he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” The word used there for ‘right’ is the same word for righteous, or just. Righteousness is an important word in the Bible, and it means that we have a right standing before God. This righteousness could mean all of the good things that we do added up, a big pile of our good works that we present to God. Righteousness could be our making ourselves right in God’s eyes, making up for our sin by our work. We could be forced to attain our own righteousness, but instead righteous does not describe us, it describes Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only truly righteous man, the only perfect person who fulfilled God’s will. But He was not only man, but also God, and as true God and true man, the only truly righteous one, He went to the cross to pay the price for all the sinful. The blood of God in the flesh was shed on the Good Friday, and there Christ gave up His life for you. And as the righteous one, Christ was vindicated on Easter Sunday, when God accepted His sacrifice by raising Him from the dead. But the death of even a righteous man, even God in the flesh, meant nothing if it was not delivered to you. In Baptism His righteousness is then applied to you- this is the Good News of the Gospel. We were not left to attain our own righteousness through all of striving toward God and perfection. If left to ourselves, we would never come close to righteousness. Instead, Christ gives His righteousness as a gift, it covers us, and as a result, God declares us righteous, He declares our sins forgiven, He gives us eternal life. The ‘right’ payment given to all the laborers is the righteousness of Christ, won on Calvary’s cross and applied to you!
But this righteousness is not for those who already think themselves righteous. Those who in pride look down on others in the Church already have a righteousness of their own, a righteousness that comes from their own sense of superiority. When we realize that all Christians are equal in that they receive an equal reward from Christ, His righteousness applied to them, we will in humbleness repent of our own self-righteousness. We will then understand the truth of Christ’s words: “So the last will be first and the first last.” Anyone who would place themselves first in the kingdom of God due to their pedigree, their superiority, or their office in the Church, will be last. They have no need of a Savior because they have a righteousness of their own, based on their own pride. However, those who in humility confess all their sins and admit that without Christ they are lost will be first in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus Christ and the Church He founded on His shed blood are for sinners, and no one else. Those who in their self-righteousness see no sin have no place in the Church. Instead, it is all of us who are broken down by our sin, who have been beaten down by the Law that need Christ’s healing hand. We need His gifts, we need His healing, and it is here in this place that He gives them freely and openly, in equal measure to all whom He has called.
As our Old Testament lesson reminds us, God’s ways are not our ways. God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We would expect that a pastor would be a more important Christian than anyone else, or that those of us living in the ‘here and now’ are more vital to God, or that those born and raised in the Church would have a greater reward. But none of that is true. God gives His gifts freely to all who need them, all those sick with the affliction of sin. May you see your need for your Savior and in humility repent and come to this place to receive healing, forgiveness, and strength, each and every time that it is offered, Amen.