“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, you are a Christian, you have faith, because you have been called by Jesus. He came to you in the marketplace of this world, and He hired you to labor in His vineyard. He called you through the preaching of His Word, He hired you in the precious waters of Holy Baptism, He made you a laborer in His vineyard, and then put you to work. Some of you were called at the very beginning, promised your denarius when you were only an infant. Some of you were called at the third hour, when you were a child, as a grandparent or friend brought you to God’s house and His Word. Some of you were called at the sixth or the ninth hour, as young adults or in middle age, perhaps through the prodding of a spouse or child. And some of you were hired at the eleventh hour, toward the end of your time on this earth, having spent a lifetime idle in the marketplace; perhaps you were one of those called to work in the first hour of your life, but then left the vineyard for years, even decades, before you were hired again, with the gentle rebuke of our Lord, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” You joined those hired at the first, third, sixth, or ninth hours, fully aware of how you squandered your life chasing after the things of this world.
All of you are called to work, to labor in the vineyard, producing the fruit of love toward God and love toward your neighbor. Your work is not easy, for life as a Christian is not easy, you bear the burden of the day and its heat: the burden of dying to yourself in repentance every single day, the heat of persecution. You face the hatred of the world, you face the resistance of your own sinful nature, that Old Adam who needs to be drowned day after day. With great struggles, you seek to keep yourself from the fleeting pleasures that this world offers, and when you fall, you go to your knees in repentance. Your labor has been hard, and for some of you, it has been long. So long, and so hard, in fact, that you who were hired first, even those hired at the third or sixth hours, have begun to forget just how things work in the kingdom of God.
You have begun to forget that the Master hired you, that He promised you a denarius when the day was over, that He made you a laborer and promised you the wage before you had worked for one second in the vineyard. You take your eyes off the Master, and begin to look at yourself, you begin to examine your fellow workers. You have worked so long and so hard that you have begun to think that the Master owes you for your work. No longer are your eyes fixed on the Master, trusting His promise, the denarius that is coming, but they are fixed on yourself, as you evaluate what you deserve to receive from Jesus, and on your fellow workers, as you evaluate whether they deserve the same wage. You are no longer thinking of the denarius as grace, but as justice, Jesus giving you what He owes you, His repayment for all your work.
You who have been hired later perhaps have a different perspective. You too have let your eyes stray from your Master, you also are looking at yourself, and at your fellow laborers. You are all too aware of the life you led before, the time you wasted idle in the marketplace, chasing after the pleasures of the flesh, perhaps knowing the kind of labor that went on in the vineyard and wanting nothing to do with it. You are painfully aware of how you have stumbled and fallen since He hired you, seemingly every day. You look at your fellow laborers, your fellow Christians, and to you they all seem to be much more deserving of a denarius than you. If you could read their minds, if you knew that those who have labored all day feel entitled to their denarius, you would probably agree. You don’t feel entitled at all, you feel completely undeserving, and you have a sneaking suspicion that when the day’s end comes, the Master won’t have anything for you at all. You’ve come too late, you were idle too long; the Master will have nothing left to give.
So there is fear and there is confidence among the workers as the Master makes ready to pay the wages. “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.’” The last will be first, and the first last. As the decisive moment comes, eyes are finally all fixed on the Master. “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” A denarius! You cannot believe what you hold in your hand—a denarius! The denarius of heaven, the denarius of eternal life, given to you called so late, you who were idle so long, you who have such sin in your past, you who have stumbled so often. A denarius for you, and you go your way rejoicing.
There is certainly some rejoicing among you who stand farther back in line, a smattering of applause. Your Master certainly is generous, as you who have served Him the longest know best. And now your expectations are through the roof. Yes, you’re glad that the Master has something left over for those who were idle for so long, but you are the ones who have put in all the work. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.” A denarius? You cannot believe what you hold in your hand—a denarius? The same denarius given to those who were idle, those who despised the Master’s call for so long, those who have so much sinful baggage that they might as well drive around in a U-Haul? A denarius? “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house.”
Your cause is just, your argument is sound. Every other worker on this planet would agree with you. “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.” What was the point of laboring so hard, what was the benefit of working so long? You have made him, you have made her, equal to me? Don’t you know what they’ve done, don’t you know what they’ve done to me? Mission work around the world is just fine, and we feel very good about sending our dollars overseas, but when it comes to extending the call of the Gospel to those we know, or think we know, we are less enthusiastic. We know what they’re like, and we know they don’t deserve any grace, at least not as much grace as we deserve. Does the town drunk deserve a denarius? How about a drug addict? A sex offender? A murderer or a thief? But we don’t even have to be so extreme. What about the ones who have lived much of their lives not caring what God says? What about those you see on the street that you would rather not see in your church? What about those who have sinned against you, perhaps quite terribly? Do they deserve a denarius? That is really the question: do those hired at the eleventh hour, those who hear the call of the Gospel after having lived a life of sin, or having sinned against me, or having stood idle in the marketplace, deserve the denarius at the end of the day?
Not in comparison with me. You know how I’ve worked, Lord, you know how I’ve toiled, you know the sacrifices I’ve made, the pleasures I’ve foregone to labor in your vineyard. I’ve been an elder, I’ve been on altar guild, I’ve been here every week, I’ve volunteered at every event. I’ve…yes, there’s the problem. We’ve taken our eyes off of the Master, and we’ve been looking at ourselves, we’ve been looking at our fellow laborers. If we had fixed our eyes on our Master, it wouldn’t have mattered what anyone else received. The Master chides us, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose 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?” It was evil in our eyes that our Master was good, so good in fact that He gave to every laborer the same wage; He treated every repentant sinner the same. Do you feel entitled to a denarius? Do you look down upon your fellow laborers, do your eyes stray from the Master to them? Repent. Repent and rejoice that the Master has grace for every sinner, hired at every hour, even you.
That is what grace is; a gift, not earned in any way. The laborers do not work to earn their denarius, they are given a denarius because they have been called, they were hired, it was promised to them the moment they were called to the vineyard. Not the way you would run a business, but the kingdom of heaven rarely gives a good pattern for making money. Jesus isn’t in the business of justice, He is all about grace. Justice would mean no calling, no hiring, and no wages—for anyone. Jesus doesn’t owe you, or anyone, anything. But in grace He loves you and welcomes you into His kingdom, His vineyard, by having justice done upon Him. Those hired first complain, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Jesus could’ve replied, “No, I have made you and them equal to me, who actually has borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” We are sorely mistaken if we think it was our labor that earned the denarius; it was the labor of Jesus, His bloody, tortuous, deadly labor on our behalf that earned the denarius for each one of us. Justice for us was death and hell, but Jesus suffered both in our place. Justice was exacted from Him, grace is given to us.
Grace by its very nature, by its very definition, is a gift undeserved, unearned. The Lord rewards those who don’t deserve it, and every laborer in His vineyard doesn’t deserve it. Yet, He still gives, He gives abundantly, He gives in overflowing measure, He gives to you. The last will be first and the first last, and we rejoice, for we were all last, and we all, together as members of the body of Christ, in every age, in every generation, called at any hour of the day, will be first. We will all receive what Christ has promised us: the denarius of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Our Master is good, He is gracious, He gives us what we do not deserve—thanks be to God! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.