[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio on Sunday, September 21, 2014.]
Once, like I’m about to do this morning, I preached on today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16. There, as we’ve seen, Jesus tells a parable--a story--about what one Bible scholar called "the eccentric employer" who pays the people who worked just one hour for him the exact same amount of money that he pays those who spend the whole day working in his fields.
After the service that day, a lifelong Christian and member of that church waited until I had shaken everybody’s hand, then approached me. “That Gospel lesson has always bothered me,” he said. “It’s not fair! Is Jesus saying that a mass murderer who repents and trusts in Him just before the executioner flips the switch is on an equal plain with someone like me? I’ve been a Christian all my life.”
I tried to tell the man: “It’s hard for us to accept, but no, God isn’t fair in that we can never earn what He gives to us. We can earn no more and no less of the grace He gives to those with faith in Christ.
"And, yes, the mass murderer who turns to Jesus in repentance and faith is every bit as much a part of the kingdom of heaven as any other sinner who repents and believes.”
Our conversation started there and didn't get any better, frankly.
Few sayings of Jesus more reliably offend many faithful Christians than those found in these verses from Matthew. Yet, if we only stop to think, we realize that this isn’t the only time Jesus has delivered the same message.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son. In it, a good-for-nothing son returns home to his father, begging for a job as a hired hand and is instead, welcomed home with a feast of forgiveness and welcome, assured that He is an heir once more. The message is clear: Even the worst sinner can, with repentance and faith in Christ, receive all the perks of eternity that Jesus died and rose to give repentant believers in Him.
But sometimes overlooked in the parable is the older brother, a guy who had always obeyed his father, always towed the line, and so resented his father’s grace toward the prodigal son that he refused to come into the party, representing those who resent God’s grace and forgiveness for those they deem beneath them on the righteous-meter. He reminds me of Christians and non-Christians I've known through the years who have refused the grace of God or the fellowship of the Church out of the same sense of self-righteousness.
Later, on the cross, Jesus would demonstrate the very things He proclaims in these parables. A thug hung on the cross next to Him. He acknowledged His sins and Jesus’ kingship and Jesus promised this undeserving man, who came to repentance as he was breathing his last, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”
The God we know in Jesus Christ is not fair. He forgives sinners who will turn from sin and trust in Him no matter when they do that in their lives.
But there’s more to this parable than giving hope to johnny-come-latelies. Let’s take a few minutes to unpack Jesus’ parable to find that something more.
By way of background, turn please, in the sanctuary Bibles, to Matthew 19:27-29. Jesus has just encountered a rich young man who wanted entry into God’s kingdom. Jesus could see that the man’s wealth was his god, the most important thing in his life. After Jesus tells the man that he clearly must sell everything he has and give to the poor, then follow Him, the man walks away from Jesus, sorrowful. The rich man's identity was too wrapped up in wealth to let go of it, even if doing so meant taking hold of eternal life with God.
Jesus mourned the man’s decision. Just as He mourns it today whenever we turn from Him and His grace. He talks about how hard it is for those with wealth to follow Him, how we must divest ourselves of our dependence on anyone or anything other than God if we are to have life with God.
Defensively, Peter asks Jesus: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Can you hear the pathetic tone in Peter’s words? “We’re good guys, right, Jesus? We checked off that box, right? We gave up everything to follow You.”
Jesus doesn’t answer Peter’s question directly. Instead, He speaks words that challenge Peter to some prayerful reflection (maybe they challenge us similarly): “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
Tough words! Those who follow Jesus--who repent and believe in Him and keep believing in Him--will reign with God over the new creation that will come about on His return.
But He defines those who follow Him as all who are willing to rid themselves not just of their dependence on wealth, but also dependence on their closest kin, even their spouses, if those dependencies prevent them from following Him.
Followers of Jesus must be willing to lose what the world counts important in order to gain eternity. The last will be first. The first will be last. God isn’t fair. He’s gracious.
Jesus then tells the parable that makes up today’s Gospel lesson. You know the story well. A wealthy landowner goes to a public square at about 6am, 9am, Noon, 3pm, and even 5pm, just one hour before the end of the workday in order to hire people to take care of his harvest.
It was common for landowners to go out to such places at the beginning of workdays to hire laborers. But no landowner would keep going out every several hours through a workday in the way the owner in Jesus‘ fictional parable did.
In verse 6, we’re told that the owner went to the square at 5:00 and asks why no one has yet hired the men still there. It’s a good question. At harvest time, there should have plenty of jobs for willing workers.
In verse 7, the men reply: “Because no one has hired us.” The owner doesn’t stop to think, “Are these guys loafers? Are they troublemakers? Did other landowners let them go because they're unreliable?” He simply hires the men on the spot. He has a whole harvest field and he needs more harvesters.
At the end of the parable, as we’ve seen, those sketchy latecomers get the same pay as the ones who toiled all day long in the sun.
Because God isn’t fair, but gracious, as long as there is breath, there is hope that those who don’t believe in Christ will turn to Him and live. And their place in eternity will be as secure and as joyous as the places of people like Paul and Peter and Stephen and Martin Luther and Billy Graham and Mother Teresa. That gives us a great hope, not only for ourselves, but for those loved ones for whom we pray Christ will become Lord.
But the parable is about much more than that. Remember that this is a parable about the “kingdom of heaven.” “...the kingdom of heaven is like...” Jesus begins. The laborers are saved not by what they do but by their trust in the landowner.
Yet, the landowner doesn’t call them to a life of ease.
Being citizens of the kingdom of heaven is not about strumming harps and hangin’. The God we follow in Christ intends to put us to work on the same saving mission that God was on when Jesus was born, when He died, and when He rose again.
When we sign on for salvation through Christ, we also sign for holy assignments from God.
In Matthew 9:37-38, Jesus tells the disciples: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."
Jesus was saying that there are lots of people in the world who need the good news of John 3:16. And people really only come to know and follow Jesus Christ--people only come to know Jesus as their God and Savior and Lord--in life-to-life encounters with Christians who have been sent out into the harvest by Christ.
And the New Testament makes clear that that is every Christian, not just the people wearing collars. The apostle writes in 1 Peter 2:9: “...you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Every Christian has been entrusted with the great commission to go into the harvest and make disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you...”
But even though Jesus couples the commission to make disciples with a promise--”...I am with you always, even to the end of the age”--I find the whole idea of living life-to-life with other people in order to help them become disciples of Christ intimidating.
I love the idea of being part of Jesus’ kingdom. I’m really shaky on being someone who tries to go harvesting for disciples among skeptical family members, cranky neighbors, or hostile strangers.
“I want to be in your vineyard, Lord. But instead of being a harvester, could I just be an encourager of harvesters? A spectator of harvesters?”
Maybe you have similar feelings. But according to Jesus, we don’t have those options. To be all in with Jesus is to receive all of His grace and all of partnership in His mission to win all the world to faith in Him.
Fortunately, for we squeamish disciples, help is on the way. Your church council has recently voted to sign on to a three year process of the North American Lutheran Church called Congregational Discipleship Ministry.
Not a program, this ministry teaches us--first the pastors, then a group of about twelve people called the life and learning team, then more and more people of the congregation--how to live as disciples, how to harvest the vineyard, how to make new disciples.
The focus is on being not members of the Church, but disciples within the body of Christ, empowered by God to reach those who, without saving faith in Christ, will be lost for all eternity.
For the first nine months or so, you’ll hear little about this discipleship ministry. A coach will be working with Dan Mershon and me, helping us learn how, using the gifts, abilities, experiences, and personalities God has given to us as individuals to share our lives and Christ’s life with others, so that we can help you to do the same.
This is precisely how Christ envisioned the Church to work. In the Church, Christ created the first pyramid scheme, disciples multiplying by one-to-one contact with the Gospel present in the lives of of believers in Christ.
This is the life to which the One Who bought us out of slavery to sin and death has called us to live.
We are called, no matter when Jesus Christ calls us to faith in Him, to be Christ’s harvesters.
Pray everyday, please, that the Holy Spirit will teach us how to fulfill that call. Nothing is more important. Amen