The title for this morning’s message is God Loves the Leftovers!
From today’s Gospel lesson, we can see that God loves the also-rans, the forgottens, the nobodies, the johnny-come-latelies-to-faith.
And He loves them with the exact same passion and provides them with the exact same eternal salvation with which He loves and provides to those who have believed in Him for as long as they can remember.
This morning, as we consider Jesus’ words, we should be grateful that God loves the leftovers. Because He does, you and I have a place in Jesus’ eternal kingdom.
So do all who turn from their sin and trust in Christ as their God and Savior. That’s good news, gospel!
So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says to us today.
A few verses before the beginning of our gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for the wealthy to get into His kingdom than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. Peter, anxious to show that he and the other eleven apostles are worthy of being in the kingdom, reminds Jesus that they’ve given up incomes to follow Him. (As thought Jesus had forgotten that!) Jesus tells Peter and the others: “...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.” (Matthew 19:29)
In other words, anyone who has sought the kingdom above everything in life, will gain much more than the wealth that this dying world can offer. As Jesus puts it elsewhere: “...seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Jesus caps His response off with these words: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)
You may have noticed that Jesus says similar words to these at the end of today’s Gospel lesson. That means that everything from Matthew 19:30 to the end of today’s lesson, Matthew 20:16, is about just this: In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ kingdom, God the Father’s kingdom, the first will be last, the last will be first.
The leftovers will go to the front of the line and the people who showed up first, who followed Jesus faithfully for years and years, won’t mind sitting in the back; they’ll just be grateful to be in the eternal kingdom God gives to all who trust in Jesus!
To say that this is foreign to our way of thinking is an understatement. It’s revolutionary, it’s counter-cultural. Some might even call it un-American.
But let’s listen to what Jesus tells us this morning, starting at Matthew 20:1: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”
In those days, landowners and employers had total power, the way that God has total power over His kingdom. When it says that the landowner, standing in for God in this parable, “agreed” to pay the workers a denarius, the common wage for a day of labor in those days, it doesn’t mean that there was any negotiation. This was the rate that the landowner decided on: The workers in his vineyard were going to be paid this amount.
Read on, please: “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.” (Matthew 20:3-5)
It’s been several hours since the landowner first went to the marketplace to find people to go into his vineyard. He mentions nothing about the rate of pay to this second group. He just invites anyone who wants to go to his vineyard to do so. They aren't sent to Human Resources. No interviews. No screening. No attempts to learn the qualifications of the workers. If the men milling in the marketplace are willing to trust the landowner and his offer, they go to the vineyard.
How often do church members want to screen out people they don’t think will “fit in”? How often do we keep people from becoming part of Jesus' kingdom because we thoughtlessly neglect to invite them?
True story: A man who had just moved into a community told me about attending a Lutheran church shortly after his move and having a pleasant conversation with one of its members turn unpleasant when the member told him, “You seem like a nice person. But we already have enough members here. Things are just the way we want them to be here. Maybe you should go look for another church.” He did.
That’s not the way it is with the God we meet in Jesus, the God portrayed by Jesus as the landowner in today’s parable. God invites everyone into His kingdom. Anyone willing to leave the square, with its sins and warped values, and instead, enter His vineyard will be richly rewarded in forgiveness of sins, the power to resist evil, the presence of Christ in their lives on earth, and eternity with God and His people.
Read what Jesus says next, please. “[The landowner] went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’” (Matthew 20:5b-7)
“Why aren’t you in my kingdom?” the landowner-stand-in-for-God asks. “Because no one has invited us in.” These are the leftovers, the people nobody else wants. But God does!
The leftovers called by the landowner are like David, at whom the prophet and judge Samuel looked, and saw, not a king, just a scrawny afterthought. But God told Samuel: “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7) Samuel anointed David king.
The leftovers are like ancient Israel to whom Moses said: “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
The leftovers are like the thief on the cross, a criminal who had wandered in the marketplace, stealing and killing all of his life, but on the brink of death, encountered Jesus, acknowledged His sins, and asked for a place in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus told him as they both died on their crosses: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
The leftovers are like the apostle Paul, who had rejected Christ and yet came to believe and would speak of himself as “the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” yet…”by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
I am a leftover, someone who had once rejected the crucified and risen Jesus and His grace. Yet God still kept calling me. Why? Because God loves the leftover people of the world. He wants everyone of them in His kingdom. And He wants His Church to keep calling all people to repentance and new life as long as this brittle, dying world still turns on its axis.
Look at what Jesus says next. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
"The Workers in the Vineyard" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.
We know, good Lutherans that we are, you and I, that we are sinners only saved by the generous grace of God, brought to us through our faith in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God has ushered us into His vineyard, His kingdom, and it’s a privilege. We know that we don’t deserve life with God. It’s a free gift which He created for us. The apostle Paul reminds us: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
But sometimes we forget about grace. Sometimes, we may want to pray like the self-righteous Pharisee in another of Jesus’ parables: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) Life in God’s kingdom belongs to all who hear Jesus’ call to follow and like the tax collector in that parable in Luke’s gospel say to God: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
No matter our sins or failures, God wants us in His kingdom.
Whenever we have the guts to acknowledge our sins, turn away from them, and follow Jesus, we are in His eternal kingdom.
It’s true that God loves leftovers. But the deeper truth is that in His kingdom, there are no leftovers.
As Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel lesson: “...the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)
Speaking for myself, as long as I can be in Jesus’ kingdom forever, I’m not particular about the seating arrangements. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).