Monday, September 22, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Children's Sunday, "God's Generosity"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. One of Jesus’ favorite ways to teach was through parables, which are little stories about ordinary life that He used to teach us about God and His ways. Parables show the surprising differences between God’s kingdom, values and priorities, and those of the world. The parables often are unexpected, and they move us to reevaluate and change the way we think. Today’s parable about a master who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard, is no different.

The story begins at an “unemployment line” of the ancient world—day laborers waiting at the market to be hired for the day. Some of you may have actually been on the unemployment lines before—worried and stressed about how you would provide for your family or pay your bills. No matter how many mouths you have to feed—the unemployment line is a picture of basic human needs. So out goes the master, personally, to hire workers early in the morning, to work in his vineyard. An unusually persistent master, who returns not once more, but 4 more times to the marketplace, to hire more workers. A total of 5 trips to the unemployment line, to bring workers in, even up to the last hour of the day.

Now what could be the reason for this strange behavior? Certainly the master had enough workers to finish the job after his third or fourth trip. Certainly it wasn’t a matter of the work not getting done at the 11th hour, with only one hour left in the day. So why did he keep going back? And more unusual behavior follows when he pays the workers in reverse, and gives them all the same wage—one denarius—the normal day’s wage of Jesus’ time. When the workers who had actually agreed to work for one denarius, see the latecomers getting one denarius also, they begin to get greedy, and think to themselves, “Oh! This means we will get more!” But their attitude quickly changes when they get the same pay as all the rest. They grumble until the master turns and addresses them, and pulls together the meaning of the parable for 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 choose to give 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?” So the last will be first, and the first last. Adding together all these unexpected elements of the story, what does this parable teach us about God and His kingdom? The parable explains itself—it’s about the generosity of the master. His generosity explains the strange behavior. And why was He generous? It’s no stretch to see that He was compassionate towards the human need of the workers. The point of the parable is to paint a picture of our generous and compassionate God, who cares for the need of humanity.

So what’s the crisis in the parable? The workers were not cheated or paid any less than they had agreed to work for. In fact only the first group of workers agreed to the wage—all the others went to work simply on the promise that “whatever is right, I will give you”. But our gut reaction is right there with the workers who pulled the full 12 hour shift. Certainly it stands to reason that the ones who worked longest should get more, or that the ones who worked less should get less, right? Isn’t that fair? But the master answers that he’s free to do what he chooses, and asks why we resent his generosity. This is the heart of the matter. Our problem is with who God is—and at our core, we find His generosity hard to accept. Perhaps not hard to accept for ourselves, but we do find it hard to accept His generosity toward others, or to show the same ourselves. We always seem to feel we deserve a bigger or better slice of the pie than someone else—and just like in the parable, the first group even becomes blind to the generosity they received from the master in the first place. They even try to put the master in their debt.

We are trained in almost every aspect of our life to live by a merit-based system. School is no exception. Students earn their grades by hard study and effort, they receive perfect attendance awards only if they are present, on time, every day. In sports it’s usually the athletes who put the most effort into their sports and practice, who will be most successful in competition. Job promotions are supposed to come by demonstrating hard work and achievement. Awards in science, writing, or entertainment come to those who show excellence and hard work. We’re programmed to think this way about nearly everything in life. And it’s natural that these things should work that way, and the lesson of Jesus’ parable is not about how to set your payroll—it’s about the kingdom of heaven and God’s ways.

This parable shows that when God came to meet our human need in Jesus Christ, He did not give out His gifts by the merit system. Jesus did not come to earth to reward those who were proud or boastful of their upright lives, or thought they’d earned God’s favor or put God in their debt. Rather, Jesus came to the needy, the suffering, the low and humble. Those who seemed most undeserving and unworthy. He made the last to be first, and the first last. He came for sinners and those in darkness.

God doesn’t grade on a curve or scale His gifts or blessings according to how much we deserve. He doesn’t reduce the gift of eternal life, for those who believe in the last hour of life. Do you know what Jesus promised to the thief on the cross, who saw Jesus as King in his dying hour? Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” No period of probation, no waiting period or second rate gift. He received his “denarius”—his reward of eternal life—even though he hadn’t earned it. God’s goodness and generosity were on full display even as Jesus was breathing out His dying breath. In God’s kingdom, comparing ourselves and looking down on others is completely out of order. Helping and caring for the lowly and the needy—that’s the order of God’s kingdom. Keeping a humble attitude about yourself, and being content with what God gives you—this is how to live in His kingdom. Dependency on God, and not claiming self-reliance in things spiritual—this is what God desires.

The proud and self-important soul will not listen to God; but the humble heart is open to God’s Word and His call. God has done His share of cracking through the tough shell of stubborn hearts, and opening them to hear His Word. But pride cannot stand before Him. But He lifts up the lowly, taking them from the dust and giving them honor. This is what God is pleased to do in His kingdom, where the first will be last, and the last will be first. This is what Christians mean by the “Gospel” or the good news. It’s a message totally unlike our knee-jerk way of thinking about what is fair; what we’ve earned or deserved.

The hard truth is that if we push God to treat us and others by what we think we deserve—what is fair—we just might get what we’ve asked for. The Bible tells us what “wages”  we’ve earned or deserved. Sin earns us death. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. That means we haven’t “scored” rewards and commendations from Him, no matter how self-convinced we are of our own good life. Instead we’ve earned death. The Bible tells us this is the source of our human need. This is the equivalent of the “unemployment line” of the parable. What we need from God is not a job, but a restored relationship with Him. The forgiveness of our sins and a place of belonging in His family. And an eternal home with Him in heaven. But we have no means to provide this for ourselves (or our family or anyone else). We can’t meet our own human needs before God. We need His generosity—His undeserved goodness.

And God is willing—no He is eager!!—to give us what we don’t deserve! Do you see the urgency and eagerness of God in the parable? He doesn’t send His employee, but goes Himself to find workers. At the last hour He certainly had no more need for workers—as if the work would be unfinished without them. But He has compassion on them and wants to give them each a day’s wage. What dignity He gives to the lowly! What generosity to even the last and the least! God doesn’t make a “cost-benefit analysis” to see whether it’s a good investment of His “money” to hire at the last hour—He wants those workers in the vineyard, and He’s got generosity to spare! This how God is generous to us and to all people. He’s not measuring how long you’ve been in His “vineyard”—but He is sure eager to get you in there before the day is over and the darkness sets in.

If the master in the parable doesn’t want even the last worker to miss out on His generosity, and to get their “living wage”—how much more does God, whom the master represents—how much more does God want every last person to receive His generosity? And how eagerly and persistently Jesus calls for us to come to Him! So don’t delay! He’s calling you! There is no greater blessing than to receive God’s generosity and the gifts that He freely brings us. There is no better way to provide for yourself and your family than to receive God’s free gifts. He went to great lengths to give them to us—even to death on the cross and rising from the dead for us. The gifts that Jesus brings are the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. Nothing that we earned and better than we deserve. But God is free to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him—and He chooses to give us life! Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. To Him be our worship and praise, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. What was the wage the first workers agreed to accept from the master for a day’s work? When the master returned four more times to the marketplace, why were there still workers there? (v.7)
  2. What is surprising about the master’s trips to the marketplace, in light of the fact that he had an employee (v.8)? What about the order in which he made payment? How much he paid to each?
  3. What does this parable teach us about the compassion and generosity of our God? What was the protest of the first workers? Were they underpaid? How and when do we show a similar jealousy or resentment? What must we do with sinful feelings of “entitlement?”
  4. The end of verse 15 could literally be translated as “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” What does Jesus say about having an “evil eye?” Matthew 6:22-24. How should we look on one another instead?
  5. God commanded this same kind of mercy of His people in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and 24:14-15. This parable shows how God would (and does!!) keep those same commands. How does the parable show that God became man in Jesus Christ, and how He made atonement for the world?
  6. How can we look out for and help the “11th hour” unemployed? What is significant about the fact that this was the “last call” for workers to come into the vineyard? What is the “equal reward” for all who trust in Jesus? It’s not a “reward” in the sense of something we earned, but given how? Romans 6:23

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