Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, for Septuagesima "Seventy" (Days before Easter), "God is Generous to all who enter"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. [Welcome to all of our Emmanuel Lutheran Preschool families! It’s a delight to have you as part of our ohana, and a blessing for our teachers to share in the joy of raising up our children in the knowledge of our Lord.] Today the parable Jesus tells gives us a surprise about how the kingdom of heaven works. But you’ll have to step out of the world of full-time employment for a moment to get the right picture. The people in the parable are “day-laborers” with no contract except a one day agreement for one day’s work and one day’s wage. At least the first to arrive on the job have that agreement. The ones who come later only have a promise to be paid “whatever is right.”
How uncertain would life be if our employment was day to day, not on a more permanent basis? One thing is for sure, no work = no pay = no food. Consider the life or death value of that denarius—one day’s wage—in the story. The workers who worked the longest felt like they had been cheated—even though the master paid them exactly according to the terms they accepted. Did they presume they now deserved 2 day’s wages, for 1 day’s work, since others arrived later and worked less than a full day? Not to be overly mathematical, but would those who worked one hour survive on 1/12th of a day’s wage? In other words, what is the point of the story? For the grumbling workers, it seemed like the master cheated them. But from the master’s standpoint (and to those he generously provided), the point is about the master’s generosity and His freedom to bless others with what is rightfully His.
Jesus is, of course, painting a picture in this story of God’s own generosity towards us. And God is generous to all those who enter to work in His vineyard. He doesn’t ration His blessings, or share them unequally with those who entered sooner or later. There isn’t a hierarchy of “pay scale”, and none are “short-changed”—they are all given what they actually need and what He generously desires to give.
So let’s look at what the key ideas in the story represent. The master going out to hire workers for His vineyard is a picture of God sending out the Gospel to invite you and I and all people to come work in His kingdom. God invites us into His kingdom, which is His church on earth—not a building, but the gathering of all believers who willingly “come to work” in His vineyard. And the wages are exactly the same for all! God doesn’t love us more or less based on whether we believed in Him sooner or later—whether since childhood or at our deathbed. God doesn’t subtract from the free gift of eternal life, on the basis of when we arrived in His kingdom. His forgiveness for our sins is full and free—not scaled or prorated based on some merit or worthiness in us, but solely on His generous mercy. Our worth and value in His kingdom is not scored against a list of “demerits” for the sins that we have committed, that must be counted against us. Rather, God loves each and every sinner in the world, and when He saves us and brings us into His kingdom, it doesn’t matter however unequal and different our earthly circumstances are—we all have the same one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5). That is a great comfort to know.
Have you ever put your kids’ (or grandkids’) pictures on your refrigerator? Did you arrange them according to how well they were drawn? If one kid’s drawings weren’t as talented as the others, did you take them off? What does it show about your relationship to your children, that you proudly show drawings from each of them, on your fridge? What does it tell about God’s love that He wants all to enter His kingdom, early or late, and to receive the same blessings? What if you operated a soup kitchen and were going to gather people in for a meal, and some came early, and others late? Would you reduce the portion of the late arrivals? Double the portion of the early-birds? What does the equal care for all, in that situation reveal? Unfairness? No! Generosity for each according to their need. Everyday life is packed full of inequalities and uneven bargains, but God’s kingdom is blessedly generous to all who enter it. 
Back to the parable, I think those examples help us to figure out the real factor that drove the complaining. No one complains that all the artwork on a parent’s fridge isn’t of the same skill level. We know it’s there because people love their children and value their work, period. We don’t complain about the unfairness of soup kitchens. We know that people are dependent on that help, and are glad they receive what they need—their daily bread. But we do complain over unfairness of how our work and effort is measured. Whether the unfairness is real or perceived. A favorite Lutheran author of mine, Bo Giertz, writes that by nature we all tend to be “legalistic self-righteous snobs.” Ouch! But see if the rest of his description doesn’t fit us all too well:
We know when we shine brightly, and we like to remember our shining moments. We think people ought to recognize us for these shining moments and are offended if they don’t. We think it’s unfair if others, who have done much less, are given preference over us. And since God is to be the final judge, we feel that He, if anyone, should judge us fairly, according to our merits and skillfulness. But God doesn’t do that. For our sakes, it’s good that He doesn’t do that. If He did, judgment wouldn’t be in our favor at all. (Bo Giertz, To Live with Christ, 153).

Bo Giertz ends the devotion with these words of prayer: “Help me to remember how good You are to me so I am never jealous of your goodness to others. Even if I am last in Your kingdom, it is much more than I deserve.”
The parable, and this explanation, show us the danger of being jealous of God’s goodness and generosity to others. We end up grasping for recognition and reward, and despising others for having what we were given. Instead of taking what God gives with grateful hearts and thanksgiving on our lips, our eyes are on what others get or have done. We begin to play the game that always loses—to compare ourselves and our effort to everyone else. It’s a lose-lose situation because we either end up smug and self-righteous or discouraged and self-pitying. It’s not a game that leads toward contentment or thanksgiving. But by telling us this story, Jesus is inviting us both to receive and to reflect God’s generosity. The workers could have all gone home, grateful for the opportunity to work, grateful to have received a day’s wage and to be able to feed their family. That simple attitude of thankfulness and contentment can be ours also. It flows from the spirit of God’s own generosity to us—but we have to give up eyeing others for unfairness or insisting on getting what is our due. It takes shape in giving and working dutifully, with no special expectation to receive more than we were promised.
What does this mean for our daily life? Are we supposed to run our businesses this way, paying workers who work one hour the same as those who work twelve? That’s not the point, as I said before, Jesus is contrasting His kingdom to the world. But what should His kingdom do in our life? God’s church on earth is meant to be like a little embassy of God’s kingdom; a little outpost in this world—a place where the principles of God’s kingdom, and His reconciliation with mankind are worked and lived out. Among us, people should be able to get a glimpse of this radically different way of living and thinking—the generous love of God’s kingdom.
As Christians, that’s part of what it means to “work in His vineyard.” To be part of His kingdom is to labor for the goals of our generous and kind master. To be agents of His compassion, His love, and His forgiveness. To strip away our disobedient and selfish attitudes, and admit them to God as sin, so He will forgive us. To seek His kingdom and His righteousness. We’re reminded often enough by critics and sometimes even each other about our shortcomings and failures in living out the Christian life—but we know that it’s not on the basis of our works that God loves and blesses us with His forgiveness, life and salvation. God hasn’t delivered salvation to us on a sliding scale based on our merits or when we began to work in the vineyard.
Rather salvation comes only because of the perfect life and obedience of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. In every way that we fail to imitate God’s generosity—Jesus is the full and perfect image of it. In every way that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—Jesus has obeyed and fully risen to the glory of God. To every degree that we were late on the job, Jesus has been faithfully at work since the time of creation. And this is not so that we might be demoralized and defeated by the comparison, but so that He could earn in our place the full reward of salvation, and freely give it to us. So that we could be confident of His victory for us—the only thing that matters. It is so that He might live in us by faith, that His living Spirit of obedience, generosity, compassion, and love will take root in and shape our lives to the glory of our Father and the love of our neighbor.
To His very death on the cross, Jesus loved His disciples—to the very end. And He did this, not by putting Himself first and demanding what was owed to Him, but rather by become last and servant of all. He became last of all for our sake, so that He might be first in the kingdom of God. And now He lives, risen from the grave in victory. To be part of His kingdom is to have His life alive and in you. For this reason, let us give up all grudging or reluctant attitudes; let us surrender the greedy or self-pitying eyes, and instead be grateful and content with our part in His kingdom, and rejoice to work for Him. For God is generous to all who enter His kingdom, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.    Matthew 20:1-16 tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven. What things are noticeably different about the way God’s kingdom works than the way the world operates? What does this picture point us to? Hint: vs. 14-15. What key principle of God’s kingdom is shown here?
2.    Take yourself out of the world of full-time employment, and put yourself in the pool of people searching for daily employment. How vital to your existence is that daily wage? How does this change your perception of the claim of “unfairness” in v. 11-12. Were the first laborers really treated unfairly? Would the last workers survive on 1/12th day’s wage?
3.    Why are we so demanding of recognition and reward for our work? Since that is not the principle God is operating by in His kingdom, why is it harmful to us and others to begrudge God’s generosity?
4.    Does this parable disregard the value of work, or discourage work in any way? Why is that not a correct understanding of the parable? What is the point that it’s communicating?
5.    What deep joy and comfort is there for us to find in God’s generosity? How do God’s kingdom gifts come to us and all in equal measure, regardless of our status, to all who enter His vineyard to work? What are those gifts of Christ we already enjoy now? How would our lives be impacted, and those of others, if we employed more of that generosity and kindness toward others?
6.    When we put ourselves first, what will God do? Matthew 20:16; 23:12. Who does God raise up or exalt? God’s generosity, by definition, is not earned by us, nor is it up for sale or negotiation. Read Ephesians 2:1-10 to reflect both on the depth of our need for God’s generosity, and the ways and the reasons He shows it. Also how immeasurable and excellent it truly is!

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