Surprised by the Gospel

Audio here.

Video of the Divine Service here.

Bulletin here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Are we surprised by the Gospel any more? Or is it something we just assume and take for granted? It seems, in fact, that most people tend to take the Gospel for granted, at least as far as the flesh can understand the Gospel: God is nice, and He just wants us to be happy and He accepts us just as we are. We take that for granted. Nothing surprising about that. But when it comes to the Law, we are all sorts of shocked and surprised when we hear that God actually commands us to do certain things and not do other things.

But the truth is that we know the Law very well, even if we try to deny it. Because the Law of God is built into His creation. His Law is simply the way things should be as His creation. And His commandments are simply the actual words by which God makes known to sinners what His Law looks like in action. And we can understand the Law, for the most part, even if not its extent. We know how things should work. We know that when people work hard, they deserve what they get. When they do better, they go further. The hardest workers should get the job or the promotion. And because we know things work that way, we also see when things are unfair. When the less-qualified gets the promotion over the more-qualified; when bad things happen to people we see as good and when good things happen to people we see as bad. The Law is what makes sense to us. At some level, we understand the Law and it doesn’t surprise us, even if we’ve worked very hard to suppress its accusations.

But the first workers hired by the Lord of the vineyard are surprised at the Gospel. They are surprised at the goodness of the Lord, because it doesn’t seem like goodness to them at the end. At the beginning, maybe it seemed like goodness. They didn’t have any work to do, and now they do. The Lord of the vineyard goes out looking for workers. Maybe He chooses 12 of them. And maybe their names are something like—oh, I don’t know—Peter, James, and John, just to pick a few names out of the air. Peter, in fact, has just said to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you. What will we receive?” And Jesus says that, yes, those who have left families and houses and property and life will receive a hundred-fold in this age as well as in the age to come. But then He tells this parable. What will they receive, they who were first to follow the Jesus who called them to come work?

Well, the master of the house agrees with the first workers for a wage that covers their day’s work. A denarius is the day’s wage for the day’s work. And they seem to be happy to go and work for that. He goes out in three hours, and there are more workers. He goes out three hours later, and there are still more. Finally, he goes out with one hour left to go in the work day, and he sees more workers just standing around. He says, “Why have you been standing here all day idle?” “Because no one hired us.” “Okay, you go work in my vineyard.”

When the day is over—an hour later—the Lord of the vineyard sends His foreman to give the workers their wages, beginning with those hired last. And as they go and everyone’s getting a denarius, the workers hired first begin to think that they’re going to get more. Because that’s how things work: the people who work one hour get 1/12 of those who work all 12 hours. But they also get a denarius. And then they’re mad at the Lord of the vineyard. “You’ve made them equal to us, even though we’ve been out here all day working. They hardly worked at all compared to us. They barely broke a sweat.” Notice that there wasn’t a problem with the promised wages at the beginning. They seemed to be perfectly happy to go work for the day for what the Lord of the vineyard happened. The problem only begins when they start comparing themselves to other workers, for one, and, two, when they forget whose money it is. My ways are not your ways, says the Lord of the vineyard, and my thoughts are not your thoughts. Can’t I do what I want with what’s mine? If I want to give to these the same as I give to you, what is it to you? Or is your eye evil because I am good? They see the master as evil, when He’s actually good.

Let the wicked one forsake his ways and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to God so that He may have compassion, and to the Lord, so that He may abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are My ways your ways, declares the Lord. As far as the heavens are above the earth, so far are My thoughts and ways higher than your thoughts and ways. The wicked and the righteous have no problem paying what people deserve, or matching up the amount of work with the amount of wages.

What God says here through the prophet Isaiah is not taking place in a context of disaster or evil, where we don’t understand why something bad has happened. They take place in the context of God’s compassion and abundant pardon! The surprise is the Gospel. And that surprise is only bitter to those who have taken the gifts of the Lord for granted, who think they somehow have come to deserve it because He called them in earlier than some others, because they’ve forgotten that everything belongs to the Lord of the vineyard. Anyone who realizes that everything is gift and everything is mercy will forget to ask why this happens or why we don’t have that. What of it is from you? What of anything is what we’ve earned? When Peter asks Jesus what they, who have given up everything, will receive and Jesus says a hundred fold in this age and in the age to come, that is still more gift, still more compassion, still more abundant pardon and mercy. Who complains about what they’ve received unless they think they deserve more? And deserving has no place in the payment plan of the Lord of the vineyard. It’s all His and He gives as He pleases, to first and last alike.

This is the astounding surprise, that Jesus our Lord still comes and meets with people as undeserving as us. He still speaks His word to us day after day, week after week. The living Son of God in flesh speaks with us! He speaks His words of absolution. He speaks His words in Holy Baptism. He—wondrous surprise—feeds us His own living Body and Blood! Who will complain that the Lord gives His own gifts in His own ways? As if we deserved something else, something more, something other.

No, He has compassion on us, wicked and unrighteous, and He abundantly pardons because His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Thank God.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/23/17

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