First, Last, and In Between

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 19:00 mark.

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

It’s fitting that we heard this part of Isaiah 55 as our reading from the Old Testament today. God says through the prophet, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, declares Yahweh. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” In fact, every time we hear a parable from Jesus, we should probably hear these words in the back of our brains. Especially when Jesus begins a parable, “The Reign of the Heavens, the Reign and Rule of God, are like…,” we should remember that God’s ways are not our ways nor are His thoughts our thoughts.

Parables are not just cute stories that tell us something we already knew about ourselves, other people, or God. Very often they tell us the opposite of what we think we know. They turn upside down our thoughts, and make nonsense of our ways. This parable begins in 19:30, the verse before our reading, with these words: “For the first ones will be last and the last ones first.” Then, in verse 16, the parable ends with an inversion of those words: “For the last ones will be first and the first ones will be last.” That’s not our way. We think the first should be first and the last last. Work hard and get ahead. Do better than others and you’ll get what you deserve.

But with God’s Kingdom, it’s different. Jesus tells the story of the master of a house, who owns a vineyard. And He needs some workers, so He goes out early in the morning to find some. It doesn’t say what kind of workers, but since I’ve recently seen some signs that said, “Pickers needed,” let’s assume He needs harvest workers. Plus it fits well with late September in the Wenatchee Valley. He goes out to wherever the workers are gathered, and He finds some, and says, “Okay, I’ll pay you this much, a denarius, a day’s wage, for a day’s work in My vineyard. How about it?” They agree, and they go and work. Three hours later, at nine o’clock, He goes out again, looking for more workers. What’s weird is that presumably he hired enough the first time. This is gratuitous hiring! He finds some more and says, “Go and work, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.” They go.

Again at noon, and at three, He does the same thing: Go and work; I’ll pay you what is right. Finally, it’s five o’clock, and He goes out one more time looking for workers. He finds some and says, “How come you’ve been standing here doing nothing all day?” They say, “Because no one hired us.” “Okay, go work in My vineyard.” Perhaps those second, third, and fourth groups of workers are curious about what they’ll get paid. They hear that the first group is getting a denarius, and so they calculate their relative value, their pay according to how many hours they’re working.

Well, an hour later, the Lord of the vineyard tells His foreman to call in the workers, but to start with the last ones first. They must have figured that they would receive 1/12 of a denarius, since they only worked an hour. But when they get their pay, they find they’ve received a denarius, one day’s wage. And so it goes, on through the workers, those who arrived at 3, those who came at noon, and those who came at nine, all of them receiving a denarius. This time, the calculation works the opposite way: the guys who started working first see that the last guys get a denarius, and they begin to think—reasonably enough—that they will get more because they worked longer.

But when they get their pay, they get exactly the same: one denarius. And so they say to the Lord, “Hey, how come you made those guys who worked one hour equal to us, who worked the whole day? We carried the burden of the work, we worked in the heat of the day.” But the Lord of the vineyard is having none of it. He says, “Hey, buddy.” (The way that “friend” is used here is not really friendly. It’s used two other times in Matthew’s Gospel: once when the guest comes to the wedding feast without a wedding garment and gets thrown out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; and the second time of Judas: “Friend, do what you came to do.”) The Master says, “Hey buddy. Take your money and go. I didn’t act unrighteously toward you. Didn’t you agree to receive a denarius? Is it against some law for me to do what I want with my own money? If I want to give the same amount to the last as to the first, what’s it to ya? Or do you see me as evil because I am good?” 

Do you see me as evil because I am good? The master is good, but they see Him as evil. And so these workers are exposed for what they are: they think they deserve what they get; they are petty, prideful, and ungrateful. As long as the promise belonged only to them, the pay was good enough. It only became not good enough when someone else got the same, when they start comparing what the Lord of the vineyard gave to them with what He gave to others.

It is clear that if this is the Reign and Rule of God, then His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. This is no way to run a business. If someone did this in an orchard, would anyone come back the next year? No, no one would want to work a whole day when someone gets paid the same for working one hour. This is the worst kind of unfairness and, really, not a very smart thing to do as the owner of the vineyard. But He never promised to be fair, only righteous. Besides, this is not a parable about how to run a business. It is a parable about the way God rules in His Son Christ. It’s the way God runs His own business of salvation.

So where did you see yourself in the parable? The early workers? Baptized as an infant, Sunday School, Confirmation, in church every week, volunteering whenever help is needed? That’s pretty much me. You’ve been working in the Lord’s vineyard, wherever He’s put you, for a long time? And then you hear about some serial killer “finding Jesus” in prison. You hear about an old man, who pretty much lived however he wanted, rarely went to church, if ever, suddenly confessing his sins on his deathbed and confessing Christ as Savior. And what do you think, even if you don’t say it? What, Lord? You’ve made him equal to me? He gets to live however he wants, and then at the 11th hour, he gets to slip in under the wire? He gets exactly what I get, even though I’ve been doing this the whole time? Probably nearly all of us have had that feeling or thought at one time or another, especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time. But in our self-righteousness, we are exposed for what we are: thinking we’ve deserved a single thing that we have been given; petty, prideful, ungrateful.

If someone is given faith in prison after a life of crime, or on his deathbed after living however he wanted, then what he or she is actually given is Christ. And He’s not something you can earn or deserve; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked under the Lord of the vineyard. You can work for a thousand years or a single minute, and Christ will still be everything for you. Why do we not, instead, rejoice that our God is merciful? Why do we not rejoice that another sinner has been called out of the futile labor of the flesh into the fruitful labor of the Lord? Well, then, there is more joy among the angels when one sinner repents, than when 99 righteous persons do not need to repent. And why do we not rejoice that the Lord never stops seeking His lost ones, even to the very last moment? Do we see Him as evil because He is good? Good to all? To the first as to the last, and to the last as to the first?

His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Repent. He is lavish with His mercy, and He has been more than generous to all who work, even if they were to work for multiple lifetimes. His pay is eternal life in Christ, and it is absolutely unconnected to how long you labor. If you don’t like it, take what you’ve been given and go. But He is good, and He is generous with what is His.

On the other hand, maybe you have only come lately to the vineyard of the Lord. If that is you, and you’ve been calculating your pay, keeping a ledger and checking your books, you can cut that out right now. There is no ledger, there is no time-clock, and there is no book of records. As far as the Master’s wages are concerned, there is only the Lamb’s Book of Life. In that Book, your name is written in Christ’s blood, and then He writes His Name on you in water by the Word.

This is the way of the Lord: the first are last and the last are first—but notice—in this parable, that means that everyone is alike. All are idle, all are doing nothing, all are called by the Lord of the vineyard. And those whom He, amazingly, calls into His employment are given everything He has promised, whatever is righteous, whatever is good in His eyes, whatever He rejoices to give you. 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, 9/16/20

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