Sunday, January 28, 2024

Grace Vs. Works

 Matthew 20:1-16

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.'  And so they went.  Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.  And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?'  They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.' He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.'

"And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said  to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.'  And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.  And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius.  And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.'

"But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'

"Thus the last shall be first, and the first last."

Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday                        1/28/24

Grace Vs.  Works

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

As hard as it may be for you to imagine, some people would rather have God demand works of them than for Him to simply give them eternal life and salvation.  Maybe that isn't so difficult for some of you to imagine.  I don't know.  We were all raised by Depression-Era parents, or perhaps some of you grew up in the Depression.  Self-sufficiency was a virtue and strongly stressed, so that understanding the "give-me" mentality that some people have is just alien to you.  Well, this grace vs. works thing is the point of the parable in our Gospel lesson this morning.  So, let us consider the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard under the theme, Grace Vs.  Works.

The Kingdom of heaven is something like this parable.  Jesus says so.  But what Jesus is describing is not what the experience of heaven is about as much as what getting there is all about.  Jesus is addressing this particularly to the Jews of His day.  They were historically the "Chosen People."  They had been chosen of God in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and so on through the ages.  They were the laborers in the parable who had been hired right away in the morning.  The others, hired later, were the proselytes – Gentile converts to Judaism.  We, Gentile Christians, are the men hired at the eleventh hour.  Jesus was picturing in the parable the attitude of the Jews that they were a people set apart, something different, something special by virtue of their long association with God.  They were sure that they were better and deserved more than the "Johnny-come-lately's" of the proselytes.

Jesus was explaining to them that their relationship with Almighty God didn't work the way they thought it did.  To them it was all about earning and deserving.  With God it is and always has been about His generosity and giving.  They were thinking "works", and Jesus was saying "Grace."  They believed that the length of time in their relationship to God – which was purely legal for many of them – meant that they deserved something more than others.  It is an attitude which is still prevalent among Jews today.  They have done more, they have suffered more, they have earned more.  

But the truth which Jesus was trying to illustrate by means of this parable is that it is by grace, and if God chooses to include others in His goodness and generosity, He can and will.  With God, it is all gift.  Life is a gift.  His Word is a gift.  Our faith is a gift.  We were all standing about in the marketplace until He came and got us, and put us to work.  We have the agreed wage – we have the promises of God of forgiveness and life and salvation.  These are the same promises the Jews had, although they tended to interpret them in terms of worldly comfort and pomp and power – but then again, so do many of the prosperity preachers and their followers today.  The problem that Jesus confronted with the Jews was that they thought that God owed them something – something extra, that they deserved more, that they had God over a barrel, so to speak.

Modern so-called Christians often think the same way.  You've heard the slogans – Name it and claim it, Expect a Miracle, the Abundant Life for God's People.  Those slogans reflect a theology of glory which says that we deserve something more and something better because we are God's people, because we have done something, because of our time of service.  Jesus says that our salvation is gift, not deserving – that it is grace, not works.

The Jews were in for a surprise.  The Christian Church was that surprise.  Suddenly, the all of those centuries of history did not count for much.  Those who had been there and had been faithful received what they had been promised.  The faithful were saved by faith.  God forgave them their sins in view of the coming sacrifice for sins, just as He now forgives us in view of the sacrifice once made for us by Jesus.  Those who thought that they had something more and better coming because of their national heritage have been disappointed.  God spoke through St. Paul, saying, they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants.

That is why I preach the Law.  The Law shows us our sins and teaches us that whatever we receive from God is not because we are such good people.  The Law tells us that we are sinners – and we do well to keep that clearly in mind.  God gives to us out of His generosity and love – grace.  We don't get what we deserve – nor should we want to.  We receive so much more and better than what we earn.  We earn death and hell.  We get life and salvation instead.

Part of this attitude to which the parable speaks is reflected in the idea that our religion is about us.  We want it to be fun.  We want it to be entertaining.  We want it to make us feel good, and we want it to fit neatly into a sixty-minute package.  But when we say those things, we are revealing that we think church is about US!  But it is not about us.  It is about Jesus and His great love, and His great gift to us.

It is actually good for us to have our flesh disappointed in the worship service, as long as it is disappointed by the Word of God and the faithful worship of God.  Then we are forced to place God and His will and His Word first, and humble ourselves before Him.  When we grumble about this or that in the face of God's Word, we are like those laborers in the vineyard who grumbled because they just naturally thought that they were going to get more, somehow.  We need to discipline our flesh to serve God and to hear His Word.

But we do not need to leave the service feeling good.  It would be nice, but it is not always possible, and to expect it is to have an unrealistic expectation.  We are sinners.  We should feel guilty.  We should be ashamed of our sins.  We need to repent.  Only when we genuinely repent can we actually understand, believe, or receive forgiveness.  Only in true sorrow over sin can we appreciate how much God does for us when he forgives us our sins.  Only in the shadow the mountain of our own sinfulness can we estimate how deep and great the suffering of Jesus was – how great it had to have been – for our sins.  Only the one who is forgiven much can love much.

And if we know our sins, it is impossible to always feel good.  When we then have faith in our Lord and believe that our sins are forgiven, we will usually feel thankful, and the knowledge of His goodness will bring us joy – but it is always a joy tempered by the humiliation of facing our corruption and sin.  Some days the sin part is overwhelming the joy part, and then we rest in a quiet joy in faith, knowing that Jesus died for us and took our punishment, guilt and death, even when we are not "feeling good" or bright and chipper.  The gospel is true no matter how I feel today.

If we require a certain feeling, we have a "work" which we have imposed on ourselves or others before we can have salvation.  If we demand that worship be entertaining, or that it meet some criterion other than faithfulness to the Word of God, we have made it about us.  The Gospel is for us, but it is not about us.  Our salvation is God's gift to us, but it is about His love, and Christ's substitution for us, and about the grace of God, freely given to all who believe.  It is about grace, not works.  It is about what God has done and gives to us, not about us, except as the grateful recipients of His abundant generosity.

In the parable, the issue was deserving versus generosity.  For us, this morning, it is grace vs. works.  We want to keep grace clearly in our minds, for it is by grace that we have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not at all on the basis of works, so that no one may boast – save in Jesus Christ alone!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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