March 17, 2019 Sermon
Journey to the Cross:
A Triumph of Grace
First Scripture Reading: Psalm 16:5-8
5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
8 I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 20:1-16
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Message – “Journey to the Cross: A Triumph of Grace”
Equal pay for equal work.
Those who work more gain more.
These are phrases that we might hear in 21st century America.
Just as much, these are phrases we likely would have heard spoken by God’s people in the time of Jesus. In that time, God’s people understood fairness in a very particular way: fairness required that people be compensated based on how hard they tried and how long they’d been trying. This was the expectation for work, for laboring, for sure. But this was also, maybe ESPECIALLY, the expectation of God, the expectation in the realm of faith. From that perspective, a just God, a righteous God, a fair God would offer a greater reward to those who had been trying to do God’s will for longer than to those who had not been trying as hard or for as long. In other words, people who are more pious should get a greater reward for their greater piety.
I imagine this understanding is precisely why the disciples periodically engaged in debates about who would be greatest in the kingdom to come, who would sit at Jesus’ right or left hand; the disciples wanted to be recognized for having done more because they expected that’s the way a fair and just God would do things.
My friends, today, we continue Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. Today, we continue to hear from Jesus some of His “last things”; in other words, we hear some of the most important and urgent words and concepts Jesus wanted to share with His disciples – the original twelve in His time and all of His followers throughout time, including us – before His earthly ministry ended.
And today, Jesus’ crucial last words are told in a parable that would have seemed absolutely absurd to its original hearers. Fairness in labor practices dictated that workers who labored longer receive more wages. Fairness in religious practice dictated that God provide greater rewards to those who labored harder and longer. But Jesus told this story, this parable, about a landowner giving equal pay for UNequal work: something that just wasn’t done. And Jesus said this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Jesus made this parable an absurd story at first glance both to get the disciples’ attention – and, believe me, it would have – and to replace a human understanding of fairness with a Godly understanding of fairness. And Jesus told this parable to teach one simple yet – at that time – unheard-of truth: God’s grace is given equally to all who receive it.
This might not seem like such a strange teaching to you. Indeed, I hope it’s not. You’re the recipients of almost 2,000 years of Christian history. Hopefully the Universal Church has done its job of teaching that grace is given equally to all. Those who accept Christ in their dying moments will receive just as much grace as those who do God’s will for the entirety of their lives. I hope you already KNOW this.
Even so, I’m certain parts of Christ’s Church continue to teach a different message, even today. It wasn’t all that long ago that I heard a sermon preached in a mega-church that included a story about a person who died and went to heaven. Upon arriving in heaven, this person received a tour of heaven, only to discover that he would receive none of the mansions or stately houses he saw; those were reserved for others. No, since he did less for God in life, he would be required to live in the “slums” of heaven for eternity.
Doesn’t sound quite like Jesus’ truth that grace is given EQUALLY to all who receive it, does it?
So, you might occasionally hear some things that suggest God is beholden to a human understanding of fairness, but Jesus quite clearly said something different. God will reward equally all who choose God, all who accept God’s offer of grace.
Why was this something of such great import that Jesus would choose to include it among His last words?
For starters, we can imagine the direction the disciples and, subsequently, the Church, might have taken if Jesus had not shared this story, this message. Could you imagine a pecking order for rewards in eternity? Without these words, the Church’s understanding of eternal life in heaven would have become little more than a reflection of just about everything that’s messed up in the kingdom of people here on earth. Those who have more on earth and so could give more during this life could essentially purchase a “better” eternity: bigger mansion, maybe gold or platinum streets while others got silver or bronze, a faster heavenly chariot for racing down those streets, better food, closer proximity to God, etc. Y’all, without this story, this teaching, I imagine the wealthy and powerful on earth would be doing everything they could to exclude the poor and powerless on earth from all the best eternity with God has to offer…so Jesus put a stop to it.
Similarly, I imagine the Church might have taken a turn toward denying access to eternal life with God in heaven to latecomers and to those who don’t work hard enough, however the powerbrokers in the Church decided to define “hard enough.” I know, it’s not up to the Church to decide who gets eternal life with God – it’s up to God – but since when has that stopped God’s people from trying to prevent others from entrance into heaven? Just like God’s people before Jesus arrived put boundaries around what God meant by resting on the Sabbath – you know, what actually constitutes rest and how much work you can do without it being called work – God’s people after Jesus likely would have defined the appropriate amount of work or effort required for eternal life in heaven in a way that would punish their perceived enemies or even just people who had a different point of view. Not very graceful.
Thirdly, this story provides another of several reminders from Jesus that God doesn’t view things the way people view things. Even more than that, God won’t tolerate being put in a box of human making. People can try to define words like “fair” and “just” and “right” all we want, but only God knows what’s really fair and just and right from a Godly perspective. And it’s God who tells us what’s fair and right and just, not the other way way around. So this story is one of Jesus’ ways of telling us to get our evaluation tools from God. If we get them from anyplace else, our evaluation tools for such important things as fairness and justice are likely to be wrong, maybe even corrupt.
I hope you see why the message of this parable is so important, important enough to be presented immediately next to one of Jesus’ foretelling of his impending death and resurrection.
I also hope you see that the story has amazing implications for us, quite a few of them actually.
Implication Number 1: Enjoy the grace we have received. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about the potential for humans, even the Church, to get things wrong…because I really believe that’s why Jesus provided this important story and message when He did. However, whatever Jesus’ reason for giving the story, let’s not lose sight of the point of the story: equal grace for all who receive it. Y’all, God offers you grace enough for an eternal life with God. Whether you came into this world as poor or rich, powerless or powerful, God offers you the same grace God offers everyone else through Jesus. And whether you accepted God’s offer when you were a child or waited until your 95th birthday, God gives you the exact same rewards of God’s grace that God gives to everyone else who accepts. And just because I’m a minister and spend my life teaching and preaching and guiding others to know God’s love in Jesus doesn’t mean the reward of grace you receive will be less than the reward of grace I receive. It doesn’t mean ANYONE gets more or less. We all receive eternal life by God’s grace. And we should celebrate it!
Implication Number 2: God’s decision to offer us equal grace makes us, well, equal, in an eternal kind of way. In other words, you’re not better or worse than anyone else…in God’s eyes, anyway. So, it’s time for us to stop acting like we’re better than others. People who live in the park…if they accept what God offers, they’re equal to us. People who partake of sins that WE may find particularly egregious but who are trying to follow Jesus…if they accept what God offers, they’re equal to us. People who see the world from a completely different political perspective than you do…if they accept what God offers, they’re grace is equal to yours. As I go through my life, I see so many people acting as if they’re somehow better than others, they’re somehow so much more deserving of everything than others. They remind me of the laborers in Jesus’ story who “grumbled against the landowner.” If God gives grace enough for eternal life with God to all who accept it, how is it that we can view ourselves as better than anyone else on this earth for such an infinitely small portion of eternity? This story should lead us all to find new perspective.
Implication Number 3: Talking about our faith MATTERS…forever. The way I read this story, the only way people won’t participate in God’s gift of grace is if they don’t accept it. And the only way they won’t accept it is if they don’t know about it, or if what they hear about it is so twisted and warped by the messengers that, well, they don’t REALLY know about it. Y’all, if we love the way Jesus told us to love, we should, we WILL, want everyone to know God’s grace, everyone to accept and receive God’s grace, which includes God’s gracious and equal gift of eternal life with God. Don’t you love people enough to be the messenger of God’s grace? If you’re not sure, consider what your life…and your future…would look like if no one had ever shared news of God’s grace with you. Aren’t you thankful someone did? It’s time for you – for each of us – to do more to be the messenger to those who don’t know. There are so many people in the world today who don’t know. We can, we must, do something about that.
As one of the last teachings of His earthly ministry, Jesus told this seemingly absurd tale of a landowner who paid every worker the same – regardless of how long or how hard each worked. And Jesus told us that God’s kingdom is like this. We all receive the same grace…which means none receive more or less than others…and THIS is what true fairness and justice looks like. I suppose there’s a fourth implication to all this that impacts everything we do for the rest of our earthly lives: live according to this new understanding of justice and fairness. Treat everyone with the same grace. That’s what God does.