14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 18th, A+D 2011
The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
It’s great to have a group of people motivated to do a job. In college a friend came back to the University of Idaho after finishing the Marine Officer Basic Course, and he stated emphatically that with a platoon full of Marine 2nd Lt.’s, he would take on the world. At the time I mostly thought he was slamming the Army, whose 2nd Lt’s are not nearly as impressive, but over the years I have come to realize that this truth applies to many different motivated groups of workers. It doesn’t take a bunch of strong young jarheads to accomplish things, just people who understand the work in front of them and are willing to work together to git’r done.
Like the ladies at St. John and the annual Yard Sale, where mountains of junk, I mean treasures, were turned into $1,600 for missions, in the space of a weekend, the mess all cleaned up and everything put back in place by Sunday morning. Or consider Trinity’s German Meal, an event where men and women actually work together in a kitchen, with knives, and have fun, and provide a great meal to the community, all the while raising thousands for missions and charities. Or we could talk about last Monday night at Trinity’s Board of Directors meeting, where I, with no prior warning, announced that we needed to move all the stuff they had already moved from the wet places in the basement when the groundwater started coming in. All of it needed to be moved again so Arnie Thiel from Johnson’s could come in and lay carpeting. Seven men, a clear objective, short work, it was the best part of the meeting, working together to get a job done.
And then we have our parable today. God has a vineyard, and He is looking for workers. It’s very tempting for pastors to use this as a motivational text, to try to get people to do this thing or that thing for the Church. This is particularly tempting for me today, since I have recently begun talking, to some congregational leaders, and now to you, about bringing a vicar, a seminary student on internship, to Sidney and Fairview next year. We are in better shape financially than we have ever been in my time here, and we have received some gifts which we might consider using as part of funding a vicar, who, among other things, could help us expand our outreach to our growing community. It’s an idea worth considering, and it would be easy to use today’s Gospel as a pre-text to try to guilt you into getting behind the idea, to suggest that Jesus in this parable is telling you to open your wallets, to do your part, so God will be able to accomplish His mission. Doesn’t God need us to be committed if He is going to accomplish His mission? Doesn’t the future of the kingdom depend on you, and me, on all of us, doing good work? Isn’t that what Jesus is telling us today?
Well, no. That’s not what our Gospel reading is about, and that is not how the Church really works. God does want workers, and there is work for all of us to do. But to suggest that the growth of God’s Church depends on our efforts is false, a dangerous lie that can lead us astray from the way of Christ. So, before I begin to encourage you toward the idea of bringing a vicar here next year, let’s first understand this parable rightly. And the first thing to notice in this parable is the Master, who doesn’t seem too concerned about how much His employees are going to accomplish. He seeks laborers throughout the day, even at the 11th hour, 5 or 6 p.m., just before quitting time. The Master then pays these late hires as if they are just as valuable as the 1st hour workers, who toiled for 12 hours in the heat of the day.
There is very different from how you and I understand normal business-employee relations. Which makes sense, because this parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven, not life in this world; why would we expect things to be the same? God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways. There are lots of differences, like how the businesses we know spend tremendous time, energy and money trying to find good workers. In the kingdom of heaven, the quality of the workers being hired is not decisive, or even important, apparently. From eager early-birds to late day slackers, the Master makes the same agreement with all of them. And in fact, this agreement is the key part of this parable; the actual work to be done in the vineyard is never actually discussed. The key thing in this parable is not the tasks the workers will complete, but rather the agreement that the Master makes with them.
Literally, when the Master and the workers agree on what is right, they ‘symphony’ about what is just, or righteous. To symphony is to sound together, that is the Master and the workers sound together, saying the same thing, about what is just and righteous, and then the workers are sent into the vineyard. What does Jesus mean? He means that God seeks out people and speaks the truth to them, about righteousness, about how all us sinners completely lack righteousness, but how God in love has given His Son Jesus, the Christ, to be our righteousness, so that God could bring us into His vineyard. God speaks this message, and the workers repeat it, sounding together this most important truth about righteousness. Only after this symphony by God and sinner are workers then sent into the vineyard, because entering the vineyard means first you have been saved, and we are saved by grace, through faith, faith which comes by hearing the Word of Christ, faith which leads to confession. For if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; you will live in God’s kingdom, forever. The Master’s symphony is the Good News of forgiveness and new life, given in Jesus Christ.
But what about the work in the kingdom? Aren’t there still things to do? Oh yes. And you are rightly moved by the generosity of the Master. You want to do something, a Godly desire to contribute to the work of the vineyard is stirring in your heart. Good. There is plenty to be done. We just need to be careful not to construct a false idea about what it means to work in the vineyard. All Christians have tasks God puts before them that serve the advance of His Kingdom, but our accomplishment of these tasks is never the main thing, and never something we should be building our faith on. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3, I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Not even the Apostles took credit for accomplishing things in the Church. And so also Paul says in Philippians 2, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you. Fear and tremble, because Almighty God has taken up residence in you, to cause you both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Because God is the source of every good thing, and especially because we remain sinners in this lifetime, even after we are brought to faith, all the credit and glory for the kingdom work in which we are honored to participate, goes to God. God is the one both giving us faith and the will to then live out our faith in good works.
One of the joys of working together for a common goal is the pleasure of conversation while you work, greeting the guests at the German Meal, chatting amongst the ladies at the yard sale, talking while hauling racks and boxes at last week’s BOD meeting. When the work is progressing well, conversation amongst the workers is a great bonus. And what do you suppose the workers in the Vineyard talk about? To stay within the metaphor of the parable, there is work to do, grapes to be picked, wine to bottled, and so on. But what do you suppose they talk about while they work? In God’s vineyard, the workers talk about the Master and His symphony.
The best thing about being a worker in the vineyard is the agreement, the symphony, that the Master has written. For He is most generous. The Master Himself seeks and finds each one, telling them about His just agreement, about how He wanted to bring them into His vineyard, even though they didn’t have anything worthy to offer from their side. Despite their sin, despite their unworthiness, the Master brought them into His vineyard.
Some of the workers, sadly, grumble, workers who, through the course of many hours in the vineyard, forget how good a deal for sinners God’s symphony truly is. These workers begin to imagine that they have somehow earned the right to belong to the Master’s company, even the right to receive special honor and recognition, extra pay. They are reminded by the Master that He has the righteous power to be as generous as He wishes, which is not to their loss, for He has given them a just wage, everything they need, far more than they deserve. And so we learn that many who are first will be last, and the last first.
And here our reading ends. Which is too bad, because maybe you are still struggling with all this symphony and just wage talk, maybe the way the Master runs His vineyard still isn’t making sense. But do not despair; the next couple verses pull it all together. Listen to what comes next: And as Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up."
Here, at the Cross and Empty Tomb, we understand the first becoming last, the very Son of God becoming the worst of sinners, becoming sin itself, so that, in Him, in His death and resurrection, the last might become first, we sinners might become the righteousness of God. He received our wages, torture, death and the pains of hell, so that we might receive what He has earned, the favor of God, the glory of heaven, and eternal life in God’s kingdom. This is the agreement, the symphony, that the Master sings to the sinners He seeks for His kingdom.
This is the topic of the workers, and, amidst all the grape picking and wine-bottling, this is also how the real kingdom work gets done, when the people of God declare the justice, the righteousness, the undeserved mercy of God, and through that Word, the Spirit reaches a symphony with yet another sinner. This is our first task, what we do here, and what by the Spirit of God each of you does in your day to day lives, ready to give the reason for the hope that is in you, ready to tell another sinner about God’s way of hiring workers, which is all by grace, through faith, by the forgiveness of sins, in Jesus’ Name.
This is what taking on a vicar next year would be about. Many people are coming to our area for work, giving us an opportunity to also tell them about God’s vineyard. To bring in a vicar, a seminary student worker, would be a service in the kingdom, both by giving a future pastor the chance to grow in his ability to talk about the Vineyard owner and His gifts, and also by increasing our voice in our community, all so that the Owner of the Vineyard might speak His grace to more people.
Think about it. Talk about it. But above all, remember that Jesus has earned your place in the Master’s Vineyard. Your future is secure, so you can rejoice, and even marvel out loud about His great work, for you, and for all people, Amen.