Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pentecost 14 (Proper 20), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 18, 2011 (Proper 20, Series A)

Life isn’t fair. Some people who hardly ever do any work get paid more than some others who do very difficult, dangerous, or dirty jobs for a living. And some have money they inherited from their parents and don’t have to work at all. And of course some of those who do a considerable amount of physical labor for the functioning of society don’t get paid for it at all because they’re staying at home, maintaining their own households and raising their children while their spouses are away at work. Even those who own their own businesses get taken advantage of sometimes, so that what was earned by their hard work ends up going to those who don’t work as hard but are sharper businessmen. Sometimes it seems like it’s the evil who don’t do any work but have all the advantages, while the good do all the work and never seem to get ahead. Life just isn’t fair.
It’s tempting, isn’t it, to blame God for this. After all, He is all-powerful, which means more than just that He can do anything. It means that He spoke everything that exists by His Word and that therefore it’s His Word that keeps it all in existence even today. And that means that nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or which He doesn’t have power to control or stop. The fact that the good guys seem to finish last while the lazy and evil do as well or better is something that God could put a stop to. And so it’s tempting to doubt His goodness when we see how unfair life often is.
What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that if life were truly fair, none of us would have made it this far. In fact, if God were to deal with each of us as we deserve, none of us would have been born because our ancestors would have died out long ago. Adam and Eve would have been killed on the spot after they ate the forbidden fruit, rather than dying of old age several hundred years later having been given a promise that there would come a Messiah, a Savior, from their descendants who would crush Satan’s head and rescue us from this old, sin-filled life. There is no one who has done good. Before God we are all just as sinful and corrupt as those whose advantages in this life we sometime resent. There is no one who has truly earned anything that he has. It’s all a gift from God despite our unworthiness. A God who dealt with human beings as they deserve, a God who dealt with human beings “fairly,” in other words, would have dispensed with all of us a long time ago.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the owner of the vineyard doesn’t do anything shady or dishonest by paying the last workers hired the same as those who worked all day. He promised them a denarius, and that’s what he pays them. But it doesn’t seem fair that those who only worked one hour would get paid the same as those who worked most of the day or even all day. After all, someone who has done more work ought to get paid more, right? That’s the way we tend to think of it, and that’s why often large companies will make salary information a confidential matter, to head off these sorts of complaints.
But it isn’t the way God thinks of it. You see, from God’s perspective it’s not about earning wages or food or clothing or anything else, it’s about giving. As far as God is concerned, what we receive in this life, and more importantly what we receive in terms of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, are things that He gives us freely, not rewards or wages that we have worked for or earned. Even the things that He gives us by means of our daily work are really gifts from Him and not rewards. And what we do in our daily work is supposed to be done in service to Him and love for the neighbor, not for the motivation of earning money for ourselves.
It’s bad enough when the mentality of earning and rewards affects how we think of the things God gives us in this world. What is worse, however, is when that mentality creeps into our thinking about eternal life. There it is literally deadly. Eternal life is a free gift. And thank goodness it’s a free gift. If we had to earn it we’d be lost. What keeps us out of God’s loving fellowship is our own sinfulness, and that means not just that we’ve done some bad things but that we were born His enemies. Even trying to earn our way back into His favor is offensive to Him because who He is as God is the giver of gifts, and trying to earn His gifts is a denial of His goodness in giving them freely. Many things that people do which are outwardly good and loving, are from God’s perspective the worst blasphemy and sacrilege, because they are done with the idea of taking away God’s identity as gracious giver of all good things.
And so it’s good news that God “isn’t fair.” He’s not supposed to follow our selfish and picky little concept of fairness. He’s bigger than that. What He wants is not to hand out rewards or wages, but to give gifts. And the gifts he has to give are better and more lasting than anything we could possibly earn. What could we possibly do on this earth that would earn us eternal life? What could we possibly accomplish that would be worth the absence of sickness, disease, or hunger? How could we possibly repay Him for the gift of spending eternal life in His presence? We can’t. But we don’t have to.
He gives the same eternal life to the infant who dies only a few days after Baptism, to the old man who only came to faith in the nursing home, as well as to those who have spent their entire lives serving God and their neighbor. Now, He does expect us to serve Him and our neighbor as He gives us opportunity. He does expect us to confess Him to our friends and neighbors, to teach our children the faith, as well as all the things we do to serve our neighbors in terms of physical needs as well. But His gifts to us remain just that: gifts. They don’t become wages just because we’re working. Rather, our work is itself a gift to Him and to each other, a gift that can only happen because He has first given to us. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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