I was not always as patient as I am.
(For anyone who’s reading this, that’s sarcasm.)
And you may know that I like to watch movies.
And you may also know that I—occasionally—speak with a straightforward and terse harshness that can come across as meanness.
Believe it or not, this is actually an improvement from years ago.
In high school, I attended a youth bible study that met at different dinner places to discuss theology.
We ended up talking about music and movies and the Christian themes in them, but it was a good enough time that we were gonna have t-shirts made, and that conversation went like this:
The leader of the group asked, “Have you seen the movie, Gladiator?” And everyone said yes.
He said, “There’s a quote in that movie I think we should put on our shirts. It’s the best thing we could say about our lives here on earth.”
And I said—knowing immediately that I had the right answer—“Oh, ‘The time for half-measures and talk is over’?”
And he, the leader, said, “No. ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity.’” That’s what they were going to put on the shirts. I was wrong.
And, really, so was he, because the parable that Jesus tells today demonstrates, in a way, that our work most certainly does not echo in eternity.
Rather, the Word and promise of God does.
As it is written, “The word of the Lord endures forever” (cf. Isaiah 40, 1 Peter 1).
In the parable, we see a description of strife in the Christian congregation—strife between believers.
Each side of every argument in a congregation can be described as either similar to the speech of the workers who were hired first—or dissimilar to that speech.
There’s always one side that receives the forgiveness of sins, grumbling, saying, “These last—the ones you’re being nice to—have worked only one hour, and you’ve made them equal to us who’ve borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
There’s always one side that will tell you that every member of the congregation is equal—but some are just more equal than others.
And we hate hearing that argument when it’s being made against us.
We recognize the wrong that’s being done, and we scoff at it—when that argument’s made against us.
But when we make that argument, we think our reason, perfect and our logic, sound.
Consider what it’s like to be the ones who work the full day, bearing its burden, and being paid the same as the plebes who showed up fifteen minutes to close.
The argument and promise of the master of the house is ludicrous.
That’s not how the world works.
That’s not how it should work.
You should get what you pay for, and the guy behind you—who can’t pay—shouldn’t get it.
He should save up. Work hard.
Sacrifice one of his big-screen tv’s so he can afford to buy what his eyes covet and his hands can’t steal.
We think these things and say these things about those who haven’t toiled and labored as we have because we know the value of work—or we say we do.
In practical matters, we despise the way the master of the house operates (unless we’re the ones who benefit from his generosity).
But Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like (cf. Matthew 16:1ff).
So in a way, we don’t just despise this in practical matters—we despise the way God does things.
We’re not content to let God be more gracious than we are.
And the simplest example of this is to imagine what would happen if our congregation were full each week—not with people you know but with people you don’t know. People you have to get to know.
You wouldn’t be able to park where you want to park.
You wouldn’t be able to sit where you want to sit.
You might have to sit in the first three rows!
You might have to sit next to someone!
You might have to sit next to someone with a child!
And, my God, that child may try to talk to you, play with you, look at you, sing with you, pray with you, love you, and yes, that child may even drop something during the pastor’s sermon, you know, when you’re trying to see who’s here.
We want the Gospel preached.
We want the church full.
But we want the Gospel preached—our way.
And we want the church full—of people we know.
Because—similar to the speech of the workers who were hired first, “They’re new here. They don’t know. I laid the brick, tiled the floor, and installed the doors, and all that may now be faulty, but I did it. So, watch where you’re going, and pay me more of what I want.”
God isn’t as gracious as we are.
And thanks be to God for that.
Because the only way we’re saved, our hope, is that we receive from God more and better than we deserve.
Amazingly, the only way we’re saved is if God does exactly that—exactly what He promises—if He gives to Jesus what is ours—wrath, judgment, and death—and if He gives to us what belongs to Jesus—sonship, life, and honor.
The only way we’re saved is if God pays according to the agreement He signed—and not our work or hours.
In the Church, we call this grace.
And that should be our business—grace.
To dole out the grace of God—not to those who we say deserve it—but specifically to those who don’t, starting in our own homes, if you know what I mean.
Grace is “unmerited mercy,” but that needs to be explained a bit because grace is merited—just not by you.
The sacrifice of Jesus, His merits, achieved the infinite and yet actual victory over sin.
The Holy Spirit, then, takes what belongs to Jesus and declares it to you (cf. John 16:14-15). To all who believe.
Grace—unmerited mercy—was paid for in full by the innocent suffering and death of God’s beloved Son upon the cross.
Through the words of the master in today’s parable, God promises “the wage,” (Matthew 20:8, literal) not to those who were first—or to those who were last—but to all who worked when called to do so—those who, at the end of the day, look to the Master and His foreman for bread.
And that—surprisingly—includes those who worked the full day and grumbled about their sins being forgiven just like everyone else.
”Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’” (Matthew 20:13-15).
Take what belongs to you and go. They receive the wage, God’s promise, God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins.
Frustratingly, maybe, this is what the kingdom of God is like. Sometimes, the people who grumble the most, the people we don’t like, go to heaven.
And that’s good for us to hear for three reasons.
One—somebody may not like you—and yet—heaven is opened unto you in Jesus Christ our Lord.
If those hard-working-grumblers were to receive nothing, as we might desire, then God’s a liar, not true to His Word, and everything that’s wrong with their grumbling is wrong with us for us wanting them to get nothing.
Two—the Church isn’t about winning arguments.
It’s about the grace of God poured out to poor sinners.
To you and me.
It’s the worst kind of arrogance to sin against those who’ve sinned against you. To forget those who may have once forgotten you.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12).
The Church isn’t about winning arguments but grace.
And Three—Jesus says, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
This parable describes what’s true, and it isn’t always pretty.
There’s strife in the Church on earth—hateful arguments between Christians who should concern themselves with the body and not the part.
God wants you to know He reads the heart of man, and what’s done in secret is known to Him.
God wants you to know He’s pleased with you, even if you don’t let everyone know how important you are, describing your life as one of perfect service to Him.
I’m sure there’s a difficult but pious way to understand, “What we do in life echoes in eternity;” however, “The time for half-measures and talk is over.”
God is pleased with you—with all those who work when and where they’re called, for as long as it’s given them to work. So work hard and faithfully.
God is pleased with you—with those who look to the Master and His foreman for bread. So look to Him for bread, daily and divine.
God is pleased with you—with you who receive with joy the grace of God extended unto all.
He promises the wage, and, backed by the all-availing sacrifice of Christ, His Body and Blood given and shed, He pays to all who look to Him for salvation.
For the sake of those with whom we argue in the Church—for our own sake—this is a good thing.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Wednesday of Trinity 14, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt