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Sermon: Septuagesima

Pastor Sean Willman

Good Shepherd Pleasant Prairie


28 January 2018

Matthew 20:1-16

We immediately recognize the apparent injustice of our text. Someone got something for nothing. And we can surely side with the complaint of those who had worked much longer, harder hours than these other freeloaders. In fact the other workers had only worked one hour, yet they were paid the same amount. That just isn’t fair.

The defining character of grace is that it is unfair. Yes, some work less than others but they all get paid the same. The workers who worked all day for a denarius didn’t experience injustice. It’s the vineyard owner who took all the injustice in himself. He paid for labor that wasn’t performed. He allowed Himself to be cheated. But nobody else was cheated. Those who worked all day got what they had agreed to. They got just what they deserved and it was perfectly just.

And, yet, when they saw the vineyard owner’s generosity some became envious, jealous, and angry. They thought that the vineyard owner owed them a similar generosity. Not because they’d been misled or cheated. But because others were fortunate. They didn’t care about His generosity, but only cared about their imaginary rights and how they’d been slighted. We call it entitlement.

And so we are exposed. We don’t want justice or generosity. We want license. We don’t want to work or be beggars, we want to be the vineyard owner himself. We want to decide who gets paid and how much. Thus did the devil say to Eve, “Eat of this and you will be like God.” And we jump in with Eve’s evil thoughts and say: “I should protect myself. I should take the things I want. I shouldn’t be denied what seems good.” And we make ourselves our own god without even knowing it.

That’s the underlying problem. And it results in envy and self-righteousness and discontent. In our fallen flesh, we don’t believe that God is good or that He has right to be generous. We think He’s is too irresponsible, giving too much to the undeserving and too little to us. We think we would be better gods that He is and we disdain Him for His generosity. Repent.

But As amazing as it is that the vineyard owner pays for labor that was never performed, it’s just as amazing that he calls the complainer “friend.” He would receive him with no less joy than he has had for the prostitutes and tax-collectors and the idle men who stood about the marketplace all day. It turns out the one who worked all day is lying about how hard he worked. He’s no perfect employee. The vineyard owner gives to all the workers the same amount. One receives it as a gift, the other as a right, the just reward for bearing the burden and the heat of the day, but he’s lying. And so the vineyard owner doesn’t pay them both the same, He gives to both the same. The word matters. When the master instructs the foreman to pay the workers, he says that he should pay them their wages. But when He talks to the complainer He speaks of giving gifts. He gave to both the same, that is, not according to what was earned, but out of His generosity. It wasn’t wages, it was a gift, but the complainer did not receive it as a gift because his eye was evil.

If there is injustice, the vineyard owner has taken it all on Himself. He is the one who is cheated, who’s giving away his own kingdom in charity and generosity. He pays for labor that isn’t performed and bestows gifts upon even the ungrateful. The defining character of God’s grace is that it is a gift and is given to those who don’t deserve it.

The defining character of faith is that it accepts this generosity and believes that whatever it gets, whatever God does, is good. Faith expects God to be good and insists that He is even when it seems that He isn’t.

The Church is full of seeming inequality. Barabbas is guilty but he goes free. The repentant thief is likewise guilty, but he has a virtue Barabbas lacks: faith. He believes that Christ is suffering innocently. He asks for grace not because he deserves it but precisely because he deserves the very punishment he is suffering. He is not more guilty than Barabbas is, but Barabbas got away with it and went free while the penitent, believing thief died. In both cases, God did what was right, what was good, even though it wasn’t equal. In both cases, God was generous. Jesus took the place of guilty Barabbas and died for him. Whether Barabbas believes it and comes to faith or not, doesn’t matter. Jesus did it for him in perfect love. Jesus also died for the penitent thief. He took that thief’s sin and guilt into Himself. He reconciled the thief to the Father. He forgave him and through death He brought the thief to paradise.

Should the thief’s eye be evil because Barabbas got the better deal? No. The thief got what was best for him. He got paradise. If one child contracts cancer and wracks up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, the other children don’t get an equal amount of money spent on toys. The parents do what’s best for each child, as best they can, according what is needed and is appropriate. It is not equal, it is love.

Our heavenly Father customizes crosses and blessings according what’s best for you. It is best for the thief if he’s taken out of this world before he can fall away. It is best for Barabbas that he has a chance to consider his life and what the Lord has done for him. It is best for us to work in the vineyard, to sweat and work hard and not complain. We see that we’re safe and provided for, that the Lord is preparing a banquet for us, and that He will do what is best.

He didn’t just die for Barabbas and the thief, for Adam and Eve, He also died for you and for me. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. He does all things well. Amen.

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