Sermon – Matthew 20.1-16 (Septuagesima – 2020)
Lord God, heavenly Father, through Your holy Word You have called us into Your vineyard: Send, we beseech You, Your Holy Spirit into our hearts, that we may labor faithfully in Your vineyard, shun sin and all offense, obediently keep Your Word and do Your will, and put our whole and only trust in Your grace, which You have bestowed upon us so abundantly; through Your Son Jesus Christ, that we might obtain eternal salvation through Him; who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
2 “Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 “and said to them,`You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.
5 “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them,`Why have you been standing here idle all day?’
7 “They said to him,`Because no one hired us.’ He said to them,`You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’
8 “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward,`Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’
9 “And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.
10 “But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.
11 “And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner,
12 “saying,`These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them and said,`Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?
14 `Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.
15 `Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
These are Your words, heavenly Father. Sanctify us by the truth. Your Word is truth. Amen.
Dear fellow redeemed,
Decius became the Roman Emperor in the year of our Lord 249. He had the desire to unite the Roman Empire and restore it to its former glory. His plan to do this included an edict that required the citizens of the kingdom to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, and to burn incense before an image of the Emperor. They had to do this before a magistrate to confirm that they performed the requirements.
What were the Christians to do? Well, it’s pretty clear. There are the commands of Scripture, “You shall have no other gods,” and “You ought to obey God rather than men.” But what were they to endure for their faithfulness to God? Or to ask it another way, what was in store for them as they lived their baptismal lives in the vineyard to which they have been called? The Christians were imprisoned, banished from their country, lost their property, suffered torture, mutilation of their bodies, and also were put to death.
The persecution ended after 18 months when Emperor Decius died. After the persecution Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage spoke of those who faithfully endured the persecution. He wrote, “The day earnestly desired, by the prayers of all has come; and after the dreadful and loathsome darkness of a long night, the world has shone forth irradiated by the light of the Lord… The white-robed cohort of Christ’s soldiers is here, who in the fierce conflict have broken the ferocious turbulence of an urgent persecution, having been prepared for the suffering of the dungeon, armed for the endurance of death. Bravely you have resisted the world: you have afforded a glorious spectacle in the sight of God; you have been an example to your brethren that shall follow you. That religious voice has named the name of Christ, in whom it has once confessed that it believed; those illustrious hands, which had only been accustomed to divine works, have resisted the sacrilegious sacrifices; those lips, sanctified by heavenly food after the body and blood of the Lord, have rejected the profane contacts and the leavings of the idols…. Your brow, pure with the sign of God, could not bear the crown of the devil, but reserved itself for the Lord’s crown. How joyously does your Mother Church receive you in her bosom, as you return from the battle!”
But there were some, rather many, who were not faithful. When they were required to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and burn incense for the emperor at the threat of punishment, they denied Christ and worshipped the Roman gods. When the heat of the day came upon them, they bailed. Of these, Cyprian said, “each one was desirous of increasing his estate; and forgetful of what believers had either done before in the times of the apostles, or always ought to do, they, with the insatiable ardour of covetousness, devoted themselves to the increase of their property… They united in the bond of marriage with unbelievers; they prostituted the members of Christ to the Gentiles.” Even bishops and priests abandoned the brothers and sisters.
Those who were imprisoned and banished were gladly received in the Church. But what about those who escaped the vineyard when the heat of the day threatened them, when they encountered trials? They had forsaken God and their brothers and sisters in Christ. And then there’s the words that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33).
There was a priest and noted theologian named Novatian. He said that those who lapsed, or who denied the faith by sacrificing to idols cannot be welcomed back into the church.
Cyprian addressed the matter. Now there were some churches that were overly lax with the law. They treated the idolatry as no big deal. It mattered not whether the sinner had contrition. They did not seek repentance. They welcomed all into the Church. Cyprian quotes Paul, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.” And describes many who return to the Church, “Returning from the altars of the devil, they draw near to the holy place of the Lord, with hands filthy and reeking with smell, still almost breathing of the plague-bearing idol-meats; and even with jaws still exhaling their crime, and reeking with the fatal contact, they intrude on the body of the Lord.”
Cyprian rightly said that the repentant ought to be welcomed back into the Church. They are to be called Christians, and they shall enjoy Christ’s gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. This is the point of our Gospel reading.
This seems like an offense. Here are these Christians who endured the heat of the day, suffering greatly for their faithfulness to God. And they have the same favor of God, belong to the same body of the redeemed, have the same forgiveness won by Christ, and have the same reward of heaven. This is because these things are gifts given by God’s grace. The faithful cannot claim these gifts by any merit of their own.
So on the one hand, we should not be presumptuous, and consider ourselves first. Living our baptismal lives in the vineyard of God’s kingdom, we all ought to strive to be faithful in following Christ, in abiding in His Word, and doing the Commandments in love for God and for our neighbor. But do not compare your Christian life with others and think yourself more worthy of God’s favor than others. First of all, this is works-righteousness, and in this way, you despise God’s grace, and Christ whose merit alone saves you. Furthermore, we can always be convicted by the Law, and see that we too at times have faltered in our lives in the vineyard, slouching as the heat of the day comes upon us. It may not be the strong heat of brutal persecution that the Christians in 250 suffered, but it our Christian lives are met with the trials and pressures in the world. There are times when we have an opportunity to share Christ with someone, but out of fear of awkwardness or rejection, we remain quiet. Though no laws demand we worship other gods, our hearts make things into gods, desiring to be elsewhere than before the altar of our gracious God on Sunday mornings.
There are the pressures of the culture to live and believe and act a certain way, ways different than the way that God has created us to live. Do we slack in our work in the vineyard, and participate in the ways of the world?
Or then there’s even the pressures against our sinful flesh. It is difficult to deny ourselves again, and again, and again. We have the sinful desire for self-glorification, self-righteousness, pride and greed. Our flesh would have us indulge in our desires and lusts. We give in sometimes. Often in weakness, sometimes willingly. Oh how we have been disobedient to God!
So, in accordance with the message of our Gospel reading, we have no reason to be presumptuous, thinking that we have earned anything from God by our own merits. Truly, we are unworthy of any good thing from Him.
Now on the other hand, we who are unworthy, with contrite hearts, we find comfort in this Gospel that God is favorable toward us not on account on us, but on account of what Jesus has done for us. This grace is not a license to escape the work in the vineyard, and to follow other gods, but His grace forgives us and saves us from our sins, and keeps God’s favor upon us, living in the vineyard of God’s grace, that we may continue to follow Him.
And so by the grace of God, which is ours because of Christ’s suffering and death for us, we have forgiveness, mercy, and salvation. We have the reward of God’s favor, and an eternal inheritance with Him. All this is a gift for us, whether we have faithfully worked under the heat of the day, or whether we have faltered under it.
And so this text guards us from pride and self-righteousness, but also from despair. God is gracious to you. He is favorable to you, not because of anything you have done, nor is there anything you must do to be worthy of it. But He is favorable to you because of the atoning work of Christ on the cross for you. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.