24 September 2017

Living and Working by the Mercies of God in Christ

“St. John the Baptist came preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  So the professor began, preaching in the seminary chapel.  “And whereas the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners received and responded to his word and submitted to his Baptism, the scribes and pharisees grumbled and complained, questioned his authority, and criticized St. John with smug, self-righteous arrogance.”  Then the preacher posed a question to all of us wide-eyed seminary students: “If you had lived back then, to which of those two groups would you have belonged?”

At which point, one of my classmates, sitting next to me in the pew, leaned over and whispered a rather humbling observation to me.  “Let’s be honest,” he said.  “We’re all out here thinking that, if we had lived back then, we would have been St. John the Baptist!”

Well, I fear the same sort of temptation has presented itself this morning.  We hear the Parable of the workers in the Vineyard, and we dutifully begin to apply the Law to ourselves:

“How are we like those first workers who were hired early in the morning?  And where, then, have we acted with contempt toward those later workers in the Vineyard?”

Maybe you’re already considering some pretty good answers to those painful, probing questions.  And to be sure, you should examine yourself and repent of any arrogance against your neighbor.

But lest you get ahead of yourself, take note that the position of those early workers has already been taken; and it isn’t you.  To begin with, St. Matthew has previously identified Simon Peter as the first among those who are sent.  Then again, among those born of women, there is no one greater that St. John the Baptist.  Yet, long before him, there was Moses, who was faithful in all God’s House as a servant.  And if it so happens that you are persecuted for the Name of Christ, well, so were the Prophets persecuted long before you were ever standing idle in the marketplace.

The fact is that even St. Paul describes himself as one born late, and as the least of the Apostles.  But which of you would compare your work, your burdens, or your sufferings with St. Paul’s?

So don’t be too quick to offer your patience and your pity to those eleventh hour workers; at least not as though you had worked all day in the heat of the sun.  Do not presume that you have carried the cross, drained the cup, or suffered the Baptism of Christ with Peter, James, and John just yet.

Or maybe you are tempted, not so much to look down on the work and service of your neighbor, but to bemoan how little you have done and contributed, and to suppose that your place and your purpose in the Vineyard of the Lord is of little value or significance.  But that is yet to measure and evaluate the Kingdom of Heaven with the economics of the world and not by the Word of Christ.

It is a challenge to us poor sinners, mortal and perishing as we are, to deal rightly with differences in strength and skill, with apparent inequities in possessions and opportunities.  The fact that your stewardship, your duties and responsibilities are more or less than those of your neighbor seems unfair, because your sinful heart, mind, and spirit are wired to compare and contrast, to compete, and to jockey for position.  Your fallen flesh is covetous and selfish, greedy and self-serving.

Not even the Apostles were immune to such temptations of prideful comparison and competition among themselves, even though Jesus taught them otherwise.  Peter has just asked, for example, in the verses immediately prior to this Parable, what reward the disciples will be given, since they have given up everything to follow Jesus.  And right after the Parable, James and John will ask to be given the places of honor at the right and the left hand of Jesus in the glory of His Kingdom; which the other ten disciples resent.  All of this despite what the Lord has taught them concerning the childlike greatness that belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is characterized by humility, need, and dependence on the Lord — and not by strength and power, hard work, or productivity.

So it is, also, in the case of this Parable at hand.  The Kingdom of Heaven is presented in striking contrast to the wisdom, criteria, expectations, sensibilities, and strategies of this workaday world.

Our human inclination, of course, is to focus on the workers and the difference in the number of hours they worked.  But far more important than any of those workers is the Master of the House.  For the Kingdom of Heaven is not like the workers, but like this Man, our dear Lord Jesus Christ.  It is for His sake that any and all of the workers are hired and sent to the Vineyard of His Church.  And it is according to His grace and mercy that any and all of them receive their pay.

The denarius that each of the workers receive at sundown was roughly a typical day’s wage, and it was more or less what was needed to survive and to provide for a home and family.  It was, in short, their daily bread, which God provides according to His gracious generosity, even without our prayer.  Indeed, He gives sunshine and rain to all people.  He feeds both the evil and the good.

And while it is true that, if anyone will not work, let him not eat, it is also the case that your daily bread is not what you deserve, but what you receive by grace alone from the open hand of God.

That is the paradox in this Master’s pay, which you also receive.  No matter how hard or long you work and sweat, it is still a wage you cannot earn.  After all, what you actually deserve on account of your sins is nothing else than temporal and eternal punishment.  But the Lord has called you to work within your own particular office and station in life, and you will receive your wages, because the Master of the House has chosen you and has promised to do what is good and right.

It is, in fact, the way of the Lord to provide for the needs of the entire community of His people, for each and all of them, even though He has gifted each of them differently in a variety of ways.

In the Old Testament Exodus, when the Lord provided the Manna from heaven each day of the week, those who gathered much did not have too much, and those who gathered little did not have too little.  St. Paul interprets this for the Corinthians: Those who had more than they needed shared what was extra with those who had less than they needed.  So were the Corinthians asked to share their present abundance with the saints in Judea who were in the midst of a famine at that time.  And so do you have the opportunity, now, to share the much that God has entrusted to your care with those who are suffering want in various parts of our country and around the world.

As you know, that is how the earliest Christians lived, according to the Acts of the Apostles.  They had all things in common.  Those who had plenty provided for those who had not.  Those who were strong supported the weak.  Those who were young and able worked long and hard to care for the widows and orphans in distress, for the elderly and the little ones, as each one had need.

So does the Lord take care of His people.  He provides daily bread alike for one and all, though some of them work many long hours, as they can, while others are unable to do so.

In much the same way — according to His grace and mercy, because He is good — He has chosen to make you equal to His Prophets and Apostles who bore the heat and burden of the day.  They were stoned; they were cut to pieces; they were tempted and slain with the sword.  They wandered about in animal skins, destitute, afflicted, and tormented — of whom this world was not worthy.  But to you, as well, so late in the day, He has given a job to do and promised to do right by you.

Use whatever time you have, therefore, to do what you are given to do within the Vineyard of the Lord, to cultivate and care for your own little corner of His Garden.  Use whatever gifts and opportunities He provides to exercise your stewardship of His things.

You know how to discern your task, and who it is for whom you labor.  Simply consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and you will know what the Lord wills you to do.  Where you have failed and fallen short, where you have done wrong instead of right, repent.  Confess your sins and be forgiven.  And bear the fruits of faith and love within your own place in the Vineyard, for as long as you have the chance, until that night comes when no one can work.

Work for now, in this body and life, in the confidence that the Lord who has called you will also provide you with all that is needed, and that He will reward you for your work according to His righteousness.  Not according to any merit or worthiness in you, but according to His goodness and mercy — according to His gracious generosity — which is to say, for Christ Jesus’ sake.

As little as you can work for the sunshine or rain, far less can you earn the Kingdom of Heaven.  But it is for you as it has been for the Prophets and Apostles, who received their daily bread, their life and salvation, by the goodness of Christ. It is just and righteous pay for everyone, because the Master of the House, the Vineyard Owner’s Son, has borne the burden for us all and received the only wages that you have truly earned and deserved, that is, the wages of your sin, which is death.

In the early morning, He was hauled before Pilate.  And from the third hour until the sixth hour, He suffered in your place upon the Cross, even unto death.  And at the eleventh hour, He was buried in a borrowed tomb, from which He has risen in His own Body unto the Life everlasting.

It is for His sake, and from His Holy Cross, that the Vineyard of His Church receives the Ministry of His workers, even to the close of the age.  For He has paid the wage in full, not with a denarius of gold or silver, but with His holy, precious Blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.

Now, then, do not presume upon the Lord your God, neither with regard to yourself nor with regard to your neighbors in the world.  Do not presume to dictate or demand what the Lord may or may not do with His own things within His Kingdom and according to His Righteousness.

Be cautioned by the example of St. Peter and St. John following the Resurrection of our Lord.  When St. Peter was told that he would glorify God by way of suffering and death, he immediately wondered and asked about St. John and what would happen to him.  The Lord Jesus told him not to worry about that, but simply to follow in the way set before him.  What difference would it make if the Lord chose for St. John to remain until the Judgment?   People were confused by this, and the saying went out that St. John would not die.  But that was not the point.  The point is simply that the Lord may do as He wills with each of His own servants and within His own Kingdom.

Exactly so in the Parable before you.  It is of no consequence to you whether the Lord chooses to give your neighbor more or less than you, whether here in time or hereafter in the Resurrection.  It is of no consequence to you whether your neighbor is called to work more or less than you are.

The point is not that God must deal the same with everyone, but that He deals with you and all within His Kingdom according to His good and gracious will; not according to human standards or criteria of merit, but with His own generosity, for the sake of His own loving-kindness.  And you are called to look to Him, to rely on Him, to love and trust in Him, and to work for Him in the joyful confidence of His righteousness — not in competition or comparison with anyone else.

As for you, then, bear the Cross and follow Christ.  Trust His promises, and live according to your calling.  Use whatever time and stuff the Lord has given you, whatever strength and skill, to love and serve your neighbor.  And know that it is not for nothing or in vain.  The Lord has promised to reward each one according to his works.  Have no fear, therefore.  He will do right by you.  Not what you deserve, but the wealth and riches of the Kingdom that Christ has obtained for you.

At the end of every day, the Lord has taught us to say, “We are unworthy servants; for we have done only what was our duty to do.”  And even on our best day, we have hardly done even that!  “We are beggars, that is true!”  But as a beggar before God, receive with thanksgiving the denarius that He provides for all your needs of body and soul.  And so receive the wages of His goodness: the Fruit of His Vine and the very Body that has borne the entire burden and heat of all your sins.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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