It’s been 3 months. 3 months ago we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of The Reformation. It’s been 500 years since Dr. Luther posted his 95 Theses to protest the Roman Church’s practice of indulgences. He recognized that system could not deal properly with sin, with the guilt we incur because of our sin, and with how God remits that guilt. So he posted his Theses. He didn’t realize what would happen, but here we are, 500 years later, a congregation of the English District of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
People like catchphrases. President Truman is famous for saying, “The buck stops here.” President Coolidge is famous for, well, being silent. Today we hear things like “it is what it is” and “there’s nothing more certain in life than death and taxes.” The Reformation also has its catchphrases, things we still say today in both English and Latin: sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura – by grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone.
Why do we care about this today? Today we enter a new time of The Church Year. Epiphany has ended. We’ve walked down the Mount of Transfiguration and are starting to walk towards Mount Calvary. The Church in her wisdom knows it’s good to slowly enter the penitential season. So we use green now and don’t sing Alleluia, yet we still sing Gloria in excelsis. As we prepare to hear again the story of our Lord’s Passion, during these 3 Sundays before Ash Wednesday we learn how we receive the fruits of His Passion. The Sundays of Pre-Lent teach us the 3 solas. Today The Church teaches us we are saved by grace alone: sola gratia.
Grace. It’s a lovely word. It’s a name for ladies and a description for how dancers move. But it’s chief use is to teach us how God deals with us. He is not the stern judge Luther feared before he found the Gospel in Romans 1. Yes, that is how He will appear to the ungodly on the last day. But that’s not how He wants to appear to us. He wants to be our Friend, our Companion, our Beloved Father. That’s what today’s parable teaches us.
Jesus talks about a vineyard owner. Since I was at Mount Vernon a week ago, I might say a plantation. You might say a farm or a ranch. How are these businesses run? They often have hired hands. There’s just too much land and too much to do for just the farmer. So this viticulturist hired some workers to harvest his grapes. He hired them every few hours: at dawn, and then every 3 hours until he went out at 5pm, an hour until quitting time and pay day.
He signed a contract with the men he hired first. He’d pay them a denarius, a day’s wage, for working all day, for working throughout the heat and bearing all the burdens. Perhaps they realized the boss would hire more men; perhaps not. Surely they were relieved to see more come every few hours to do some of the work. They wondered if those hired last would actually do anything or just stand idle in their way when they could have just kept on standing idle back at the market. One thing’s for sure: you know the feeling they had when the day was over and it was time to get paid.
They wanted to get paid first so they could go home and never come back. But the boss made them wait. He told his foreman to pay everybody in the order they were hired backwards, from last to first. That may just have made them slightly ornery. Then they started hearing everyone was getting paid what they were supposed to be paid. That might have made them more ornery, except they started to think: well, that just means we’ll get paid more! They set themselves up for a major fail, and that’s what they got. When he paid them, he put the same denarius in their hands he gave everyone else. That made them angry. They started to mutter against him. You might want to find his stash of gold and take it by force. But they were too loud. He overheard them. He came up to one of them and started to talk kindly to him. He reminded him he signed a contract for a denarius, so he had nothing to be mad about. Did they know there was no contract with the others? He just wanted to give them a day’s wage out of the kindness of his heart. He was not evil. They were evil for hating him for it. They were breaking The Seventh Commandment.
So they left. They left the vineyard. They took what they wanted and left. They got what they deserved. They wanted a reward for their labor and nothing more. They wanted earthly rewards, not heavenly. So they left. They hated the master, the good and loving master. They did not love him. So they left him and never looked back. They received their reward. They went to the depths and had no desire to escape.
But you hear no such thing about the others. They received his grace, his undeserved loving-kindness, with joy. They knew they did not deserve a full day’s pay. They hadn’t worked 12 hours; they’d only worked 9 or 6 or 3 or even 1. They signed no contract. They had only gone believing his word that he would pay them right. If that meant a fraction of a denarius, that was fine. If it meant nothing, that was fine too. They believed he would pay them right. Their faith was rewarded. He paid them what was right and just. He gave them a day’s wage.
How could this be right? It seems contrary to that contract. It certainly went against everything we know about fairness. But He does not think as we do. His ways are not our ways. The Lord of the vineyard is Christ our God. You are the workers in His vineyard. You may work your entire life or only a short amount of time, based on when you were baptized and when you will die. But your wage remains the same: He promises you, dear Christian, eternal life.
How can He do this? After all you confess the sorrows of death and hell surround you in this life. You confess you deserve to be in the depths of hell because of your sins and iniquities. You justly deserve to be punished for your offenses, for every time you have broken God’s Law by loving money more than God, by wishing someone would lose what he has just because you dislike him, by being jealous of what others have. Your sins have earned for you a guilty sentence. We call them iniquities. They are just as much sin as sins we do, for God wants us to be guilty of nothing. What double jeopardy! No wonder we can in no way rescue ourselves from sin!
So call out to Him. Beg Him for the denarius of eternal life. For you know where our journey is going. You know we are going to see Him hanging on The Cross. You know you will see your sins attack His holy Body. You know you will see Him overcome them. Though He will suffer sin and death and hell upon The Cross, He shall overcome. He shall rise from the dead.
So eternal life is won for you. It does not matter how long you believed in Him or what sins you committed. He loves you. He died for you. He rose for you. When you depart this life His holy angel will bring your soul to His nearer presence. There with all the saints you will await that day when He shall raise you and all the dead. And then you shall live in His joyous vineyard forever