The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2023
A Story of Perplexing Generosity!
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3“About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went.
“He went out again the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7“ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9“The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Some of my fondest memories from my childhood center on going fishing with my Grandpa. Grandpa had a very specific way in which he liked to fish. He didn’t like to troll. He didn’t like to put put around the lake hoping a fish would grab onto his bait. Grandpa liked to pick a specific spot where he wanted to fish. Then he would tell me to let down the anchor. After I had let the anchor down, we would bait our hooks, set our bobbers to the desired depth, cast out our lines— and wait! I couldn’t move around in the boat because that scared the fish. If the fish were not biting I would quickly become bored. That’s when I would look at my Grandpa and say, “Grandpa, tell me a story.” My Grandpa was born on a farm in Minnesota in 1902. I heard a lot of stories about growing up on a farm— when there was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no gas. I heard about how difficult it was to make it through the harsh Minnesota winters. I heard about why my Grandpa left the farm and went to the “big city” of St. Paul where he had various jobs until he finally landed a good job in the warehouse of a large department store. Even though after a while I would hear the same stories that I had already heard before, I never hesitated to say, “Grandpa, tell me a story.”
Today you and I are beginning a new sermon series. The overall theme of this series is: Jesus, Tell Us a Story! Each week we will focus our attention on one of the “stories,” one of the parables that our Savior used to teach us eternally important truths. As we begin this series let’s see how Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is designed to help us understand: A Story of Perplexing Generosity!
As always the larger context in which we find this parable enables us to understand the main point that Jesus is emphasizing in this story. In Matthew 19 we’re told that Jesus had a man come to Him and ask, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus answered that question by referring to some of the Commandments, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” When the young man responded, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Do you remember what happened next? Scripture tells us that the young man “went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
Jesus used this incident as an opportunity to teach His disciples that earthly wealth can be such an impediment to entering into the kingdom of heaven that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were so astounded by this that they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” When Jesus answered that question by saying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” Peter said to Jesus, “We have left everything for you! What then will there be for us?” Those words prompted Jesus to tell His disciples a story— the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard!
Since a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, Jesus used a real-life everyday event to help His disciples understand God’s perplexing generosity! The disciples were very familiar with the fact that men who were looking for work would gather in the marketplace hoping that someone would hire them. So when Jesus told them that the owner of a vineyard went to the marketplace to hire some day laborers the disciples knew exactly what He was talking about.
As we look closely at the story, the parable, that Jesus told His disciples there are three points we need to highlight. First, when the owner of the vineyard goes out to the marketplace about 6:00 in the morning he finds men who are looking for work. He offers them a denarius— which was the standard rate for a day’s worth of work— and they agreed to work in the vineyard for that wage. Second, when the owner of the vineyard goes back to the marketplace at 9:00 and at Noon and at 3:00 he again finds men who are looking for work. This time he does not offer them a specific wage. He simply says that he will pay them “whatever is right.” They trust him and go to work in the vineyard, thankful for whatever he will pay them. Finally, the owner of the vineyard goes back to the marketplace at 4:00— just one hour before the workday is over— and hires yet another group of men to work in his vineyard. Again, he does not specify what he will pay them. They go to work in the vineyard thankful that they will at least have something to take home with them.
Jesus uses this easy-to-understand scenario to prepare us for the perplexing generosity of the man who owns the vineyard. That perplexing generosity becomes crystal clear when Jesus goes on to say, “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.”
Notice how Jesus makes it very clear that the owner of the vineyard does not operate in the way one would anticipate! What a person deserves to receive is beside the point for him. His generous heart is what he relies on to determine what a person receives! The fact that this contradicts what we think is fair is emphasized in verses 11 and 12 of our text. Jesus says that when the workers who were hired first saw that the workers who were hired last each received a denarius, “they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said,’ and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’”
“That’s not fair!” they cry out. If someone works harder, works longer and works more faithfully than someone else then they deserve to receive more at the end— if not more money than they at least deserve to receive more influence or more power or more recognition or more something! That’s the way it is supposed to work! That’s what is fair! If that sentiment sounds familiar to you— hold on. We will come back to it in just a little bit.
Jesus then gets to the main point of this story, this parable, when He goes on to say, “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
Here is where we need to remember that this parable is part of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Here is where we also need to remember that Jesus began this parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” When it comes to what we expect to receive from God it is very easy for us to follow in Peter’s footsteps and expect that God will be fair— using our definition and our understanding of what is fair!
We can see this expectation of fairness in two ways. When we look outside of ourselves, when we look at other people it is not difficult to see people who work very hard for God expecting that their hard work will earn them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. Here we might think of the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose entire belief system is based on their own works. They strive to live exemplary lives, they strive to be a supportive spouse, an obedient child, a helpful neighbor, a model employee— because they are expecting that this will have a positive impact on what they will one day receive from God. As far as they are concerned, this is what is fair!
The other way to see this expectation of fairness is to look inside of ourselves. Many of us know what it means to work hard for the Lord. We have been a Christian ever since we were baptized as a baby. We attended Sunday school when we were young and when we were older we taught Sunday school. We have been involved in serving on pretty much every board and every committee the church has. We give faithfully and attend regularly. Surely, that must count for something, yes? Surely, God will take all that hard work into account when we stand before Him, right? Like Peter we might think or say to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Having that kind of attitude in our heart could easily lead us to “grumble” when we look at others— including our fellow members. It’s not fair that someone who only comes to church now and then, someone who never steps up to the plate to serve on a board or a committee, someone who hardly ever puts something into the offering plate— how is it fair that they will receive the same eternal reward as me?”
If ever, whenever, that desire for “fairness” rears it head in our hearts, we would do well to remember what Jesus says to the “grumblers” here in our text: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” A very literal translation of that last sentence reads, “Or is your eye evil because I am good/generous?” We need to remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s Home. He is the one who decides who will and who will not live with Him in His heavenly Home. If anyone has a problem with the way God dispenses His “goodness” the problem lies in the “evil eye” of the beholder— not with God! Anyone who has a problem because they think that God is not fair — needs to lift up their eyes to the cross (Pointing to the cross) and be thankful. Be thankful that God is not fair, be thankful that God does not give us what we deserve! If God’s definition of fairness lined up with our definition of fairness, if God gave to us what we deserve then instead of His Son enduring the punishment that we deserve for our sins, we would endure that punishment for all of eternity!
So what is Jesus teaching us with this story, with this parable? What do we want to remember? I think there are two very simple yet very important answers to those questions. First, we need to think long and hard before we look at someone with an “evil eye” and say that God is not being fair to us. If we want God to be fair with us then we need to be prepared to endure His justice. (Pointing to the cross)
Second, we need to rejoice in God’s perplexing generosity, in God’s undeserved goodness. Whether we have been a Christian for as long as we can remember or if we were brought to faith in the “eleventh” hour of our life, the only reason we are a servant in the vineyard of God’s Church, the only reason God will allow someone like us to live with Him in His heavenly Home is because in His amazing “goodness,” in His perplexing “generosity” He came to us through His holy Word and Sacrament and called us to faith! In His amazing “goodness,” in His perplexing “generosity” He has promised to give to us what we do not deserve— eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven!
“Grandpa, tell me a story!” While I have many fond memories of sitting in a boat with my Grandpa and listening to his stories, my Grandpa’s stories can’t even begin to compare to the stories, the parables, that the Son of God shares with us on the pages of His holy Word. My prayer is that our sermon series entitled, Jesus, Tell Us a Story! will both enrich our understanding of what He has done for us (Pointing to the cross) and bring us even closer to His side!
To God be the glory!