The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Year A

“God Owes Us Nothing; We Owe Him Everything”

 A sermon by lay preacher Ginnie Glassman

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us many images of what life is like in God’s Kingdom. The Gospel reading for today really begins in the previous chapter. Some people had brought their children to Jesus to put his hands on them and pray for them. The disciples had scolded them because they did not think the children were important. Jesus tells them “the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Then a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to receive eternal life? Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor and then follow him. The young man goes away sad because he is not able to part with his riches.

The disciples observe all this and then Peter questions, “We have given up everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27) Jesus answers that “Anyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much and will be given eternal life.” (Matthew 19: 29)

Jesus further explains that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who had a vineyard that needed to be harvested. He went out at 6 AM to hire workers. He finds men who are available to work for the day and offers to pay them a denarius for the day. They agree and he sends them into the vineyard. He goes back out at 9 AM, noon and 3 PM to find more workers and offers to pay them a fair wage. Finally at 5 PM, he finds there are men who are still not working and sends them to his vineyards too. At 6 PM, he tells his foreman to pay the men, beginning with those hired at 5 PM. Each one is given a denarius.

So let’s hear what one of the first workers has to say about this. “I cannot believe what just happened!! I got here before 6 AM, ready to work, and the owner hired me. He promised me a denarius for the day’s work in the vineyard. Sounded like good money to me so I took it. When it came time to get paid at the end of the day, the owner tells the foreman to pay the last workers first. I figured they would get a small amount since they worked only an hour. But the foreman gives them each a denarius. OK, now I’m thinking if he is paying like that, I’ll be making a bundle. When it is finally my turn, I get one denarius! I worked all day in the heat, picking those grapes. Now my back is aching, my fingers are purple and my legs are exhausted. And I get what those one hour guys got?? How is that fair?? I went and complained to the owner, but he told me to take my money and leave because he has a right to do what he wants with his wealth. Boy, am I ticked off! From now on, I am asking for hourly pay!”

What does one of the last workers hired have to say? “I was all over town today looking for work. I used to get hired quickly but since I fell off a ladder and have back problems and a limp, I get overlooked. Everyone wants someone who can work quickly but it takes me a little longer. I was beginning to despair around 5 PM today. I had nothing to bring home for my family. Then I saw that this vineyard owner was still looking for people. He offered to hire me. I figured whatever he paid me would be better than nothing. I jumped at the chance and worked hard. Later, when the foreman came out to pay us, he started with me and the other guys who were hired last. When he ever put a denarius in my hand, I had to look twice! That is what a soldier earns for a days’ service! Day laborers who work all day only get part of a denarius. This owner was amazingly generous! I was so thankful to be able to feed my family for the day and so grateful to him for his unbelievable
generosity. ”

So what was the owner thinking? “My vineyard had produced a huge crop and it needed to be harvested quickly. I knew that there was a storm coming soon and it would ruin the grapes. I went out first thing in the morning and hired a large group of men to work for the day. I offered them a generous wage to encourage them to work hard. During the course of the day, I realized that I still needed more people if the harvest was to be completed by the end of the day. I went out several times during the day to hire more people. I promised them a fair wage. By 5 PM, I knew it would be difficult to finish picking all the grapes before dark. I went out and found men who were not working and hired them. They were happy to be hired and they worked hard too. By 6 PM, the harvest was complete. I was so relieved that I decided to pay everyone equally to thank them for saving my grapes. Those last workers had made the difference for us getting all the work done.”

So what do you think now? Was the landowner unfair? Were those hired first entitled to more? Was it right for those hired last to get the same pay? When I heard this parable, I agreed with those workers hired first and I felt their anger. This is unfair! And by paying the last workers first, it seems to “rub in” the fact that those first workers got the same as the last. Twelve hours in the sun is a lot longer and harder than an hour in the cooler part of the day.

There are a few things to think about in this parable: First, it is a parable. One pastor’s definition of a parable: “It is an ingeniously simple word picture illuminating a profound spiritual lesson.” (Pastor John MacArthur) In other words, it cannot be taken literally. Jesus was not advocating unfair labor practices but giving his disciples an image of God’s kingdom.

Due to the heavy burden of Roman taxes, many small farmers were forced off their land due to debt. This left many unemployed men who gathered in the marketplace each day, hoping to be hired for the day. They were paid daily when they worked. Those who were hired at 5 PM had little chance of getting work that would allow them to buy food for the day. With no welfare system, the landowner may have known their
need and chosen to help them, at least for one day.

A denarius was a full day’s pay for a soldier. This was enough for them to support their family for a day. Day laborers were usually paid a fraction of a denarius. To offer a vineyard worker a denarius for a day’s work was quite generous. Those hired first really had no reason to complain about the agreed upon pay, it was certainly generous. Their anger was because they felt it unfair that the later hires were given the same wages as they were. And this would be true in the world we live in.

So what “profound spiritual lesson” is Jesus telling us in this parable? That the ways of the world are not the ways of God’s kingdom. The Father is incredibly generous. He is eager for us to believe. He delights in the work we do for him. And heaven is available to everyone who believes. Unlike the wages we earn, the benefits we have from God are not equated with our efforts but gifted to us by God.

When we believe in Jesus, we receive the gift of eternal life. Whether we come to this belief early or late in life, the gift is the same. You cannot earn time and a half for eternal life. It is eternal!

We were each given gifts to be used to accomplish God’s work in our world. These gifts differ and may take us a while to discover and develop. We have to seek the talents and abilities we have rather than wondering why we weren’t called to do what some others are able to do.

Think for a moment about St. Paul. In his earlier life, he was persecuting Christians, wanting to wipe out the followers of Jesus. He watched Stephen get stoned to death and even held the coats of those stoning him. He was riding into Damascus to continue hunting down Christians when Jesus stopped him in his tracks and turned his life around. He became the missionary who spread the Gospel to many nations.

Meanwhile, Peter had been a disciple of Jesus from the very beginning. Should Peter have been upset that Paul was given the ability to spread the Gospel far and wide even though he was “late to the game”? Jesus had particular missions for each of them based on their talents and abilities whether they were with him from the start or came to believe later.

Like the Prodigal Son, those who come to believe early in life have, the relationship with God and all his gifts given early. Like the father in the story, God also rejoices when a believer returns to faith. God loves everyone and is willing to forgive and care for everyone, even those who have rebelled against him.

Are we trying to live a Christian life for what we can get out of it or living a life of gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s generosity? Does God owe us for our faithfulness or goodness? Do we get upset when He does not give us what we think we deserve? God owes us nothing. We owe him everything.

Here are some thoughts from another preacher to think about this week:

“Is your service to God a chore, while you envy those who do not follow Him? Or is knowing and serving God the highest joy and privilege of your life? And lastly, is God a boss who owes you results for your labor, or is He a loving and merciful Father who has saved you, chosen you, adopted you, died for you, and to whom you owe everything and will joyfully give everything you have in service to Him?” (Eric Stillman, New Life Christian Fellowship)

More simply put, in the words of our sequence hymn today, “Freely, freely you have received, freely freely give.”  AMEN.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are
placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about
the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah,
and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own
country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to
anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life
from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah
went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade,
waiting to see what would become of the city. The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to
give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when
dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose,
God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that
he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry
about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush,
for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And
should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty
thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Psalm 145:1-8
1 I will exalt you, O God my King, * and bless your Name for ever and ever.
2 Every day will I bless you * and praise your Name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *there is no end to his greatness.
4 One generation shall praise your works to another *and shall declare your power.
5 I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *and all your marvelous works.
6 They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, *and I will tell of your greatness.
7 They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
8 The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *slow to anger and of great kindness.

Philippians 1:21-30
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know
which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but
to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue
with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus
when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and
see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side
with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence
of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God's doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not
only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I
had and now hear that I still have.

Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his
vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out
about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the
vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three
o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them,
‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You
also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and
give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came,
each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but
each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the
day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with
me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to
you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”