January 20, 2008

Septuagesima sermon - Matthew 20.1-16

"You made them equal to us!" spat the worker in the Lord's vineyard. Equality--or superiority--is something we grasp for. The human heart is twisted by envy. Seeing others having it good fills our hearts with discontent, dissatisfaction. We love our celebrities, our politicians, our stars - but even more, we love to tear them down. Envy fills our hearts not just over things, but often the intangibles: a neighbor's reputation and status, his seemingly happy life; a better family, a different wife. And in your twisted reality, your utterly self-centered soul grumbles and complains: "I deserve better!" And in this complaint, you are really complaining about God.

The food you have to eat is a blessing from God. The house that keeps you warm and safe is a blessing from God. The job that gives you money is a blessing from God. The family you have is a blessing from God. But you are not satisfied with them, and so your complaining, grumbling, and bitterness is that of a spoiled brat who has no comprehension of the incredible kindness his father shows him.

What Jesus shows in the Parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard is the destructive power of envy, and where that ultimately leads. Not content with what the Master gives to him, the disgruntled worker is also not content with the generosity of the Master towards the other workers. It finally leads to expulsion from the vineyard.

What is the source of this envy? Consider these words from an ancient text called The Wisdom of Solomon, found in the Greek version of the Old Testament: "Through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience [death]" (Wisdom 2:24). The devil envied God for His lordship; and the devil envied man for the love God had for him. And the devil taught our first parents envy. But through his envy, "death entered the world," and we are born belonging to his party, wrapped up in the devil's envy.

God did not make you this way. No - God created man for life and not death. Man was created for self-giving - to live in love towards his neighbor. But through the deceit of the devil, man has become like the devil in will; i.e., man has become envious. Envy leads to death, as it did for Cain, who butchered his brother Abel in the field. On that day Cain died more than Abel, for Cain gave in further to his envy.

Envy is far more insidious than simple materialism, or coveting. Envy takes hold of our hearts as we become absorbed in our wishes, our desires, our anger, and refuse to let God be our God, refuse to say "Amen" to His Word and will. Envy drives us to boasting or depression, envy drives us to rage or sulking, envy drives us away from confessing our sins and truly examining ourselves. And so by the power of envy, we drag ourselves into hell willingly. For this is what real hell is: that God finally gives a person over to what his will wanted. His depraved mind is finally given over to the death in which it wants to live - a life apart from God, which can never be real life, for life and love come from God. So God's wrath is when God finally withdraws from a man so that He says, "Thy will be done; live in the death you want, since you will not live in the life I give." That is the terrible sentence, the horrific judgement the landowner speaks to the envious worker when he says, "Take what is yours and go your way."

When you are envious of others, you are in truth rejecting God. For God promises to give you everything that you need. Your envy declares that you do not believe this, that you do not look to God for everything good. Instead, you think He is cheating you, keeping you from what you deserve. In truth, what you deserve is nothing but wrath and damnation, hell and fury, bitter cold and isolation.

But this is not what God wants for you. God--who is pictured as the landowner in today's parable--keeps on going to the marketplace, keeps on going into the world to call people into His vineyard, i.e., His kingdom. He goes out early in the morning, at the beginning of the world. He goes out at the third hour, and again at the sixth, and yet again at the ninth. Finally, He goes out at the eleventh hour, the last hour, as the clock of this world ticks towards the last hour. Still He is not finished. Still He wants more for His kingdom. The Lord does not wish for anyone to be condemned; He desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. "Little children, it is the last hour," St. John says; the time is urgent - invite everyone to God's Kingdom, invite everyone to repentance and Baptism for the remission of their sins.

But we see something else in today's parable - namely, that God calls us to work. That might sound strange, since we know that we are not saved by our works. But still, there it is: the kingdom of God is like a landowner hiring laborers for his vineyard. God is calling you to work, and as we begin this season called "Pre-Lent"--three Sundays preparing us to observe a good Lent--we are reminded that being a Christian will mean work.

What kind of work? "Do works befitting repentance" (Acts 26.20). Turning away from sin is a work you are called to do. Turn from your false gods and fear, love, and trust in God. Call upon God's name. Give attention to the Word. Honor your father and mother. Help your neighbor with his physical needs. Turn from sexual immorality and show honor to your spouse. Stop taking from others or withholding what is due them. Stop grumbling and speak good things about your neighbor. Repent, and bear the fruits of repentance.

St. Paul, who so clearly indicated that we are saved by God's grace apart from works, also said, "If anyone’s work which he has built on [the foundation of Jesus Christ] endures, he will receive a reward" (1 Corinthians 3.14). How are you going to do these works? Again, Paul says, "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work." (2 Cor. 9.8). God gives you what you need--His sufficiency, His grace--to do the works He calls you to do.

Now I want to remind you again - there is no work you can do to gain salvation. That was the great mistake the envious laborer made in today's parable. He thought he was owed something on account of his work. But all our works before God are as filthy rags; all our righteousness is excrement.

There are two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness we have before God, and the righteousness we are called to have in and towards the world. Before God, our righteousness is no good, so we need a higher righteousness, a goodness that is better than scribes and Pharisees. No man is good before God, and so we are going to need a righteousness that lives up to the demand, "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." We do not and cannot accomplish that. This is what the Lord Jesus has done for you. He who was baptized for you (as we heard last week) supplies everything you need before God. It is His righteousness that saves you.

So the things God commands you to do towards Him aren't so that you can earn His favor, but so that you will know and be kept in His favor. God commands you to pray because He wants to hear your petitions. We are called to fast and discipline our bodies so that we will learn that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God calls us to hear His Word because He knows how easily we are enticed by the words of the devil and the world. God calls us to give thanks to Him so that we will not forget that He gives us all things out of His love for us.

And then, God calls us to work in His vineyard by having a righteousness toward the world. We aren't saved by doing any of these things. Why then does God call us to do them? Not for His benefit, but for your neighbor's benefit. God is calling you to work in His vineyard by doing the things written in the commandments: be kind; share what you have; help; because these things benefit your neighbor.

And at the end, a wage is promised. Not based on what you have done - for the wages of sin is death. No, it is a reward for what Christ has done; for the same wage, the same gift, is given to all equally. Payday for God's workers is described in Isaiah 55: "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." The wages that God gives are free, and He gives them because He is good. He gives them because He is love. He gives to all - even those who came at the eleventh hour.

So what is the wage? What does God give? Life. Life in His kingdom. Freedom from the envy that destroys you. Freedom from death, forgiveness of sin. Life with the One who is good and who wishes to give His goodness to all.

So the worst thing we could ever hear would be the words from the landowner, the damning word from God, "Take what is yours and go your way." To this the Christian says, "Please God, no! Do not let me go my own way, do not abandon me to myself, for there is nothing in me but sin and death. My way leads to the cold emptiness of hell. Please, dear Father, take what is mine away, and give me instead what is Yours. You are good, and I see that You give to me what I could never earn. You are love, and You give me Your love. You are life, and in Jesus You give me Your life. You are merciful, and on the cross You showed me Your mercy. Teach me to go Your way, and do not send me away. I am Yours; save me! Hear my voice when I call to you, do not look at my sins, but show me Your mercy."

Come, dear brothers and sisters, and receive the wages earned by our dear Lord Christ - the wages of life in His life-giving Sacrament.

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