Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sermon for Septuagesima

                                                                                    Mt 20:1-16

            This month it was announced that the unemployment rate in the United States has fallen to 5.6%.  Now I think everyone will agree that is good news. The fewer people who are out of work, the better.  None of us wants to be unable to find a job, and we certainly don’t want others to be in that situation. 
            However, I have learned that the “unemployment rate” is a rather odd thing and that it can be reported in different ways.  Much of this depends on how you define an employed and unemployed person.
            During the last few years there have been several occasions when the unemployment rate has gone down.  However, the reason it has gone down is because several hundred thousand unemployed individuals became so discouraged that they gave up looking for work altogether. Because they had surrendered to unemployment and were no longer were looking for work, they no longer counted as people who were unemployed and so the unemployment rate actually went down.
            That’s probably not really the kind of improvement we want to see. There is just something bizarre about saying that unemployment got better because things are so bad people stopped trying to get jobs. That’s rather like a Chicago Cubs fans optimistically announcing that the team has only gone fifteen years in this century without winning the World Series. That’s true.  But it also means you are ignoring the ninety one years in the previous century when they didn’t win one either. 
            There are other factors as well, such as when part-time workers are counted as employed, even though they want to be working full time but can’t find that kind of job.  So, in one way of figuring unemployment the current rate is 5.6% and things are actually a little better than when the financial crisis started in the fall of 2008.  On the other, in another way of figuring unemployment that takes into account part time workers who want to have full-time work and those who have stopped looking for work but would look again if the condition of the labor market improved the rate is 11.2% which is a little worse than September 2008.  It all comes down to a question of how you define an employed and an unemployed person.
            In the parable that Jesus tells in our Gospel lesson this morning, unemployment is the problem.  And in this case there is no doubt that we are talking about people who are seeking work and want to work all day – they want to work full-time.  They are waiting around unemployed during the day hoping for work, when they get some good news.  They get hired for work, and some work is at least better than none. Yet when it comes time to get paid, they and everyone else who worked that day are in for a surprise.
            Our text this morning begins with the words, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  The word “for” in the New Testament usually signals that the statement is providing some kind of explanation for what has just been said.  When we look at the sentence just before our text we find it says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  In the same way, the last verse in our text says, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” It quickly becomes obvious that our text has a very close tie to the previous section in the Gospel.
            There Jesus has just said it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  This shocks the disciples because the common opinion of their day was that wealth was a sure sign of God’s blessing.
            Talk about wealth prompts Peter to say, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”  Now when Peter opens his mouth in the Gospel of Matthew, he usually proceeds to insert his foot in it.  However, in this case, what he says is true – even if it is a little too focused on the disciples and their benefits.  It was indeed true.  They had left everything they had known in life – their families, their homes, their jobs – in order to follow Jesus.
            Our Lord replied, “Truly, I say to you, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  Jesus said that in the new creation that he would bring on the Last Day, the apostles will have a unique status.
            But then, lest Peter and the apostles get big heads, Jesus immediately adds, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  Our Lord goes on to say that everyone who denies himself in order to follow Jesus will receive great blessings and eternal life. Those who were counted as nothing will be important, and those who were important will find that they are just part of the crowd.
            In order to help the disciples understand this better, Jesus tells the parable in our text.  He says that the way God’s reign works – his kingdom - can be compared to a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  He would have found them in the market area of the village, the place where day laborers – the poor who didn’t their own farm – would gather in hopes of being hired to work.  He agreed to pay them a denarius a day, which was the standard wage, and sent them off to work in his vineyard.
            Then the master proceeded to go out at different times during the day in order to hire more workers.  He promised to pay them what was right.  Finally he went out at the eleventh hour when there was just one more hour in the work day. He found men standing around unemployed – people who not been hired all day.  He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
            When evening arrived and the work day ended, the owner of the vineyard told the foreman to pay the workers – but to do it in a particular way.  He was first to pay the workers hired last, the ones who had only worked one hour.  They were in for a shock, because the owner of the vineyard acted like a very bad businessman.  He paid each of them a full denarius!  They received a full day’s wage, even though they had worked for barely an hour.
            The laborers who had worked the full day saw this and got excited. Surely they were now going to receive more than a denarius!  But they too were in for a surprise, because when they received their wages they received a denarius.  We hear in our text, “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’”  Yet he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’” And then our Lord concluded by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
            In the pride of sin, we all want to think that we are better than someone else.  We want to think that we are special – that we are above “those other people.”  Our world teaches us to think in this way.  We take pride in our income level; our social status; our education level.  Naturally, we don’t really want to admit that we do it.  But let’s face it, we look down on other people because we are better.
            This morning as we listen to our text, it turns out that we are the ones in for a surprise.  Because when it comes to salvation, Jesus doesn’t work that way.  When it comes to forgiveness and salvation, none of that stuff that means so much to us, counts for nothing.  Instead, all of us are equally mired in sin.  As Paul told the Romans, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  All of us have equally earned hell and damnation.
            But the good news of the Gospel is that in his grace, God has made an incredibly foolish deal.  Martin Luther called it the “Great Exchange.”  You have given Christ your sin and guilt and damnation.  By his death on the cross in your place and resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ has given you his righteousness and salvation and eternal life.
            This is the foolishness of the Gospel – the foolishness of the vineyard owner in our parable who pays workers for work they have not done. This is the blessing of the Gospel – the assurance that forgiveness and salvation is God’s gift to us. And because it is God’s gift, it is certain and sure.
            This is the blessing that we have received.  And because we have received it, it becomes the reality that now guides the way we deal with others.  Within the body of Christ, there is no room for “I am better than you.” There is no room for pride because “I have more money than you” or “I am more educated than you” or “I have a higher social status than you.”  Instead Jesus says in our text, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”  In the topsy turvy way of the Gospel, none of those things matter in Christ’s Church.  It is only sin – only the old Adam in you – that can make you think otherwise.
            And so Paul can tell the Philippians, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
            Listen to our text this morning.  Hear the good news that God gives you what you don’t deserve.  Rejoice in the forgiveness and salvation this provides.  And then also recognize what this means for your life in the Church as we deal with another, for the Lord truly does mean it when he says, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”

No comments:

Post a Comment