Recently I watched on Netflix the 2019 move, “The Irishman.” It tells us the story of how Frank Sheeran, who though he was Irish, became a hit man and loyal member of the Italian Bufalino crime family. Frank drove trucks and so through his involvement with the Teamsters union and because of his connections with the mob, became a friend and confidant of the Teamsters’ president Jimmy Hoffa.
Having known killing during his service in Italy during World War II, Sheeran finds it easy to begin committing murders for the mob as he goes on to kill many people during his career. He rises in the organization, but learns the true cost of his job in 1975 when in order to show his loyalty and save his own life he must lure his friend Hoffa to a house and kill him because the mob now sees Hoffa as a threat. Eventually Sheeran spends time in prison because of his activities with the Teamsters.
The movie ends with Sheeran in a nursing home after all of other mob figures are now dead. He finds himself looking back on his life as he tries to reconcile with his alienated daughters. One of them, Peggy, will have nothing to do with him because she suspects he was involved in Hoffa’s disappearance. Sheeran is troubled by what he did to Hoffa, and contemplates his own mortality and what will happen when he dies.
At the very end of the movie, Sheeran meets with a Roman Catholic priest because of these concerns. Though Sheeran says that he does not feel remorse about what he has done, the priest urges him to think about confession as an act of the will – the decision to confess before God that he has sinned – and they pray together.
In the very last scene of the movie we hear the priest speaking absolution to Sheeran in his room. He has evidently arrived at the point where he can confess the sins of his life, and the priest can now speak the forgiveness of absolution.
Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman” is the perfect illustration of what Jesus is talking about today in our text. We may ask: Can a person really live a life of terrible sin, and then at the very end repent and receive forgiveness and eternal life? That doesn’t seem fair, not when you compare it to the person who bears the cross as a Christian all through life – suffering for the sake of Christ and striving to live in ways that please God. We learn in our text and in the one that immediately proceeds it, that God is entirely fair and at the same time he is graciously unfair.
The setting for our text begins in the previous chapter when a rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. And when the man confidently asserts that he has, Jesus replies, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Then we learn that when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
In response to this, Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” This was shocking to the disciples. First century Judaism generally assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s approval and favor. Yet Jesus said instead, that wealth was a hindrance in spiritual matters since it called attention away from God to itself.
Now wealth was not a problem for the disciples! So Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Our Lord acknowledged their sacrifice and the unique role of the apostles as he said, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, 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.”
Next he went on to add: “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.” Jesus makes it clear that God is fair in rewarding those who have sacrificed for the Gospel. What we do in this life actually matters to God. It doesn’t earn eternal life for us, but it is rewarded by him in the midst of eternal life. Those who look like they are last in this life as they sacrifice and suffer for Christ’s name are the ones who will turn out to be first on the Last Day in the way God deals with them. God is fair as he deals with those who sacrifice for him.
Talk about reward could easily cause a Christian to focus on ideas about earning something better, instead of on Christ and God’s grace that makes salvation possible. So in our text, Jesus tells a parable. He says, “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. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
A denarius was a typical day’s wage. This was a fair arrangement for all. The master went out again at the third, sixth and ninth hours – at 9:00 a.m., 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. Each time he found other men standing around in the marketplace who had not found work, and each time he sent them to work in his vineyard. Finally, he went out at the eleventh hour – 5:00 p.m. – one hour before the end of the work day. He found still more men whom no one had hired. And so he sent them to work in his vineyard too.
When the work day was done, the master told the foreman to pay the workers in the reverse order that they had been hired. Those who had been hired at the eleventh hour – those who had done only one hour of work – received a denarius. Those hired at the beginning of the day were excited because they now thought they would receive more than a denarius. But in fact, they too received the denarius they had been promised. And so they grumbled against the master 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.”
However the master replied, “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 in words that were very reminiscent of what he had just said, Jesus added, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
In the parable, Jesus teaches us about God’s grace. He gives us what we don’t deserve. He gives us what we haven’t earned. As fallen people we are trapped in sin. We are conceived as sinful people. And then from the moment of our birth we show this in our actions as we sin all the time in thought, word and deed.
The holy God judges us according to his law – that’s the standard. And the apostle Paul in Romans cites a basic biblical truth when says about God: “He will render to each one according to his works.” When it comes to judgment Scripture also says again and again that God shows now partiality. A person will get what they deserve. And the only thing we can deserve is hell – God’s eternal judgment and punishment.
We were never going to be able to have eternal life with God based on what we do. And so in his grace and mercy, God sent his Son into the world in the incarnation to take our place and receive the judgment against sin that we deserved. Jesus came to give his live as a ransom for us as he died on the cross. And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead as the second Adam in whom a humanity that can never die has begun.
This was pure grace. But God’s grace didn’t stop there because this forgiveness won by Christ can only be received through faith. As fallen sinners, we could not by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus. And so by the work of the Holy Spirit God called us to faith through the Gospel. Forgiveness in Jesus is a gift that we could never earn. Faith that receives this forgiveness is something we could never obtain. Yet God has given it all to us by grace. We who were last, have become first, and we had nothing to do with it.
When we recognize this about ourselves, it must then impact the way we view and treat other people. If I am a forgiven child of God purely because of his grace, then I must view every other person as being exactly equal with me. All of us need God’s grace and forgiveness. None of us can do anything about it on our own. The timing of that grace matters not at all – life long Christian or death bed conversion – we are all saved for the exact same reason. And for those who stand outside the faith, it is our prayer that they will yet be saved for this same reason.
We are forgiven by God’s grace on account of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us. Because God has done this for us, how can we do anything else than be gracious towards others? Because Christ has done this for us, how can we do anything else except to sacrifice for others? Through his Spirit, God has made us a new creation in Christ. So this gracious and sacrificial life is a matter of being what God has made us to be.
And then we learn that when it comes to the way God deals with us, there is simply grace upon grace! It is only God’s grace that enabled us to be his children who can live in Christ in ways that please him. Yet, as we saw earlier in this sermon, God turns around and promises that he rewards in eternity the faithful life. He rewards the thing that only he could make possible in the first place!
It should be an encouragement to know that God actually cares about what we do – that he really does take note of faithful living and that he promises to reward it. But our focus cannot be there. Instead it is Jesus Christ through whom we have received this grace. For only through him do we have forgiveness. Only through his Spirit do we have faith. Only through him have we received what we never could deserve. When we keep this as the focus of our life, we live by faith in ways that share Jesus’ love in word and deed. And our response to those rewards in eternity will be: “I never realized that I did anything.”