✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
What is the real difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard? Some might think it’s simply a matter of greed and jealousy, that the first workers didn’t get what they thought they deserved in comparison to the others. And we can sort of understand their point. We wouldn’t like it if somebody got paid the same as we did for doing only a fraction of the work. Nothing seems to arouse our passions more than if there’s even a hint that we are being treated unfairly in money matters. We love to grouse about overpaid athletes and greedy political and corporate insiders and how we’re not getting paid as much as we’re worth at our job and how high prices have gotten for this or that. Of course, when we get more than we deserve, a deal that’s more than fair, we’re rarely as vocal about that, unless we’re bragging–which if you think about it is the same as grumbling in an opposite way, just the flip side of an obsession with oneself. “I’m not being treated fairly” and “Look at what an awesome dealmaker I am” are both attempts at self-exaltation. But even so, that’s not the primary difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard. It goes deeper than that.
The first laborers had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a denarius a day, which was the going rate for a day’s work. This was a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor. The other laborers, though, had no such agreement, no contract. They didn’t insist upon definite terms. The landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.”
Now if that was you, would you have gone to work for this landowner? Would you labor for him not knowing what your wages were going to be, if all you had to go on was His promise to do what was right? It all depends, doesn’t it? It depends on what kind of person you think him to be–is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad? It depends on whether or not you trust him–do you know him, do you have a good relationship with him? If you didn’t trust the landowner, you probably wouldn’t go into his vineyard. If you did, you would.
That ultimately is the real difference between the first and the last in this parable. The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness. The first wanted to deal with him on what they deemed to be fair. The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right. That’s a big difference.
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is God the Father. By His Word and Spirit He sends out the call of the Gospel to come into His vineyard, which is the church, and for His people to be about the things pertaining to the holy Vine, Jesus Christ. Some come into the church from the first moments of their life, baptized as infants, remaining faithful their entire lives. Others are converted as adults. Some aren’t brought to faith in Christ the Savior until their lives are almost over. But God gives all the same salvation at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven. He does this not because He is unfair, but rather, because He is generous and loving and merciful. He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly. For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
The problem arises when some in the vineyard of the church begin to think that their length of time and service is what earns salvation, who want God to work on the merit system. The problem is that this attitude destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people. Love has nothing to do with what is owed or deserved. Real love is a freely given gift with no strings attached. As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end one of manipulation, where we get God to do what we want by pulling the right strings. We put in the good works, like a coin into the slot, and out comes the blessing. To treat God like that is really to treat Him as nothing more than a vending machine or a puppet.
Besides, it’s foolishness for us to want God to give us what we deserve, anyway. For here’s what the Scriptures say about our fair wages, “The wages of sin is death.” Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works. “Go your way,” the landowner said. Have it your way. Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God. The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair to them. This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is a big part of their unending torment.
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you? Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds? Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)? If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent. Turn away from ranking yourself above others, turn away from your own works, and turn to the works of Christ. Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father. Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.
That is the difference between the first and the last, between unbelief and faith. Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they don’t like Him. Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him. (Notice how in the parable, it’s the owner who finds the workers. He initiates the “hiring.”) Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there. They consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard. They are not jealous of the newcomer or the repentant restored sinner or the one converted in his dying days, but they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them has also saved another. Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life. As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).” And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).”
Remember, the landowner said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” The word for “right” in the Greek can also be translated “righteous.” “Whatever is righteous I will give you.” That puts a little different perspective on that phrase, doesn’t it. God is not simply saying, “I will give you whatever is fair,” but, “I will give to you according to my righteous plan of grace.” “I will give to you what My righteous Son Jesus won for you.” Or most simply, “I will give you My righteousness.” It is written in Romans 3, “You are declared righteous freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Now this does not mean that we are to be lax and lazy about good works; not at all. For there is something else about God’s grace here that goes even further, which we don’t often talk about: namely that once God has freely forgiven you and made you a Christian, He does offer rewards for your good works, and that also is a free gift of His mercy. Listen to what our Lutheran Confession of faith says. This is from the Apology or the Defense of the Augsburg Confession:
“Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the forgiveness of sins, . . . but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.” There will, therefore, be different rewards according to different labors. But the forgiveness of sins is alike and equal to all. . . (For instance,) Paul, in Ephesians 6:2, commends to us the commandment concerning honoring parents, by mention of the reward which is added to that commandment, where he does not mean that obedience to parents justifies us before God, but that, when it occurs in those who have been justified, it merits other great rewards.”
Just as disobeying God’s commands can bring great trouble and hardship to people, so also keeping His commands has the promise of great blessings, both for this life and the life of the world to come. This should encourage us to do diligent work in the vineyard.
But then, since even this notion of rewards for good works can lead to pride, the Lutheran Reformers go on to remind us of this: “Yet God exercises His saints variously, and often defers the rewards of the righteousness of works in order that they may learn not to trust in their own righteousness, and may learn to seek the will of God rather than the rewards; as appears in Job, in Christ, and other saints” who suffered greatly while doing good. The Word of God speaks of the blessing and the reward of doing good works, both for this life and the next. And so we should be moved to do good works. After all, we aren’t in the vineyard to sit around in the shade but to labor while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work. But our work is always to be offered in the humility of faith.
It is as we prayed in the Introit, “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.” Or as Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.” For this is His way. He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross. He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation–handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; then darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon. Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin. He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown. See how the work was all done before you were even brought to the faith. Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.” For you.
Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in this grace of Christ alone to save us. Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ. Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood. Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His pleasure and delight to be generous and loving toward you, to give you whatever is right.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠