Bible Text: Matthew 20:1-16 | Preacher: Pastor Christian Preus
The complaint of the workers in the vineyard against the owner of the vineyard is that he’s unfair – “these men have worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.” Jesus is identifying here the greatest complaint against God. It’s not that people don’t believe in God. It’s not that they’re too smart, too intellectual, can’t believe in miracles. It’s that they don’t like how God operates. He’s unfair. If you look at the new atheist movement led by men like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, which is this attempt to popularize atheism and make it cool, their arguments center on the unfairness of the God of the Bible. They just don’t like Him. They don’t like how He acts. And this is pretty consistent with the detractors of Christianity old and new – I just recently picked up a book on the Gnostic Gospels. Those are writings that are a few generations after the New Testament from heretics who didn’t like the God of the Bible, didn’t like the Jesus of the New Testament, especially things like creation, and sin and forgiveness and the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, the things Christianity’s all about. And the scholar who is defending these Gnostic Gospels takes their side and attacks the New Testament on three grounds – the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the unfairness of God. You’d expect the first two – rationalists don’t like miracles, gnostics don’t like bodies – but that God is unfair is her major accusation against the Bible.
So Jesus is hitting on a raw nerve here in our Gospel and one that is deeply seated in our sinful flesh. God should do it my way. That’s how the sinful flesh thinks. People engage in armchair politics all the time – if I were president, I’d do this, close that border, show Russia a thing or two, and we always imagine we’d fix things, make a more just society. And our flesh does the same thing with God – if I were God I’d make sure everyone believed in Me, I’d show Myself to the world so everyone would know, I’d get rid of hell except for maybe for Hitler and Stalin and rapists and really evil people. And so we imagine God is doing it wrong, He’s unfair. We’d do it the right way.
And Jesus answers these objections, which are really accusations against God. And He answers with three very simple sentences. These are the three greatest answers anyone has ever given to the accusation that God is unfair. The first is the answer of the Law which silences the accusations with perfect logic and finality. Because it is very wicked for creatures to rebel against their Creator and for sinners who have deserved God’s anger and punishment to blame things on God and say He’s doing something wrong, when we’re the problem, not Him.
But the second two answers are absolutely beautiful confirmations of God’s love and generosity toward us.
His first answer to the angry workers, those who toiled for 12 hours, and got a denarius, is “Did you not agree to a denarius?” And of course they did. That’s exactly what they agreed to. You work for so long, you do this, and you’ll get this reward, a denarius.
This is the contract of the Law. And it’s how people want to deal with God, because we in our arrogance actually think we can keep the Law, that we’re basically good, and that God should reward us for it.
It’s a very pagan way of thinking, because it reduces God to a god, to something like us, but a bit more powerful. It’s easy enough to please Zeus, because Zeus isn’t your creator and Zeus can’t read your heart and Zeus isn’t the eternal standard of righteousness. He’s just powerful enough to punish you if you do something really bad or forget to give him his due. Easy enough. But we’re not dealing with a Zeus. We’re not dealing with someone that has to follow some standard of right and wrong that is beyond him, outside of him. We are dealing with Goodness itself. We’re dealing with the Standard of reality, of right and wrong, up and down, hot and cold, of everything. We’re dealing with the Creator of all things, the One whom Jesus says alone is Good.
So the contract of the Law is that we keep it perfectly. That’s what God created us to do. To love. Not simply in your actions but in your heart and through your words and in your thoughts, and not simply sometimes, but every time. No one has kept that contract.
The basic American religion is a naive contract with God – I’ve led a good life, I believe in God, and so I’ll go to heaven. Those simply aren’t the terms of the contract of the Law. Jesus says that those who think they’re basically good (the Pharisees) will see sinners and tax collectors enter the Kingdom of heaven before them. They will see those who haven’t worked at all, who haven’t been good in the least, enter before them. Because the contract of the Law will give you your denarius, your reward, but that reward is exactly what the Lord says, “Take what is yours and go.” Out of the Kingdom, out of God’s presence. This is what St. Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “And the wages of sin, is death.”
That’s the denarius you agreed to if you want to talk about God’s fairness. The only thing God owes anyone is death and judgment. That’s the contract of the Law. He owes us nothing. And if you approach Him demanding this or that, and expecting that you or anyone else has earned anything from Him, you will only get the same answer, didn’t you agree to a denarius, that you’d get what you’d earned? Then take it, take what is yours and go.
But Jesus shows us the better way, the Way, in the next two answers. The next thing God answers is, “May I not do what I choose with what is mine?” God owns everything. It’s all His. He made it. Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein.” Not just everything, but everyone. You didn’t create your life. You don’t own it. God made you. And you can’t even keep yourself alive. God does. It’s all His. And if He wanted to only deal with us in the way we deserved, He could take all that He owned and destroy it and punish it and pour His wrath down on it as He did with the flood, and with Sodom.
But He doesn’t. He takes what He owns and He blesses it. Even non-Christians. Even people who continue to reject Him and accuse Him. He blesses them day after day. He gives food and drink and sunny days and good government and children and talents and joys unnumbered. “May I not do what I choose with what belongs to Me?” And look at what He does with what belongs to Him. He gives it to us. And if there’s any unfairness in it it’s that we haven’t deserved it. He just gives it out of pure divine fatherly goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us.
And He gives more of what is His. He gives of Himself. Not just of the stuff that belongs to Him because He made it, but of His own Godhead, of God Himself. The Father gives His Son for us. He chooses to take His divinity and join humanity to it. He chooses even to take what wasn’t His, the only thing in all the universe that wasn’t His, our sin and our evil and our corruption and our punishment and our death, to take that on Himself and then give His life for us. “Do I not have the right to do what I choose with what is Mine?” What is more God’s than God Himself, and God chooses to give Himself for us.
He gives the righteousness of Christ to all who trust in Him. God reckons it, He counts it, as ours. So that the purity and innocence of Christ belongs to us in full, His eternal life is ours, simply handed over to us in our Baptism and fed to us in the Supper. “Do I not have the right to do what I choose with what is Mine?” And Jesus gives us what is His, His righteousness and His eternal inheritance with His Father. He has every right to give it and we have the singular pleasure and honor of receiving it.
This is what it means that the owner of the vineyard gives a denarius to the ones who came at the eleventh hour. They didn’t earn a denarius. They earned nothing. They did nothing. They were invited into the vineyard when there was nothing left to do. They enjoyed the cool of the evening in a paradise. They have what they have because God chose to give it to them out of pure kindness and they know it. And so they love Him.
The last answer to the accusation of unfairness is, “Or do you begrudge Me My generosity?” The Greek is literally, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” This is the basis and foundation of all reality. God is good. From Him comes everything that can be called good, everything that we enjoy, and in enjoying it properly we are enjoying God Himself. To see reality clearly is to see it in the Light of Jesus Christ, who is Goodness Incarnate and shows the generosity of God’s heart by His sufferings and death and resurrection.
To have an evil eye is, in the ancient world, to engage in sorcery, to twist reality to our own liking. And that’s what Jesus is saying here. Is your eye evil because I am good? Do you refuse to deal in reality? So many today are running from reality to the newest fads, the new atheists, wiccan cults, devil worship, Hinduism and exotic eastern religion combined with psychedelic drugs, or they are making up their own reality by living as if God doesn’t exist or as if they are basically good and God owes them, so they’ll get to heaven. It’s all sorcery. It’s all having the evil eye. It’s a distortion of reality. And there is absolutely no need for it.
Because God is good. And His mercy endures forever. What He has made is good, what He does is good, what He wants for us is good, and you can stare that goodness in the face in Jesus Christ. There is reality. Jesus. He is God’s answer to all the evil and misery and sadness and pain and death and injustice of all the world. The contract He makes with us is not that we work and He repays, but that He works and He pays, He bears the heat of God’s wrath and the burden of our sin, and He leads us into His vineyard to work as Christians who trust in the goodness and mercy of our God here in time and forever in eternity. Amen.