The vineyard is the Christian Church. God often talks about His people being His vineyard or the branches of his vine. Isaiah says, “My well beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.” Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” It’s a happy image, fruit and wine and life. The heathen poets knew this too – they romanticized farming, especially the dressing of vines, as the most wonderful work, the kind of life a human was made to live. Working in a factory is no one’s dream, but working hard in the field, with the fresh air, with the sun shining, is the kind of work people stuck in offices all day dream about. It’s why people keep gardens and then end up giving away half the food – they like to keep the garden, it’s hard work but fulfilling. We were created in the beginning to work in a Paradise, the Garden of Eden – paradise is just the Greek word for garden. There is something primal in us that yearns for this kind of work, this kind of setting.
So Jesus chooses the image of the vineyard to show that being a Christian is wonderful. It involves work, absolutely, hard work, sometimes even painful work – anyone who keeps a garden can tell you that – but it’s work that in the end you want to do, that you can look back at and say, “Thank God, it was hard, sometimes painful, sometimes seemed to last forever, but in the end it was like working in the garden in the cool of the day.” My mother remains the saint I respect most in this life. I can’t describe the work she went through to raise twelve children, especially twelve children with the personalities of me and my siblings. It was dirty sometimes, painful a lot, outrageously busy – she still can’t quite remember the 80s – but if you talk to her she remembers it with thankfulness to God that she was allowed to do it, to raise us as Christians, and she delights in the fruits of her labor.
The complainers in Jesus’ parable are those who hated the work. We labored through the heat of the day, they say. They couldn’t stand the Christian life. It was a burden to them. They didn’t want to be there in the vineyard. The only reason they were there was to get some payment for their work. And this is always the way it will be for those posing as Christians. I don’t suppose it would be a wonderful thing to come to church if the only reason you were doing it was to follow some rule. That sounds miserable. Or if reading your Bible or saying prayers were simply extra work you had to do, and not instead a thing you wanted, then it all sounds horrible. The same goes for loving your wife, submitting to your husband, working hard at my job. Work is miserable when there’s no purpose or joy in the doing besides getting paid for it. This is the entire lesson of Ecclesiastes – what’s the point of it all, Solomon asks? “What has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.” Without Christ, there is no point to it, vanity, vanity, all is vanity, says the Preacher.
The Christian religion is the religion of joy, of the resurrection of Jesus, of light shining in a dark place, a joy so full that it extends to every aspect of life. It’s not as if we’re all miserable now, that life simply is drudgery now, but we can deal with that because in the end we’ll be in heaven. It’s true that the Bible describes Christians as poor and despised in this world – St. Paul says this to the Corinthians – not many of you were rich, not many of you were noble. And Abraham’s words to the rich man remain true, “remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” This is the lament of Psalm 73, that the wicked are always prospering, that’s what it looks like at least until you realize what faith in Christ actually gives. It is true that we Christians will have our crosses, we will feel our sin more keenly and sharply than the heathen, we will struggle in a fiercer fight with the evil in our own souls and against the devil and with the madness of this world, because we’re Christians, and in the end we will see that the pains of the Christian life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.
But our joy and our happiness now, now in the present, are greater than any unbeliever’s could possibly be. When I say that the Christian life is the only life worth living, I mean it not simply because in the end it leads to everlasting life, but because now, right now, it surpasses the life of the richest and seemingly happiest unbeliever as much as heaven is above the earth. It is objectively better to be Lazarus, begging, poor, hungry outside the rich man’s gate, yet with dignity and love and purpose, than to be the rich man who so lacks love that he doesn’t care about the poor man starving outside his own door. Jesus says, immediately before our Gospel for today, says there is no one who leaves all and follows him who won’t receive a hundredfold back in this life, and in the end everlasting life. The Christian life is the happy life.
The happiness of the unbeliever is a mask, a façade. What is the fruit of all their labor? What does it matter? They are searching for it and they are not finding it. They desperately want fulfillment, desperately want happiness. This is why the wickan and devil-worship section at Barnes and Noble is now surpassing the Christian section in size. Because people aren’t happy. They need something besides money and Netflix to get them by. This is why a drug pandemic far worse than Covid ever was continues to grip our nation. Because people are not happy. They need to see the reason for living, need to know that their life, their labor, their strivings, are all worth something. And the only place they will find that is in Jesus. The human soul needs to know that our Creator loves us. It needs to know that our life is worth something. And that worth won’t be realized in fleeting moments of pleasure, or from making enough money, or from staring at a screen for hours every day. Our worth has to be found in our Creator, our dignity has to be realized in the fact that our God has joined our ranks, become our Brother, and so values us that He has suffered for the sin that made life empty and vanity and has replaced it with God’s favor and love. And this love of God makes even suffering, even the hardest labor worthwhile.
God’s commandments to us, summarized in the Ten Commandments, will seem burdensome to us for only two reasons. The first is if we are trying to earn something from God by them. The second is if we don’t want to do them.
Knowing Jesus removes both of these. He makes it clear that you can’t earn anything by your works. And He makes good works delightful to the Christian heart.
You can’t possibly try to earn anything from God once you know that God has died for you. What else is there to earn that the sufferings and blood of God have not earned? But if you try to earn it, then what are you going to earn in the end? What do these complainers in the vineyard earn? A denarius, and then they’re sent away from the vineyard, from the church, from heaven. That’s what you earn. That’s the contract of the law. It’s very simply. Obey it perfectly and you get life. Fail in one point, and you get eternal death. You don’t want to sign that contract. You agree to work and get paid, and God will pay you, but the payment is obviously going to be hell, to be cast away and out of the vineyard – to go your way without God. That’s all you’ve earned. You need another contract, summarized in those beautiful words, “Go and work and I will give you what is right.” In the contract of the Gospel, God decides what is right and He decides to give you everything at His own cost. The contract of the Gospel is the contract signed with Jesus’ blood and it offers you everything and requires no payment whatsoever. That’s the new contract, the new testament of Jesus’ blood, and it frees you from ever thinking you need to earn a thing from God by your labors. He places the New Testament into your mouth so that you can taste and see that God is good and His mercy endures forever.
God’s commands will also seem burdensome if we don’t want to do them. If you don’t want to work, you’re not going to be happy doing the work. Jesus frees Christians from this apathy, this laziness, this sitting idle in the marketplace. He gives us a desire to work in His vineyard. He makes it wonderful, joyful, beautiful. He tells us His burden is light. He describes it as working in the cool of the evening. His Spirit convinces us of this. When you know that God is smiling on you, that He is delighted with you and looks at you as His own child, that He wants to spend eternity with you, then His commands will be music to your ears.
This is true of the most menial tasks. I can literally enjoy changing a diaper when I see God wants me to do it. I can do laundry – which I really hate doing – and I can love doing it to the extent that I know it will bring a smile to my wife’s face. You can deny yourself some fleeting sinful pleasure and find more fulfillment in conquering that sin than you ever would in acting on it. You can work hard for an incompetent boss, submit to an imperfect husband, when you know you are really working for God and submitting to your Lord. You can give money away and it will give you more joy than hording it up, when you know it goes to further the Kingdom of your God. This is what it means to work in the vineyard in the cool of the evening. It means actually loving to love, loving to obey God and do His commands.
And this isn’t to paint an unrealistic picture of the Christian life. I don’t want to do what the heathen do, which is to paint the picture that life is just awesome all the time. I was struck by the ridiculously carefree and trivial commercials that played while the Buffalo Bills player was lying motionless on the field a few weeks ago. He was in cardiac arrest, close to death, and the truth of that was in perfect contrast to the tacit denial of death and sorrow and pain in the young, happy, carefree, beer drinking and yet skinny characters on the commercials. It’s all so fake. Don’t be fooled by it. They’re not as happy as their facespace posts suggest or their smiling faces put off. We are sinners living in a sinful world, and no one is exempt. It will sometimes feel like drudgery to do what God commands us to do. The good that I want to do I do not do and the evil I do not want to do that I do – that’s the constant pulling of our flesh and it is very tiring.
But this is why the Christian life is so far and away the happiest. We know where to go when the vanity of the world takes hold, when the fight is tiring, when life is simply exhausting and we are searching for joy. It is not far off, because He is with us always even to the end of the age. The greatest joy of working in the vineyard is that He is there among us. He is the vine and we are the branches. Because He lives we live also. The greatest command He gives us is also our greatest delight. Take and eat, this is my body, drink of it, this is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He is the Lord who bore the heat of the day, the great and heavy work, who swallowed up the emptiness of sin by His great struggle on the cross, so that we refreshed by complete and total forgiveness, the washing away of all sin and all vanity by the blood of God Himself, we can work in His vineyard in the cool of the evening and live the only life worth living, here in time and forever with our God. Amen.