15 February 2017

Homily for Septuagesima - 2017

"Reversal of Grace"
Matthew 20:1-16

Listen here.

Jesus sure loves turning things topsy-turvy. He seems to relish turning things on their head and making us squirm. Just consider this parable. A landowner goes out at 6:00 a.m. to hire workers for the day. He contracts with them, and they sign on the dotted line—a full day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Then, at 9:00 a.m., the landowner hires more workers. After all, it’s not good that men should sit idle all day. He promises to pay them “whatever is right.” The landowner goes back to the employment agency again at 12:00 noon, and then again at 3:00 p.m. The grape harvest is going so well, and the landowner is so elated with such a bountiful harvest. He wants it all finished in one day. He goes out again at 5:00 p.m.—one hour before quitting time—to hire yet more workers. So far so good.

Then comes 6:00 p.m.—paycheck time. The landowner instructs his foreman: “Pay them their wages, beginning with the last up to the first,” he says. First, pay those hired last, go in reverse order, and then, at the last, pay those hired first. Okay, not so bad. Everyone still gets their paycheck, whatever the pecking order. But the landowner does not stop there. Now comes the bombshell. Now comes the slight, the offense, the topsy-turvy. He pays all of them the exact same amount! Equal pay for different amounts of work? Now if you were hired at 5:00 p.m., you really like this generous boss, even if he does seem, well, rather reckless with his profits. But! if you were hired first, at 6:00 a.m., and worked all twelve long hours in the scorching sun, you are not happy at all.

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Jesus loves turning things topsy-turvy.

Jesus uttered this saying once before. Right before our parable, a rich young man came to Jesus and asked Him, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). “Keep the commandments,” Jesus said. Sounded good to this rich young man. “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus said, “Do all those commandments of loving your neighbor.” The rich man said, “Been there, done that. What do I still lack?” Ah, there’s always a catch. If you think you can please God and get to eternal life with your good, upstanding life, there’s bound to be something you’ve overlooked, something you’ve neglected. So Jesus turned things topsy-turvy for this rich young man: “Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me. You’ll have plenty of treasure heaven.” The man went away sad and dejected. It was not a matter of his possessions. It was, rather, a matter of his heart, and where he was placing his trust.

The disciples were flummoxed too. You mean, that’s not how we please God and get into heaven? “Nope,” Jesus said. You, a human being, a mere mortal, a person infected by sin and enslaved by death, cannot save yourself. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Peter jumped in on behalf of the twelve: “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow You. What will we get in eternal life?” Still thinking in terms of work and fair pay, putting something in and getting something out. So Jesus said, “Oh, Peter, you’ll get plenty in eternal life—a hundredfold even—but not because you earned it or deserved it. You see, Peter, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first’” (Matt. 19:30). Jesus loves to turn things topsy-turvy.

What about you? How do you like it when Jesus turns things topsy-turvy for you? We’re not talking about the topsy-turviness of family strife, or losing a job, or hearing a cancer diagnosis. Sure, those things make us squirm and turn life on its head enough already. We’re not talking about about downturns in the economy or questionable policies by elected leaders that lead to uncertainty or confusion or an erosion of our liberties. Sure, those things make life plenty topsy-turvy. No, what Jesus is focusing on is your life with Him, your life in His kingdom, now and into eternity.

How would you like to be those first workers, hired at 6:00 a.m., having borne the burden and scorching heat of the day, and "merely" get paid what you were promised, what you had agreed to…while all those other lazy bellies got the exact same pay for putting in much less time? How would you like it if Landowner God called you “friend” with that little growl of disapproval and told you just to take your pay and get out? That term for “friend” is not a positive one. In another parable, a king uses it for the guy who snuck into the wedding feast without the proper wedding garment (Matt. 22:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus uses it of Judas, who is about to betray Him (Matt. 26:50). Talk about topsy-turvy!

You and I, if we’re like those workers hired first—and we are—might just turn to grumbling and complaining. “That’s not fair! That’s not right! Why is their hourly wage more than ours?” We might—and do—become just like the Israelites grumbling and quarreling in the wilderness. “Where’s our water? Where’s our food? Where’s what we have a right to have?” You and I—since by nature we are like those first workers and those Israelites—might and do put God Himself into our handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet of spirituality and find Him coming up short. In our spiritual bean-counting, God Himself just doesn’t seem to offer a balanced budget for His eternal kingdom. After all, doesn’t it mean something that we’ve been Christian for however many years? Doesn’t it count that we’re here, in His house, however many Sundays out of the year, or put X amount of dollars in the weekly offering? See how much I’ve been serving you, Lord? See how dedicated I’ve been? See how much I read Your Word and pray and help other people and…?

This is why Jesus loves to turn things topsy-turvy. We need Him to. We need to have our spiritual bean-counting turned on its head and we need to squirm in our self-centered spiritual bookkeeping. We need Jesus’ reversal of grace. You see, God’s kingdom of heaven reaches into our earthly life and works solely by grace, solely by the generosity of Landowner God and His foreman Jesus. It’s Jesus Himself—the eternal Son of God, the eternal foreman of our salvation—who doles out all the gracious rewards that come to us in God’s vineyard. After all, He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Topsy-turvy, yes. It’s the reversal of God’s grace.

But do not let this bountiful grace of Landowner God and Foreman Jesus lull you into a false sense of idleness. Life in God’s vineyard—His Church—does involve work. No, not work in order to “get the job,” so to speak. You’re already in God’s vineyard, completely and solely by His gracious work—sola gratia. And, as we see in the parable, our divine Landowner is very generous with His rewards at the end of the day on the Last Day. But now that you’re in, it’s time to get to work.

What is that work to which you and I are called? Using himself as our example, St. Paul calls us to exercise self-control like an athlete. He exhorts us not to run aimlessly and not to box as someone merely beating the air. In the spirit of St. Paul, we are to discipline our bodies and keep them under control.

The work we are given to do in the vineyard of Landowner God is the work of confessing our sins and learning to live at the receiving end of His bountiful grace and mercy. It’s the work of rooting out the pride that leads us to cry “Unfair!” or to think we deserve more and better than what our Landowner God already gives. It’s the work of taking our eyes off of ourselves and fixing them squarely on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, and the eternal reward He has labored to win for us and give to us. It’s the work of learning His Word and learning to rely on His promises. It’s the work of taking the time to pray, gathering around His Word with our fellow workers, and faithfully receiving His Body and His Blood for our refreshment and strength. It’s the work of having our whole life, even our whole self, turned topsy-turvy by Jesus’ reversal of grace.

You see, when Jesus turns you and me topsy-turvy by His bountiful grace and and lavish forgiveness, He actually sets everything right-side-up with Landowner God, both now and into eternity. Amen.

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