24 February 2014

The "Wages" of Grace

Here's my homily for Septuagesima (16 February 2014), based on the text of Matthew 20:1-16:

Look at the altar for a moment. Notice the wooden screen behind the altar—called the reredos. All around the edge you see vines with grapes on them. It’s a nice reminder that you and I are called to work in Christ’s vineyard. You and I are called to work at different times of the day of this world. You and I are called to work for the wages of God’s grace.

Today we enter the mini-season of Pre-Lent. We have seen the goodness of God in Christ in the Babe of Bethlehem. We have witnessed our Lord revealing Himself as God in man made manifest. Now we turn our attention to a season of serious reflection on Christ’s teaching and kingdom.

The scene in today’s Gospel reading sounds a lot like the time of the Great Depression. People who lived through the Great Depression remember the days of standing idle outside of factories and offices, just hoping that a foreman would come out in the morning and say, “I need people to work today.” If you were fortunate, you would be told how much you’d be paid at the end of the work day. Then you could take it or leave it. If you refused the low pay, someone more desperate than you would gladly accept the job.

But rarely would you refuse. Any job was a good job. If you worked really hard, and if the foreman liked you and your work, then you might get invited back the next day, or the next time they needed workers. The dollar or two that you earned might have been the first cash you saw in weeks. In those days no one assumed they had a “right” to health care, or paid vacation, or retirement benefits, or even “income equality.” You took what you could get, even if it meant you had to leave your friend outside, standing idle in the market.

By our current standards, this was a time of “unfair labor practices.” Men and women did not get what they thought they deserved for their labor. And this was often true. Some employers certainly took advantage of the high unemployment to hire people for a pittance.

And yet there have also been times when some people got paid very well, and still they thought that they were underpaid. Even today, when you ask someone if they are getting paid enough, I doubt they will say, “Oh, yes, I’m getting paid a lot. In fact, I think I’m getting paid more than I’m worth.” Just doesn’t happen, right?

No, most people—no matter how well they are paid—will complain that they aren’t being paid nearly enough, especially compared to someone else. You know how it goes: it’s always the other person who’s overpaid and underworked, and it’s always you who are overworked and underpaid.

In God’s vineyard—the spiritual realm—things work much differently. The ultimate reward is living with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all His saints. But you cannot earn this “reward” with hours of labor or “community service.” The wage is God’s forgiveness, and you receive it only by His grace in Christ Jesus.

So, let’s learn to picture ourselves as Jesus mentions in the parable: as unemployed, doing no works that profit us spiritually. You see, by birth, we stand idle outside the Vineyard of God. And our sinful self continually seeks to stray outside of God’s Vineyard.

But then in His kindness, our Lord Jesus comes to us and arranges for us to have profitable labor in His Vineyard. First, He announces the wage of His grace. God gives benefits for any and all who labor in His Vineyard—eternal life at His banquet table and the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day. Like workers during the Great Depression, you and I get to view God’s call to work as an undeserved invitation to receive wages that save our lives in desperate times. So, don’t think you deserve to work for Him. And don’t think you can bargain with Him for wages or perks.

You see, you will receive all the “wages” God delights to give you. And you will not receive any more or any less than your fellow workers. God does not give one person half-pay and the other person full-pay. No, He gives only full-pay to all workers in His Vineyard. And what is that “full pay”? Forgiveness of sins, eternal life with Christ Jesus, and resurrection of your mortal flesh. There’s no way you can earn a greater or lesser “reward” than that!

So, if you have worked your whole life for the Lord, do not expect your Master to reward you with extra, even though you’ve borne the heat and burden of the day. Instead, be ready to joyfully receive your fellow sinners who come to faith late in life. Also, don’t look around the vineyard of the congregation and think, “I do more for my church than him or her! Who has worked harder, or longer, or at more events than I?”

Put these thoughts as far from you as the east is from the west. As Jesus says, the only worker who got what he deserved was sent away empty. Everyone who works in the Lord’s Vineyard is “overpaid,” always receiving more than he or she deserves. Yes, your labor in the vineyard of Christ’s Church is just that—undeserved wages of His grace and mercy. Thank Him that He has placed you in this world and in His Church to work for Him. Rejoice that you labor long and hard to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind. Count it all joy when you love your neighbor as yourself … and get no earthly reward for your work!

And what happens if you fail at your work? ‘Cause you know you will. When you look at God’s Commandments, His “job description” for truly loving Him and your neighbor, you realize that you have failed to keep them fully. You always do. You always will. But don’t despair. You and I will never perfectly perform the work the Lord gives us to do. Yet God is kind and merciful. He still calls you to labor in His vineyard. He still rewards you with the wage of His grace: forgiveness of sins and life with Him both now and into eternity.

He has washed you in the water connected to His Word. His Spirit lives in you by the free gift of your Baptism. He feeds you week after week with His own Body and Blood to sustain you in your work for Him.  So, when you do fail to labor as you should in loving God and and loving your neighbor, your merciful Lord of the Vineyard still rewards you with forgiveness, resurrection, and life eternal.

So, when you fail to love your family and friends as you should, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful.” Ask Him to make you a profitable worker day by day. If you have neglected your family and friends for years, or if you have borne the heavy toil of loving the people God puts in your life, remember that Jesus rewards with a feast of eternal life at His banquet table. And you get a foretaste of that feast here today!

Perhaps you fail to labor constantly as God wants you to. Perhaps you pridefully look down on your fellow workers, thinking you’ve done more than they have. Jesus still “pays” you from His treasure store the very same wages He pays to all. Christ is the One who labored and toiled, all the way to the bloody cross. Jesus is the One who bore the burden of your sins and the heat of God’s wrath. He does all the labor, and you get all the “wages” of His grace and mercy and forgiveness. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

So we come to this day with a funny sounding name—Septuagesima. It’s Greek for “About 70 Days”—about 70 days until we get to celebrate the joys of Easter, the joys of God’s banquet table and eternal life with Him. Until then, we labor in His Vineyard. Lent, the time for preparation, is coming. We labor in things like confessing our sins and returning to the Lord and His forgiveness.  We labor in things like fasting, giving to those in need, and praying. We labor in things like relearning and rehearsing the Catechism teachings. So, start planning now to take out your Catechism, and blow off the dust if necessary. Get ready to open up that Catechism and relearn the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Then tackle the Catechism meanings and explanations. Then move on to the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Your labor will not be in vain. No, it will be very profitable. You see, you’ll relearn and rehearse the “wages” of God’s grace for you in Christ Jesus.

So, dear friends, the labor is not your own. Christ labors with you. In fact, Christ’s work—His life, death, and resurrection—make your labor profitable in body and soul. He is your great reward and your only benefit. And that benefit gives you abundant life. Christ comes to you, forgives you, and invites you into His Vineyard. Remember the vines around the altar. He promises you the wage of His grace, the gift of eternal life, even now.

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