The Great Reversal
Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost, September 21, 2008
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church. San Diego, CA
INTRODUCTION: This morning Jesus turns our entire concept of justice on its head with these simple words from our Gospel lesson: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” (v. 16) To understand the meaning of these words, we have to first find the reason He spoke them. Just before Jesus told this story, a rich young man, full of pride, approached Jesus with this timeless question: “How do I get to heaven?” Jesus answered him by saying Keep the commandments and you are well on your way! The young man thought about this and said, “Done!” Oh, really? “Fine” Jesus says, then here’s what you do next, sell everything you have and follow me!” Wow! Who would dare say that they can keep all of God’s commandments? And to make that point, Jesus sends Him back to the very same commandments, the first commandment in fact, and says get rid of your false god (money) and follow the true God (Me)! Well, that young rich man went away dejected. Seeing this, Jesus followers began to ask, “If this is the case, then can anyone be saved?” And to this, Jesus speaks the gospel: “With man, this is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”
Now Peter who has been lectured time and time again about suffering for the Kingdom of God pipes in: “(Lord) See, we have left everything (behind) to follow you, what then will we get?” And to this, Jesus hearing the pride in Peter’s words says, “Many who are (now) first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt. 19:16-30) This morning we will try to understand what this means by looking into three things: 1. God’s call. 2. Our response to His Call. (and) 3. The final result of His call—the great reversal.
I. God’s Call—“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1) There are many of us here this morning who can confidently say that God first called us when we were just a baby or a small child, and that call came to us through Holy Baptism. But there are also many others who either were not baptized until they were an adult, or they resisted the call of their baptism until very late in life. Regardless of how we were called, the fact is—WE WERE CALLED! In our Old Testament reading Isaiah relates this call to us this way: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7) And to this Jesus adds that we must seek and find the Lord on His terms, through His means and not our own—Now is the time to seek the Lord. Look for Him while he can still be found, because the time will come when no matter how hard you look He will not be found.
People have this intolerable idea that there will always be time to get serious about their faith, but God’s Word says otherwise; there is going to come a time when it will be too late to hear God’s Word! Have you ever noticed that when the latest gadget comes out with a lot of media hype, people will stand in line for hours just to be the first on the block to have it or experience it? Remember the long lines of people waiting for up to two days just to be the first to own the iPhone? Oh dear friends, if we would only see God’s Word in this way. How many of us have grieved his heart by ignoring His call with the thought of “Not now. I’m just too busy. Maybe latter.” But praise His goodness He is still calling. He is still out looking. Jesus demonstrates this truth in His story, by making it clear the “master of the house” who is none other than God the Father is still going out early in the morning, calling to anyone who will listen. He goes out continuously, even at the last hour! All are called with the same call, “Come!”
II. What are some examples of our response to God’s call? “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” (v. 2) Like Peter, this first group that was hired even before the sun was out, asked “What’s in it for me?” What will be my reward? Did you notice that they were the only group of workers that insisted on a labor contract? With their combined bargaining efforts, they were able to get the owner of the vineyard to agree to generous sum of 1 denarius. I can hear them now: “Come on now. Agree to our terms. After all, this is hard work…picking grapes in the heat of the day. We want 1denarius!” “Done!” the owner of the vineyard says, “Now off you go to work in my vineyard.” But there’s much to do, and this small workforce that he found will certainly not be sufficient, so he goes out again and again asking and re-asking anyone and everyone to respond to his offer of employment. To all of these other groups he mentions only this about compensation, “Whatever is right I will give you.”(v. 5) “Sure!” they said, and off to work they go.
Finally at the 11th hour, one hour before sundown, he brings in a final crew, but to this last bunch of workers he has a little more to say: “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” Now, they tried to justify their laziness by making it the owner of the vineyards fault saying, “Because no one has hired us.” Now instead of arguing with them, the owner of the vineyard simply returned their hearts and minds on the important task at hand, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ (vs. 5-7)
ILLUS: In January 1989, Serial killer Ted Bundy, related to Dr. James Dobson of the Focus On The Family Ministry, that just hours before their meeting, he confessed His sins to God, and then accepted the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. How does that make you feel? Maybe it makes you feel a bit like those workers who were hired first—you know those who did most of the work? Should Ted Bundy have been offered grace? Well, I’m getting ahead of our gospel reading, so…Back to our story. Now the workers hired first have taken their place at the front of the pay line, and they are anxiously awaiting their paycheck, when the foreman tells them to go to the end of the line and let the late comers go first. “Well that’s not fair.” One man shouts out. “Wait a minute” he says to the guy next him, “did you see how much those late comers got paid? They made a whole denarius. Boy this vineyard owner is generous. If they made that much, imagine how much we’ll make!” But to their surprise, they are paid exactly what the late comers were paid! “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (vs. 11-12)
Now, we can see a bit of intrigue developing. The entire work crew is now clearly being divided into two opposite groups: those who are satisfied, and those who are not. Those who were hired first were irritated to see the late comers get a denarius. Now Jesus is allowing us a glimpse into the heart of God. It is becoming very evident that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. But if we pay attention we can begin to see a pattern in the mind of God. Remember, the workers who were hired after the first group? They had no contract, why they didn’t even have a promise of any kind, they simply knew their employer was kind enough to offer them work. They were just glad to be working for this landowner. But the first group took their money and began to complain. And what was their complaint? The owner wasn’t showing justice! Wow! Can you believe that these workers are charging the owner of the vineyard with blatant injustice simply because he’s kind?! And that is precisely the point that Jesus is making about the rich young man’s attitude and Peter’s desire for compensation. But Jesus isn’t done…no, now it is time for God to respond to all self-righteous hearts…maybe even ours!
“But (the owner of the vineyard) replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. (Didn’t you) agree with me for a denarius? (Now then)Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to (these) last worker(s) as I give to you. (Aren’t I) allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’” (vs. 13-15) When we hear these words they come to us like the crushing blows of a hammer. You see, if we agree that all good things come to us from the hand of the Lord Himself, then the true target of our anger and envy aren’t those who we feel did not earn their reward, but rather the giver of the reward Himself! It is as if we are telling God that some people do not deserve his call to enter into His service, His church, or even into eternal life. Dear friends, when a heart believes that grace is earned then all that it is proving is that it has no real understanding of grace.
III. So what is the result of God’s call? Well, it really depends on the condition of the heart that’s being called.
A prideful heart that spurns grace and condemns it when it is exercised towards others excludes itself from the call of grace, because that kind of heart can never receive it, and this is because it will not receive it. This then is “The Great Reversal”—“So the last will be first, and the first last.” (v. 16) But what about a heart that really appreciates the marvelous gift of God’s undeserved mercy and love? Well, this is the kind of heart that gladly answer His call to work for Him without demand; this kind of heart simply trusts and follows Jesus. Friends, by sending us out into His vineyard, out into our families, communities, jobs and schools, Jesus delivers us from a life of eternal insignificance. For you see, whatever we are doing we are doing it for the Lord! When the Tartar tribes of Central Asia curse their enemies, they don’t tell them to “go to hell.” No, instead they say, “May you do nothing forever.” Jesus Christ in His goodness delivers us from that curse.
Dear friends, please do not interpret the denarius in Jesus’ story as representing our salvation; no that fee was paid for by our dear Savior when He died for us upon the cross. And don’t think that the denarius represent your reward or crown in heaven. What greater reward could there be than just being with Jesus forever in heaven? No, our denarius is simply the privilege and the joy of being allowed to work alongside of Jesus here while we further His kingdom. We do this when we allow Him to love others through our service to them! Isn’t it wonderful to know that when we are called by Jesus Christ, He doesn’t put us under a contract? Instead He puts us under His grace! That’s how you became a Christian, and that is precisely the message that He wants you to share with others as you serve them!
CONLUSION: Friends, the good news is there is still time for anyone who hears the call of the Lord to seek Him! Peter finally understood this, and when he did he declared God’s message of grace boldly, even at the expense of his own life. St. Paul understood it as well, and it was his prayer that the church in Philippi would understand God’s message as well and be transformed by that same grace. Dear friends, when others question your service to the Kingdom of God, it is God’s desire that you pay no attention to their hurtful words; it is God’s will that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side with each other working together, not caring if one has worked longer or harder than another; not counting your own personal sacrifices as something special or superior to others. Instead, God desires that all of us work together with one mind, and one heart advancing His Kingdom by furthering the faith of the gospel. It is God’s will that we allow His precious gift of grace to lead us, so that through His presence in our lives we will be empowered to joyfully serve others and tell anyone the Lord puts in our life: “Seek the LORD while he may be found. Call upon the name of Jesus while he is near!”
Now may the peace of God , which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…AMEN!