Some worked all day. Some, only an hour. But those who receive their wages receive the same wage—and if we were in the back of that line, we’d’ve hated this.
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them [the wage], beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 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’” (Matthew 20:8-12).
The worker who worked the whole day—with the worker who worked mere moments—both receive the same wage—one denarius.
The parent who agonizes over every puzzle piece in a thousand-piece double-sided puzzle—with the child who places only the last piece in the puzzle—both receive the same wage—one puzzle completed.
The wife who puts all the dishes away but one—with the husband who reminds her about that one dish and puts it away himself—both receive the same wage—the dishes are put away.
Both receive the same wage—but only one bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
We know that it’s unfair and unhelpful when a person who can work refuses to and still receives pay.
It’s unfair when you work long hours and put in effort, and one who neither works nor tries still receives pay equal to your own. That it’s equal pay for less work makes it unequal pay.
No business can run that way—not for long.
But Jesus tells this parable to describe, not this world or business as we know it but the reign of God, His Kingdom.
The contrast in today’s Gospel lesson is not between lifetime-Christians and deathbed-Christians, those who’ve borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat and those whose work was only momentary.
If that’s what this is about, that would imply that lifetime-Christians, when they go to heaven, get what they earn and deserve.
And only deathbed-Christians receive the wage of Heaven as a gift from God by love and grace.
And that’s not how it is at all.
We’re saved by grace through faith in Christ our Lord, not by works. And this is, itself, a gift from God, not a paycheck given out of contractual requirement (cf. Eph. 2:8ff) after years of basically faithful service.
In the Church, you don’t get what you deserve, because grace is undeserved.
For a moment, though, consider if each Christian received exactly what they earned.
The master of the vineyard replies to the grumbling day-laborers, “Take what belongs to you and go” (Matthew 20:14). And could there be a more frightening statement from the Creator of All Things to that which He created?
What belongs to you? And where can you go that’s not what God Himself has made?
We’re stewards, not creators.
It has been given to us, it is not ours.
We are workers of the vineyard. Heirs—not owners.
The contract between you and God isn’t written in your hand and blood but God’s hand and blood.
If today’s Gospel lesson were a contrast between lifetime-Christians and deathbed-Christians, you’d hate God, because He does what we don’t do. He treats the worst like the best: ”[He] shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11).
Don’t think of yourself as one of the all-day-laborers.
You’re not one of them.
To them, remember, the master of the vineyard says “Take what belongs to you and go.”
That’s justice. That’s not grace.
Justice is getting what you’ve earned, what you deserve. But grace, mercy, and the peace of God that is yours in Christ is all gift.
All Christians are deathbed-Christians, whose work is momentary, whose whole life is but an hour in God’s day, who receive the wage of everlasting life out of the master of the vineyard’s overabundant generosity.
When your body is raised from death, and you stand for judgment before Christ, what puts Heaven into your possession isn’t the hours of your Christian service but the hour and service of Jesus the Christ.
Justice requires your death.
Grace puts the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet. The crown on His head. The spear through His side.
You don’t deserve it. That’s grace.
You couldn’t earn it. That’s a gift.
You couldn’t win it. Our salvation was accomplished in the hour of Christ’s death, confirmed in the hour of His resurrection, and distributed to you in this hour by the Word proclaimed, poured, and given.
In the small hour of our lives, we can accomplish so little and yet make endless lists of things to do.
But by God’s grace, during our small hour, God accomplishes so much.
We don’t deserve it. But God desires it.
Thus says the Lord through St. Peter, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God, in His grace, always desires repentance and faith so that you would believe and live.
God desires—and accomplishes—and gives it.
The one-hour workers receive the wage of life everlasting, by the grace of God.
The same is true for you.
Salvation is God’s work, accomplished and given out of grace.
But the workers who received their wages never stopped working. In a manner of speaking, they ran with endurance the race that was set before them (cf. Heb. 12:1).
St. Paul warns us: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things…to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
So, we run the race—we live our lives—trusting God and receiving from Him all that we need for this body and life.
We don’t work so that He’ll take care of us.
He’s our Heavenly Father, loving and gracious. He takes care of us not because of our merit but only out His Fatherly goodness.
We work and move and live and breathe in thanks to Him and in service to those God has given us and all who are in need.
Our Lord chooses to give, even to us, the least of workers, what is promised to the first.
Today is Septuagesima. It means “Seventy Days.” We’re about seventy days away from Easter.
Next week is Sexagesima, “Sixty Days.” And after that is Quinquagesima, “Fifty Days.”
During the “Gesima Sundays,” we rejoice in the solas of the Reformation.
Today, Sola gratia. By grace alone are we saved.
Some work their whole lives.
Some work only an hour.
But all believers are Christians made alive by God.
“Praise the Lord! He is good. God’s love never fails” (Psalm 136:1).
God’s grace never fails.
In the Church, there aren’t different wages—there is only “the wage.” God gives to the least as He gives to the greatest. To the last, as He does the first.
Let us pray:
“By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless; My soul, believe and doubt it not. Why stagger at this word of promise? Has Scripture ever falsehood taught? No! Then this word must true remain: By grace you too will life obtain.
By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying; In Jesus’ promise I rejoice; For though I know my heart’s condition, I also know my Savior’s voice. My heart is glad, all grief has flown Since I am saved by grace alone” (LSB 566:1,6).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt