At the gracious re-invitation of Washington Union Alliance Church, here is my sermon on Matthew 20:1-16.
Sermon Text: Matthew 20:1-16
One of the enduring lessons I learned in college at Geneva is that Americans, such as myself, like formulas, especially in our media consumption. We need to know, going into really any movie or TV show, who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, who the damsel in distress is going to be, and so on. The good guy often turns out to have a secret past that he is trying to live down, or that he doesn’t even know about: Luke Skywalker comes to mind. He is, when we meet him in “A New Hope,” just a farm-boy on a wasted planet far from significance. But then we see him in action and wonder: “why is the Force so strong with this one?” It turns out that his past, and the clearly defined bad guy (black armor, raspy voice, gruff demeanor, helmet shaped like a WWI German soldier’s, and so on), are the key to unraveling the mystery and, therefore, his power. Generally speaking, we want the bad guy to meet a ‘just’ end (usually a violent death). Darth Vader, though, throws a wrench in the machine: he is ‘saved’ by his son’s love. The Emperor, though, the true bad guy, meets a particularly gruesome end in some sort of pyrotechnic engine exhaust shaft that happens to run straight through his imperial suite. Our love of the pat formula is therefore resolved: the real bad guy got his comeuppance, the good guy prevailed, and the oppressed (Vader) was freed. When things don’t go according to plan, though, we balk. That’s just not the way it is supposed to be. These sorts of movies – and we are seeing more and more of them yearly – we call “gritty,” “dark,” “realism.” Could it be that our fear of the chaos of life in a sin-marked, death-corrupted world throws us into our neat formulas?
Here is where Jesus comes to us with His parable about hiring and paying workers. But note, at the very beginning, that He says this story is about “the kingdom of heaven” (v. 1). This phrase means the same thing as “kingdom of God” in the other synoptic Gospels (Mark and Luke) and, arguably, as “eternal life” in John’s Gospel. But what is it? When we pray the prayer our Lord taught us, we say “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10): we ask for whatever this kingdom is to be manifest – to be true reality – in our realm of existence (“on earth”) as it already is in God’s reality (“in heaven”). This isn’t a destruction of our reality (although it will involve judgment on sin and death through the Cross of Jesus), but rather an indwelling of our world by God’s world. It is the leaven that makes a whole loaf rise (13:33): you cannot separate the yeast from the loaf once it has been mixed in, but you can notice the change, the difference it makes. For those of you who are bakers, you have first-hand experience of this. This doesn’t quite, though, tell us what the kingdom is, but only a taste of what it does. The closest we get to see the kingdom as it is comes from the account of the Transfiguration (16:28-17:9), but that will have to wait. Knowing what the kingdom does is the point of this passage and our main concern today.
What we need to note is that this kingdom does not follow our formulas or scripts. The landowner certainly seems to follow them, though, for a time. The workers hired at the first hour (6 am, roughly) he agrees to give a denarius, a small coin that they readily agree to accept for a day’s labor. The third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour laborers he agrees to give them “whatever is right”: a bit vague but they agree nonetheless. We assume, as we are confronted with the parable, that these later workers will get pro-rated wages: a bit less for the third hour guys, a lot less for the eleventh hour guys. This is fair, right? We should be paid according to our work. Job’s friends thought the same way; Deuteronomy seems to give a similar formula.
Here is where we see the twist: the landowner pays the eleventh hour workers (the guys hired at around 5pm) first. He pays them a denarius. This gets the first hour guys thinking: hey, fairness dictates that we should get more, since they worked an hour and we worked six. So, in their hearts, they forget the covenant that their employer had made: a denarius for a day’s work. By the time they come for their wages, then, their greed is in full swing: they want what is coming to them. But the landowner – the kingdom of heaven – gives them what they agreed to work for: a denarius. Unfair! Unjust! Cruel! A breach of good faith and contract! But no, the landowner says, “is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” (v. 15) He had not cheated them, as they supposed, but rather shown great mercy and grace to all those who were hired later. In the kingdom of heaven, mercy and grace trump fairness, so that all may bask in the beneficence of the King. Jealousy and greed have no place, but rather “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom. 12:15) or “if one member [of Christ’s Body] is glorified, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). The rule of the kingdom is grace and life and joy and peace: the kingdom is the Holy Spirit of God who pours out the love of God the Father in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).
All analogies, even the parables of Jesus, break down at some point. They are images that point to a deeper reality: remember the first verse in which the Lord Christ said “the kingdom of heaven is like,” any simile or metaphor conceals as much as it reveals. Will we, who strive to find the “narrow gate” (Matt. 7:13), who seek to have our righteousness – which we receive from Christ Himself – “exceed that of the scribes of Pharisees” (5:20), be working for a heavenly pittance, as a denarius in today’s terms is between 15-20 cents? What do we expect to be the reward of our Christian life? Asking that question, of course, raises up a whole host of thoughts and dreams and desires in our minds: I remember going to a church when I was young that interpreted Jesus’ statement that “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children of lands, for My sake and the Gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30) in a most literal manner. We should expect, the line went, to have all sorts of good things in this life (with persecutions, which meant the Tribulation) and expect to rule the earthly creation in the next. While I don’t think the pastor intended this, it could easily turn into a desire of the flesh: think of a certain religion that promises 72 virgins (as the minimum) to its male adherents. We turn the American Dream into our eschatological hope, even amidst calls from the Lord Christ to “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor…come, take up the Cross, and follow Me” (10:21).
What is our inheritance, then? What does the denarius mean in the kingdom of heaven? The Apostle Paul tells us that “He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22) and “In [Christ] you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Our inheritance, our denarius, is the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee” or a “down payment.” This is a curious statement from the Apostle, though, if we stop to ponder it. We have, in Christ, the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, who pours out the love of God into them. The Spirit is God Himself. When we are promised the Spirit, we are promised nothing less than the one true God fulfilling His ancient promise that “I will be their God and they will be My people and I will dwell among them” (Ez. 37:27, among others). The infinite, uncreated, incomprehensible, transcendent-yet-immanent God is our down payment! Now, for those of you who are home owners, you know that a down payment is only the start: you have yet to take possession of the home and make it yours, but the down payment means that the fullness is coming. What could be fuller, though, than God Himself? St Paul does discuss this in Romans 8: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (18-23). We cannot possible receive anything greater than God Himself, but God, in His great mercy and love, gives us not only Himself, but restores, sanctifies, and glorifies our own selves – body, soul, and spirit. Already has He given Himself to us, but more than that He will give us what we truly are in Christ: “your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4) and “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
As we enter this reality, the “in heaven” part of the Lord’s Prayer, it changes all of our lives. When both Sts Paul and John talk about sharing in this divine glory, they finish their thoughts by calling us to greater Christ-likeness: “Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5) and “everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3). This isn’t a call to be more moral, since in our world that often leads to radically immoral attitudes: we reach a level of morality and then judge others who do not conform it that (for whatever reason). Rather, we are talking about having the life of God – the Spirit – be so present in us and among us that we can truly say “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). As St Irenaeus says, “Because of the great love which He has for us, He became what we are so that we might become what He is” (AH V. Prologue). To partake of God’s fullness, to receive the Spirit, requires and produces a different form of existence: a crucified existence, one that is dead to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16), so that it might be alive to God and know Him and His kingdom.
This kingdom, which is God Himself in His out pouring for us in Christ and the Spirit, is what we have now and look forward, with the rest of creation, to entering fully. No matter when you come to Christ and are known by Him, you receive this same treasure. For all of us, those who cannot remember coming to faith because it happened when you were two or three and those of us who are now struggling to find Christ, the treasure is the same: it is God Himself. The sense of ‘unfairness’ we get when we see others’ prayers answered, or lives blessed, when we languish in a “dry and thirst land” (Ps. 63:1) shows us that we think of God as a measurable commodity. There is only so much God to go around, so we must conserve and hoard and keep Him to ourselves. But this is the infinite God, the one who created the universe, the one to whom belongs “the earth and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1); instead of needing to keep Him to ourselves, He gives Himself to all of us. We have no need for jealousy, or greed, or miserliness when it comes to Him: He Himself will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15: 28). Rather, we rejoice when others in the Body receive more of Him, knowing the promise that in His time and in His way, He will bring us into His fullness: in fact, He already has, if we had eyes to see it and hearts to believe it. “And [God] put all things under [Jesus’] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things for the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22). If you are in the Church by faith and baptism, you partake of the fullness of Him who fills all in all now.
This brings us back to the parable of the day. Our Lord Christ ends it by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.” The kingdom of heaven breaks all of our formulas down: here the good guy doesn’t triumph through force of arms, but with outstretched arms on the Cross. The kingdom, our inheritance, isn’t a set amount of which we must ration, but the infinite God calling one and all to inhabit and indwell, regardless of past history: while the roles of first and last are reversed, this does not mean that the first are now cast out. Rather, we are made one in Christ, the self-giving God, that the world might find healing. Listen to these words from St John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily:
If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
This is the kingdom of heaven, this is the presence of Christ, this is the divine denarius given to us – regardless of our merit – by the divine landowner. What shall we do in the presence of this kingdom by act like the merchant in another parable? “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45-6). Or the famous finder of treasure: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid, and for joy over it goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (44). We have found the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who gives us Himself in the Spirit. What shall we do but forsake all to gain Him who is all in all? Whether you’ve come to Him at the first hour, or tarried till today, come and partake of this One who generously gives us “life and that more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10), not life defined by more stuff or more experiences, as good as these things can be, but a life characterized by being filled with the Spirit, becoming the fullness of Him who fills all in all.