"God's Strange Ways"
Today we hear God speaks to us through the prophet Isaiah: My ways and thoughts are higher than yours, as much higher than the heavens are above the earth.
In a similar way, Paul says in the Epistle that his imprisonment has really served to advance the Gospel. Well that’s strange. When is prison ever a good thing? When does a prisoner ever talk like this? When his thoughts are shaped by God’s thoughts. When God’s ways and thoughts are to take something evil and make it good (like Joseph being sold into slavery).
God’s ways and thoughts are to take fishermen and make them apostles. To take enemies and make them friends. To take sinners and make them saints. To take the things that are not, the things that are foolish and despised and make them the things that are, the things that are wise and glorious.
So here, again in our Gospel reading, God’s strange ways are on display. The kingdom of heaven is like…. Like a master of a house, an owner of a vineyard… who acts in very strange ways. At least, strange to us, in our limited and fallen human sense of fairness.
The master of the house goes and hires laborers early in the morning. And that’s not strange at all. Happens every day. They agree on a price and he sends them to work. It’s maybe a little strange that he goes out to hire more and more workers, again and again, throughout the day. But maybe the labor market is scarce or he realizes he has more work that needs to be done. We can cut him some slack here. It’s fairly strange, though, that he would bother to hire workers at the eleventh hour of the day. I mean, with only one hour of work left, why even bother? So Jesus sets the table, and we are about to see just how strange are the ways of this master.
You see, while at first pass this parable seems to be about the laborers, it’s really even more about the master himself. It’s not about the work that they do, or even how much of it they do. Nowhere does it mention the quality of their work. But here we say a master acting in strange ways, with thoughts that are not our thoughts.
The master, of course, is the Lord. The vineyard is his kingdom – the number of all who belong to him in Christ, or, the Church. They are “hired” by him, in that he calls each and every one of us to faith, individually. Be it through the word, or in our baptism, he finds us “standing around” in the idleness of our sinful nature – with nothing useful or good to do. Worthless to anyone and everyone, and nothing but trouble. But with a word he makes us his own – brings us into his fold. This is the call to faith. And faith gets busy doing what faith does – expressing itself in words of witness and works of love for neighbor. So the hiring is the master’s grace, and the work is our grateful response.
That the master would go again and again to market is also in his character, though beyond our comprehension. This reminds us of the persistence of God’s call to faith – that it is for all people, at all times in all places. Yes, some are baptized as infants, born into and raised in the Lutheran faith, Missouri Synod, no less! Some of us even love to wear it as a badge of honor. But it is all God’s grace that we are in the vineyard at all. And even those Johnny-come-lately’s, the new Christians, and the new-therans among us, are of equal place and value to a Christ who shed his blood for all.
Now, of course, this flies in the face of our sense of fairness. And that, too, is part of Jesus’ point here. While the master is full of grace and mercy, that’s not what makes us tick, by nature. Children of Adam, by nature, live in a very different type of market and vineyard. For us, it’s all quid-pro-quo. You get what you pay for. You earn what you deserve. We are concerned with justice and fairness and making sure everything is done according to the letter of law. Even from a young age we learn those words, “it’s not fair!” and we never really un-learn them.
And this assumes we are just and good in our own sense of fairness – when we so often are not! Don’t you dare slight me! But if someone else is slighted to my benefit – well, we don’t expect it to ruffle any feathers. We’ll just enjoy the benefits. And what if we actually applied the same harsh standards we use for others, the same judgment, the same criticism of their every fault and failing – and scrutinized ourselves by the same standard? I doubt we would fare so well. But rather we excuse our own sins, give ourselves a pass, or at least a rationalization for our misdeeds. And thus we corrupt the fairness we feign to exercise, and bend our sense of justice in our own favor.
Then, sometimes, we even dare apply our human sense of fairness to almighty God. Like the fool in the parable who balked at the master’s goodness to others. Well, friend, has he got news for you.
Our God does not treat us as we deserve. And you oughtta be thankful he does not. He does not mark our iniquities and repay us the wages of sin we deserve. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His way is, rather, to grant us a different reward, unearned share that isn’t based on our works, our labor, or on the debt of sin we owe, but on his grace in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, “hired”, if you will, at the beginning of all days – appointed as the Savior before the forbidden fruit had even turned brown. A seed of the woman set to crush the serpent’s head.
Jesus Christ, who labored perfectly, fulfilling all righteousness, and whose righteous work counts for all of us in his field. See, he has done all things well.
Jesus Christ, who paid the wages of sin and death by his own blood, at the cross. As foolish as it seems to us, as strange a way to love his people, is the Master not allowed to do what he wants with what is his? Does he not give to each sinner according to his great mercy?
But sometimes we do begrudge God’s generosity. Certainly the Jews in the early church struggled with the idea that God’s grace includes also the Gentiles. Sometimes churches today become insular and clique-ish, and don’t do such a good job of welcoming the newcomer. Save us from this, Lord!
I recall a lady at my church in Michigan who once remarked in a Bible Study, we had been discussing the news story about a local serial killer, who, now imprisoned, had professed to become a believer in Christ. She remarked, “if that murderer goes to heaven, then I don’t want to be there” Friend, the master might say, my dear lady, do you begrudge my generosity?
Maybe it would help us to begrudge the master’s generosity less to see ourselves in the parable not as the most deserving servant, but as the least. As the 11th hour workers. We are the ones who are late to the party. We are the ones who bring less deserving work. Each of us could say with St. Paul, “I am the chief of sinners”. Oh how our perspective would change! According to the law, we are like the early workers – out for ourselves, concerned with our own sense of justice. But according to the Gospel, we are the beneficiaries of a generous and kind master, who lavishes blessings upon us that we in no wise deserve.
So come to his table today and receive yet again – not the just desserts for your sins, but the grace desserts of his gifts. Take joy in the strange ways of our good master – enjoy his generosity – and be fed and strengthened for further service in the vineyard, and in the world.