Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson, previously read, the parable often called “The Generous Landowner.”
I often think of this parable, that it is one which is easy to relate to on its surface. After all, I think we’d all have a sense of indignation if we were literally those who went out and worked in a field all day and received the same payment as people who only worked an hour. I mean put yourselves in the shoes of those workers. It’s hot, it’s tiresome, it’s challenging. You see everyone in line. You see that these men who worked less than a tenth of the time you worked and they’re getting what you were told you would get. I’m sure at the least you would start to hope that this owner had a change of heart and decided to pay more. More likely, you would assume like these in the story did, that he will pay you more. And then he doesn’t. What?! What’s that?! How can he do that?!
And look at the story, look at the detail here, this is even more frustrating! Look at it. This owner goes out how many times in the day and hires people? I count five times total. At six in the morning, at nine, at noon, at three and at five. So first of all, this is looking like a twelve hour workday, and each time he’s hiring people. But the point I want to make here is that by the time he gets the crowd at five, what does he say? “Why do you stand here idle all day?” Why aren’t you out there working? And what’s the response? “Because no one has hired us.” Now, I could be wrong, but it seems like since this landowner went out five times, they would have been seen by him and hired already, doesn’t it? So, it isn’t just that you get this group hired at five that got paid for the full day, it seems like they were lazy and they hadn’t gotten their bums out there to be hired. And then they’re lying about it.
Again in the position of the twelve hour hires, you can relate, can’t you? I got myself out of bed. I put the effort in to make sure I got the full day’s work. I toiled, I labored, and that bum gets as much as me?! It’s infuriating.
And yet what’s the response of the landowner when he’s called on it? Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? That’s not satisfying, is it? If you’re that worker, you know that you can’t argue. It’s not like you can tell this guy what to do with his money. You can’t make him pay you more. In our day we would say that we’ve got the verbal contract. We’ve got the oral agreement. You can’t sue this guy for not paying you more. You said you would work for that, he paid you that, it’s done. But it’s not satisfying is it? “Sure, you’re right, but, but, but I’m worth more than that guy!” “I do begrudge you your generosity. I do want to tell you what to do with what is yours!”
And I love the literal translation of the Greek here. I think the phrase captures the sense but literally what the landowner says is not “Do you begrudge me my generosity,” but, “Are your eyes evil because I am good?” “Are you envious of my generosity?”
And we are, aren’t we? We are envious when people are generous and we think we’re more deserving. We are envious that someone got the promotion and we didn’t, that time our parents gave our sibling something we thought we should have and not them, or even that time our sports rivals with their quarterback who’s not as good as our favorite quarterback won their sixth Super Bowl in less than twenty years. We don’t like that.
Of course, this is all speaking of earthly things. As we look at this parable, what’s it really about? It’s about God’s grace, isn’t it? In fact, as I mentioned switching our lectionary last week with Transfiguration occurring then instead of the Sunday right before Ash Wednesday, a part of that is that we have today and these next two Sundays which follow something called “Pre Lent.” Today is Septuagesima which means “within seventy,” within seventy days before Easter. Next will be Sexagesima, “within sixty days” before Easter, then Quinquagesima, “within fifty days” before Easter. And I’ve heard it said that those weeks lend themselves well to Grace, the Word, and Faith. Like the Solas of the Reformation, if you remember them: Sola Gratia, grace alone, Sola Scriptura, Scripture (or the Word) alone, and Sola Fide, faith alone. So, we’ll be going that way the next three weeks, but today: Grace; God’s grace.
We use that word a lot, but what does it mean? Grace. I like to define it as getting good things from God we don’t deserve. To contrast that, I call mercy not getting bad things from God we do deserve. But today is grace; getting good things from God we don’t deserve. Or maybe you’ve heard it: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That’s grace right? We get the eternal riches of God’s kingdom paid for by the blood of Christ. That’s grace. That’s generosity isn’t it?
In our prayer of confession week in and week out we make that point, we deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. As we say in the Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer, we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. And yet God gives us His grace. He gives us His Son, bleeding for our sin on the cross, rising on Easter that we could live forever. What a blessing! What generosity! After all, that’s what this about, isn’t it? God’s generosity.
In fact, to make this a bit tangible, I was talking to our confirmands a few weeks ago and I asked them a question: what is more comforting? Is it more comforting for someone to tell you they love you because you’ve earned their love, or is it more comforting for someone to tell you that they love you even though they shouldn’t? And of course our natural response is to say that love that we earned is more comforting. After all, I did what was needed to be done, and they love me because they know me, and they know all the good stuff about me. But what happens when they learn all the bad stuff about me? Then the real love has to come through. And that’s the love God speaks to us: I don’t love you because you’re good—you’re not—I love you because I’m good. Christians, what comfort. If it’s up to me to earn God’s love, then I have a fear I can lose it. But when I realize that God loves me because of His goodness, what security I have in that! I can be free, I don’t have to worry that I’ll mess it up! What comfort. And this is His grace, His generosity to us in Jesus. His generosity that He wants to give to all in Jesus.
As I say that though, I think in many ways when we think about this passage, we grasp that to an extent. I think we grasp that especially in application to others, which is the big part of that. After all, Jesus is speaking to the works righteous Pharisees here. He’s speaking to those who think they can earn this favor of the landowner, of God, by their obedience and good works. But I think we get that pretty well in our context.
After all, I don’t think we really trouble with the thought that someone would convert on their deathbed. I think for the most part we celebrate the thought that someone who never really believed would be like the thief on the cross and having no opportunity to earn anything by good works, would still be able to hear those words: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I think we generally appreciate stories like that, don’t we?
But we still begrudge God His generosity, don’t we? We don’t like the idea of God not giving equally. We don’t like the idea that Jesus didn’t heal every leper in the towns that He visited. Or in a concrete aspect that I hear people often questioning, we don’t like the idea that there could be some in the world who don’t hear and so don’t go to heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad that we should want people to go to heaven. I heard it said recently that there’s an aspect where as Christians we should want to think that everyone might end up in heaven because of the sacrifice of Jesus. And I think we can say on a personal level we should be able to identify with that. But the trouble comes when someone doubts God and His goodness because of it. Or it’s even more trouble when someone chooses not to believe in the God who reveals Himself in Jesus and the Scripture because of it. At that point, we’re telling God what to do with His mercy. At that point we’re not trusting that God is good. And to that, I have to say when you wrestle with that, don’t look at what seems unfair. Look at Jesus and know that God is good, and that He has loved the lost even more than you have. In fact, look at that as an opportunity to pray for the confession of the word throughout the world. Look at it as motivation to profess your faith to those around you and to pray for opportunities to love people and tell them about Jesus that they would hear and be saved. But don’t begrudge God His generosity. That’s one way we can apply this.
Another is to realize that we also begrudge God His generosity when we suffer in this life. The devil always wants us to look at what God has given to others and how we don’t deserve the trials we have as much as the really bad people do. And as I say this, I say it knowing some people of whose trials I am very empathetic toward them and they have confessed this to me. So I don’t say this coldly. I say it addressing how we have to view this. For example, I think of one person I would have conversations with. We’ll call him Bill. Bill would say to me, “I’m a good person, why is God doing this to me? I love people, I have a heart for them, why is this happening?” In other words, Bill found himself in a trial and wondering why God gave it to him and not to the thief, or the rapist, or the murderer. Why in God’s generosity did He bless those people who do evil things and not Bill? And here is where the danger is. When we start to compare ourselves when the bad things happen, then we think it’s because of something we’ve done. That’s Bill, “What did I do that God put this on me?” So that’s what we have to watch, how we have to apply this: not to begrudge God His generosity when we suffer.
And how can we do that? If you’re in that suffering, you have to know that God gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, so you can’t answer why you’re in that trial and not someone else. But in Jesus, then you have to know that it comes from His love for you. That might seem odd to say, but that’s what we see in the cross. The grace, the generosity we see on the cross. On the cross we see the One who made Himself last in His generosity so that in His Kingdom, we might be made first. On the cross we see that we are those who are the eleven o’clock workers no matter how much of our lives we’ve been Christians. On the cross, we see God’s grace. And then we see the comfort of that grace. It’s given to us that we might cling to it and to God in all things. And then we might know that it’s ours. He gives it again and again and again: in baptism, in His Word, in His Supper. Grace for you, generously. The best kind that can’t’ be taken away. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read.
As we see the disciples coming up the mountain with Jesus, and we see Jesus transfigured before them, shining like the sun in their presence, I often try to imagine what that must have been like for them. I mean what an amazing experience right? Can you picture that? This man whom you know to be pious and amazingly wise taking you up on the mountain and shining? It would be amazing. Of course, then the cloud appears, and the voice of God comes from the cloud saying that this is His beloved Son! Like Peter says, they were eyewitnesses to that! They saw it. But then what happened? Matthew says that the disciples fell on their faces in fear. Now I can imagine that seeing all of this would easily evoke any number of involuntary responses. But what’s at the heart of the fear? They are in the presence of God. This is the God who is holy. The God who calls them to be holy; Who says, “be holy as I am holy.” And yet no matter how holy we think ourselves in our day to day lives, or as I’ll talk about more in a minute, no matter how much holiness isn’t a category that dwells much in our daily thought processes, when that reality strikes us that we’re standing before God, or that we will be standing before God, it evokes a fear. It evokes the realization of just how unholy we are.
But of course, we don’t talk about holiness much in our culture. We barely talk about what is sacred. And what is sacred? Here we are celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, but what’s the “real” high feast today? It’s Super Bowl Sunday, right? It’s the day everyone gathers around the altar of their television and they pay homage to the demigods who battle one another in the arena. They assemble with great effort the sacrifices of their feasts. That’s sacred now. Or what else is sacred? Sports are sacred, in many ways having taken the place of the community of the Church gathered around her Lord, but the realm of feelings is sacred too, isn’t it? You can’t tell someone that something they’re feeling might be wrong. Do you feel a certain way? That’s always to be supported. Do you feel like you should leave your wife to marry your mistress? It must be right. Do you feel like God’s even calling you to do that? He must be. It’s sacred.
Now to be clear as I say that, feelings aren’t inherently evil—we should realize how deceiving they can be, but they’re not inherently evil. I say that often of how emotional the love our God shows to us in Christ makes me. It should. But that feeling must only be trusted when it is created by the Word, or at the least doesn’t contradict it. Likewise, watching the Super Bowl isn’t wrong. We’ll be having food and watching it too in our family. It’s fun. It just can’t replace the true God. But hopefully you see the point, these things are sacred in our day. But we don’t understand holiness.
And yet we see that our God is holy. We see that as Moses stepped into His presence on that mountain. And as I say that, I hope you note the connection here. We have Moses on the mountain, God revealing Himself to him there, just as we have Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration revealing Himself to the disciples, interesting with Moses appearing with Him—and Elijah too, which is important. But there’s Moses, if you recall he’d run away from Egypt having killed the Egyptian who was mistreating the Israelites. He’d gone off and married his wife, the daughter of Jethro that we heard about. Now he’s tending Jethro’s flock and there he is on the mountain, when God appears! And what does God say? Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And what does Moses do? He hides His face. There is holiness, and so He hides.
So as we see this, then, we ask: what does this mean that God is holy? Well, Merriam Webster says it well when it says that to be holy means to be: “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” That’s God isn’t it? Worthy of complete devotion as One who is perfect in goodness and righteousness. God is perfectly good. He is perfectly righteous. He is set apart as the Hebrew word for holy has at it’s root. He is cut apart from all other things because He is good and right.
In view of that I can’t help but think about some of the presentations I heard at the symposia I went to last week. We talked about atonement, about Jesus’ work as atoning, and what that meant. And as the presenters talked about that, they made the point that you see the picture of what Jesus did in the Old Testament. Now, many of you probably have some idea, but that being a vague idea, of the sacrifices in the Old Testament. You see, what would happen in that tabernacle, in the Temple then in Jesus’ day, is that the priest would have the “Divine Service” so to speak daily. Morning and evening he would sacrifice offerings. Among those were the offerings of animals. A lamb in the morning and a lamb in the evening. They would be offered for the sins of the people. And here there’s a glimpse, a foreshadowing of what Jesus did, the perfect Lamb of God. But what is this actually? Why this sacrifice?
Well, I heard this explained as doing two things. First propitiation. This was a satisfaction. There was wrong and that wrong had to be righted, paid for. Just like if I borrow your car and wreck it, I need to pay for it, so also sin requires a payment. What is that payment? A life. Specifically, the Bible says blood. The life is in the blood, so blood atonement is required. Why? Sin causes death and so life has to be given. Second is expiation; cleansing. Sin taints what it touches. If you sin, you are tainted and need cleansing. If you are sinned against you are tainted and need cleansing. Expiation. And both of those are explained by God’s holiness.
God is good so He can’t just wave a wand and pretend like the wrong against Him of sin didn’t happen. Likewise, He’s pure, He can’t stand in the presence of the impurity of sin. His holiness will destroy whatever it touches that isn’t holy. Hence the fear.
But as I say all of this, something that struck me as I was hearing this was what I’ve been saying: we don’t think about God in these terms. We just sort of think about Him as this mushy love God. But it all comes back to this and should be understood in relation to it. How we enter into His presence should be grounded in that understanding. And so I was trying to figure out how we can make this connection. How can we understand this? Sure there’s this inherent knowledge that we have, but how do we connect to that in a way that can be grasped.
One of the presenters, though made a great connection; actually a Biblical one: the conscience. You see when you feel guilty it’s because there’s a realization that you’ve been tainted. When you’ve been sinned against and there’s a sense of shame, or violation, or of just “blech,” you realize you’ve been tainted. And that’s where this Jesus comes and He cleanses it.
You see something that’s neat with the Old Testament sacrifices, they would do these offerings morning and evening every day, and in between the priests would take additional sacrifices that people brought, and they would sacrifice them on the altar in front of the tent. But then on the Day of Atonement, a special sacrifice would be made. On that day, the priest would go into the Holy of Holies, the most Holy Place, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was, and he would put blood on that Ark. Then he would take some of that same blood and bring it out to the altar where these sacrifices had been made day in and day out. And what God gave in that action was a picture: this is what Jesus would do. As we bring the tainting of our sin, as we bring the shame of sins that people commit against us, as we dump all of that upon Him, He brings His blood, that blood poured out not on an altar of bronze, but on the cross of Calvary, He brings that blood and He satisfies the justice it requires. He brings that blood and He cleanses the impurity of it so that it’s gone. If you compare it to the car wrecked, the wreck has been paid for. If you compare it to dirt on your skin, you are now perfectly clean. It’s done and it’s paid for.
And He brings this to you in the cleansing waters of baptism, where you’re joined to the promise of New Life in His resurrection. He speaks that comforting and cleansing Word, the Word that makes you holy as He is holy. And He feeds you with His body given, His life, given in place of yours, and His blood shed for you is the drink He gives you, so that you are clean. Christians, what a comfort. Your conscience can now be relieved. You don’t have to bear the guilt, you can know that your shame is gone. It’s covered over by Jesus. Paid for by Him, cleansed by Him.
Now as I say all of that, you might be wondering what this has to do with this whole thing of Jesus and the Transfiguration. Well, first of all, as we see Jesus shining as this Holy God on that mountain, we see that He is the Holy God then who took on this unholiness of sin. What an amazing thing!! Do you see it?!! That’s the greatest mystery of the whole Christian faith. Sure we marvel at the Trinity, that God could be One God, but still be three Persons. That’s a mystery. We marvel that Jesus could be both God and man. That’s a mystery. But most mysterious of all is that He, in His holiness, took upon Himself to carry unholy sin to the cross. That’s showing itself in the Transfiguration.
But the other thing, I think is beautiful. I was struck by it this week as I studied this passage; I hadn’t it caught before. When the terrifying voice of God comes, He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” And on the one hand I had always thought this meant we should listen to all that Jesus said. And of course it does mean that. It means hear every word you can from this blessed man, God in the flesh. But look at the first word Jesus speaks to Peter, James, and John after the Father says this. Here there’s been this cloud, this voice, this fear, and what happens? Jesus comes and Matthew says He “touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’”
Peter, James, and John, listen to this One, the One who says, “Rise, and have no fear.” Christian, you listen to this One who says, “Rise, and have no fear.” Listen to Him. When your conscience feels the burden of your sin, when you feel terrible about your standing before this Holy God because of it, “Rise, and have no fear.” When you’ve committed what you think of as a whopper of a sin, “Rise, and have no fear.” When you feel like you can’t come before God in prayer because of sin, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when others violate your conscience, when they harm you and sin against you, “Rise, and have no fear.” You are baptized, absolved, washed and fed in the holiness of Jesus. Have no fear. This God has made you holy. He loves you and has borne unholiness upon Himself for you. “Rise, and have no fear.” Amen.