Sunday, September 18, 2011

14th Sunday after Pentecost - September 18, 2011

If you had to boil today’s parable down to a line it might be this, “Yes, my dear disciples, you have been chosen to inherit eternal life by God himself, but don’t get fat heads about it.”  That is the long and the short of it, the Gospel and the Law all rolled into one sentence.  “Yes you have been chosen; don’t be fat heads.  Don’t pat yourselves on the back too hard.”

Now this would make for a rather short sermon.  And I’m not opposed to that.  But maybe I should explain just a little bit.

In order to see the situation clearly, we need to take a step back.  [This is often the case, by the way.  Context means a lot in the Bible.]  If you all had Bibles I would tell you to open them to Matthew chapter 19, verse 23.  And you would find this, “’It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’  When the disciples heard this they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” 

So this is the context, Jesus is teaching the disciples about how someone gets saved.  And he says something astonishing to them.  He says that rich people, the very people whom God has blessed the most, as any clear thinking individual could see, these rich people can’t get into heaven.  It is as if Jesus has said, “Nobody who gets baptized and goes to church is going to heaven.”  What he says seems like absolute crazy talk to the disciples.  And so they say, “Then who can be saved?”  “If the people whom God has blessed can’t get in, where does that leave the rest of us?  Gulp.” 

And Jesus answers, “For man it is impossible, but with God anything is possible.”  Translation, “It isn’t the individual who decides; it is God who decides.”

Well, at this point, the disciples are feeling a bit insecure about things.  And so one of the disciples speaks up [Can you guess which one?], “Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?”  “Lord, do you mean to say that after leaving our careers and families and walking all over the country with you, we’re going to end up on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates?”  Peter and the disciples are pretty worried at this point.  They’ve had their lives turned upside down by this Jesus character and they’re not even going to get into heaven?

Jesus moves quickly to reassure them, “At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”

Jesus knows how much they need some reassurance and he gives it to them.  He gives them a lavish promise about sitting on thrones in heaven.  He promises them that they will receive a hundred-fold blessing.

And then he says something peculiar.  “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  And with that, he launches into our parable for today.   The message of the parable is that the reward given to those who have been called is equal.  All of the workers in the vineyard, whether they worked for 12 hours or only one, all of them receive the same reward.  Likewise, all those who have been called by God in baptism will receive the same reward.  

Now this seems almost to contradict what Jesus has just said, that the disciples will receive a special reward: sitting on the thrones on the judgment day.  He has just told them that will receive a unique reward and then he turns around and tells them a parable that shows that their reward will be equal to those who come after them. What is the meaning of this? 

“Yes, my dear disciples, you have been chosen to inherit eternal life by God himself; you need not worry on that score.  But don’t get fat heads about it.  For it is not so much an honor as you think.  In fact, it means that you will work through the heat of the day.  Others will come after you and benefit from this work that you have done and they will receive the same reward.”

To put this in clearer terms, after Jesus died and was raised from the dead, the disciples underwent tremendous persecution.  It was no easy thing to be a Christian.  And what is their reward?  The forgiveness of their sins and eternal life.  Many came after them, including us, who have benefited from this work that they did.  We stand on the shoulders of giants.  And yet we will receive the same reward.  So with this parable, Jesus is reassuring the disciples, but also telling them not to get too full of themselves.  

Clearly we are in a much different position than the disciples were, we have been employed later in the day.  But I think the message is the same for us.  “Yes, we have been chosen to receive a wonderful reward.  Hallelujah for that!  But let’s not get complacent about it.  Our reward is no badge of honor, as if we had earned something that others have not.  Instead, this reward is invitation to work in the vineyard, a calling to do God’s work with the time that we have.  And surely there are others who will come after us.  And their reward will be like ours.  Amen.

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