Matthew 20:1-16 – Higher Thoughts, Equal Grace

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Matthew 20:1-16

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some worked a full shift – twelve hours. Some worked nine hours. Some six and three. And some were called when there was only one hour of work left. By the time they got to the vineyard, all the other workers were putting the spades and shovels and buckets away because it was time to get paid. But it didn’t matter when the laborers got to the vineyard. They all received the same – one denarius, one full day’s wage.

This is not the way the world works, and it shouldn’t be the way the world works. Even the Scriptures say this isn’t how this world works, “If anyone is unwilling to work, do not let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Wherever this is tried in a business or forced through politics, it fails. Businesses and governments cannot afford to pay people who don’t work.

If people work one hour and get paid as much as those who work twelve, no one will work more than an hour. And if people aren’t working to keep the business going, there won’t be a business. And if there is no business, there is no one to pay workers, and there are a lot more hungry families in the world.

But Jesus isn’t telling us about how this world works or how this world should work. Jesus is teaching us about the kingdom of heaven. This is how the gracious and merciful God runs things. And the way God chooses to do things is so high above us that we cannot understand it. God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts or ways. They are higher thoughts and higher ways. Joyfully and mercifully so.

But you can see, can’t you, what those who were hired at the beginning of the day were doing. They see the bums who came just in time for pay-day receiving their denarius and the minds start racing. The ones who are terrible at math are trying to calculate. “He did one hour of work and got one denarius. I worked twelve. That’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 (take off a shoe) 11, 12 denarii.” The ones who are better at math are taking out their cell phones and calling their wives to go buy steak and lobster for supper because daddy’s coming home with a big paycheck.

But when that one coin gets dropped in their hand, they are frustrated. The frustration turns to anger. The anger turns to bitterness. And the bitterness turns to a false idea of what is right and just. “Hey, boss, you’re a lousy dude. You are giving those bums more than they deserve. We worked the whole day in the heat and dirt, and you’ve made them equal to us. This is not right. This is not fair. This is not just.”

Christian, you and I fall into the same trap as those hired at the beginning of the day. We think we have earned or deserved more than what God has given us. When we start to focus on what we do not have, we forget that everything we have is a benevolent gift from God.

God doesn’t owe you anything. You are, all of us are, sinners. We see God’s grace every day as He makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, the good and the evil. Every good thing – coffee, padded chairs, a pair of socks, and a soft tissue to blow your nose – all of it is an undeserved gift from God’s mercy. The worst existence on earth is better than what we deserve in hell.

When you see God being gracious and giving someone more than they deserve, do not grumble and tell God that He is unfair or unjust.

Repent. Repent and be thankful.

Listen to what the master says to those who grumbled, “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 (lit. ‘Is your eye evil because I am good?)?”

In the end, those who worked the whole day got exactly what they bargained for. They agreed for a denarius, and a denarius, they got. And that is all they will ever get because they are sent away from the vineyard.

There are all sorts of vineyards where you can get exactly what you deserve. There is only one vineyard and one vineyard owner who is generous and merciful. If you don’t like it, then take what is yours and go.

That is the saddest truth of all. Those who believe God owes them will get exactly what God owes them, judgment and expulsion from His presence. The kingdom of heaven is about grace that works by raising the dead – not by rewarding the rewardable. If you don’t like it, you can take what is yours and leave.

Our parable today depicts grace as undeserved wages. Workers get paid for work that they did not do. And, believer, so do you. You have not done the work of keeping God’s Law. What God has demanded of you, you have not done, but you get treated as though you have. Jesus has borne the heat of the day, and you get His wages. We are those who are hired at the eleventh hour. God be praised, and may we never forget that.

And because of the mercy and grace of God, you are no longer workers being overpaid. By the grace of God in Christ, you are members of the kingdom, children of God, and brothers and sisters of Christ. You remain with Him. Not only do you get paid generously, you also get to remain in the vineyard because His ways of mercy and love are higher than the heavens are above the earth. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Matthew 18:21-35 – It’s Settled

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Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Wasn’t it necessary that you should have mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Peter isn’t being stingy when he asks Jesus if he should forgive his neighbor seven times. Imagine having a relative who has been addicted to drugs, but he comes to you and says, “I’m getting my life in order. I’m done getting high. I’ve got a job. Can you loan me $750 for the security deposit on this apartment?” You loan him the money but before the weekend comes, he’s been arrested, again, for drugs, again, and kicked out of his apartment, again.

He gets out, and says, “Ok this time, I mean it. I’m getting my life together. I just need a security deposit for a new apartment.” Does he even get to finish his speech? Do you loan him another $750? How about when he asks a third time? You probably don’t do it seven times like Peter benevolently suggests. And it is pure insanity to do it seventy-seven times like Jesus says.

We are just like Peter. We know that we should be forgiving, and maybe we even want to be forgiving. But deep down we also want to know, we need to know, what the limits are. When can I quit being nice? When do I finally get justice? When can I stop loving my neighbor?

The whole point of the parable is that neither Peter, nor the servant, nor you, nor I can forgive someone enough times to say, “I’ve done all I need to with regard to forgiveness. Check that off my list.” The point of the parable is that the king, God, wants to settle accounts by forgiveness not by collection.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” Notice, Jesus does not say, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to collect what was owed him by his debtors.” Immediately, there is a clue of what is going to happen. The king wants clean books, zero balances.

When a debtor comes who owes 10,000 talents… Now, a talent isn’t an exact sum of money. Sometimes, one talent can mean 20 years’ wages for a laborer meaning this owes 200,000 years’ worth of work. Sometimes a talent means 75 lbs. of gold (I checked Thursday, 75 lbs. of gold was just under $1.5M, so take that times 10,000). When someone owes you 10,000 talents, that massive amount of debt, how are you going to settle the account?

It’s clear that nothing can be done to get this account to zero. The guy doesn’t have the money. Even if he, his wife, his children, his house, and everything he has are sold, it doesn’t make a dent. So the man falls on his knees and asks – for patience. But patience wouldn’t do this servant any good; a thousand lifetimes isn’t enough time. And patience doesn’t do the king any good; he wants the accounts settled.

So instead of patience, the king gives mercy. The debt is forgiven. The servant is declared to be out of the red and into the black. In other words, the king pays the debt for him.

The servant, let’s call him Vinnie, leaves. And, instead of being filled with gratitude and joy, he sees Chuck, his buddy, who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage, so we’re talking about 3 months’ wages (say between $10 – $15 thousand). With his hands around Chuck’s throat, Vinnie demands that Chuck pay up. Chuck asks for patience, just like Vinnie had. And even though Vinnie had just received mercy for this impossible debt, Vinnie doesn’t give Chuck the very thing he requested from the king. Not even patience.

How could this happen? How is it possible? Well, Vinny didn’t appreciate the mercy that had been given to him. He didn’t see what he received was merciful. He didn’t think he really had a debt. He thought his situation was still manageable. In his mind, given enough time and patience, he would have gotten it together on his own. Vinnie would have probably said that the king was a good guy, but little more. In Vinnie’s mind, his freedom and righteousness were his own, a product of his doing – or at least they would have been. He would have paid.

This parable, because it is arguably the epitome of parables showing the nature and character of God’s grace and mercy, contains a dire warning for us.

In the kingdom of God, you are beggars. You were guilty and could not dig your way out no matter how much time you were given. Even more, you were dead, and how do dead people pay bills? You and I, we need mercy. And in Christ, mercy is exactly what we have. Because of Christ’s payment on the cross, we have been declared innocent, alive, beloved.

Never say, “I can’t forgive him/her for what they did.” Don’t say that. At least, be honest, “I don’t want to forgive him/her for what they did.” Then, you can confess your sin of unforgiveness.

Also this parable reminds us (just as we were reminded in our Epistle lesson (Ro. 14:1-12) that each one of us will give an account of ourselves to God (v. 12). So, ask yourself, “What am I doing with what God has given me?” What has God given me? Think about it. Life. Planet to live on. House. Family. Health (even if it ain’t what you wish it is). Knowledge. Food. Mercy. Forgiveness. Reconciliation with Himself.

Now flip the question: What do I have that God has not given me? And really think about this: God the Father who created you, God the Son who redeemed you, and God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you, what do you have that you haven’t received from Him? Sin.

And God has taken that from you. He’s stolen it. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world bore your sin on the cross that you might die to sin and live to righteousness (Jn. 1:29, 1 Pet. 2:24).

So, what are we to do? Should we not have mercy on our neighbor as God has had mercy upon us (Mt. 18:33)? How about our congregation? How can we be a beacon in this community of the mercy of Christ the King? Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Matthew 18:1-20 – Greatness

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Matthew 18:1-20

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.

6 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.

12 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Great men and women do great things. They contribute, make a difference, and have an influence. Great businessmen create thousands of jobs, build huge companies, and make billions of dollars. Great politicians get reelected, climb higher in office, and change the course of history so that we learn about them in textbooks. Great athletes set records, win championships, create dynasties, and get elected into the Hall of Fame.

Great people don’t just live in this world, they change the world. The greater you are, the more power and influence you have. In the thinking of this world that is greatness.

But what about the kingdom of heaven? In the kingdom where the last are first, and the first wind up dead last (Mt. 19:30), what does greatness look like there?

Jesus calls a child into their midst and says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus makes this child an example – be like this. But then, Jesus goes even farther than that. Jesus makes this child the pinnacle of Christian greatness. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

And ever since Jesus said this, we Christians have been ignoring it. We take a quick gawk at the cuteness and littleness of a child and go, “Aw,” then go about trying to make ourselves great by climbing up a spiritual ladder.

In just a few chapters, the disciples will argue about who will sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in His kingdom (Mt. 20:20-22). Paul wrote letters to the Corinthian and the Galatian churches because they were fighting over what made a believer great. In the middle ages, some would go live in a monastery and model their life after this or that saint. Today in the church, you are great by overcoming your Goliaths, living your best life now as though every day is a Friday, making sure it is purpose driven.

But none of these man-made ladders make you greater in the kingdom of heaven. The higher you climb, the greater your achievements, the further from the Gospel you are.

Again, Jesus says, “Unless you turn and become like children, don’t worry about being great, you won’t even enter the kingdom of heaven.” Little children don’t point to their resume and expect a promotion. Little children don’t hand God a bill, “See all my good works, I believe You owe me.” The things you would point at to prove that you are a good, great Christian are the very things that will condemn you to hell. Repent.

Greatness is not something you earn. Greatness is something Jesus gives.

Imagine the child in this text. (Now, the Greek doesn’t actually indicate if the child is a boy or girl like the ESV does. I’m going to go with a girl because that would have been even more surprising in Jesus’ day.)

Jesus calls a little child to Him. Imagine her barely able to walk. She’s dusty, dirty, and diapered. Her dad hovers over her as she grasps his pinkies to stable herself as she waddles up to Jesus. Jesus put her on his lap and says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

What greatness did she have? What had she done for God? Nothing really. She came when Jesus called and received the honor and blessing Jesus gave. You too today. You have come to this place where Jesus has called you. You have received the blessing of His Word and the absolution that He gives to you. This is what makes you great.

Don’t despise the little ones. Don’t cause them to sin, to stumble and fall away. Bring them, and yourself, to Jesus to hear His Word and delight in it. If they go lost, do everything to seek them out. Go search for them and find them. If they sin, call them to repentance to restore them. That means telling people their fault. And that can be hard. But listen to what Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

If you agree that a particular sin needs forgiveness and ask God, He forgives. And where two or three of you are gathered together in Jesus’ name, there He is. Jesus, the greatest of all because He became the servant of all, present with the you, little ones. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Romans 12:9-21 – Take Up Your Cross

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Romans 12:9-21

9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You know how different versions of the Bible will put headings over portions of Scripture? The ESV titles this portion as “Marks of the True Christian.” Thirteen verses. Depending on how you count, twenty-six rules to follow. So look over the text again. How do you measure up?

Is your love genuine? Do you abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good? Do you outdo others in showing honor? Do you bless those who persecute you? Do you live in harmony with others and peaceably with all? Do you feed your enemy, and give him something to drink? Do you overcome evil with good? Are you a “True Christian”?

If I’m honest, texts like this make me doubt if I can call myself a Christian. Maybe, you are like me.

Let’s consider the options: I could take the commands in this text and make a list of the areas where I need to improve. Start with the one where I’m worst off. Improve there, and work my way down the list. That would be my first option.

But that always leads to lowering the bar. Rather than my love being genuine, I put on a show of love because I get tired of trying to be genuine. And shouldn’t actions count more than attitude? Instead of living at peace with all, I live at peace with those I like. I mean the text says, “if it is possible.” But I use that phrase as a trump card. “Some people are impossible to please, so why bother even trying? It’s their fault.” But God isn’t fooled by my sham love and peace.

The second option when I doubt if I am a “true Christian,” rather than getting upset and bothered at how poorly I do, I can just look at you and take comfort in the fact that at least I do better than you. You know the joke: You don’t have to run faster than a bear, you just have to run faster than the guy next to you.

 

But what if the Law is a bear that doesn’t stop after eating the guy slower than you? What if the Law picks up your scent and keeps coming until it finds you. That is, in fact, what the Law does. In our Gospel text (Mt. 16:21-28), Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (v. 27). Neither of those options – neither self-improvement nor comparing myself to others – offer any comfort or escape.

The problem with both of those options is that you aren’t letting the Law do what God intends it to do. Romans 5:20 says, “The Law came in to increase the trespass.” Rather than trying harder and working more to prove that you are a Christian, you need to die to your works and efforts to save yourself. Listen to what Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25). Repent.

Repent of trying to save your life as you know it. Instead of trying to save your life, you are free to die to sin. Believer, your old self was crucified with Jesus in order that your body of sin might be brought to nothing so that you would no longer be enslaved to sin (Ro. 6:6). Because Jesus has suffered, died, and risen again, you who are joined to Him will rise as well.

So you are free to deny yourself, to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Listen to what God says of you, Romans 8:1 says it as clearly as possible, “There is therefore no condemnation for [you] who are in Christ Jesus.” You are free to be the forgiven, righteous, holy person that God declares you are because you are in Christ.

You are free from the Law because you belong to Jesus, the One who died to the Law so that you might bear fruit to God (Ro. 7:4-6).

What does that fruit look like? Well, it looks just like this text describes it. Who would you say that this text best describes? Hopefully, your answer is Jesus. Christ is all those things. Christ’s love is genuine. He abhors what is evil and holds fast to what is good. Jesus was not slothful in zeal. He rejoiced with those who rejoice, and wept with those who wept. He did not avenge Himself. When His enemies were hungry, He gave them to eat; when they were thirsty, He gave them to drink. Christ was not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good.

Because this is all true of Christ, it is also true of you. This is how you are already in Christ. When God looks at you, this is how He sees you. And the reason you don’t see more of this going on in your life is because your flesh, the old Adam, gets in the way. So it is good to have this text as a constant reminder before your eyes as you take up your cross and follow after Jesus.

Jesus is here once again to overcome your evil with the goodness of His love, forgiveness, and mercy by giving you His Body and His Blood. He feeds you, strengthens you, and supplies all you need so that you are not overcome by evil, but so that you overcome evil with good. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.