Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (St. Matthew 20:15)
It’s easy to forget just how blessed we are to have these parables from our Lord—how privileged we are to be healed from the painful ignorance by which sin blinds the children of men to glimpse even through half-opened eyes the glory of our Creator. We see this need even as we are daily assaulted by the most tragic parts of our human condition; for example, the haunting question behind so much human failure and defeat: “How can I know myself if I don’t know my Creator?” Or, put another way, “What purpose does my work or joy or pain hold if I don’t know why I am here?” A cruel and evil god would have left us with no way of knowing him, left us to scream at the sky with nothing but a beautiful and uncaring world to mock us in its silence. What’s strange is how many people long for this uncaring god, how many people forcefully ignore the true God revealing Himself in the person of Jesus Christ so as to go on worshipping the cruel god of their imaginations. Perhaps for them, what we find in today’s parable is just too good to be true, too different from our own experiences to provide the comfort we think we need, but it is the unfairness of the master, the seeming unjustness of his grace which sets apart the true God we find in these pages from the false gods simply telling us what we in our brokenness want to hear, gods worshipped by those who tell us that a cruel, fallen world necessitates a cruel, fallen god, or perhaps, no god at all. But all of that noise is beside the point as Jesus, the divine Word made flesh, is telling us who God is, and what we find is that God is not the most just god or most loving god or even the god who makes the most sense to our wounded minds; no, we find that the Living God is the perfect source of justice and love and reason—the trustworthy champion of human purpose, and we find in Him the very reason we are here.
So then, what specifically do we learn about our Creator from today’s parable: much indeed. First, we see the God, in this master of the vineyard, who goes into the marketplace to find men to bring in His harvest. Jesus’ choice of a vineyard as the setting for this illustration of the Kingdom of God is no accident as going back to the Old Testament we find vineyards as special places of God’s work, most notably as a symbol of an Israelite kingdom planted by God but spoiled by human greed and idolatry. As Isaiah writes, “The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ declares the Lord God of hosts” (Isaiah 3:14-15). Here, we see the grim legacy of Israel’s human rulers who further serve as the Bible’s grand representatives of all the human masters who cause their misruled subjects to long for justice and deliverance, or in the worst of times, rebellion and murder. We can see a powerful contrast between the corrupt rulers of men and the vineyard’s true master who goes out into the world to bring the poor into the work which gives them divine purpose; thereby, securing for them a reward infinitely greater than that won by the earthly rulers who devour the vineyard and spoil the poor. We see it is better to be a poor, day laborer chosen by the master than to be a king or queen, prime minister or president awaiting judgment for misusing the power given to them by God. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh” (St. Luke 6:20-21). Jesus means what He says, and He has come to upend the fallen world and to make His words reality. After all, the same Word which promises victory for the called out poor of the world is the same Word by which the universe was created in the first place. When we hear Jesus speak we are hearing the inevitable voice of certainty: the voice which will always be joy to the oppressed and terror to the oppressor.
We also find in this parable a wonderful treatment of work in the Kingdom of God. Work is seen here not as a punishment or a waste or a thing which must be done to survive, but rather as a gift from the God who owns the vineyard and generously calls men to find purpose in its tending. We are made in the image and likeness of a working, creating God who first told Adam and Eve as our representatives to be fruitful and multiply, filling and governing the earth as just stewards of the gifts of God. Working, caring for children, and tending the earth is at the heart of what it means to be human because our Creator has made us to be reflections of His glory and privileged partners in ruling the universe He created from nothing. But, of course, as in all things this side of the new heaven and new earth, the fall of man makes this great mandate so much harder to accomplish. Work is stressful, children are beautiful barbarians, nature itself fights us as we sweat and toil until dirt is thrown on our coffins. We often speak of what Christ has saved us from; namely, the just wrath of God for all that we have done to ourselves and the world, but we must also remember that the good death of Earth’s perfect prince was also a death to strip futility and frustration from our work in this world and the next. For, if we are called and lifted up by the true God, if we are called by the Creator and source of all being, then we are guaranteed that our work for His kingdom cannot fail—even if we are hunted and murdered, betrayed and ridiculed by all those who tragically believe they own the vineyard. We cannot be defeated because God owns the very ground we walk on: He owns victory as He owns this vineyard, and it is our blessing and privilege to toil until “the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done…”
But, if God owns the vineyard and the victory, then He also decides what victory looks like. And so, we see why the Father would let us rip His Son to shreds—why the Son would volunteer to die in the place of our rebellious race. Jesus saves the world with the Cross to put to death all of our fallen ideas about what victory looks like: to construct a victory only God has the power to claim. Here is why we have a device of torture and execution at the front of our church; why Jesus gives Himself in bread and wine to be united to men and women who deserve death; why we show the Lord’s death again and again and again until He returns in glory. God has come as Man to upend our world because His kingdom is not of this world, and thank God, because only a fool would look at our broken world and say we’re doing just fine: a fool who has accepted death and pain and defeat as the only way things could ever be. Separating ourselves from this comfortable lie is but just one reason why we must run to Word and Sacrament where God the Holy Spirit has promised to unite us more and more with the upending of everything.
We need this union because we can have no doubt in our minds that this great upending will destroy things we hate, but it also will destroy the things we can’t even dream of living without. Just as the workers who looked upon the master as unjust because he dared be generous with those they deemed unworthy of generosity, so too must we be prepared to have all of our fallen understandings of rights and justice be pulverized and burned away by the untamable fire which is God’s love and mercy. We should already know this truth as we sit in His church and prepare to taste the one sacrificed for our sins. Who am I that I dare kneel before the throne of heaven to be healed from the inside out by the God who owes me nothing and gives me everything? Who am I that I should be spared the wrath and destruction I know I deserve? Who am I that the God of the universe should move heaven and earth to share with me the riches of life and joy and peace forever? We are rebellious children, and He is the perfect Father, and so it is in His boundless, overflowing love and generosity that we are who we are—in this life and the next.
Knowing that, who then could possibly care if they were first or last? Who could possible imagine being cheated by the God we see before us today? The only hope for us all is the divine, otherworldly justice we find revealed in the crucified body of the Son of God, revealed in the last psalm on the lips of the martyr, revealed in the tears of the repentant sinner, revealed in the shocked look of the baptized baby and the last Communion feast of the dying saint. Let us then both work and rest in the liberating and convicting generosity of the vineyard’s master who beckons us even now to trust in His victory, to trust that the work we do in His kingdom has eternal value because through Christ we have been given a portion of His eternal glory.