Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (St. Matthew 20:15-16).
Today marks the beginning of this year’s long journey to Easter, and to prepare us for this pilgrimage, the church’s lectionary has presented us with Epistle and Gospel readings that create a necessary tension in our pursuit of holiness. In 1 Corinthians 9, St. Paul compares the Christian life to a race with eternal consequences. This race is so important that all participants must train their physical bodies with the same rigor as an Olympic athlete—Paul included. This saint who was converted by Jesus Himself is confident of his ultimate salvation, but even he wards off complacency and presumptuousness through prayer and fasting: the means by which we show ourselves what it looks like to be a disciple under discipline. In the simple bluntness of Scripture, the parts of us that rebel against praying and fasting are evil and weak, and we assist the Holy Spirit in His mission to purify and strengthen our hearts by putting our bodies under His authority. To use a modern analogy: to become fit we do what our physical trainer tells us to do. And, as St. Paul reminds us, we do these spiritual exercises in a physical way for a prize that is incorruptible rather than corruptible. For St. Paul, taking time out of our lives to work out or watch the news or read the paper or study for an exam or practice for sports or any other worthy pursuit provides us with a perishable prize that will decay just like everything else in this fallen world but spending time in prayer and fasting (and other forms of spiritual/physical self-discipline) prepares us to receive an imperishable prize of eternal life in a new world set free from pain and injustice and death. Undoubtedly, we Americans are much better at the pursuit of happiness than we are at the pursuit of holiness, but that just makes us very much like the Gentiles the Apostle Paul was addressing in the first place, and it also means that the cure for our unholiness, dare I say, ‘evil,’ is the same remedy St. Paul gave 2,000 years ago: we are to pursue holiness as if our very lives depended on it. We need this life or death pep-talk as we prepare for another season of spiritual training, another season to prepare our hearts and souls and bodies for the spiritual warfare we participate in every day. If we find ourselves losing these battles, or—God forbid—not caring about them, then leaning into the spiritual disciplines Christ’s church provides is the only answer. The fallen world will not help us become more holy; it will not help us assassinate the idols in our lives because our enemy has corrupted our world into an idol producing factory, but St. Paul is running just ahead of us, and he challenges us to take the torch from his hand and continue running until we are wrapped forever in the flag of Christ’s victory.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel which is really an answer to an earlier question from St. Peter. In chapter 19, Jesus is confronted by a rich young man who asks him, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ (St. Matthew 19:16). Jesus tells Him to keep the commandments, and when the wealthy young man responds—rather quickly—that he does keep all the commandments, Jesus instructs him to give all that he has to the poor and join His disciples. The rich young man walked away sorrowful, unable to follow the Lord’s command, unable to love eternal things more than the decaying things gathering dust in his home. Referring back to today’s epistle, one of the goals of disciplining the body through spiritual exercises and self-denial is so that we don’t read chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s Gospel and walk away sad like that rich young ruler—unable to serve the Lord rather than ourselves. If Jesus did walk in here right now and demand that you or I sell all that we have and follow Him, would we be able to drop everything and go? This is the haunting question of chapter 19, and the only way we know the answer is to look at our own lives and see where we have said, ‘Yes,’ to God and where we have said, ‘Yes,’ to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The only way to know is through the race St. Paul is challenging us to run: a race of outward facing self-denial and gratuitous worship.
St. Peter, God bless him, responds to the sad departure of the rich young man by saying, ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? (St. Matthew 19:27). Jesus tells Him that in the new world Peter and the other apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel, and ‘…everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life’ (St. Matthew 19:29). The future Jesus promises for His faithful servants is more amazing than anything we can imagine, and this pronouncement from our Lord seems to work on a measure of fairness we can recognize in our redeemed yet fallen state. It seems that if I run the race with St. Paul and give up my idols like St. Peter then I will be rewarded with eternal life. We can wrap our heads around this idea of justice; a justice in which I get what I deserve. All this makes sense, even if it is a bit terrifying as we imagine what that will mean for our lives. It all makes sense until we hear today’s parable that comes immediately after Christ’s promise of the new earthly rewards for faithful service and sacrifice. The parable begins where it ends, ‘But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ (St. Matthew 19:30).
The parable tells the tale of the master of a vineyard who hires laborers at the beginning of the day with the agreement that they would receive a denarius (a generous day’s wage). As the day progresses, the master goes out into the markets hiring more laborers, including those whom no one would hire, and at the end of the day he pays each man the same wage: the agreed upon denarius. Those who had been working since the beginning of the day get angry with the master because they expected to be paid more than those who came later. The master responds to what seems to be a quite reasonable mutiny by asking two questions: ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ and ‘…do you begrudge my generosity?’ (St. Matthew 20:15-16). These questions get to the heart of the matter and show us just how much we have to learn from God about justice and love and fairness.
The first question, ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me’ is a deeply theological one. Given what we know from chapter 19, the master represents God, the laborers are those whom God has called out from the world, and the denarius is the abundant eternal life lived in the resurrected earth to come. Jesus is showing that eternal life is His to dispense as He sees fit: that God does not negotiate contracts; He makes covenants. And thankfully for us, the covenant between God and Abraham established all the way back in Genesis 15—a promise that God would save the world through Abraham’s seed—is happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6, ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). Salvation, the future of the human race, the happy ending of our mad rebellion against our Creator, belongs to Christ because He earned it by dying on the cross in our place for our sins. To complain at all to the Master when He has given us everything, even after we buried Him alive with the wages of our sins, is to see just how deeply sin has corrupted our hearts. That feeling we get when we hear this parable and think to ourselves, ‘Maybe the workers who worked harder should get paid more,’ that feeling is the world’s values—values that have been made irrelevant by Christ. Jesus Christ did more for our salvation while taking a nap than you or I will ever do with our labor, for His entire 33 year existence amidst our man-made squalor was the greatest act of self-denial and humiliation imaginable, and He took it all because God keeps His promises; He keeps his covenants no matter how much we ungrateful workers don’t deserve it. This new justice made real thorough the loving sacrifice of Christ is the greatest possible news, but it shouldn’t flatter us. It shouldn’t drive us to think ourselves better than our neighbors; it should drive us to greater and greater acts of loving sacrifice for God and others. It should be the core of our new beating heart as we run our race behind St. Paul—immune to death and peril, laughing at the now powerless threats of men and devils. When God asks, ‘Am I allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ Our only answer is, ‘Yes, do with me as you will, for I belong to Him who has saved me from the utter darkness of my own sinful heart. I am yours, and I will work in your vineyard for as long as you will have me.’
So, how then do we answer the second question, ‘…do you begrudge my generosity?’ The very human answer is, ‘Yes, we do.’ I’ll prove it to you. Last week, an eighteen year old named Gavin Smith was convicted for fatally shooting his mother, stepfather, and two brothers — the youngest of whom was hiding under his crib — after his parents forbade him from seeing his girlfriend. It is difficult for us to even imagine the horror this young monster unleashed upon his own family while casually chatting online. But, it is here, in contemplating the disgusting evil of this young man that we feel the sting of our Lord’s second question. Can we believe in a Gospel big enough to save Gavin Smith? Can we believe in a cross big enough for this beast sentenced to life imprisonment? Would we be happy or angry to see this man’s face in the new earth to come? From what I’ve seen, most people, including the judge overseeing the case, are hoping that this man be tortured in prison, but is that right? Is the brutal, unlawful torture of a human being the justice Christ died to establish? Did our Lord die that we might revel in the suffering of another person? Or, did He die that those comfortable words we repeat every week might be made real? ‘This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received. That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Tim. 1:15), and ‘If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the Propitiation [the wrath satisfying sacrifice] for our sins’ (1 St. John 2:1-2). Do we want that to be true for Gavin Smith, or is forgiveness only for us? Does he get the denarius, or is it only for us?
The Christians answer to that question must be, ‘Yes.’ Let there be no doubt that judgment will run down as the waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream to make right what this evil man made wrong but let us have no doubt that the Gospel of Christ extends grace and hope where none should be found. Christ has already faced the death and darkness of our sin on the Cross, and so we should have no doubt that the death and darkness of our wounded hearts and wills are already defeated combatants in a war that is already won.
Let us then run our race, but let that race always lead us to the cross, for it is only there that we will find the peace that passeth all understanding and the righteous loving justice of our God and King.