Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Kingdom of Heaven is like… a Transaction?

Commemoration of Timothy, Pastor and Confessor
January 1724 2016
Matthew 20:1–16
For a Lutheran, it just doesn’t seem right. Jesus tells a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven but it seems the opposite of what we’re constantly saying, salvation is by grace alone. The Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be about a man who gives everything to those who are undeserving. It’s not supposed to be about someone making a contract with people, where they do the work and he pays them. The Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be the opposite of a transaction.

But here it is, Jesus Himself giving us this parable in which He seems to be very unLutheran in telling us about God’s eternal Kingdom. What are we to make of this strange parable where the ones who work the whole day get exactly what they agreed to get and the ones who worked only an hour get the same amount as the first guys?

Well, the beauty of a Lutheran understanding of the Scriptures is that it is Lutheran precisely because it takes the words of God as what they are. Lutherans have no need to contort Scripture passages to fit into some sort of Lutheran box. The Scriptures are the Word of God and are the Word of God as a whole. It all fits together. It all interprets itself.

So Jesus isn’t saying here, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like you working and God giving you salvation in return.” What Jesus is doing is showing what the rest of Scripture teaches: the Kingdom of Heaven is given purely by grace. There is a transaction going on in the parable, but to equate that with how you get to heaven misses the point of the parable as well as the rest of Scripture.

What Jesus is inviting us to see here is the grace, the generosity, and even the craziness of what God does. When we see that we begin to see that the Kingdom of Heaven is unlike anything we would imagine. Certainly not anything we could work for or earn.

So what is Jesus doing with this transaction? He is making an assault on our natural tendency to want to earn God’s blessings. If you work hard, you should get more than the lazy bum. If you are a good person you deserve more than the person who doesn’t care much at all about others. But that those who were hired first grumbled when those hired last got exactly the same shows that we just don’t get this whole grace thing.

What does Jesus say to one of the guys who was grumbling? “Is your eye envious because I am generous?” As the people of God we prayed in the Introit, “You save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.” There is no room in the Kingdom of Heaven for earning salvation. Only humility; the recognition that we don’t deserve anything from God. He saves a humble people.

But God loves irony. And I suspect that’s one of the reasons He gave us this parable. It’s not always easy wading into the Scriptures. The Word of God is challenging. In showing us that we cannot earn salvation, that we cannot enter into a transaction with God in order to gain eternal life, God shows us in a twist of irony that His saving us comes about through a transaction.

It works this way. We have not loved God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are born in sin and we continue right along in that sin. We despise the grace of God in our continued sinning. We deserve temporal and eternal punishment. But in His grace He doesn’t enter into a transaction with us. In His eternal grace and love He gives His Son. Jesus takes on the transaction.

He lived life without sin. He lived in compliance with God’s holy will. He had no guilt. This is what God demands and is what Jesus fulfilled. He did this for us. We could not do it, He did this in our place.

He also suffered in our place. He bore our sin, our guilt, our punishment. What we deserve is not reward, what we deserve is eternal damnation. Jesus bore that in our place. The great Transaction of God is that He poured out His wrath on His Son and gave to us full and free forgiveness.

The prayer we prayed in the Collect captures this perfectly and simply: “O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name.” It is all grace. It is all one-sided. He gives, we receive. He forgives, we are free. He loves, we are His children. He saves us, we are given the Kingdom of Heaven.

What the first workers failed to see is that the master who gave them opportunity to work was giving them what they wanted and what they needed. Instead, they looked beyond what they agreed to and desired more. If the master chooses to give to others as he wishes, they should be happy for them. Grace received does not begrudge grace given to others.

We who are given the Kingdom of Heaven, who are given full and free salvation, should see not drudgery in living as Christians, but opportunity. We should see not unfairness, but grace upon grace. If you are a Christian your whole life and there is someone who lives a life causing misery to others, but they repent and are saved toward the end of their life, should you not rejoice with the angels in heaven? Should you not rejoice that God has given you manifold blessings in saving you in the waters of Baptism and nurturing you and strengthening you in the Gospel proclamation and the receiving often of the Holy Sacrament?

Living as a Christian should not be drudgery but joy. Bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat of being a Christian should not be seen as a negative but an amazing blessing. If you were not a Christian you would need to be saved. But being a Christian you have a blessed opportunity and calling to share the Good News of Christ with others so that they may share in the grace and the love and the craziness of a God who loves to give to those who don’t deserve it.

Don’t let your eye be haughty. Don’t be envious of others. Rejoice in what they are given by God, because it is the very same undeserved grace and mercy and crazy forgiveness you have been given. Don’t look around at what others have and wonder at the unfairness of it all. Look at the one who willingly and humbly made a transaction not for Himself but for you. Let your eye look time and time again to the place where your salvation was secured, on the mount of Calvary, where God the Father poured out His full wrath justly toward sinners but squarely upon His beloved Son.

Since He paid the price, you have been given the vaults of heaven. Since He paid the penalty, you have been given a new lease on life. There’s no hidden fees, no contractual obligations. It’s all grace. Now you can see life through the eyes of one who was at the back of the line being brought up to the front. New opportunities are everywhere.

He calls you to live in humbly serving others. Telling others of this good news that you have received which is also for them. Seeing that since you have been given the Kingdom of God, it is not drudgery but joy to serve God with your time, talents, and treasure. If it’s a drudgery you’re missing the point. If it’s a transaction, you’re missing the point.

But if it’s grace—if it’s Christ accomplishing all and you receiving all—well, then you have a parable that surprises you not because of its strangeness but its pure, unalloyed, and even crazy grace. Amen.


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