What's it to You?
"What's it to you?" can be fighting words, or words of evaluation. This parable asks the latter question. You can't know that unless you know it is immediately preceded by a promise from Jesus of unimaginable blessing. A rich young man had not repented at Jesus preaching the law that he sell all his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow Him. Peter responded, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" Then comes Jesus' promise: "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." Then Jesus closes with the same puzzling words He ends the parable with, "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."
Peter, and you and I, are being warned about something. Did you see how small the denarius looked in the eyes of the first at last? The question, "What's it to you?" floats over this text. In the beginning the day laborers must have felt very happy to be hired for a full day's work for a full day's pay. You've been by a day laborer site around Austin. You've seen the pick-ups pull up and only take, "You, you, and you" leaving this one, that one, and him too earning nothing.
They had to be pleased at the wage too. A denarius was regarded as good pay. We'd say it was a little above minimum wage. It was the pay of a Roman soldier. Also notice those selected bright and early, got guaranteed wages. They went to work in the vineyard knowing exactly what they were getting at the end of the day. If you don't know what a motivator this is, then you've never mowed grass or shoveled snow for someone who said they'd make it worth your while. That's way too open ended when you're mowing or shoveling for someone raised when a loaf of bread, a gallon of gas, or a movie all cost a nickel.
Into the vineyard the early birds went with that silver denarius shining big and brightly before them. They would buy food, drink, clothes, tools, pay for lodging, or maybe even a gift. They weren't bothered when the Johnny come lately's came. Those who came at 9, noon, or 3 only came with the promise to be paid "whatever is right." That's could mean anything, but certainly less than a full day's pay.
How happy the early birds were. How they whistled at their work. They didn't even mind that the Lord of the vineyard paid the 11th hour works first. They hadn't been hired with any promise at all. They were just told to "go and work in my vineyard." There was a coin worth 1/10 of a denarius. That's probably all they'd get; that'd be a fair wage. But what's this? They are being paid a full day's wage. A whole denarius for one hour's work. But even then it was still okay. What must those who worked all 12 hours get if those who worked one got a denarius?
When they got paid their agreed upon wage of a denarius, that's when it happened. That's when the denarius shrank in value. It became not only small but an insult. Hasn't the same thing happened to you? When did your marriage go from being God's greatest gift to a chore? When did your job go from being grace to grind? When did church go from what you get to do to what you have to do? When did you first come away from Word and Sacrament saying, "I didn't get anything out of that?"
"What's it to you" is the question that plays like a melodic sequence through this parable. Did you see how large the denarius looked in the eyes of the last at last? These 11th hour laborers we're left behind just like the 9, noon, and 3 men. They were standing in the marketplace just like them doing nothing, but they were doing nothing all day. But it wasn't because they weren't looking for work. They say it was "because no one has hired us." A day laborer given no work in the day probably didn't eat in the evening.
Surely when the last pick-up pulled away they gave up hope of being hired. The Lord of the vineyard had been coming every three hours. Three more hours after 3 PM and the work day was ended. But what's this? At 5 the pickup is back, and he hired them! Who hired people for just one hour's work? Wouldn't it be dangerous, dirty, heavy work? But even though no promise of payment was made, they knew someone who took pity at the 11th hour would pay something.
But what happened? The 11th hour workers went into the vineyard beside the all day, 9, noon, and 3 workers. They ended up doing the very same work. When the work day ended one short hour later, the 11th hour workers lined up with the rest for their pay. They couldn't help but notice how tired and sweaty the all day workers were while in one short hour they had barely broken a sweat. But what's this? They, the 11th hour workers, are paid first! And when into their barely dirty hands the foreman placed a denarius, how big, how huge, how overwhelming it was!
Do you remember that? Do you remember how marriage loomed so huge, and wonderful and full of promise and blessing? Do you remember how your job prospects carried you through hours of classes and nights of study? Your eyes were always on the prize and that prize gleamed, drew, beckoned, and you thought nothing could be better? And surely you remember how sweet, how full, how satisfying the faith was the hour you first believed?
Do you see what Peter and we are being warned of in this parable? The rich man walked away with nothing from Jesus. Not even his riches were his; no his riches owned him. Peter compares himself and the other disciples favorably to the rich man, and asks what they will get for doing what the rich man couldn't: leaving all and following Jesus. And Jesus promised Peter the world and beyond. He promises him, and us, 100 times more than what we have in this life and the inheritance of eternal life. Multiply your salary by 100. Multiply your joy and happiness in marriage, family, job. Multiply your possessions by 100. That's what Jesus promises.
That's enough; that's more than enough, but we've already seen it isn't. The denarius that first looked so huge shrunk to that penny we won't stoop to pick up. The denarius that was so wonderful, so desirous, so fulfilling suddenly wasn't enough, not near enough. How we want to get back to where the last were. We want to look at marriage, job, the Faith how the last looked at the denarius they were first to get.
You can try the Scrooge answer. The three spirits show him how sweet the gifts he had once were to him; how they we're bitter to him now; and how they would all be taken away from him. The Law can do that for you too. You don't deserve your spouse, your job, or the Faith. The Law weighs everyone in the scales of absolute justice and finds them undeserving.
The promise of 100 fold that Jesus makes to Peter and us is a promise of the Law. Hear it again: "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." It's an if then conditional promise. If you have left every thing for Jesus' sake, then you get a 100 fold. Let's weigh Peter in that scale. He will be shown on a cold night around a charcoal fire that he hadn't left anything for the sake of Jesus.
It's no different with me. I don't deserve marriage, job, or the Faith. I haven't really left anything, certainly not me, myself, or I. So spouse, income, and salvation ought to be taken away from me, and this Law can scare me into appreciating them for awhile, usually a day maybe two. But the Law doesn't change me; it just scares me. It wasn't the Law that made everything so sweet the hour I first believed. It wasn't marriage law or employment law that made spouse and job shine. It was grace. The very thing the early birds turned their noses up at. See grace can give 11th hour workers the same as them. The Law can't. The early birders were living under the Law not grace. How about you?
Jesus lived under the Law and did so perfectly. He deserved the perfect spouse and the perfect marriage, yet He went without both. The joys, the solace, the satisfaction you know in marriage, Jesus never knew though He deserved it while you don't. Jesus didn't just work a whole day. He worked day and night. He never complained about the splinters that come with carpentry or the people that come with being a Rabbi.
The promises of marriage, job, the Faith were all earned and deserved by Jesus. But instead of being paid the wages He earned, He was paid the wages you did. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid it in full. After living as a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the perfect Jesus was given over to the hands of sinners, so the full measure of God's wrath against your sins could be carried out and away from you.
Jesus has won the right as a Man to give anything to anyone. He promises only to give what is right in His eyes. He can do whatever He wants with His gifts. Likewise, He can do anything He wants with our sins that He has bought and paid for. They belong to Him, and when He chooses to send them away from you by baptismal waters, words of absolution, or in His Body and Blood, you rejoice, you thrill, you celebrate. And whatever gifts He give you in the way of marriage, work, or the Faith, you rejoice, thrill, and celebrate them too because you know you have no right to any of them. Whatever they are, how many or few, they are all yours by grace not right.
You see we're all 11th hour workers. The Lord of the vineyard is under no obligation to come looking for more workers at the 11th hour, and whatever He deems to pay us is unmerited, undeserved; it's grace. That's the melodious sequence that's really playing throughout our text. If you answer the evaluating question what's your marriage, job, or the Faith to you, with "They're God's grace to me for Jesus' sake," they instantly grow in size, value, and sweetness. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20111016); Matthew 20: 1-16