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The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 24 September 2017

A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 by Samuel Zumwalt

Matthew 20:1-16 © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

“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. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 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.’ 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.”


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is a God. I’m not God, and neither are you. That’s God 101 in a nutshell. That’s God for Dummies, etc. Of course, having said that, deep down inside there is this part of us that really thinks that, if we aren’t in charge, we certainly ought to be. For some, such thoughts aren’t deep down inside at all. Some of us try so hard to control every minute of every day and every part of every relationship that we wear out the people closest to us. Could that be you? Are you a massive control freak? If you are a Mom or a Dad, don’t be surprised if your kids move to Outer Mongolia when they are grown. If you are a husband or a wife and a control freak, you can destroy your marriage and family life. You aren’t God. I’m not God either. That’s hard to hear.

There’s always a set-up for Jesus’ parables, His stories that have one point. In this case, Jesus has talked about the dangers of wealth in Matthew 19. You may remember that Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter God’s reign. He wasn’t talking about a certain non-existent gate in Jerusalem’s walls. The Lord Jesus was using hyperbole, exaggeration, to make the point that wealth always gives one the sense of being in charge. A wealthy former parishioner used to say the Golden Rule means: “Those with the gold rule.” Jesus’ reply is, “Only in your mind, Buckaroo. Only until you drop dead, Buddy.”

Now Scripture always interprets Scripture, which means the clearest passages help you to figure out the murkiest passages. And that’s how the Lord Jesus works when He corrects bad theology. In the case of His warnings against wealth, our Lord is correcting the wrong idea that wealth is always a sign of God’s favor. More pointedly, He was correcting, as had Ecclesiastes, this idea that if you do everything right, you will be wealthy. But if you do everything wrong, you will be poor. There are far too many crooks and drug dealers in the world to believe that.

Our Lord has warned that wealth can become your God, and the hunger for wealth can destroy you. We all know people, or know of people, who are walking illustrations thereof. So, just before today’s gospel, Peter says, “But what about us? We’ve given up everything for you!”

Now Jesus has to remind Peter and the rest of us, again, that we are not in charge, and God will be God. In fact, those who think of themselves as first in God’s reign may end up last!

You see, Peter is a little like those of us who have spent most of our lives working in the Church, those trying to do the right thing. Having heard the Lord Jesus’ call to discipleship when we were baptized, and, having been taught by our parents or someone else what it means to be faithful, we spend a lot of time thinking about God, doing good things, and hanging around church. We pray daily, worship weekly, read the Bible, serve at and beyond St. Matthew’s, are in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others, and give of time, talent, and treasure. In other words, we are like the vineyard workers who answered the call early in the morning.

Those of us, who are like Peter, may remember a time when our lives were very different. We strayed from church when we were in our teens and adolescent years, but eventually we got to work in the Lord’s vineyard sometime later. Sure, those who showed up for work at first light know we came later, but they know we still came early enough to carry a lot of the burden. So, while we aren’t quite as righteous as those who never strayed, we’re still pretty much OK, too.

And, those of us, who were away from God pretty much well into adulthood, are kind of like those that showed up in the heat of the day. Everybody that’s been working all day are really glad that some fresh blood with a lot of energy has come in to help, but, of course, those that were there all along sometimes can’t resist letting others know “we’ve always been here.” And, if the truth be told, we’ve started to believe the vineyard is ours and that God has given us pride of place over those “Johnny-come-latelys.” They can help, OK, but “We are in charge.”

That’s why this parable just grates on our nerves when it gets to the end. Really! People who have spent their whole life doing nothing for God’s reign, people who show up pretty much on their deathbed, they get a reward, too? And, the Lord Jesus says, “You aren’t in charge. God is! And God will be God!” Notice how the Lord asks, “Is your eye evil?” Are you God???

Now, if you are a parent who agonizes over a grown child or children who have strayed, this parable is a reminder to keep praying for those you love. The Holy Spirit is still calling them. If they are baptized, they are still God’s children…even when they are runaways from His reign. So if they only show up for Christmas and Easter, or weddings and funerals, take heart. The Holy Spirit is still calling them through His Word of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Pray!

This parable is a Word of judgment for those who compare ourselves to others. This parable is a Word of judgment for those who get as angry as Martha did when Mary didn’t help. This parable is a Word of judgment for those of us who just don’t think God is as fair as we would be if we were God. Please remember: grace is getting what we don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting what we do deserve. Martin Luther’s last words are important: “We are beggars!”

So, as someone whose last name starts with Z, who spent my school days at the end of every line, I’ve always taken heart that the last will be first. Take that you A people! Or, as my Mama said with a grin as the very last high school graduate in the Bonham High School Class of 1972 walked across the stage: “My son is the only one for whom everyone clapped.”

God will be God, and you and I won’t ever be God. We are in sales, not in management. So, the last Word from Jesus’ lips in Matthew’s Gospel is the reminder that His heavenly Father has given Him all authority in heaven and on earth. He sends us to make disciples of all ethnic groups by baptizing them in the name of the one true God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He commands us to teach the baptized all that He has taught us. So, if you can teach, and you aren’t helping to teach kids in Sunday School, Ahem! Ahem! ….Finally, the Lord Jesus says that He will always be with us…as the only One with all authority. Bishops and pastors, take heed!

So, then, this parable is not saying it doesn’t matter whether one is baptized. In fact, it does matter, or the Lord Jesus wouldn’t have commanded us to baptize. But, we are in sales, and not in management, so, then, stop trying to compare your kind unbaptized neighbor to your crazy sister or brother-in-law. They’re probably comparing you to somebody they like better, too!

So, then, this parable is not saying we are to commune the unbaptized. There is nothing in this passage about those who were not called to work. It’s not about undocumented workers, although somewhere in some preacher-oppressed congregation people will probably hear that today. God, help that preacher! In short, this passage isn’t about those who are standing around idle and never get around to answering the Lord’s call to work in His vineyard. God will be God, and we won’t be. So, please don’t say dumb stuff that the Lord Jesus doesn’t say. Which is mostly a Word to us preachers! Right, my dear reverend clergy brothers?

Christ Jesus, God’s dear Son, was crucified by the Romans, yes. But the religious leaders in that day, and, those who made their living from the Temple or from the Temple tax, did not listen to God’s dear Son, because He was not telling them what they wanted to hear. And so, not recognizing that God’s future had broken into their history through His Son Jesus, they thought they could make Jesus just shut up. When the Lord Jesus rose from the dead, I suspect that the first words out of His mouth, but not recorded in Scripture, were: “As I was saying….!”

Christ Jesus was crucified for us sinners, because God loves us more than His own life. Christ died for the ungodly, says Paul. And there is forgiveness of sins enough for everyone that ever lived. That’s what we call objective justification. But there are those who, like us, are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. And they don’t yet know that God’s Son Jesus died to free them from their bondage to sin, death, and evil. So, who is going to tell them? Who is going to invite them? Who is going to bring them to be baptized? You and me! That’s why the sermon title is “Christ Crucified: We Work.” Go, then, to make disciples of all ethnic groups by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Are you listening, parents? And teaching the baptized to observe all that the Lord Jesus has commanded. Are you listening? You?

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

©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert (see below)

Christ Crucified: We Work


 Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 621).


Matthew 20:13            “… Did you not agree with me for a denarius?”

St. John Chrysostom (late 4th-early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople): “But the question is whether the first ones, who were righteous and pleased God and who shone brightly from their labors through the whole day, at the end are possessed by the lowest vice, envy and jealousy. For they saw the others enjoying the same rewards…” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28, 111).

Matthew 20:14            “…I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. ”

St. John Chrysostom (late 4th-early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople): “In the kingdom of heaven there is no one who justifies himself or blames others in this way; perish the thought! That place is pure and free from envy and jealousy. For if the saints when they are here give their lives for sinners, how much more do they rejoice when they see them there enjoying rewards and consider their blessings to be their own”(111).

Matthew 20:15            “…Or do you begrudge my generosity?’”

St. Gregory the Great (late 6th-early 7th century Bishop of Rome; his liturgical reforms brought about Gregorian chant): And since the obtaining of his kingdom comes from his good will, he properly adds, ‘Or am I not allowed to do what I wish?’ It is always foolish to question the goodness of God. There might have been reason for loud complaint if he did not give what he owed but not if he gives what he does not owe”(111).

Matthew 20:16           

 “So the last will be first, and the first last.” St. Gregory the Great: “We know what good things we have done and how many they are; we do not know with what exactitude our judge on high will investigate them. Indeed, we must all rejoice exceedingly to be even the last in the kingdom of God…The sheepfold of our holy church receives goats together with lambs, but as the Gospel bears witness, when the judge comes he will separate the good from the evil as a shepherd sets the sheep apart from the goats…The judge will separate from the ranks of the humble those who now exalt themselves on the horns of pride. Those who share the heavenly faith in this life but seek the earth with their whole desire cannot obtain the kingdom of heaven” (111-112).


  1. On Martin Luther’s deathbed, he uttered the words, “We are all beggars.” Do I understand that is the truth about myself that Christ’s crucifixion declares?


 The Ten Commandments (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

 As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

 The Fourth Commandment

Honor your father and your mother.

 What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.


 1.Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.


  1. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.


  1. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how the 4th commandment either helps to improve the world as people keep it or explains exactly why the world is such a mess.


  1. If you have the time available, join the Conversations group that meets each Monday noon in the church library to discuss the previous day’s sermon and to look at the preaching text for the coming Sunday. Take notes on your bulletin during the sermon and bring them to Conversations. If you are not able to attend Conversations on Mondays, email with your questions or comments on the text.


  1. If one or both parents are alive, thank them for giving you life. If your parents have died, thank God for them and for what you learned either from or because of them.

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”