The Gospel you recently heard is part of a longer teaching. Jesus has basically been teaching that everyone who enters the kingdom of God does so by a miracle of God. He has recently taught that the chances of a rich person entering heaven are not even as good as the chances of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. When we understand that the culture of the day believed that rich people were especially favored by God, then we understand that Jesus was saying that no one has a chance. He then went on to say, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) With these words we learn that our entry into the kingdom of God is a miracle.
Then Jesus went on to say something else that is contrary to our understanding. He said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:30) Jesus then illustrated this with the parable we heard in today’s Gospel.
Jesus used the story of a man who needed laborers, a common situation in most cultures. At the time Jesus told this story, there was usually a market at the city gates. Workers who wished to labor for a wage gathered at the market and offered their services. A man who needed workers in his vineyard went to the marketplace and hired people to work in his vineyard. Apparently, the work was urgent and needed many laborers. The owner of the vineyard visited the marketplace several times during the day to hire more laborers. It is likely that most of those who listened to Jesus had been laborers in the marketplace at one time or another. At first, there is nothing unusual about the story.
The first sign that the vineyard owner might not be normal comes near the end of the day. 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ (Matthew 20:6–7) It was very unusual to hire someone at this late hour. By the time the workers traveled to the vineyard and got their instructions and training from the foreman, the day will be over. Those hired at the eleventh hour might not have time to do any work at all. This is the first sign that the vineyard owner is not normal.
The eccentricity of the owner really stood out, though, when he instructed the foreman to pay the workers at the end of the day. 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.’ 9And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. (Matthew 20:8–9) The ones who barely had time to get to the field and get their instructions got a denarius … a full day’s pay. They didn’t do much of anything, but they received pay as though they had been there from sunup.
Everyone got a surprise in their pay envelope. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. (Matthew 20:10) In a way, this should not have been a surprise. After all, a denarius is the standard pay for a day. However, those who barely came out to the field and had a look around got a denarius. The first-hires began to anticipate getting more, but they didn’t.
Jesus then repeated the saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16) Jesus taught that there will be surprises on the last day. When we meet those who gather around the throne of God in eternity, some will cause us to say, “You’re the last person I expected to see here!”
No doubt there were some there who expected to be first in line for eternity. “We are children of Abraham.” they might say, “Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt and followed Moses to the Promised Land. We not only follow the Laws of Moses, but we also follow the tradition of the elders.” Jesus was telling these people that there are Gentile who will see the Kingdom of Heaven before they do.
Chaplain Henry Gerecke, a farm boy from Missouri, who grew up to be a LC-MS pastor, found himself stationed at a prison at Nuremberg. His congregation consisted of Nazi officers who were on trial for crimes against humanity. Eventually, eleven members of Hitler’s inner circle confessed their faith in Jesus as savior. Eight of them received instruction and were able to take the Lord’s Supper from Gerecke’s hand.
Eventually, ten members of his prison flock were sentenced to death. The first to face the gallows was Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. An American officer asked for his last words. Ribbentrop responded: “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul.” Then he turned to Gerecke and said, “I’ll see you again.” Moments later, the trap door opened beneath his feet and he breathed his last. Other members of the flock died in like manner. Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.”
Chaplain Henry Gerecke received a lot of mail. Some of the mail gave thanks to Almighty God for enabling the Gospel to reach into the hearts of Nazi war criminals. Other letters condemned Gereke. They said that he should have been hanged with the war criminals for doing what he did.
The people who condemned Gereke didn’t know it, but they were also condemning themselves. If Jesus did not die for all sins, how do you know that He died for your sins? When they condemn Nazi war criminals to hell in spite of Jesus, they are saying that there is a minimum amount of goodness that each of us must have before Jesus’ forgiveness can be for us. They are saying that Nazi war criminals don’t make the cut. Well if they don’t make the cut, how can you know if you made the cut? If Jesus didn’t die for them, then how do you know that He died for you?
In the rite of baptism, we remind people that the Word of God teaches that we are all conceived and born sinful and are under the power of the devil until Christ claims us as His own. We would be lost forever unless delivered from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. But the Father of all mercy and grace has sent His Son Jesus Christ, who atoned for the sin of the whole world that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
In His parable, Jesus illustrated that people enter the kingdom at all times of life. Some receive baptism as infants. They enter the kingdom at the dawn of their lives. Others enter at the third hour as older children … the sixth hour as young adults … the ninth hour as they approach retirement … at the eleventh hour near death. All receive the same pay … eternal life with Christ. All are saved by grace through faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.
The parable illustrates that people enter the kingdom in all stations of life. From the world’s point of view, some are pretty good people who never strayed from the path. Some are juvenile delinquents who straighten out when they enter adulthood. Others are career criminals who come to faith on their deathbed. Some are rich. Some are poor. Some are famous. Some are infamous. All recognize that they are sinners in need of a savior. All of them recognize that Jesus Christ is that savior who died for them on the cross and rose to give them eternal life.
There is one thing that this parable does not teach. Some think this parable teaches that they can wait to become a Christian. They see that God works faith in some people on their deathbed, and they think that they can wait. They will say something like, “You know, I can have all the fun I want right now and become a Christian later.” That is not what this parable teaches.
Such a person sees the life of the Christian as a burden. They do not understand that Jesus carried our burden to the cross almost two thousand years ago. They do not understand the Christian life is a gift from the Holy Spirit. They do not understand that the Christian has more reason for enjoyment than any other human being. They just don’t know what they are missing.
Then there is also the possibility that the invitation will never come again. No one really knows when the sun will set on his life. Accidents happen and they happen quickly. Sometimes death is the result of a long illness and we know the time is soon. Other times death comes in the form of a drunk driver or a mechanical failure and death gives us no warning at all. Don’t resist the Holy Spirit because you think you have plenty of time. As the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)
God continues to search the market place of this world looking for workers for His vineyard. The Holy Spirit may find workers in the market place early in the morning when, as infants, He works faith in us through the Word combined with the water of Holy Baptism. The Holy Spirit may find us in the market and give us faith at the exhalation of the last breath before sun down. He may find us sometime in between. No matter when we receive this faith, we know that all the guilt of every sin is gone – taken away by the Son’s sacrifice on the cross. We know that, by His resurrection and ascension, our Lord Jesus Christ has prepared a place for us. Whether our faith is old or young, we all receive the gift of life everlasting. Amen
Please quote from my sermons freely. I expect people to copy my sermons or I wouldn't put them on a site like this. I only ask that you quote accurately if you attribute anything to me.
Should you decide to contact me, I would be very interested in knowing where you are. Please include the name of your city, state or province, and country when contacting me.
Send James T. Batchelor an email.