In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
The doctrine of grace is perhaps the most misunderstood doctrine in all of Holy Scripture. Saint Paul explains grace in the best way in Ephesians chapter two: For you all are saved by grace through faith, and this is not yours: it is God’s gift, not by works, so that any man should boast. The key words here are this is not yours, it is God’s gift. However, many Christians still misunderstand the fact that God’s gift does not mean that God’s gives you the gift to help Him save you.
Remember that grace is a gift. When you receive a gift there are no strings attached. Someone intentionally purchased something or perhaps made something for you. They present it to you. It’s yours. All you do is reach out and take it. Even the reaching out and taking it is not your work. It is how you appropriate the gift to yourself, the action of taking something that already belongs to you and receiving it as yours. Simply put, grace is a gift that wasn’t yours at first, but now is yours at no cost to you.
So, on the one hand, grace is not a substance that you use to work out your salvation with God. On the other hand, grace is not something given outside of or alongside of the Gifts Christ gives His Church. Grace is forgiveness offered in and working for you in the Gifts: in preaching, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.
Why all this hubbub about grace? Our Lord’s parable in Matthew chapter 20 shows how God sees His grace in His kingdom, and how you see His grace in His kingdom. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is Jesus’ response to Peter’s words in the previous chapter: Behold: we have forsaken everything and have followed you! What then will there be for us?
Peter speaks like a true sinner! He sounds like the stereotypical Chicagoan: Ubi est mea? Where is mine? What’s in it for me? Hey, Dad! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this [prodigal] son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!
Sinful human nature always looks for the angle to take some credit away from God and put it in our column. Nevertheless, human nature always forgets to remember that God’s grace calls sinners into the vineyard. You are, by nature, outside of the vineyard and stand idle in the marketplace of the world. You can do nothing to be taken into the vineyard. King David says in Psalm 14: The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of men, that He might see whether someone is wise and asks for God. But they have all strayed and all of them are unfit; there is none that does good, not even one. Nevertheless, the heavenly householder proceeds according to His unreasonable mercy to seek you and include you in His vineyard. That is grace. You did nothing. God did it all.
God doesn’t need you in His vineyard. He honors you with a place in His vineyard. Only through His gracious acceptance of you into His vineyard are you able to work and to do good works pleasing to God. Saint Paul proclaims But by the grace of God I am what I am. And his grace to me has not been in vain, but rather I have worked for all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Our capability comes from God. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do according to His good pleasure.
God owes you nothing. However, He has graciously offered to provide a wage besides faith that apprehends salvation, even to give a wage for work. Recall the words of the householder: You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you. Nevertheless, you begrudge His generosity. Luther’s translation really knocks it out of the park: Are you looking cross-eyed that I am so gracious? Mom always said not to cross your eyes lest they get stuck that way, but when you look cross-eyed you can’t see anything. You are momentarily blind. God’s goodness in giving His grace equally to those who labor for one hour or eleven hours blinds you with anger. Longer hours deserve better wages. Not so in God’s vineyard.
God distributes the promised wage according to His free graciousness. No one dictates to Him how much they should be paid. Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Are you looking cross-eyed that I am so gracious?
That’s a good question to ask yourself as we prepare for the innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ. You are so used to using freedom to get what you want that when God gives you true freedom from sin and death, you become cross-eyed at His generosity. You are so blind because of sin that you refuse to recognize the cost of eternal life. The false freedom of this world captivates you. You are a slave to death and consider the life given by our heavenly Father in His Son’s innocent life, death, and resurrection to be a return to slavery, working for the Man every night and day, and receiving an unfair wage.
Arrogant, self-righteous, wage-seeking slaves to money, power, prestige, and earthly glory have cause to be frightened. When they demand to be judged according to the justice and righteousness they demand, they will be literally scared to death. God’s kingdom is all about grace. When you reject God’s grace because your crossed eyes refuse to see His generosity, then your eyes refuse to focus on the cross of Jesus Christ. You miss seeing God’s grace, His undeserved love for you, paying all you owe Him in full. When you miss Christ dying for your sin, then you miss the kingdom of God. You are rejected.
On the other hand, when you recognize how miserable you are, when you deem yourselves unworthy of any wage the householder gives, when you labor either for one hour or for eleven hours in the vineyard of the Lord and, at the end of the day, say I am an unprofitable servant, you have cause to rejoice. Why rejoice in loathing yourself? Doesn’t that go against everything the world says and does? It does go against everything, even your own reckoning. However, the Lord God does you no wrong. He gives to His laborers the promised wage, even though you don’t deserve it and you certainly didn’t earn it. This is grace. This is how it is in the kingdom of God.
These Gesima Sundays are the time to strip yourself of all that gets in the way of seeing Jesus Christ and His righteous, innocence, and blessedness. Today God straightens your crossed-eyes and allows you to see how things operate in His kingdom. The vineyard God puts you in is not about grabbing the brass ring or climbing the corporate stepladder. His vineyard is about doing what is given you to do, for your station in life is a gift from God. As you do what is given you to do, you receive food for the journey through the valley of the shadow of death. This food is His Gifts: His Word that declares you pardoned from everlasting death in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, His Son. His Baptism that cleanses you from all sin and makes you a new creation in Him. His Supper that nourishes you with His forgiveness. His Absolution that declares your sin forgiven and forgotten for the sake of Jesus Christ.
God in Christ Jesus now accepts what was once condemned in Adam. That’s grace. Open your hands wide and receive His grace, His undeserved love for you. Proclaim with King David in today’s Gradual psalm: Those who know Your Name put their trust in you, for You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You. For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit