Equal to Christ. Septuagesima 2015
Septuagesima + St. Peter Lutheran Church + St. Matthew 20:1-16 + February 1, 2015 + “Equal to Christ”
Christians should serve God. Their whole lives should be lived not in service to their own desires, but for the will of God. Scripture teaches this constantly.
For the grace of God has appeared, writes St. Paul in Titus chapter 2, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
Jesus gave Himself for us to make us His own people who are zealous, eager, passionate about doing good works. Christians have been born again so that they may live a new life of service to God in good works.
What are the good works that we should be zealous about doing? Often people think that means doing church work, and it certainly includes that. Witnessing, telling our neighbors about Jesus and what He has done for us—that is a good work. Faithfully giving, sacrificially giving to support the preaching of God’s word, both in offerings of money and of time and energy in working for the church. These are good works. So is faithfully and diligently hearing and learning God’s Word both at home and at the church.
But good works include everything we do in obedience to the 10 commandments out of faith in Christ. When we honor our father and mother, obeying them when we are young and caring for them when they are old, that is a good work. When we get married, stay faithful to our spouse, raise our children, pray with them, teach them God’s Word, those are good works. When I go to work and do my job for the benefit of my employer and seek to work in such a way that I honor God, that is a good work. In every place that God puts you, you are called as a Christian to be zealous to do good for your neighbor and honor God by your words and actions.
It’s also a good work when as a Christian you suffer and bear it patiently, trusting God and putting yourself into His hands. We need to pay attention to this because as we grow older we are called on more and more by God to suffer, whether from physical pain and affliction, from grief at the death of loved ones and dear friends, as well as spiritual temptations that often accompany physical pain, when as we suffer we doubt God’s presence or His love and grace toward us. It is a good work in God’s sight when you endure suffering, when you pray to Him for relief but say, “Thy will be done,” when you trust that the One who gave His only Son for you will make even your suffering result in blessing for eternity.
It is also a good work in God’s sight when we endure loss for the sake of Christ. Christians are told by their Lord that they will lose things they love for His name’s sake.
Jesus said, I have not come to bring peace on earth but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-38)
If we hold faithfully to Christ and His word, we can count on losing the favor of friends or relatives or the community at large, who will call us harsh or loveless or fanatical. When we suffer the loss of our good name or the loss of friendships and relationships for the sake of faithfulness to Christ and His word, that is also a good work in God’s sight.
Jesus’ 12 disciples had to lose those things and more because they followed Christ. They left behind their possessions, families, and businesses. They were despised and hated by the Pharisees and chief priests and others because they belonged to Christ.
Christians can count on losing things for the sake of Jesus’ name. All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted St. Paul says bluntly (2 Timothy 3:12). If it doesn’t happen right away at the beginning of one’s life as a Christian it will happen eventually.
Today when a young person wants to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ, it often costs them something. They are liable to lose their boyfriend or girlfriend, because most young people take sex outside of marriage for granted. They are liable to lose friends and the esteem of their peers because actually following Christ is not something that is respected in these days—Christianity is considered intolerant and backward. This didn’t used to be the case, and we should recognize this when we see young people falling away from the church. Christianity comes with a cost that it didn’t used to in our society.
But even among older Christians there is still a cost if you hold faithfully to God’s Word. Most of us have friends or relatives that belong to churches that teach false doctrine. Some belong to churches like the Catholic church that openly deny that we are saved by faith in Jesus alone apart from works; others belong to churches that deny that baptism gives the forgiveness of sins to infants and that the Lord’s Supper is Jesus’ true body and blood. Still others go to churches where the authority of the Scripture is denied and sin is no longer called sin. We usually comfort ourselves that at least our friends or loved ones go to church, and we tell ourselves that all the churches are basically teaching the same thing, but it isn’t the case. If you take the risk of discussing these things with your friends and loved ones who go to such churches, even if you do it in the most loving and sensitive way, as you should, you too will experience how faithfulness to Christ’s word does not win you the praise and love of the world. Following Christ in this way may cause you to lose friends. It may disturb the peace in your home and family.
When we do good works as Christians, particularly when we endure suffering because of faithfulness to Christ, we are tempted to think our labor and suffering for Christ is so great and we look resentfully at weaker Christians who are less active in good works or who suffer less. That’s why Jesus tells the parable in the Gospel reading. His twelve disciples had followed Jesus from the beginning. They had left everything else behind. They were with Him during hard times when there was no food, when He was reviled and hated by His enemies, when the crowds pressed in on them with so many needs that there was no time to rest. The disciples had suffered a lot and done many good works because of their faith in Christ. And this parable was a warning to them. “The last will be first and the first last. Don’t think that your good works have earned you something from God beyond the weaker Christians, beyond the little ones who believe in Me.”
But this parable is also a comfort to those who think that they have done few good works and many sins. Jesus shows that God doesn’t give the way human reason thinks He is supposed to do. He gives by grace, that is, without taking into account our worthiness or unworthiness, our good works or our sins.
The workers hired at the beginning of the day complained to the vineyard owner that he had made the men who worked only an hour “equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” They were right. He paid the workers who only worked an hour the same as those who had put in a twelve-hour shift.
In the same way, God gives the same grace and favor to a person who repents and believes in Christ on his deathbed, like the thief on the cross, as He gives to someone who’s spent his life serving Christ. He gives the same grace and favor to you and me who believe in Jesus as He gives to a Christian martyr in Pakistan who loses his house, business, family, or even his life for Christ.
It may not seem fair to us, but consider that if God dealt with us fair and square according to our works, it would mean that everyone who transgressed the law, whether a lot or a little, would receive eternal condemnation and punishment. That would be fair. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods,” and this means that “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” If you love God above all things you will serve God gladly, not for hope of a reward but for His own sake, not asking what you can get out of it. That is what we are obligated to do. That is what we owe God. But you can see that none of us pays that debt, not even those who die for their confession of Christ. If we loved God above all things, all the other commandments would come by themselves. We would gladly pray without ceasing. We would gladly hear and learn God’s Word and regard it as sacred. We would obey and honor authorities, not grumbling. We would not hate or be angry with our neighbor, much less say or do things to hurt him.
There is only one person who loved God above all things and spent his life in perfect obedience to Him. That person is Jesus. He not only kept all of God’s law all of the time and earned nothing but God’s favor and honor by His good works. He labored longer than any human being, from conception to death in perfect obedience to God. And He suffered more than any Christian does. He suffered hatred and antagonism from the world and never took a short-cut to avoid pain. He never toned down His preaching and witness to please men. He suffered temptation and attacks from Satan to turn from obedience to God and make His road easier, but He never gave in. He suffered the anger of God against the sins of His brothers—us—and He bore the blazing heat of God’s anger against all our pride and unfaithfulness.
And God, instead of giving us what we have earned by our works, makes us equal to Christ. He counts Jesus’ obedience and suffering to us. He counted our sin to Jesus.
As a result He does not give you the wages of your sin, which is eternal death. He gives you the wages of Jesus, who bore your sin, atoned for it with His blood, and rose from the dead with sin put out of the way forever. He makes you equal with Jesus, as if you had always done what pleased God. He gives you as your wages eternal life, eternal honor, His good pleasure and favor.
So this comes as both a warning and a comfort.
If you are a Christian who has done many good works and knows it, be careful that you don’t fall into grumbling against God when you compare yourself to other Christians who don’t seem to do as much and don’t seem to suffer as much as you. Give thanks to God that He has worked in you to do what pleases Him, but quickly turn your eyes back to Jesus Christ. God has made you equal to Him who knew no sin. He has made Jesus equal to you who were conceived in sin. God made Jesus equal to you, and so He sweat blood in Gethsemane and thirsted on the cross, and all this He did not deserve, but bore it gladly so that you might be equal to Him in righteousness, life, and glory. Let your heart meditate on Christ’s suffering for you and your suffering will seem light. Let your heart meditate on the good works Christ has done for you and your own good works will fade from your eyes when you marvel at the incredible goodness of Jesus toward you.
This parable is also a comfort to anyone who is concerned about his lack of good works, or the greatness of his sins, or his lateness in coming to serve Christ. See the incredible goodness of God! He wants it known that He will reward those who labor only for an hour the same as those who have worked all day! He will receive the sinner who repents late in his life with the same grace He shows to Christians who labored faithfully in service to Christ their whole lives long.
And what if you are a Christian who has been hearing God’s word for some time but feel like you have never been a faithful laborer in God’s vineyard? Your good works seem to be few or non-existent, while meanwhile your sins and hypocrisies seem to be many? Take heart! Even if it were true that you have not been serving the Lord—and this is not certain, because the devil often tempts us to think that we have not truly been Christians at all—even if it were true, the Lord promises to reward those who come late in the day the same as those who have worked the full day. That is, He promises to give the same grace to the one who repents today as he will give to those who have served Him their whole lives.
He promises that He makes you equal not only to the greatest saints in the church, but He makes you equal to His Son.
He counts Jesus’ perfect obedience to you. He washes you clean in His blood shed for sinners. He clothes you with Jesus’ righteousness. He makes you a full-fledged saint, sharing in the grace and glory that belongs to the apostles, prophets, and martyrs. He makes you a participant in the glory of the Son of God.
It’s not our works and sufferings that give us this equal standing with the great saints in the church. It is Jesus’ works and sufferings that earn us this exalted place of being sons of God. And those works and sufferings of Jesus are for you. God pledges them to you in His word, in your baptism, and in the Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria