28. January 2024
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.
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
I once was taught that Jesus’s stories are “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” Did you learn that, too? The problem is that it’s often hard to suss out the story’s meaning, if not impossible. Is it a moral tale, like Aesop’s fables? Does it give a radical way of living in this world? Does it offer business, economics, and trade unions practical life lessons? if we wanted to, we could arrive at some conclusions at that level. But, as you learned, it’s supposed to have a heavenly meaning describing heaven. That would mean, in the context of today’s story, heaven is a vineyard commune where all work and are treated and paid equally. We’re all slaves of a benevolent owner and master, but it’ll be better than how that ever works out here.
Probably by “heavenly” meaning, the teachers who coined the phrase meant “spiritual.” These stories describe a spiritual reality that transcends the earthly context. The story is practically about things we all understand or encounter daily. But spiritually, it describes a higher reality superimposed on that lower, earthly. That’s not much better and has led to trying to create heaven on earth by ignoring the practical realities of physical life. Here, you think of every attempt at a utopian community, where people, communities, or congregations live as if property, money, authority, and power do not matter.
The problem with the “earthly stories with heavenly (or spiritual) meanings” approach is that it divorces the physical from the spiritual. We might think that what we do in the body doesn’t affect what we believe in spirit. We might think that the earthly realities operate outside or apart from the spiritual reality. We might think that what Jesus describes doesn’t apply to the day-to-day life of the Christian but rather to some distant “heavenly” life. Or worse yet, we may think that Jesus doesn’t understand this world or us with his big ideas and bold metaphysical truths.
The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ changes all that. The heavenly and the spiritual are one in the person of Jesus, true God and true Man. Because the Son of God took on human flesh, there’s nothing fleshy that God doesn’t understand intimately, even the most basic cravings, desires, and temptations. There’s no aspect of daily life, be it family, business, justice, politics, or economics, that He does not understand. Even more so, because Jesus is God and Man, all things earthly and heavenly, body and spirit, are subject to Him and governed by His Word.
All of human existence for the Christian is ruled by Jesus. The Word of Jesus tells us the meaning of everything. When we try to separate our bodily life from the spiritual life, that’s when things go off the rails in our family, congregation, or community. The chief example is the hypocrisy of confessing your sins to God in Divine Service, receiving His forgiveness in Holy Absolution, Holy Baptism, and Holy Supper, and then, in turn, refusing to confess or forgive your spouse, children, fellow Christian, pastor, or civil ruler. You will even promise in a few minutes in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that you’re going to forgive those who trespass against you. But this “spiritual meaning” gets left at the door on the way out, neglected in the earthly story of your life.
Maybe the way to fix that shorthand explanation would be this: “earthly stories with spiritual meaning that applies to our earthly story.” It’s a little longer and less memorable, but you get the point. So, let’s try it on for size with the Gospel for today.
The earthly story is about a master who goes out daily to hire workers for his vineyard. They work variously 12, 9, 3, and even one hour of the day. Then, the absurd thing happens when the master has his foreman pay them all equally a day’s wage, the denarius. Naturally, those who worked more were disgruntled, but the master does what he wants. He chastises them with the enigmatic statement, “Or is your eye bad because I am good?” As far as earthly stories, it doesn’t make sense. A crazy boss who shows extreme favoritism to the idle, being generous with those who don’t deserve it. Those of you who have a farm or business can hear all the ways this will go sideways, likely even getting a call from the EEOC or IRS.
But the keyword is that Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is the same as, Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” He says this exactly describes our whole life, body and spirit, with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are given to live in this world but not of this world. Our lives are lived now under the meaning of the story. We are given to understand everything in and outside the church according to the truth revealed in this crazy story.
Simply put, God cares for all people according to His good and gracious will. This grace is not comprehensible to reason and flesh, but it is good. The Father cares for all creation, preserving and protecting the body and livelihood of everyone, whether they know it or thank Him.
But more so, His Son Jesus gave His life upon the cross to redeem all nations, every sinner, and even the cosmos. This good and gracious gift is delivered to everyone who would receive Him, all whom He has given the right to be children of God. To the story, it doesn’t matter whether they came to be born again shortly after their earthly birth, or whether this comes in the twilight of their days. It doesn’t matter whether they’ve labored their whole life in service to Christ and His church, the vineyard, or whether they just showed up today for the first time. The fruits of Christ’s laborious suffering and death are theirs, full and free. It’s not fair but it is good.
And because we’d all be standing idle outside the vineyard unless they called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified, God the Holy Spirit brings into the kingdom of the Son to receive and believe all His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. And to bring another Scripture in, it turns out that Christ Jesus is also the vine, and the Spirit grafts us onto Him as branches. So, we don’t even have to work, so to speak, because branches grafted onto a good vine always bear fruit. It all gifts from top to bottom.
Now you can go about your life, be it family, congregation, or community, with faith that God is good and gracious, always preserving your whole person. You can bring all things subject to the Word of Christ, rather than your fears, anxieties, and worries. You can love your neighbor in body, soul, and spirit without fear and without expectation of return because you know it is God’s good and gracious will that they are preserved in your body and resurrected to eternal life, too.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin