[Exodus 17:1-7 / 1 Cor. 9:24-10:5 / Matthew 20:1-16]
Never was context so important as with today’s parable of the grumbling workers! What had just happened in the verses preceding our Gospel is this: a rich young man had come to Jesus and called him “Good Teacher,” asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus had asked: “Whoa! Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” He was asking: Do you realize what you’re saying when you call me good? That you are calling me God? Then Jesus had gone on to say: If you want to know what you have to DO to have eternal life, you know the answer: keep the commandments. “Oh, I’ve done that,” the rich young man answers. Then Jesus said: “If you would be perfect, go sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Jesus and the disciples watched the rich young man’s face fall, and turn and walk slowly away; he wouldn’t give up his possessions.
Jesus, thus showed that the rich man was breaking the first commandment after all: he had another God besides the true God. He worshipped and treasured His money and possessions.
As Jesus and the disciples watch the man walk down the road, Jesus says to them: “How difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person with riches to enter the Kingdom of God.” And the disciples say in amazement: “Who then can be saved?”
And do you get the answer they expect? “Who can be saved? Why, only those who have left everything and followed Me, just like you all have.” But that is NOT the answer they get. Instead Jesus smiles and looks at them and says: “Oh, with man, this is impossible, but not with God! With God all things are possible! Yes, even the salvation of the rich!”
Watch Peter’s face cloud over as it sinks in. “Wait a minute here, Jesus! We have left everything to follow you! What shall we have? Are you telling me that you’re going to work some miracle and bring in those who have not sacrificed and worked like we have? Then why did we bother to do it?” Jesus assures them that by following Him they have not lost a thing, but rather only gained. And then he launches right away into the parable that is our Gospel.
Do you see it now? It is a parable aimed at the sin inside of the disciples of Jesus (then, and now) who are inclined to think too highly of all they do for the Lord and not highly enough of God’s grace. This parable is a missile aimed at our pride and at our grumbling. Whenever we’re tempted to think that God owes us because of our work in His kingdom; whenever we’re tempted to get angry that God would give the same eternal life to those who have not sat through hours of school board meetings and call processes, who haven’t taught Sunday school, who haven’t known the anxieties of taking care of church property, who haven’t “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” Or maybe it’s even you who think like the Rich Young Man, that you’ve tried their whole life to live according to God’s commandments; you’ve denied yourself and really tried to please God, and then God goes and brings in some notorious sinner who wasted their whole life long in open rebellion and sin and had all the pleasures that this life has to offer, and God saves them in the end and gives them the same gift of eternal life that He gives to you. Ouch. Yes, this parable is a missile aimed at our grousing and grumbling and it exposes our pride. We are right there with Peter and the disciples, aren’t we? Imagining that God owes us! What delusion.
And the answer of the Owner stings: “Am I not allowed to do what I please with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Now that last bit is a paraphrase. The Greek says: “Or is your eye evil, because I am good?” That puts us right back to the statement Jesus made to the Rich young man: “Why do you call me good? None is good except God alone.”
None is good, except this gracious Owner who likes to give! Not without reason does the Large Catechism call Him: “An overflowing fountain of goodness!” So we are all in the position of being beholden to Him, because if it depended upon our perfect keeping of the commandments, we’d all be toast! Yes, even those of us who think we’ve kept them. Because if we haven’t been serving God freely and joyfully, GLADLY doing what He commands, we’ve only been offering the begrudging service of those who complain about having “borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
But not so with our Jesus! He is the One who kept those commandments with gladness and joy in His heart. He didn’t only outwardly conform. His heart desired to do them and to please His Father. He is the only Good One! And this Good One is generous. He gives to us – the grumbling, grousing ones – He gives to us His own goodness to wear, to live in, to grow in, to cherish.
That’s the goodness He wrapped around you in the font. That’s the goodness He lays in your mouth at the Altar, where you “taste and see that the LORD is good!” That’s the goodness that sounds in your ears from the Word. The goodness of One who is generous to all who will but in humility believe in Him and set aside all claims of what God owes them, and receive instead from His hand the GIFT of eternal life.
The parable puts us all on the same level when we’re standing before God: all of us have failed to be good; all of us have been given the gift of goodness through the generosity of Him who is telling this parable: the One who was headed to Calvary to assume a debt He did not owe that His generosity might cover our sin, and reshape us in the image of His goodness. No longer proud grumblers, but a humble people who rejoice only in the mercy of God in Christ. Amen.