Equal Pay For All?

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

I am pretty sure that you all have experienced what is known as the high school mentality of popularity. You know what I am talking about. In most high schools there is a hierarchy – a scale of popularity. It typically starts in grade school and is most clearly seen high school.

Permit me the opportunity to explain a bit more.

I am not talking about being well-liked and admired due to a person being caring and nice in school, but I am referring to that embedded system of ranking and categorizing people. That is to say; I am referring to a popularity scale where those who use their charming personality or their success in academics and sports, actually place themselves above everyone else. Whereas, on the bottom, you have those who… well, can be classified as losers and nobodies.

There are also other names for this system of scales and ranking as well. Sociologists see this in all aspects of life and call this phenomenon the ‘dominance hierarchy.’ The colloquial term used for this system of scales and ranking is ‘the social totem pole.’ Regardless of its name, though, the rules are pretty much the same. The more work you put in and the more power that you exert, the higher you get, along with more popularity, honor, and reverence.

But there is a catch to this high school popularity scale. And that catch is this, those at the top typically try to defend their positions, while those at the bottom may spend a lifetime trying to advance up the scale. And if those who are advancing up the scale get too high, those on the top will either rise higher still or attempt to kick the so-called losers down to the bottom of the scale where they belong.

And there is another catch to this if someone on the bottom manages to get to the top – or let us say it this way: if the whole scale and system are removed, and everyone is made equal, well… those previously on the top will become furious, envious, discontent, and full of hatred. Everything that they have worked for – all that they have done to get to the top and stay at the top will be undone, if the scale and system are removed. Removing the system and hierarchy scale would be one massive slap in the face.

But what does all of this have to do with our church service today?

Dear friends, this is precisely what is going on in our parable from the Gospel reading of Matthew.

In the twentieth chapter of Matthew, we read about a master of the house who goes out and hires a bunch of laborers. Some work long hours and other work shorter hours. Therefore, what we would expect is that at the end of the day, those who worked more should get paid first and should get paid more.  However, the order of payment is switched. Those who barely worked got paid first, and those who worked more got paid last. And to make it, even more, stranger, everyone got paid the same regardless of the amount and time of work they did.

Now, this makes no sense to us at all. The reason why?  Those who work more should get paid more and should be paid first! Right? Those who are on the top of the popularity scale should have more attention and more awe, not less! Right? The more we do should result in us moving upward! Right?

Dear friends, this would be the case if we were operating according to the world, but in verse 1 of Matthew chapter twenty, we read, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” That is to say; we are not dealing with a kingdom of power, but with a kingdom that is based on grace. And grace does not operate according to our ways of thinking. Yes, Jesus is teaching us in this parable what the kingdom of grace looks like and how it functions.

What does this specifically mean, though?

It means that with the kingdom of grace there are no such things as a high school popularity scales. There is no such thing as a dominance hierarchy with the kingdom of grace. There is no social totem pole in the church. These kinds of systems and this kind of thinking do not exist with the kingdom of heaven.     

Dear friends, when it comes to the kingdom of grace, you and I cannot and do not contribute anything. The kingdom of grace does not operate on a scale. The kingdom of grace does not look to your accomplishments, your spiritual resumes, your popularity, your status in society, the number of degrees that you have earned, or the amount of money you get in your paychecks. God does not repay us according to the size and number of works that we have done but pays us according to His goodness, grace, and mercy in Christ.

Because of this, what we typically see throughout the ages is that poor sinners are always quicker to enter the kingdom of heaven than works-righteous-scale-climbing-people. You see, those who are higher up on the scale, wrongly believe that they have many good accomplishments stored up, so that they become cocky and proud, which results in them looking down on others who have not reached the same level as them. As a result, they do not depend on grace but rely on themselves and are condemned.
On the other hand, when poor sinners on the bottom hear God’s Word, and their sins are laid bare before them, they become terrified in their conscience. And because they find no comfort in themselves and no assurance in the heights that they have climbed, they instead seek help and forgiveness from Christ Jesus and are justified.[1]

Typically, though, what ends up happening when sinners are justified freely by grace through faith is that people begin to mumble.  Yes, those at the top of the high school popularity scale and those at the top of the hierarchy dominance structure begin to grumble.  Those at the top of the social totem pole - essentially anyone who trusts in their works - begins to complain when lowlife sinners are freely justified by grace. You see, the kingdom of grace levels everyone and places all of humanity into one category. And that category is – sinner. Yes, sinners who need grace.

Indeed, the gospel is for sinners only, which is a huge amount of generosity given to us in Christ. And yet, this generosity will cause some to become envious, hateful, and embittered because God’s grace does not allow any human accomplishments to contribute to the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is all about God’s grace and mercy for us. Therefore, when sinners at the bottom are freely justified for Christ sake without merit and human accomplishments, those at the top are undercut, which results in them despising God’s grace.  Because grace is free and unearned, their thinking becomes perverted they see grace as if it were evil.

This despising of God’s grace is exactly why Cain killed Abel.[2] It is the reasons why the Pharisees judged Zacchaeus as a sinner. It is the reason why the elder brother was angry at the prodigal son.[3] It was the reason why the religious leaders were angry with Jesus. Grace is perverted and seen as evil in the minds of those who trust in themselves – grace becomes a foul odor to those seeking to prop themselves up by their own doings.[4]

Dear friends, when we think of ourselves as better than other people before God and begin grumbling and complaining about those who we believe are lesser than us – as if they have not done enough to be worthy of God’s favor – we have become hypocrites. Therefore, repent! Yes, one and all, repent of the scales, repent of the popularity mentality, repent of the social totem poles, and repent of the grumbling. This is not the way of the kingdom of heaven; this is not the way of the kingdom of grace.

Dear Baptized Saints, the truth of the matter is this, after we have done everything that we have been called to do for the Lord and His Church, we must always beat our breast and say, “I am a worthless slave; I have done only what I ought to have done.” [5] You see, these words clearly declare to us that God saves by mercy and grace in Christ alone and not by the value of our works, deeds, and accomplishments.[6]

Baptized Saints, we walk in the fear of God, knowing that if there is any good in us, it is by the gift and work of God the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments. And when we walk and serve, we shall never despair of God’s grace and mercy. You see, no matter how rejected you may find yourself in the eyes of the world’s popularity schemes and no matter how low you may find yourself on the social totem pole of the world, take comfort. Yes, take comfort, for the Lord chooses to bypass these systems and comes directly to you in His Word and Sacraments, to give you His undeserved and unmerited grace.

Therefore, dear Baptized Saints, let the world grumble. Let the old Adam murmur. Let the devil hate, for all of this is passing away and you have been given God’s grace and forgiveness on account of Jesus Christ and Him alone!

No matter if you have been in the church your whole life or if you have just begun, God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and life is yours because of Jesus. Jesus is your Christ – your Savior. No scales, no popularity needed.  No hierarchy and no huffing and puffing with your works.  Just Christ Jesus and His work for you.  Yes, only His suffering, dying, and rising – for you.

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

[1] Paraphrase of: Johann Spangenberg, The Christian Year of Grace: The Chief Parts of Scripture Explained in Questions and Answers tr. and ed. Matthew Carver (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 92.

[2] See Genesis 4.

[3] See Luke 15:11-32.

[4] Spangenberg, 92.

[5] See Luke 17:7-10.

[6] See Apology V:213.

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