Philip Casmer

We Will Say, “Salvation Comes from the Lord!”

by Philip Casmer on September 24th, 2023
Matthew 20:1-16

The prophet Jonah is one of my favorites, but probably for all the wrong reasons… For instance, this is the best: after running away from God’s command to preach, Jonah finally did preach to the evil Ninevites (and that’s not just Judeo-centric misjudgement – the Ninevites did gross, bad things) – but they repented and God didn’t destroy them – and that made Jonah mad… “I knew this would happen! … Just kill me now…” he says. And actually it’s worse than all that. Because God answers to him with a question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” And, like some sullen teenager, he stomps up the stairs, slams the door, and posts up at his bedroom window, frown on face to wait for the whole world to conform to his whims… and to God he says not a thing. Finally, like a patient parent God repeats his question. And Jonah answers: “It is [right for me to be angry], And I’m so angry I wish I were dead!” And, in Jonah’s eponymous book, that’s his last word!

Now, that is the best! Doesn’t answer the Lord Almighty at all; then answers all pouty pants that people didn’t get lasered to death by the Almighty? Who does that? Well, I do… I too have pouted plenty about things that are much more of a “shade-plant” variety than worrying over “a city’s eternal destiny.” But it’s not really the pouting that’s the problem – it’s the attitude behind it; the one that’s very concerned about what I’m supposed to get. The one that says, “This isn’t right, this isn’t justice!” 

That’s a big concern of ours isn’t it? We’ve even woven it into our national fabric: “I pledge allegiance to the flag…etc. etc. with liberty and justice for all.” As Americans we’ve ordered our entire nation on this principle – things will be just – which is a good design. But we also learn to mean it very specifically. We mean how things ought to be – in our lives, with our work, between our siblings, even in what we expect from God. And the problem isn’t that we want justice / equity – they’re good concepts, biblical concepts – it’s that what we want often works like this

Do you remember that show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”? To me it was memorable because it was one of the first TV shows that made over someone’s home unbeknownst to them. While the family was away, Ty Pennington would remake the family’s home in like 48hrs. And then there’d be that big reveal. Mothers and fathers would cry for joy and children would scream over their new triple-decker bunk beds or whatnot and viewers’ hearts would melt and tears would flow… It was this extravagant outpouring of “mercy” after a fashion – they’d never have been able to afford it – but here’s (usually) the house they’d dreamed of…

Here’s the thing, though… Who’d they do that for? Well, it was John & Jenny’s family – who each are working 3 jobs and 478hrs a week, while also serving in 2 soup kitchens and running a small non-profit for rehabilitating depressed laboratory mice… And they would have 17 children each of whom are wearing fourth generation hand-me-down socks and have only ever seen a Nintendo from 100yds away… oh, and sometimes it all happened after a tragic death/fire/tornado… Conversely, the object of mercy was never “Bob who lives in his mom’s basement, he’s 48 and he’s failed-to-launch,” nor was it ever “Gina, 3x tax cheat just getting out of a brief prison stay…” or worse. Let’s be honest. It’s good to help people. We’re just tempted to do it when we deem them worthy… And sometimes, we can become quite concerned that they’re not as worthy as we are.

That’s the story God’s telling through Jesus’ parable this morning. The landowner calls workers into his vineyard to work – agrees on a day’s wage, nothing extravagant – calls more and more throughout the day, even to the very last hour. Then, he pays them – last hired to first hired. You know why? So those hired first, who’d worked longest, could see that those lazy bums who only worked one hour got paid a whole day’s wage too… So that perhaps they would begin to dream that, at this vineyard, impossibly somehow the going rate might just be one day’s wage per hour! And they might dream what a happy evening it would be if they came home with twelve day’s wages in their pocket!  How wonderful to swing by the store on the way home and be able to afford sweet treats for each of the kids, maybe even some flowers for the Mrs., a bottle of red a bit better than the 2 Shekel Shlomo they’d normally share. Perhaps that was all twinkling there, in their eyes… But they got paid what they’d agreed. And they were upset. Not that they didn’t get paid enough, per se. Their concern was this: “These last guys worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us, us who have borne the whole day’s burden under the burning sun.” If that’s what they get, then we deserve more!

You know why Jesus told this parable? Because Peter said almost the same thing in the chapter just before this one. It was after that rich young man went away sad because Jesus had diagnosed his problem: concerned with money and reputation and ability. “Sell it all and follow me,” Jesus had said. But in the end, it was “[e]asier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter heaven…” You remember? It struck Jesus’ disciples. They said, “If this really good guy can’t get into heaven, who can be saved? ” But Peter expressed the most personal concern, “Forget about anybody else… Look, we’ve left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Don’t you ask that question too? What is there for you? Because working in God’s kingdom is sometimes hard and burning hot work. You follow all the rules in the classroom, behave, and do the homework – not only on the days you want to – you should get a good grade, right? If your classmate spent half the days sleeping and most recesses pulling others’ hair but still got an “E” just like you under “Attitude and behavior”, well…  You read God’s Word and trust God’s Word; you order your whole life and family and work under its principles – you do family devotions, you set up the gym when it’s not even your tribe’s turn. And the guy who hates Christians and mocks you comes ‘round to Jesus in a deathbed confession and receives just the same? “What’s in it for me?” is surely in your mind. You just say, “Why’s there any in it for him?” and “Don’t I deserve more?”

It’s tempting to think that way about yourself – by how hard and long you’ve worked, to calculate what you deserve, even to measure your worth by where you come from (like in our 2nd lesson). It stands to reason that it should be this way – pay to play, reward for work, merits for those who do more… At least that’s how we reason… And when it turns out not that way, to be angry like Jonah is tempting – to demand destruction for the “undeserving”; or the response of those workers – that covetous eye and scolding God because of what he dared to give to someone else.  Which makes no kind of spiritual sense because, as Paul said, “[This whole relationship to God thing] does not…depend on human desire or effort…” (Ro 9:16) Not one single bit…

This parable isn’t hard to understand. The landowner’s word is simple: “I want to give the one 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? Or are you envious because I am generous?” God doesn’t work in the way of the world. Instead, he works, then he gives, and – whether we’re in his employ longtime or short – we simply receive. And so that no grumpy and unbelieving word like Jonah’s be on our lips, the parable’s a warning – “The last will be first and the first will be last.” If there’s a hard thing it’s that – there’s no excuse, no bargaining, no merit of your own, no comparisons except between you and God, and just this reality: Paul’s words again, “It does not…depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” It’s all mercy from sunrise to sunset – or nothing at all. And perhaps that ought to leave us who have often griped in envy a little bit speechless. Or, better yet, seeking the right thing to say…

How about a word from Jonah again? I know that might sound a little sketch, given what you read from him this morning. But, you know, when God caught the fleeing prophet with a fish, from the belly of that big fish Jonah had really good words. In ch.2 of his book, he called out in his distress – when all he had was failure and his sin and death – and God answered. And, among other things, Jonah said, “I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.” You know? As though that were the theme of life – when you recognized you had nothing left except God’s gracious rescue – and he gave it! That’s what you’d talk about…

What a good word for our lips too! From the sins that swallow us up and make us despair in the dark and the filth that we are no worth at all, we will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” And we’ll mean love that remembers none of our sin and throws it all into the bottom of the sea and rescues us – mercy that’s more than we deserve. Or from the midst of our fields, as we carefully work in the Lord’s vineyard and endure the heat of these days with the people roaming all over the place and doing all sorts of things, we will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” And we’ll mean how patient is our Father, and how welcoming he is – of them along with us – mercy that’s more, enough for the vile or the poor. From the hillside moments we each experience, where we watch from afar as God is at work doing the same for others as he’s done for us, we will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” And we’ll mean Jesus’ rich kindness, who gave his precious blood as the payment of the debt none could afford – mercy that’s more than what any has done – and it was done for everyone.  And we’ll say it because it’s good enough to be our theme – the word on our lips, the spirit beneath our work, the joy of our hearts.

Because this is the way God’s kingdom works: he freely gives his mercy and love – on a gracious measure that’s all his own – to people like us who are just as much “last” as anybody else – in a way far more than we could ever ask or imagine. That’s all Jesus is saying – and all he is inviting us to know and love… All so that you and I will say things like, “Praise the Lord!” and “His mercy is more!” and “Thanks be to God!” and “Salvation comes from the Lord!” and “Amen…”

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