Here’s the thing about God: when He deals with His creation—when He deals with you—He’s not fair, but He is just. That should be welcome good news to your ears, dear listeners. If God were to deal with you fairly, He would deal with you solely by the law; in His fairness, you would receive from His hand exactly what you deserve, in fullest measure. But, He deals with you justly—out of His divine righteousness, which is His Son, Jesus Christ—with all grace and mercy. If what God had to give you depended on His fairness, then what you receive from Him depends solely on you—not the least of which concerns your eternal salvation. But, since He deals with you out of His divine justice, you are declared forgiven and given all the benefits of salvation for the sake of Jesus Christ.
To illustrate this point, Jesus tells a parable: He compares God to a landowner who needed workers for his vineyard. He finds some at the beginning of the work day and agrees with them on a day’s wage—one denarius. Finding he needed more workers, he goes again and finds men being idle in the marketplace and hires them. Notice what the landowner says here: “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” He will give them whatever is “right,” and the word there also means just, as in justified, as in declared righteous. He does this three more times throughout the day, the last being with about an hour left in the work day...“[W]hatever is right you will receive.”
So, the end of the work day comes in Jesus’ parable, and it’s time for the landowner to pay the workers. The men hired last are paid first, and they receive one denarius. Down the line, to a man, those hired last and those hired first all receive one denarius—a day’s wage. Of course, the men at the end of the line aren’t too happy with this arrangement, even though it’s what they agreed to, and they complain. They worked longer and harder; in their minds, they deserve more than the deadbeats that only showed up for an hour of work.
This is when the landowner reveals his righteousness:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?
“Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” That’s an interesting question. And here’s the reason the landowner asks it: the workers were turning his generosity and graciousness into the law. In essence, the landowner is asking them, “Is there something that prohibits my graciousness to those whom I call to work for me? Is there a law that says I can’t do this?”
“Or is your eye evil because I am good?” Oh, jealousy; such sin that has you turn an evil eye to the goodness of others. We find it difficult to understand how anyone can deal equally with anyone, especially when not all deserve equal treatment. Would children not complain for receiving the same allowance for fewer or more chores, or easier or more difficult chores? Who could sit through a class where the teacher or professor gives everyone A’s no matter how much classwork or homework they did or how much of the test they completed or completed correctly? Likewise, who would want to work for a boss who pays everyone the same amount regardless of degree, tenure, hours worked in a day, or difficulty of the job? Yet, that’s exactly how God pays those whom He has called to faith.
The kingdom of God is like and landowner who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hires throughout the day, and at the end of the day, they each receive the same wage. God calls men to faith in all stations and stages in life. Some of us have been Christian and even Lutheran from the moments of our infant baptism. Some of us may have been baptized later in life. And there are some who do not know the grace of God until they are moments from death. There are some who labor tirelessly in the Church, some who do little more than warm a pew on Sunday (and many in between). And when our last hour comes, we all receive the same wage, life eternal in His presence and that of His Christ, our Lord Jesus.
We don’t expect it, as experience tells us otherwise: you’re rewarded for your work and experience, your time and your talent. We don’t understand it, as it runs counter to how we think things should go. In fact, there are times when we are flat-out angry, as it is unfair that others who are not like us should be treated just like us. But these are not the ways of God. We hear from Isaiah:
For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways," says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
No, we come at it from a standpoint of fairness. We should each get what we deserve. In God’s divine justice, we certainly could get what we deserve. St. Paul lays it out for us: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a) That would be ours if God treated us fairly—if He treated us according to the law. Only those who keep the law perfectly deserve God’s favor, and none of you keep the law perfectly.
The good news, dear hearers, is that God does not treat us out of a sense of fairness, but from His divine justice—His divine righteousness, which, as I mentioned, is His Son Jesus Christ. As St. Paul also put it, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23b) Jesus Christ is God’s gift to you, which you received at your baptisms, be it early in this life or late, whether you have devoted your life to the work of the church or you simply warm a pew on Sundays. And, at the end of days, to all who are baptized and believe, Jesus grants entrance into the eternal paradise of His presence—the wage of His righteousness. This is because all receive the same death and resurrection, the same baptism, the same body and blood, the same forgiveness, and all of it is given by God’s grace, received by God-given faith, for the sake of Jesus.
You see, this is how God’s justice and righteousness work. “The wages of sin is death,” and Jesus Christ paid the price in full for all. The other way to look at it is that Jesus, your righteousness, took into His flesh the sins of all and all sinfulness, every spot, blemish, and sin-caused cancer and illness, and died on the cross to remove these from you permanently. Oh, to be sure, you still struggle with sin and suffer its effects, but these all have been taken from you so that in its place, you have the righteousness of Christ and eternal life. Oh, what grace! In place of death, you have life; in place of sin, forgiveness; in place of damnation, salvation. Your debt of sin has been paid; all that’s left is to collect the wages of righteousness—Jesus Christ’s righteousness—forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Therefore, when God deals with you, He does so as if He were dealing with His own Son, Jesus Christ. You receive from His hand what He rightly earned and deserved. And this is the case no matter what stage or station in life from which you were called and chosen. And this is cause to rejoice, because if God will grant eternal life to one who is received by baptism into Him mere hours from death, how much less will He grant one who has lived in his baptism his entire life? It is just that all whom He calls to faith in Jesus Christ receive eternal salvation. Therefore, we rejoice because we have all put on Christ; we are all righteous for Jesus’ sake. He, in our places, suffered the full wrath of God, receiving from His hand the “fairness” due us, and gave us peace with God in its place.
Therefore, it my joyful duty to announce to every one of you, whether you have spent your entire lives in the church or whether you have recently been added to the kingdom of God, whether you give tirelessly of yourself for the advancement of the kingdom or you are here only on Sundays: you are all forgiven for all of your sins!