In our collect this morning we prayed, "O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we, who justly suffer the consequence of our sin, may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name; through Jesus Christ, Your Son. Amen." This prayer, which summarizes the message of our Gospel Lesson, is very similar to Luther's explanation to the Fifth Petition of the Lord's Prayer.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.
In both of these prayers we ask that God would not give us what we deserve. We deserve nothing but punishment. We deserve the suffering we receive in this life. We don't ask for that. Instead, we ask that God would forgive us and give us all we need by grace, as a gift.
The owner of the vineyard didn't pay his workers what they deserved. He didn't cheat them either. He agreed on a days wage for those who worked twelve hours. But he paid the same wage to those, who worked one hour. Jesus isn't teaching us here how to run a business. He's teaching us what the kingdom of heaven is like. God doesn't pay us according to what we deserve. He gives to us by grace.
None of us earns a reward from God. Even if we did do everything commanded of God, mainly love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves, we could only say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty." (Luke 17:10) But we don't even do our duty, do we? So we can't even expect nothing for our payment. "The wages of sin is death," (Romans 6:23) and so we pray, "Do not pay us as we deserve."
Yet, like the owner of the vineyard, God pays us by grace. Grace does not depend on works. Rather, grace excludes works. St. Paul writes, "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Romans 11:6) So it didn't matter how many hours the laborers worked, they received by grace. And so when it comes to your eternal salvation your works don't matter either. You are saved by grace.
But the workers who labored for twelve days in the hot sun weren't satisfied with grace. They didn't want a gift, they wanted their earned pay. The Apostle writes, "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. The first workers were bitter, because they thought they should receive more than the others, who did not work. They trusted in their works. To those who came later, however, they trusted in the words of the master, "Whatever is right I will give you." The master gave to them what was right, not according to their works, but according to his mercy.
Grace is the great equalizer. It makes the last first and the first last. It doesn't matter how great you think you are, even if your works impress all people and you become the next Mother Teresa or are numbered among the saints of the Bible, God will bring you low and you will be last of all. Yet even if you find yourself burdened by your sins, certain that you deserve hell and to be numbered with Judas and Jezebel, God will exalt you. Those who are great in their own eyes will be humbled. Those who are lowly and claim nothing by their own works are exalted.
Those who trust in their works hate grace. It offends them. Why should those who do no work be paid the same as those who don't. It doesn't work that way in the real world. Indeed it cannot. If everyone received the same whether they worked or not, no one would do his fair share. Many would starve. Likewise, everyone can't be equal in this life. There have to be parents with authority over children and teachers over students, employers over employees, etc. But the kingdom of heaven works differently. In the kingdom of heaven all are equal. Those who would trust in their own works forget that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all must be saved by grace. We are equally condemned by our sins. So we must be equally saved.
There is inequality in our world, but when we enter God's kingdom of grace all are equal. The son of a king and the child of a hobo is washed in the same waters of Baptism. A boss and his employee hear the same Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. We all receive the same body and blood of our Lord, whether we are rich or poor, whether our sins are great or small. Whether we are a pastor, hearer, father, mother, son, or daughter, Christ exalts us all.
St. Paul writes in Galatians chapter three, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," not because Jesus intends to set up an egalitarian utopia here on earth. Rather, because there is, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." (Ephesians 4:5-6) We are equal, because we receive the same Christ.
If you want to trust in your works, God will pay you your wages. He'll give to you what you've agreed upon. And you'll pay the price for every sin you've committed. But if you want to trust not in your works, but in God's grace, you will receive much more than you possibly could claim from your works. Because by grace you receive Jesus.
Grace doesn't focus on works. The vineyard owner wasn't interested in how many hours his laborers worked. And so neither should they have been and neither should you be. You should be interested in Christ. Grace focuses us on Jesus. It doesn't matter how grievous your sins are, if you are Sodom and Gomorrah, the worst traitor, cheat, adulterer or murderer, God forgives all your sins for the sake of Jesus' suffering and death. Jesus becomes the focus of the one convinced that his works have failed him.
Now this teaching of grace is thought to be dangerous. If it doesn't matter how much you work, then why work? Why not keep on sinning so that grace may abound? (Romans 3:8; 6:1) Of course the one who reasons this way displays where his heart truly is. But in fact, grace frees us to do good works. Those who trust in their works box as one beating the air. They strive for a prize, but for a perishable one. But those who trust in God's grace have a prize secured for them by the blood of Christ. They are free to work and train for godliness without fear of losing the prize. It is as if they worked just the last hour of the day after the sun's scorching rays abated. In the cool of the day they work with pleasure.
Christ Jesus must be the focus of everyone who hopes to be saved, because only Christ gives eternal life by grace. Only his blood washes away even the worst sins. Only Jesus has the ability to not pay you what you deserve, but to give to you out of his own generosity.
Today is the third Sunday before Lent. During Lent we examine ourselves according to God's Law and put a special emphasis on repentance and prayer. It is of the utmost importance that during Lent we focus on Jesus. He came to earth to suffer what he didn't deserve, the punishment for each of our sins. And so as we examine ourselves according to the Ten Commandments and recognize what we justly deserve for our sins, we must always look to Jesus. He was paid the wage for each and every one of your sins. It is because of him that whatever burdens your conscience, whatever makes you feel worst among the Christians, has been paid for. Jesus took what you deserved to give you what you don't deserve by grace. As we approach Lent let us always focus on this grace.