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Emmaus Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 20:1-16
February 13, 2022
Grace and Reward

Iesu iuva!

In the Name of Jesus.

The disciples of Jesus asked Him two questions in the chapter before today’s Gospel.
The first: “How is it possible for anyone to be saved?”
The second: “What reward will we have, since we have left everything to follow you?”

Jesus’ answer to the first question: “With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God.”

Jesus’ answer to the second question about what reward the disciples would have for leaving everything to follow Him might not be what you expect.

He says:  “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28) You might have expected Jesus to say “There is no reward for good works. You receive everything by grace alone.” But it’s not true that there is no reward for good works. The disciples will have a reward for following Jesus and suffering the loss of their possessions.

And even more: not only the disciples will have a reward, but any Christian who has to leave things behind to be a Christian will have a reward. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)

However, before you get carried away, there is a “but”: But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:30)

That “but” is what the parable of the workers in the vineyard is about.

The first will be last and the last will be first because God gives eternal life by grace alone, not because we have earned it. Yet He still promises a reward for good works.

The last will be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16). This is the true God’s way. He calls into being what does not exist. He casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.

What kind of man is this vineyard owner? He starts off the way you might expect. He needs to hire laborers. So he gets up early in the morning and goes to the marketplace where you hire them. The work day begins at 6 in the morning. A day’s labor is worth a denarius. Everything so far makes sense. The vineyard owner hires some men to work a twelve-hour day for a day’s wages.

Then he does something that makes less sense. He goes out about the third hour to hire more workers. That would be nine AM, when a quarter of the workday is gone. Well, maybe he really needs workers in his vineyard. What will he pay these men? What is three quarters of a day of labor worth? The vineyard owner doesn’t say. “Whatever is right I will pay you.” The men go work for him because they are happy to get any work.

But then the vineyard owner goes out at the sixth hour and the ninth hour to hire more men. That is noon and 3 pm. With one group half the day is gone, with the other ¾ of the day. Now we know that the vineyard owner is not hiring men because he really needs their labor. He is obviously what you might call a “bleeding heart”. He wants to give people work and a paycheck even though he probably doesn’t really need them.

And then the vineyard owner makes a final visit to the marketplace at the eleventh hour, an hour before quitting time. He finds some people standing around and says, “Why are you standing here idle all day? They say, ‘Because no one has hired us.’” And he sends them into his vineyard also.

It’s hard to see how it could be true that they had been waiting all day for someone to hire them. Who would wait until one hour before work ends? Surely no one is going to hire you then. Most likely these men are in the marketplace waiting for the bars to open. Almost certainly they are people you wouldn’t want to hire.

So what we have seen about the vineyard owner is that he is kind and generous to what many of us would regard as a fault. He wants to give a paycheck to everyone. He wants to give His money away.

That’s great, except doesn’t it encourage bad behavior? Doesn’t it encourage people to wake up at noon instead of at 5 AM?

But it gets even worse, because he has everyone line up at sundown to get their pay. Payment begins with those who worked the least and ends with those who worked the longest.

And those who came at the eleventh hour get: one denarius. You can imagine how those at the back of the line must have felt. “If the vineyard owner is paying one hour of work so generously, imagine what he is going to pay us!”

Then he comes to those who worked three hours. They also get a denarius.

Then to those who started at noon: one denarius.

Then those who started at nine. One denarius. Nobody complains. They all agreed to be paid “whatever is right.” He paid them all for a day’s work when they hadn’t worked a day.

Finally the foreman comes to those who have worked all day.

One denarius. Just as they had agreed. So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matt. 20:1-16)

But the first aren’t last just because they worked the longest and were paid the same as the people who worked an hour.

They are last because the vineyard owner sends them away when they begin to grumble about him. Take what belongs to you and go (Matt. 20:14)

Go to a vineyard where the owner isn’t so gracious, since you don’t like grace. Since you want to earn instead of receiving kindness. The people who were hired at the beginning liked the wild generosity of the owner when they thought it meant they would get more. When someone else received more grace than them, they suddenly thought he was terrible and unfair.

Jesus is telling his twelve disciples and everyone who leaves house and family, everyone who has to suffer to be His disciple: “Yes, you will have a reward. There are earthly rewards and eternal rewards for good works.”

But many who are first will be last. There are many who think that what they have suffered and what they have done in God’s kingdom earns them more than others.

And that is not the case. God gives rewards for good works out of grace, without our earning anything.

And eternal life is not earned by working in God’s vineyard. Eternal life is given because God, the vineyard owner, is wildly gracious and merciful. He goes out in the early morning, the midmorning, noon, midafternoon, and even an hour before sundown, calling people into His vineyard and give them the denarius of eternal life.

Nobody earns that wage. In the previous chapter the disciples asked Jesus, “Who can be saved?” He answered, “With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God.”

The wage of eternal life would be earned by the person who not only sold his possessions but loved God more than his own life. That is the first commandment. But the disciples realized they couldn’t keep it. They were rich men in that respect. They feared to lose their lives; they loved their lives more than God. We are rich men too. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us to enter the kingdom of God.

When we enter God’s vineyard, we aren’t working for eternal life. He has called us to come receive the reward of eternal life because He is gracious. He has called us to come receive the One who has gone through the needle’s eye.

There is only one person who has earned and merited eternal life, who loved God more than not only His possessions and His own life. That person God shows us in the Gospel. He shows His Son lifted up naked on the cross. His life pours out of Him in red streams from the wounds in His body. His possessions lie beneath Him in a heap where the soldiers have divided them up. He gave up His possessions and His life out of love for God and earned the wage of eternal life.

But God invites us to receive His payment in the Gospel. He does call us to work in His vineyard, too, but it isn’t our work that earns the payment. They payment was earned by His Son’s labor, and it is given to us solely out of God’s wild kindness and generosity—His grace alone.

The first will be last and the last. Jesus was made last for us on the cross as He won our salvation by His agony. And eternal life is given apart from our works, solely by God’s generosity, His grace. And yet He promises to reward our good works.


Sometimes we think this is the end of the story. We can’t earn eternal life by our works. Even our best works are sinful if God judges them by His Law, because even when outwardly our deeds are according to the ten commandments, inwardly pride and selfish desire keep our works from being truly good. So what reward can we have for them?

But Scripture teaches repeatedly that good works are rewarded by God. Even in the catechism we say: What does God say about all these commandments? He says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” God promises to show love to those who love Him and keep my commandments. But how can we ever apply that to ourselves if we don’t keep His commandments perfectly?

This isn’t the only place He says such things. At the end of the sermon on the Mount Jesus says: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12) But how can we think we have a great reward in heaven when people speak evil against us for Jesus’ sake? How can we be sure they aren’t really speaking against us because of our own faults? And how can we have a reward in heaven for our works when all our works are filthy rags, according to Isaiah 64 verse 6?


God calls you to receive eternal life by His pure grace. You have not earned it in any way. But in His kindness He gave His Son to fulfill the Law in your place. He bore the burden of the day on Good Friday and the burning heat of God’s wrath. And out of lavish mercy, God invites you to receive this gift, to believe that He justifies you.

And when you believe it, you are righteous in His sight. And as you work in His vineyard you have the certain hope that at the end of the day He will give you eternal life, whether you have served him all your life or repented at the eleventh hour.

Yet what you suffer and the works you do in faith in Jesus are not nothing in His sight. Although if God judged them by the Law they could not earn anything, because the Father is merciful He promises to reward your good works in this life and in the life to come.

The apostles will have a reward for preaching the Gospel and dying as martyrs. They will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

And the book of Revelation tells us that Christians will have a reward for their good works in heaven, given by God’s grace. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them (Rev. 14:13). The good works of Christians are not nothing. The Holy Spirit says they follow us into eternity.

This is what the hymn of the day sang.

Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation (LSB 555 st. 6)

We can’t earn salvation. Christ has done it. But each Christian may be glad for what Jesus has done for us and build on the foundation, doing good works.

So there is great comfort in this. The gracious God who calls you into His vineyard to labor and bear the heat of the day promises you eternal life out of grace. But He also promises that He will, out of grace, remember your labor and your suffering and reward you. He gives you these promises to let you know how pleasing your attempts to do good are to Him, even though they often seem weak and useless in our sight. No, the Father wants to encourage you as you labor and suffer in this life.

Your labor in the Lord is not in vain, the Scripture says. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb. 6:10-12).

So say the Scriptures. It’s not that you earn eternal life by serving in the Lord’s vineyard, by serving other Christians. You don’t earn anything. But God in His great mercy promises to reward your work.

God gives eternal life out of grace alone, for Christ’s sake, through faith. Yet the good works you do please Him. He promises to remember and reward them.


The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria