Just a Taste
Just a taste. That's all you get in this parable according to one Early Church father. Just a taste of what? Of heaven and hell (ACC, NT, Ib, 107).
Peter's evil eye tastes hell. What evil eye? The part about an eye being evil is in the Greek and more literal translations but not in the NIV insert. The insert's, "Or are you envious because I am generous?" is the KJV's and NKJV's, "Or is thine eye evil because I am good?" And in KJV notice it's singular. Though all hired in the 1st hour grumble at being paid no more than the 11th-hour hires, Jesus only addresses one. The text says, "But He answered one of them" Peter is that one, but to know that you have to go to chapter 19.
There, a rich young man asks Jesus what he needed to do to inherit heaven. Jesus answers him based on the law because that's how the man considered it. Jesus said, "Do commandment 5, 6, 7, 8 and 4." The young man answers, "All these things I've kept. What do I lack?" Then Jesus tells him, "Go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Mat. 19:22 records the sad end to the matter: "When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth." Well, it gets sadder still. Peter pipes up, "We have left everything to follow You! What then will there be for us?" And Jesus answers: "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." And to show you how intimately our text is connected to the rich young man, chapter 19 closes with Jesus saying, "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."
At the end of chapter 19 Peter thinks he see everything clearly. He saw that the young man didn't deserve to go to heaven and that he and the apostles do. Going to heaven wasn't matter of God's free grace but a reward to works, something earned. He didn't think he could be among the many who are first now but would be last come the judgment. Then Jesus tells the parable where his sense of fairness and salvation are turned on their heads. And where a taste of heaven is given here on earth, he tastes hell. God's free goodness looks evil in his eye. How about us? Stay out of the marketplace if you don't want to find out.
In this sense, we're all agoraphobic. The Greek word for marketplace is agora. Agoraphobia is literally fear of the marketplace. It was first used in 1871 for being abnormally afraid of open or public places ("Agoraphobia." Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agoraphobia. Accessed 28 Sep. 2020). It has come to mean a generalized anxiety disorder. It doesn't have to do with our text. But our eye being evil and tasting hell where we should be tasting heaven and see God's goodness is connected to the marketplace in our text.
Jesus uses an earthly marketplace to illustrate His kingdom. "The kingdom of heaven is like" says Jesus. The 1st-hour hires are like the day laborers you've seen. When a truck pulls up, they are up and at em eager to work. But the Lord returns to the marketplace and depending on how you translate argos, he find those standing in the marketplace idle', unemployed, or lazy. Argos can depict them neutrally idle', or sinned against, unemployed', or as sinners: lazy, useless, unproductive'. However, you translate it for the 3rd-hour hires do the same for the 11th-hour hires because the same word is used by the Lord.
So, are they idle, unemployed or lazy? Are they making excuses or the victims of a bad economy? I'm going with lazy, useless, unproductive' because a parable always has an over the top element. Here the Lord goes again and again into the marketplace to find workers who are content to do nothing. You know it's a bad sign if an employee doesn't like to be busy. The employee who'd rather be busy that's who the world hires. Not Jesus. He goes to get the lazy, the unproductive, the useless at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours and even at the 11th hour. Notice, only with the 1st-hour hires does he agree to pay them a denarius, the standard wage for a 12-hour work day. With the those hired in hours 3,6, and 9, the Lord says, "I will pay you whatever is right." Does it help? Does it pop something into focus if I translate this literally, "Whatsoever should be just I will give to you"? And does it help if I point out that with the 11th-hour hires, the Lord makes no mention of pay. He just send them to work in His vineyard.
We understand the language of the earthly marketplace. We don't take a job unless the wages are specified. We know who's a good and a bad worker. We get upset when we find out someone hired later than us gets as much as we do. Texas, like all states, has an agency protecting the rights of workers. They would be all over a complaint filed by the 1st-hour hires, or would they? Tell you the truth; I'm not sure. I do know that what was fair and just in the 1st-hour hire's eyes only became unfair and unjust when it was paid to the 11th-hour hires. Their employer paid them exactly what was agreed on. But in the marketplace of the world, how long would an employer last who hired idle, unproductive, lazy people for part days and then paid them as much as those who worked all day? He'd be overrun by the freeloading type and the hard workers would avoid him, but we're not in the marketplace of the world but of heaven, and if you're not tasting it, your eye is evil.
Salvation is by grace for Jesus' sake. You can't work your way into the kingdom. The rich young man thought he could till he was shown he couldn't. Peter thought he and the apostles had. And so do we when we think there is something in us, about us that makes us different than those outside the kingdom. Others might be the proverbial brand picked from the fire, but we're lifelong Lutherans. Others might need grace upon grace we just need some grace. Others might need all of Jesus' blood and righteousness, we just need a bit here or there to cover this or that shortcoming. Other's might be Johnny-come-latelies to the vineyard but we've been here since hour one.
Okay, I'm pulling off the gloves now. Jesus illustrates here what He will say pointedly to OT church leaders in the next chapter: "I tell you that crooks and [hookers] whores are going to precede you into God's kingdom'" (MSG). Does this rather indelicate way of putting it taste of heaven or hell to you? It's heaven if you get that God saves the undeserving not the deserving; the ungodly not the godly; the unjust not the just because He saves by grace for Christ's sake. Those who think they can go to heaven because they kept their end of the deal aren't relying on grace, or Jesus, but self. They aren't looking to Jesus' perfect keeping of the law in their place but their having done their best or at least better than then next guy. They aren't looking to Jesus' suffering and dying, bleeding and crying to pay for their sins. No, they don't have that many to pay for or have contributed enough to paying off their debt.
The only way for this parable to leave even just a taste of heaven in your mouth is to run to the 11th hour. While agoraphobia doesn't have it's origins here, the 11th hour does. When we think 11th hour, we think one hour before midnight. Here the 11th hour is the 11th hour of the workday which is 5 PM but the idea is the same. It's very late in the day. And if you are bothered that those no count, lazy people only have to work one hour and they get full pay, this tastes like hell. But if you see it as even this late in the day of salvation, Jesus is calling you to come in, this tastes like heaven.
It's all about the 11th-hour hires. Only they have the Greek article with them. The English has it with the 3rd, 6th, and 9th, but the Greek doesn't have it with any of them only with the 11th. These, the 11th-hour hires, are also called the first. 11th-hours hires see they have not, could not, and can not bear the burden of the work and the heat of the day. No, Jesus had to and did do that in their place. You don't deserve to be in the kingdom. Jesus does. And He gives it to you by grace or not at all. What you might not see yet is that only the last are saved, so it's important to see ourselves as last. And it's not too late. Peter knew the rich young man was last and he and the apostles were first. Jesus assures him judging by the world's standards i.e. they had followed Jesus longer and more faithfully than the rich young man that's true. Then Jesus flips it, "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." And then He tells the parable where the last are first and the first last showing their eye to be evil if it sees this gracious flipping as evil.
Thanks be to God that in His kingdom, He keeps on going out and calling into His vineyard long, long past when it makes any sense to be doing so. Peter thinks, and so do I, he's a 1st -hour hire earning his wages. The truth is we're all 11th-hour hires. Didn't you hear that in the Collect. This thirteen hundred year-old prayer says, "without You we cannot but fall." Unless the Lord comes and gets us in the marketplace we're going to idle away our life until the door is shut to His vineyard. Without God's grace in Christ we're all rich young men who won't be saved by grace; apart from God's law showing us our sins, we'll think of ourselves as 1st-hour hires with a right to complain about grace. As the Collect says, we are only kept from falling away by the Lord's "perpetual mercy."
There it is. There's the taste of heaven. God's mercy in Christ endures forever as we say in the Communion liturgy. Go through the Communion liturgy and see how many times we ask for the Lord to have mercy upon us. When Peter opens his mouth about what they have done and what they will get he's not asking for mercy or tasting heaven. 11th-hour hires surprised to be first do both. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20201004); Matthew 20:1-16