The Caveat to Degrees of Glory
Much is made in some circles of the so called degrees of glory. Our Lutheran Confessions do admit there are degrees of glory: "We teach that good works are meritorious - not for the forgiveness of sins, grace, or justification...but for other physical and spiritual rewards in this life and in that which is to come, as Paul says (I Corinthians 3:8), 'Each shall receive his wages according to his labor.' Therefore there will be different rewards for different labors." What are we to make of this teaching? Should we emphasize it as some churches do? I think the text for this 18th Sunday after Pentecost is calling us to be careful with this teaching. You've heard the Latin phrase caveat emptor, "let the buyer beware." I'd like to propose a new one: caveat mercenarius, "let the hireling beware."
There are degrees of glory. Jesus promises as much in the verses right before our text. Matthew 19:16-22 is the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus as a good teacher. He wants Jesus to tell him, "What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life." Jesus attempts to show the young man that he can't be saved by doing things by telling him keep the commandments. This preaching of the law doesn't strike home, so the young man asks which ones? Jesus then lists 5 commandments. The young man says, "I've kept them all, so what else?" In a last ditch effort to show the man his sin Jesus says, "Sell all you own, give it to the poor, and follow Me." This was a commandment too big for even this proud young man to keep, so he went away from Jesus in despair.
Peter and the disciples are listening to all this. It dawns on Peter that they have left everything and followed Jesus, so he asks Jesus, "What will there be for us?" Jesus amazingly says that Peter and the rest of the apostles will sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. The apostles won't be walking around heaven with the rest of us run of the mill saints; they will be sitting on thrones with Christ. But there's more! Jesus goes on to make grand promises that apply to others besides the apostles: "Everyone who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life." These don't receive glory to the degree that the apostles do, but they do receive more than those Christians who haven't left families for the sake of Christ.
No one out gives Jesus. No one suffers for Jesus and is not repaid a hundredfold. Every tear shed in Jesus' name is not just wiped away but rewarded. Every barb, every insult, every pain suffered in Jesus' name is not only not forgotten by Him but rewarded by Him way out of proportion to what it cost us. Jesus plainly says this, but then He adds a caveat, a warning, in the verse right before our text, "But many who are first will be last and the last, first." These words stand the things Jesus has just said on their head. Who is last but the rich man who walked away in despair? Who is first but Peter and the apostles who really had left everything to follow Jesus? But there are first who will be last and last who will be first. What does this do to degrees of glory in the next life?
Jesus is leading them to make a very important transition. They were focused on degrees of glory or reward. Jesus wants them focussed on grace instead. The parable Jesus tells right after saying "many who are first will be last and last who will be first" is all about God's grace. While there are degrees of glory, there are no degrees of grace.
Grace is not something we humans can get our head around. We always try to explain grace, to make it make sense to us. You can see confirmation kids do this. If I walk into class and give 5 dollars to one student, they will ask, "How come?" If I say, "Because of grace; I wish to be gracious to this student." They will immediately say things like, "O he must have done real well on the test." Or, "It's because she didn't act up like the rest of us." Or, "Because you like him better." They will eventually get to things like he has the same initials as you, he is taller or shorter, she wears glasses like you do, he likes to hunt like you do. The more I will insist it's out of grace that I've given the student the 5 dollars the more the kids strain to explain it by works.
Grace cannot be explained by anything to do with the person. Grace is in God's heart. It originates there. It goes out from there. Those who worked 1 hour get the same as those who worked 12 hours because of grace. Those who worked 9, 6, and 3 hours get the same as those who worked 12 hours, out of grace. Even those who worked 12 hours get what they do only out of grace, since the Lord owns the vineyard and doesn't have to give anyone at all the privilege of working in it. In fact, since He is the Lord, He doesn't have to pay anyone anything if He didn't wish to.
Since grace is found in God's heart and cannot be merited by a person, it cannot be decreased or increased by what is or isn't lacking in a person. By expressing this in a parable set in the business world, Jesus makes this statement all the bolder. According to the laws of business, you can't pay the guy who works 1 hour what you pay the guy who does the same job for 12 hours. It would not be fair. The Law, not just business law, deals in terms of fairness. Grace is about God's mercy, God's love, God's kindness. No one can have a right to grace; no one can earn grace; no one can deserve grace. So, no one can say grace is not fair because grace belongs all to God and He can give it to whomever He wishes.
Try as you may, struggle as you might, think as hard as you like and you are never going to get your head around grace. It is just to wonderful for us. It's just too far beyond our understanding of things. The kingdom of the world does not and cannot operate on the principle of grace, but the kingdom of heaven does. And it really shows itself not in the first, third, sixth, or ninth hour hirelings, but in the 11th hour ones. The expression "11th hour" as used in an "11th hour appeal," an "11th hour" effort comes from this parable. An 11th hour anything is a last ditch thing, a hopeless and helpless situation. It's in these helpless, hopeless sort of things that grace shines so brightly. God's grace shines brightest in the life of the murderous Saul, the cheating Zacheus, and the adulterous woman.
When you speak of degrees of glory, you can't help but focus on the person. When you speak of grace all focus is on the God of grace, Jesus Christ. Who really is the first in the kingdom of heaven but became the absolute last? Who but Jesus Christ? Who is True God, begotten from the Father from eternity, but became True Man born of the lowly Virgin Mary? Who did all angels, archangels, and devils too bow in submission before? But who became the last, the absolute worst sinner in the eyes of God? Who but Jesus, became sin, a worm and no man before the Holy Father because He bore all the dirt and filth of our sins? Who but Jesus is the first in the kingdom of heaven but became the last for us men and our salvation?
The fact that Jesus, the First Son of God the Father from all eternity, became the absolute last by bearing all your sin, guilt, and shame is found in the context of our text. Immediately after ending the parable Jesus says again in verse 16, "So the last will be first and the first will be last." Then in verse 17 Jesus starts talking about how He will suffer going on to say, "The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him." Immediately Jesus begins to talk about the humiliation He, the very essence of holiness, will suffer for our sakes. So, dear friends, when you want to start talking about the first being last, you must think first and foremost of your Jesus. He the First became last to redeem us poor miserable sinners who in no way deserved to be redeemed. All we could ever deserve is what we say we do every Sunday: temporal and eternal punishment.
Likewise, when you wish to start talking about the last who became first, you must first think of Jesus. This too is directly connected to our text. The verse right before our text is where Jesus first says, "Many who are first will be last and the last first." In the verses immediately before this, Jesus starts talking about His exaltation. He speaks of Himself, the lowly Son of Man who has no place to lay His head on earth sitting on a glorious heavenly throne.
The Son of Man is the last, the least in the kingdom of heaven because He humbled Himself to bear our sins and sorrows. The Son of Man would be betrayed by His best friend, rejected by the Church, mocked and tortured by the Gentiles, and crucified to death while suffering the pains of eternal damnation. God the Father passed over us. He put all the world before His only beloved Son and then poured out all of His wrath against our sins upon the tender, holy body of His Son. Christ was dead last as He hung lifeless on the cross. No one was behind Him. No one was worse than Him, not even you. But this One who was last God exalted Him to first. He was put on the glorious throne of heaven to reign and rule over heaven, hell, earth and universe. Jesus who was last became first to show us that He had successfully redeemed sinners. He regained His rightful first place and He took our flesh and blood with Him.
Who really is first but became last? Who really was last but became first? Does any man, woman, boy or girl, sinner or saint dare claim it's them? Can any of us claim to be first in the kingdom of heaven? No all of us must line up behind, way behind, Jesus. All of us must confess He and He alone deserves all praise, glory, honor, and worship.
That's probably relatively easy for you to see, but it's just as important that none of us try to claim last place either. Do any of you think that you're a worse sinner than Jesus? Do you think the Father somehow crucified the wrong One? Do you think you have more sins than Jesus bore? Do you think Jesus didn't carry that lust, that pride, that falleness that plagues you everyday of your life making you feel like you must be the last and least in the kingdom of heaven? No, no, no, Jesus was the absolute last. You can't have that place. Jesus must have it. You are minimizing the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus when you think the sinfulness that you are so keenly aware of somehow puts you in last place. Nope, Jesus bore that too.
Caveat mercenarius, hireling beware! There are degrees of glory. Jesus plainly says there are, but beware of focusing on them. If we do, we end up doing what Peter did, focusing on ourselves. Even though Peter did that Jesus still went on to assure him that no one out gives or out suffers Him, but then Jesus added that all important caveat. The real glory of God is to be gracious to sinners who in no way could ever deserve it. So whether His grace found you in the first, third, sixth, ninth or even the 11th hour, being in His vineyard is what counts. Though we can't get our heads around this, our mouths can confess it, and our hearts can rejoice in it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVII (9-22-02), Matthew 20:1-16