daily biblical sermons

We will all be equally justified by faith, not by works, but sanctified and rewarded according to our works
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Sunday, the 25th Sunday of the Year, September 24, 2023
Isaiah 55:6-9, Psalm 144 (145), Philippians 1:20-24, 27, Matthew 20:1-16


Biblical citations are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:1-16).



This is an intriguing and very meaningful parable. First of all, though, it will probably strike most people as unfair. Shouldn’t those who worked eleven hours in the hot sun be paid more than those who worked only one hour in the cool of the evening? But Jesus looks at things differently.



The denarius that the original group agreed upon was the daily wage for a day laborer. In other words, this should supply him with what he would need to buy food for himself and his family for one day.



All these men who worked in the vineyard presumably had families that they had to support by their work. Now if a man was only able to work for one hour and therefore received only one twelfth of a denarius, he would not have enough money to buy food for himself and his family for that day. This landowner is very generous and sees the need of these men for a full day’s wage, even though they may only be able to work for one hour, because they weren’t hired earlier. So he gives them all a full day’s wage.



This is not unjust, for he agreed with those who came early on one denarius for a day’s work. This they received. But those who came at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour also received a denarius, because of the generosity and compassion of the vineyard owner so that they would be able to feed themselves and their families for that day.



But I think that the deeper meaning of this parable lies elsewhere. We know from the teaching of the New Testament that we are justified before God by our faith, not by our works, for none of us is able to justify himself before God by his works, because our sins out way our works and disqualify us from justification.



So in his mercy God sent his Son to justify us by his work on the cross. What work did he do on the cross? He suffered in our place for us the penalty that our sins deserve, when we put our faith in him. So as St. Paul clearly teaches, justification comes by faith, not by works, because of the work of Christ on the cross. When God sees that our sins have been justly paid for and their punishment has been justly suffered for us by his Son on the cross and sees our faith in his Son, he declares us ungodly sinners righteous.



This declaration that we are righteous justifies us. This is our justification. This justification comes to us by our faith, not by our works. The only work involved is Christ’s work on the cross. I think that this parable is trying to illustrate this important point. All these men who were hired late were paid not according to their work but according to God’s generosity and mercy, when they faithfully accepted his invitation and went into his vineyard.



This parable is not about what God will pay us at the end of the world at the final judgment, for that will be done according to our works, “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (Matthew 16:27 NKJV).



Rather this parable is an illustration of the doctrine of justification by faith, not by works. This justification is not our final reward, but something that happens to us at the beginning of our new life in Christ. And this justification will be equal for everyone who has faith in Christ, for it has nothing to do with our works. Everyone’s justification is equal to everyone else’s. We are clothed with the righteousness of Christ through faith, because of his death on the cross for our sins.



“True faith in Christ, though it be but a day old, justifies a man before God as completely as the faith of him who has followed Christ for fifty years” (JC Ryle, 1816-1900, emphasis in the text).



“The righteousness in which Timothy will stand at the day of judgment, is the same as that of the penitent thief [on the cross]. Both will be saved by grace alone. Both will owe all to Christ” (JC Ryle).



But holiness is another matter. We grow in holiness, and some will grow more than others; and on the final day we will be rewarded according to how much we have grown in holiness, and this growth requires cooperation with grace in doing good works in accordance with God’s biblically revealed moral law.



So “let us beware of supposing, from this parable, that all saved souls will have the same degree of glory … All will not have the same place in heaven. ‘Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his labor’ (1 Corinthians 3:8)” (JC Ryle, emphasis added).



Nor should we conclude from this parable that we can put off our conversion until we are on our death bed so that we can enjoy all our favorite sins and then at the last-minute convert and be justified like everyone else who puts his faith in Christ, and so get to heaven. Who knows if we will have a chance to convert? We may die in a sudden accident or by a heart attack. Besides, our glory in heaven will be greater the holier we are, and we grow in holiness by living a good moral life, serving God and our fellow man.


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