God wants to give you His kingdom, though you could never have earned or deserved it. He gives it on Christ’s merits.
St. Luke 5:27-39
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
Dear Fellow Redeemed:
“Out with the old; in with the new” - one of those tired phrases. Consider if it’s useful here, or not. In our text, there’s a new disciple - Levi - who has left his old life, and a new perspective for Pharisees and Scribes to consider. In our Old Testament lesson, a new prophet for God’s people. In our Gospel lesson, a concept of God’s kingdom that is new to people. Out with the old; in with the new.
The vineyard workers who were hired first in our Gospel lesson thought they knew how things were supposed to work. At least ideally, payment for services rendered is based on merit; whoever works the most gets the most. But these workers had lent themselves out to a very unique employer. In His vineyard, the merit of the worker isn’t what’s important; it’s the generosity of the employer. That’s what has caused people who have barely worked at all to be paid as if they’d worked all day. He wants to give what hasn’t been earned. That just isn’t the way it usually works!
Of course, it’s a parable. Jesus was really talking about the way God operates. No one earns (or ever could earn) anything from Him; He gives out of His generosity. The kingdom of heaven is like that. That’s how sinners can stand justified before Him. They can’t bring anything to Him; they have no merits of their own (Isaiah 64:6). He forgives them, and gives them eternal life on Jesus’ merits (Romans 3:24).
The Pharisees and scribes in our text are thinking about spiritual things the way those first hired vineyard workers were thinking about business. They think what a person receives from God is based on merit. They think you earn from God. Our old sinful nature can only think of things in terms of how they work in this world (it needs the Holy Spirit working through Baptism and God’s Word to understand how God operates in His kingdom - 1 Cor. 2:14). So, the aim of these Pharisees and scribes (according to the old nature) is to work the most so that they might get the most - from God.
And therefore, like those first hired vineyard workers at pay time in Jesus’ parable, these Pharisees and scribes are confused at what they’re seeing from Jesus in our text. He is treating with love and respect people whose lives appear to them meritless. They are “tax collectors and sinners”. Contracting with the Roman government, these Jewish tax collectors are “traders and crooks” in the eyes of the people. Pharisees and scribes, and other God-fearing people have long ago abandoned them as hopeless and undeserving of their concern.
So these Pharisees are wondering why Jesus is concerned with them, and thinking it says something unflattering about Him. He is connecting Himself with the unsavory people.
This banquet is being held at the home of Levi, who is Matthew - the gospel writer (and Jesus’ newest disciple). Jesus has invited him to a new life. He has left behind the tax office that has made him wealthy, but also an outcast among his people (and guilty before God). He is following Jesus in repentance and faith. He has gathered fellow tax collectors to his house that they might know Jesus as well, and attain for themselves what he has come to have. While Jesus would never be condoning sinfulness or joining in with it (as the Pharisees are implying), He would very much be about the business of inviting sinners to repentance, and to becoming His followers for forgiveness and eternal life. That’s what’s going on at this banquet in our text. These won’t be among His small number of closest disciples like Levi and the other eleven, but hopefully they will be His disciples.
The Pharisees and their scribes grumble: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In His answer, for the moment, Jesus is going along with them on a presumption they have that’s false. The presumption is that, on the basis of how these Pharisees live their lives, they’re right with God. He knows they think that of themselves. So, when He says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; and, I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” He knows they will presume themselves the “well” and “righteous” in that statement. The “sick” and “sinners” are the guests at the banquet, whom they have rejected and would refuse help in any situation. Black and white, open and shut. Good people/bad people, end of story.
It’s all a little more complex than that, though. God’s kingdom isn’t made up of people who have lived impressive lives before Him. Nobody is “well” or “righteous” as far as He’s concerned (Eccl. 7:20; Jeremiah 17:9 the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?). Heaven is filled with sinners who wear the garment of Christ’s righteousness. It’s filled with forgiven people - people who have acknowledged their guilt before God, and received His mercy in Jesus, who died to pay the price of their sins. They’re not anything; Christ is.
At times, I’ve told people who were joining the church, “Don’t be surprised if you see or hear things among the people of this congregation that demonstrate sinfulness. Don’t be disillusioned. Don’t think you’re in the wrong place; you need to go somewhere else where the people aren’t ever rude, or impatient, or nosy, or selfish. Every church is nothing but a collection of sinners who are following Christ, but still have a nature that, regrettably, sometimes goes its own way. Pharisees and scribes were the ones who had time only for people who rose to a certain standard of their own making.
Our Old Testament lesson is the account of the commissioning of Jeremiah, a new prophet to God’s people. The people hadn’t listened to the old prophets, so it was in with the new prophet. The fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah don’t end on a happy note: the fall of Jerusalem, the Temple plundered and burned, God’s people taken into exile in Babylon. Along the way, Jeremiah has cried out to the Lord in anguish, even cursing the day of his birth (20:14).
The people have been a real handful, frequently threatening his life and/or imprisoning him. They have ignored (and even mocked at times) God’s attempts to reach them, and to convince them to turn from their wicked, idolatrous ways. They have provoked Him, killing any of His prophets who was willing to tell them what they really needed to hear, surrounding themselves with charlatans who tell them to do what they want and everything’s going to be okay with God. Jeremiah writes: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes (5:31)? They have finally worn out the patience of a God Whose every desire is to be merciful.
In our text the Pharisees are setting themselves up against Jesus, claiming themselves to be the godly ones rather than Him because they have mercilessly consigned Jesus’ guests to hell, and He has the nerve to try to help them. They think their loveless approach toward the lost makes them godly people; but God isn’t like them.
Consider some of the things He says through the prophet Jeremiah. Now, remember, this is a people that couldn’t be more infuriating to Him. Their course is evil, he writes. …and their might is not right. Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil, declares the Lord (23:10-11). They have regularly sacrificed their own children to a false god. They absolutely will not repent and return to the Lord. He has determined to subject them to devastation, and has pronounced it over and over and over, and they still have refused to care. They’ve written their own doom.
And yet, in the midst of it He says, I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply [He’s saying this before the disaster even happens! He already intends to restore them to Himself]. He speaks of raising up for David a righteous Branch (in our Bibles “Branch” is capitalized because it’s talking about Messiah or Christ). In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness (23:3,5,6).’ This is the God Who wants to be merciful. His salvation plan involving this people remains intact despite their persistent rebellion.
As He is preparing for them to be taken to another land against their will as slaves (a total of 4,600 of them), He is instructing them on how to have peace with Him and to eventually be brought back to their home (24:4-6). On the brink of the disaster, He sends the prophet again, saying, It may be they will listen and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds (26:3).
He speaks peaceful words to any who will listen, encouraging them with the news that after 70 years, He will bring them back (29:10). For I know the plans I have for you, He says. …plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope (29:11). I will save you, He says (30:10). I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish (31:25). He speaks of making a new covenant with them, concluding with the words: I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (31:34b). Later He says, I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul (32:41). Like a loving father, it hurts His heart to have to discipline His wayward children so harshly; but He loves them enough to do it.
Pharisees and scribes carelessly cast off the ones who don’t meet their standards without a second thought. On the other hand, God thinks like this! We see it in our Savior’s manner among the banquet guests in our text. Nothing is more worthy of His time and efforts than reaching these lost sheep and making them a part of His kingdom.
The stern warning for you in our text is don’t be Pharisees and scribes! When you’ve considered others peoples’ sins worse than your own you haven’t been acting on God’s behalf; He’s the One Whose every desire is to be merciful. He couldn’t resist saying it over and over to His people even as He was about to send them into exile. Jesus’ approach wasn’t to keep the lost at arms length, writing them off as a lost cause; it was to surround Himself with them so that He might make them His followers. He wanted their stories to be like Levi’s story, who left behind the old way to follow Him into forgiveness and eternal life.
It’s your story too. He invited you through the Spirit’s work in Baptism (or through the call of His Word). He enabled you to see beyond the way things work in this world, to see how they work in God’s kingdom, to see that God - the very unique and generous employer - wants to give you His kingdom, though you could never have earned or deserved it. He gives it on Christ’s merits. He’s the One Who was never self-righteous like you and I have been. He was never without mercy for anyone. His heart always sought to reclaim the lost to Himself for their good. His payment for them and for you on the cross was sufficient. Your sins are forgiven in Him, no matter if they’re publicly known like the tax collectors, or held close to the vest. He blood has paid your price. His righteousness is yours before God. Your old guilty verdict has been replaced with a new innocent one in Christ. God be praised. Amen.
Other Lessons for This Week:
Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me,
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
The Holy Gospel - St. Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a 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 foreman, ‘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 those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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 a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker 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.”
#426 Jesus Sinners Doth Receive
1 Jesus sinners doth receive; O may all this saying ponder Who in sin's delusions live And from God and heaven wander. Here is hope for all who grieve-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
2 We deserve but grief and shame, Yet His words, rich grace revealing, Pardon, peace, and life proclaim; Here their ills have perfect healing Who with humble hearts believe-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
3 Sheep that from the fold did stray No true shepherd e'er forsaketh; Weary souls that lost their way Christ, the Shepherd, gently taketh In His arms that they may live-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
4 Come, ye sinners, one and all, Come, accept His invitation; Come, obey His gracious call, Come and take His free salvation! Firmly in these words believe-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
5 I, a sinner, come to Thee With a penitent confession; Savior, mercy show to me Grant for all my sins remission. Let these words my soul relieve-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
6 O how blest it is to know, Were as scarlet my transgression, It shall be as white as snow By Thy blood and bitter Passion, For these words I now believe-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
7 Now my conscience is at peace, From the Law I stand acquitted; Christ hath purchased my release And my every sin remitted. Naught remains my soul to grieve-- Jesus sinners doth receive.
8 Jesus sinners doth receive. Also I have been forgiven. And when I this earth must leave, I shall find an open heaven. Dying, still to Him I cleave-- Jesus sinners doth receive.