A sermon preached by Archbishop Urmas Viilma of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church at the Service of Confirmation at St. Luke’s Church Seven Oaks, Rochester Diocese, England

Matthew 20:1-16

I am very thankful for this opportunity to participate and preach at this service of confirmation. I have hosted guests from the Diocese of Rochester and Bishop James on several occasions, however, for my wife and myself this is the first time in England on a reciprocal visit.

The gospel lesson that we heard today from the Gospel of Matthew also has an antecedent. At the end of the previous chapter the evangelist describes for us how a rich young man steps before Jesus and asks: “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus suggests the young man sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, come follow him and then he will have a treasure in heaven. The young man left in sorrow because he was rich. Peter, who sees all this, asks on his own accord of Jesus: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” (Matthew 19:27). In answering Peter’s question Jesus responds with the parable of today’s gospel lesson, and adds: “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 20:30).

Today here in this church those young people who have come to be confirmed ask like Peter: “What shall we have?” Jesus’ answer, likewise to them today, is the parable of the workers who are hired to work in the vineyard, saying, that this is a simile of the kingdom of heaven. All who agree to the terms of the householder, can begin working in the vineyard. All will receive the agreed upon wage.

In the story told by Jesus there is a lot of work in the vineyard because it is the most opportune time to gather the

The Red Vineyard, Van Gogh, 1888
The Red Vineyard, Van Gogh, 1888

harvest. It has to be done relatively quickly and with care.  For this, even today, in large vineyards, one moves for the harvest into tents amongst the vines, so that one can dedicate every moment to gathering the crop. This needs to be done at the right time – at the time when the grapes are just ripe, which lasts for only a short while. To start the harvest too early or to be late in harvesting, influences the quality of the wine extracted from the grapes.

All this was well known to those who followed Jesus. The audience knew well, that even during the most intense period of harvesting, that one could meet those in the marketplace and on the city streets, who did not wish to engage themselves with the burden of work and sought quick and high income. These kinds of people were motivated only by a high wage which outweighed their laziness. I am sure, even today, we meet up with the same kind of attitude.

The owner of the vineyard, who had a lack of workers, employed more people from the marketplace late in the evening with the same salary as those who were employed in the morning. A smaller wage would not have motivated the lazy to begin work. The harvest needed to be gathered and so the work was done with great intensity and with a large workforce. As an exception, the work was done even during “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew 20:12) as is revealed by the grumblings of the workers, who hoped at the end of the day to receive a higher wage.

In terms of human fairness, we would think likewise. It is only natural that all who worked the whole day in the scorching sun should receive a higher wage. Would the same logic apply to those who enter into membership in the church?

I come from a nation where the number of those who belong to the church decreases not just because of the general secularization of society and the individualism of the modern person. In Estonia, membership in the church drastically decreased already with the beginning of the Second World War and during the fifty years of occupation by the anti-religious, atheistic soviet forces. 30 to 40 years ago to belong to the church meant to be spiritually ready for persecution by the government. This often meant not getting the employment one wished or being left without university education and openly shamed at school or in the workforce. Still there were many who during the atheistic soviet occupation remained true to their Christian faith and were active in the church.

A quarter of a century ago when the Soviet Union collapsed and the independence of the Estonian Republic was restored many people returned to the church. For many years there lasted a “boom” in the church during which more children were baptized and confirmed in total than during the decades under the soviet regime altogether. When all these people joined the church many members of the church who had survived the open pressure and persecution of the soviet regime asked the question: “Do these new members, who have joined during the “boom” years, receive the same salary as those who suffered because of their faith under conditions of a foreign and antireligious regime?”

This is very similar to the situation in which we meet up with Jesus in today’s gospel reading:

Codex Aureus Epternacensis (detail)
Codex Aureus Epternacensis (detail)

“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.’”(Matthew 20:10-12). The householder replies: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 as I give to you.” (Matthew 20:13-14).

Jesus describes to his audience the kingdom of heaven, where the wage is not paid according to one’s contribution, the rank or importance of one’s post, neither the amount of time worked or the amount of harvest collected. This would be similar to how things are organized on earth. In the kingdom of heaven there is a different system of payment: All receive an equal salary. It is not so that all receive an equally low salary, rather all receive an equally high salary. So high, that they are unable with their own work to earn it. This is a salary not based on performance but on faithfulness!

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich young man, Beijing, 1879.
Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich young man, Beijing, 1879.

The rich man, who left Jesus in sadness, because he was not ready to give up his wealth, did not understand this, that in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus did not presuppose from him nothing other than that he should untie his heart from his wealth. The young man did not even weigh this possibility. In obedience to and in faithfulness toward God the amount of one’s wealth is not important; but the person’s relationship to that with which they are bound to in earthly terms. Those servants who started work in the morning had bound their hearts to the householder’s promise of the “one denarius”, which they hoped to receive as a wage. At the same time, it disturbed them that the householder promised the same amount to those employed in the evening. This was the attitude of a hireling, not the attitude of a faithful servant.

Christ has promised us all, who have come to His church “one denarius”. This one denarius is equivalent to eternal life!  This is the payment that we through our faith and not our work nor merits are given.

Candidates for confirmation who affirm their faith in front of their bishop*, come to the Lord’s vineyard as servants and they too are promised “one denarius”. This is the same salary that all those who have affirmed their faith before them have received and the same salary that all those who after them affirm their faith shall receive. “The one denarius”, that is, eternal life is the payment we all receive and it is not based on our contribution to the labour performed. It is God’s gracious gift given equally to all the faithful.

How could God measure out for us a little amount of life eternal? Can life eternal and bliss be divided, minced, shared out piecemeal? Then this would no longer be eternal life! Everyone receives the maximum – by the grace of God.

It is human to differentiate. It is divine to share out of grace! “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.” (John 6:47), says Jesus in the Gospel according to John. God’s grace is immeasurable and undividable; likewise it is with God’s goodness toward all who follow Him. The only thing that we can do, is to remain firm in our faith, which we have affirmed at our baptism and confirmation, and live out our lives according to Christ’s command to love one another. No works nor merit nor office nor title (even that of a bishop or archbishop) have credit before God, because these are done by and granted by people and as such are found wanting and limited. What has credit before God is faithfulness toward the Lord and the love of the neighbour. On this basis, when evening arrives and the work of the day is done, we receive our “one denarius” – everlasting life. The Lord then says to us, His servants: “Take what belongs to you, and go.” (Matthew 20:14).

God’s relationship with us is even more personal. We are not just servants but God’s children. God is our Father. In a happy family parents do not make a difference between their children based on their order of birth, sex, colour of their skin, chosen profession or any kind of distinction as such. The love of a parent is unconditional and the measure of forgiveness is without bounds.  Standing here today and each time as we do so around Christ’s table of grace, we gather together as a family who does not wait for a salary from the householder but for mercy from the Lord.

When we leave this church, we return to our professions and tasks that hold together the human order of things in the world as well as provide our daily bread. In this world, our hierarchy of office and order of society are what have force. However, in our daily tasks we cannot forget that we are as Christians brothers and sisters in Christ, baptized with the same baptism and affirmed through the same confirmation. This fellowship does not bind us with each other and with Christ only at the Eucharistic table but through our entire life.

“Come, follow Me,” says Jesus to the rich young man. (Matthew 19:21) When we answer Jesus’ call for our whole lives, then we receive the “treasure in heaven”, which He gives equally to all, measured out of grace, “the one denarius”, that is, eternal life!