Saved by God's Grace Alone (Matthew 20:1-16)
Rev. James Barton

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

The Scripture passage before us is pretty straightforward. Jesus tells a parable of a master of a house who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. The typical work day for day laborers was 12 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and he and the workers agreed on what they would be paid, an average pay for that time. The master kept on hiring more workers as the day went on, including some who worked only one hour, from 5-6 p.m. When it came time to be paid, everyone received the same pay. 

Those who worked for 12 hours in the hot sun were grumbling and complaining, though they had received the agreed-upon wage. The master simply said, “Don’t I have a right to be generous with what is mine?” We would probably agree with the unfairness of what the parable described – (why should one hour’s work be equal to 12 hours’ work?) –  until we realize that, in context, Jesus is teaching about receiving salvation and eternal life. 

Note the little word at the beginning of Chapter 20, “For.” This ties this parable back to Chapter 19 and a question Jesus was responding to there. A wealthy man had come to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus reminded him that there was only one God, who is good, and showed the man that he was not nearly as good and “perfect” as he thought he was (Matthew 19:17-22).

The disciples thought that wealth was a sign of being richly blessed and acceptable to God. They were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:23-25). And we hear that Jesus looked directly at them – he wanted them to hear this – and said, “With man this is impossible” (Matthew 19:26). None of us can earn our salvation or contribute to it, no matter how hard we try or how much we do. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, the Scriptures say (Romans 3:22-23). And an Old Testament Psalm , Psalm 49:7-9, says, “Truly no man can ransom another or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever.”

“With man, salvation is impossible,” Jesus said, but then He added, “but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). It is God’s work, alone, that saves, through Jesus. The Scriptures say it so often. Paul writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive, together with Christ – by grace you have been saved… through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9).

The temptation is always there, though, to think that we surely have to add something to what God has done, to earn some of this on our own. In fact, right after Jesus said, “With man, salvation is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed You. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27) – as if they surely will earn something better than others by all their efforts. 

It is a temptation even for churches and church groups and for all of us, still today. Some say that we must make the first move toward God, as an act of our will and decision, before God will act for us – though we have already heard that we are dead in our trespasses and sins and cannot make that move. Instead, we have new birth, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).

And then there are churches that go much farther and say that we are really saved by God’s grace, plus many other things that we must do, since, in their view, God hasn’t taken care of our sins entirely, and we likely might even end up suffering in another place, if we haven’t paid for all our sins – though the Scriptures say that “the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

And there is the temptation to focus, properly, on Law that shows our sins, and then Gospel, that shows our Savior, Jesus – but then go right back to the Law, as the motivation for our Christian life and living, so much that we begin to wonder if we are truly Christian unless we really shape up and do this and that – while the Scriptures say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) and “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

Jesus was really responding, in our parable, to Peter and his thoughts and so many other distortions of how we are saved. He put the emphasis clearly on God’s grace, His generosity. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15). We dare not, for it is only through His generosity, His grace, that we are saved. With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

Jesus made that even clearer right after our text, when He predicted for the third time about Himself: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priest and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18-19). 

Twice Jesus said, at the end of Matthew 19 (v. 30), and again at the end of our text (Matthew 20:16), “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Jesus seemed to be “last” and one who had lost entirely, when he suffered as a common criminal on the cross. Yet He rose on the third day as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, clearly the “First” among all, in His Easter victory over sin and death and Satan. 

This is a good reminder to us in this life not to keep our focus on the rich and the powerful and the famous and influential, because the “first” can so quickly become the “last.” We are called to keep our focus on Jesus and His Word and His grace for us. He always remains “First,” as our Lord and Savior. 

The disciples still didn’t get what Jesus was saying and doing for them, and they argued, later in Chapter 20, about which of them deserved the best spots in heaven (Matthew 20:20-24). And Jesus had to say to them, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life, as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). And in spite of their confusion, He still went to the cross to make the sacrifice for them and for us all, as the Son of God, who alone could pay the price to ransom us all and save us all by His grace. As our Old Testament lesson said, He will abundantly pardon us for all our sins, because His thoughts and ways, His grace and love, are so much higher than our own (Isaiah 55:7-9).

Paul knew all of that in our Epistle Lesson for today. He was in prison because of his Christian faith as he writes this letter (Philippians 1:12-14). He is confident about His eternal life, because of the grace of God given to Him. He says, “To me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:12-14). It would be better for Paul to depart this life and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23); however, he thinks he will get out of prison and continue his work, and he is motivated not by the Law, but by the Gospel. By God’s grace and blessing, he can help more people in their progress and joy in the faith of the Gospel and point more people to salvation that comes from God through trust in Jesus and His grace alone (Philippians 1:24-26, 28-29).

The same is true for all of us, in Christ. Martin Luther wrote, based upon our text, “All of us are so wonderfully equal in the grace of Christ. None of us has a different or better baptism, Gospel, faith, sacrament, or a different Christ and God. We all hear the same Word of God, and God deals with us not on the basis of merit, of what we can do or can’t do, but solely and alone according to His grace and mercy.” Our eternal future is secure in Christ, and we have such a great treasure in Him – and a treasure we can share together, as Paul says, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel” (Philippians 1:27), and encouraging and praying for one another. 

Let us rise for prayer. “Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds safe, only where they are safe, in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Philippians 4:7).