In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. Deep down in the conscience of nearly all people is an innate desire to be justified. As a general rule, humans care how they are perceived by others. When a neighbor perceives us to be in the wrong, we go to great lengths to explain our side of the story and clear our name—because we want to be justified. If we are treated poorly by a friend, we may lament that their treatment of us was unjust—because we want to be justified. When we can’t come to terms in our own mind with something we have said or done, we will do whatever mental gymnastics we must to justify our words or actions in our mind—because we want to be justified. We want what’s right. We want what we deserve. We want others to perceive us in the best possible light. We want to be able to live with ourselves and our own words and actions. We want to be justified.
2. The trouble is, the human pursuit of self-justification rarely works out well. When we have said or done something wrong in the eyes of a neighbor and we go to great lengths to explain our side of the story and clear our name, our efforts are almost always counter-productive. We come across as defensive or desperate, digging the proverbial hole deeper. When we seek justice from a friend who has treated us poorly, our pursuit of self-justification is often met with hostility. We degrade our friendship. When we do our mental gymnastics to justify our own words or actions which we know to be wrong, there are always consequences. We live in a make-believe world. We bury our hurt and call it strength, though that buried hurt becomes a life-sucking cancer within us. Our efforts of self-justification rarely work. They make us look defensive and desperate when our goal is the opposite. They damage our relationships. They cause us to become delusional and deniers of the truth. Not only does it rarely work, but the pursuit of self-justification is always damaging.
3. Our Lord’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard also highlights the dangers of self-justification not just temporally, but also eternally. The laborers who work the heat of the day have a strong desire for justice. They believe that they have earned what they deserve by their own sweat. They are upset when those who have not put in equal work are given equal wage. They want the Lord to be just and fair in His giving of wages. They have earned their wage. They believe that all others should do the same. They believe that they are in the right. So, their attitude of self-righteousness leads to pursuit of self-justification.
4. But those who rely upon self-justification will receive their due and no more. The laborers who were hired first get precisely what they deserved. They agreed to work for the day and to receive the just payment of one denarius. When the day of labor ends, they are begrudgingly content to take what now justly belongs to them and go. And yet, is not the wage they have justly earned also their punishment? A day laborer, not unlike an hourly employee today, earns a wage each day that he works. But when the laborer has soured the relationship with his employer, where will he go to receive his next day’s wage? Where will he find work to put food on the table for his family? The laborers who were hired first received what they deserved and no more. The day’s wage was paid, but after they go according to the command of the Lord of the vineyard, they will not be invited to return to His vineyard to work without a humble change in attitude.
5. And then there are those who were hired at the eleventh hour. They are those who lazily stood all day in the marketplace. They purposefully avoided work during the heat of the day. As day laborers who still needed to feed their families, there is no explanation for their idleness short of lazy neglect. These laborers hired at the eleventh hour were useless, even despicable, workers. But at the call of the vineyard owner, they come to work in the vineyard for only an hour. Justice for these men would be to receive next to nothing for their minimal labors. And yet, in His generosity, the Lord of the vineyard desires to give them a full day’s wage for only one hour of work. The only justification needed for the Lord’s actions is the one that He gives: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matthew 20:15). The Lord desires to be gracious and generous to those who labor in His vineyard. Those who receive the ultimate reward, then, are not those who justify themselves by their own hard work and labors. Rather, those who receive the ultimate reward are those who receive freely from the Lord that which they do not deserve. That is to say, those who receive the ultimate reward are those who are justified rather than those who justify themselves.
6. So, in the end, our Lord tells us that “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). Those who work the heat of the day and rely on their own merits will receive nothing more than they deserve. But those who trust in the generosity of their Lord will receive abundantly that which they do not deserve. So it is with the kingdom of heaven. For the kingdom of heaven is like this Lord who goes out to hire workers so that He might treat them with generosity. The kingdom of heaven is that place where the one who does not labor will reap the rewards of the one who does. And lest we miss the point, let us remind ourselves that it is our Lord Christ who does the ultimate labor in the kingdom of heaven. He is the one who has borne the burden of the day for us lazy men who refused to work. He has endured the scorching heat of hell for us who have tried in vain to justify ourselves. Our Lord Jesus is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15) who has made himself last so that we who are last might become first.
7. And so, it is our Lord Jesus who justifies us with a justification that endures. If I must justify myself, then the work is never complete. Even if I do manage to convince that neighbor who thought I was in the wrong of my side of the story, even if I achieve justice with my friend, even if I manage to convince myself to believe in my false narrative of justification, the work is never complete. There always is another neighbor with whom I must clear my name. There always is another friend to deal with. There always is something else I must reconcile in my own mind. Self-justification never endures. But before the throne of God, our Lord Jesus’ justification of sinners like you and me does endure. By His atoning death on the cross, the Lord Jesus has paid the debt that we poor, miserable, lazy sinners owe. And by His generous gifts of grace through Word and Sacrament, our Lord has granted us that which we do not deserve—an eternal place in His vineyard of grace where the words of the 104th Psalm will ring true eternally: “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:14-15).
8. And so, being justified by grace alone, we do not trust in our own merits. We know that lazy sinfulness will get the better of us. We know that the fickle nature of our emotions will raise doubts in our hearts about God’s goodness and our worth before Him. When these things happen, my friends, we must not give in to the temptation of self-justification. To justify ourselves before others or ourselves will never grant us abiding peace. But the free gift of justification which comes by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone grants us a hope and a peace which endures—not so that we have license to spurn and reject this gift by entering back into self-centered living. The grace of Christ’s justification of sinners like you and me invites us to set aside all prideful desire to be good enough in ourselves and to humbly trust in the Lord’s gracious promise of eternal justification before our heavenly Father.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.