Oil Enough and More

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

Bulletin: 2017-11-26 Last Sunday of the Church Year

Once again, during the final Sunday of the Church Year, we return to our Lord’s teaching during the final week of His earthly life. That final week, He spent much of His time teaching in the temple. He taught about the greatest commandment, about being a Christian in two kingdoms, even about His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Today, we turn to some of our Lord’s teaching on the End Times. It’s fitting that we talk about the close of the age as we are at the close of the church year.

The focus of our Lord’s teaching today is this, as Jesus said, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”[1] Jesus taught the parable of the Ten Virgins to emphasize to His Disciples that His return to judge and bring in the New Creation would not be an immediate thing. This fact doesn’t surprise us, some 2000 years later, but it was new for them. It’ll be, Jesus said, like the days of Noah. People were eating and drinking and marrying up until the Flood and caught them all unaware. Today, we confess that our Lord’s return will be sudden and unexpected, but He sustains us in our watch through His Word and Sacraments.

I.

As usual, when we dive into a text it’s important to understand the context. The context of our passage today is that comes from a chunk of Matthew where Jesus is speaking about the destruction of the temple and signs of the end times. It happened that, as they were walking out of the temple, Jesus told the Disciples a time would come when none of its stones would be left standing. That prompted them to ask what the signs of would be of Jesus’ coming at the end of time. Then, Jesus taught them the passages we’ve all heard about wars and rumors of wars. As we live amidst what seems like endless wars and disasters, our minds sometimes fall with the Disciples – that maybe the end is near. Every so often someone gets on TV, the radio, or internet and proclaims that they know the exact day. But, the point of Jesus’ teaching today is that His return will be unexpected.

Just before today’s Gospel, Jesus taught in chapter 24 that no one knows the day or hour of His return – not the angels, not even the Son of God – only the Father. Following our text, is the Parable of the Talents. That’s where the master left his money with his servants and went away. When he came back, he expected his servants to have done something useful with what he gave them. The meaning of that parable is that we should wait for our Lord’s return, making faithful use of the things God has given us. God has blessed each of us with many talents and skills, and we are to use them in loving service to God and neighbor during our exile here below.

But, we sometimes take all this for granted. It is not news to us that our Lord’s return wouldn’t be immediately after His Ascension. But it was news for the first Christians and even the Disciples. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians twice concerning it. First, they thought Christ had already come and they missed it. Then, when they heard it may not be soon, they grew idle and lazy. St. Paul wrote them every parent’s favorite verse, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”[2] Even the Disciples had trouble with this. Just before the Ascension, they asked Jesus if He would restore all things right there. He said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.”[3] The point being, they were to wait and watch; as are we. Such, Jesus explains with a parable.

II.

It’ll be like ten virgins, Jesus said, who took lamps to meet the bridegroom. The custom at the time was that the bridal got prepared and then waited for the groom to come and get them. When arrived, they would all proceed together to the wedding hall for the ceremony and feast. Jesus said, “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”[4] It happened that the groom was delayed in his coming, and all the virgins grew tired and slept. Then, at midnight came the cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” The virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The wise were prepared and had oil, but the foolish had run out.

The foolish virgins said to the wise, “‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’[5] The foolish virgins did not expect the delay. And, when the cry came, it caught them unaware. They left to go and buy oil. And, while they were out, the groom came. He gathered the wise virgins, they went to the wedding hall, and the door was shut. The foolish virgins knocked at the door saying, “‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’[6] Jesus interpreted the parable for us. As we heard before, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

III.

This is a parable directed to and concerning the Church on earth. Very seldom, if ever, in Scripture, is the word “virgin” used for anyone other than a believer in Christ. The ten virgins in the parable are members of the visible Church on earth. In the parable, they were all called to await the bridegroom. Likewise, as Christians, the Bride of Christ awaits His return. Our job is to wait and keep watch for His coming. We are to be alert and expecting His return at any moment.

But, on this end of things, it appears to us that Christ’s return is delayed. At the very least, we’ve been waiting a long time. This will be my 28th Advent. That means I’ve heard the story of the Triumphal Entry read and preached 56 times, each time mentioning the fact that Christ will someday return in glory to take me to heaven. Most of you have heard it more, and we’re still waiting. Waiting, like forgiving – which we talked about a few weeks ago – and praying, can make us grow weary.

When we grow weary, we are troubled by temptations of two sorts. The first, is to fall away from our watch. Some cease coming to church. It usually doesn’t happen all at once. But some fall away from regular attendance, and their lamps go out. The other temptation is to become focused on other things. We might still be here to receive God’s Word and Sacraments, but the temptation is for our lives to really revolve around something else, be it sports or family, or some collision of the two. We become so focused on other things that we forget what we’re watching and waiting for.

So that we might keep watch, Christ has given us and sustains us with His Means of Grace. This is important because, if we’re being honest, waiting for Christ to come is hard. Every year the Church calendar starts up again and the secular calendar after that. It’s hard, but the hope that has been poured into our hearts will not put us to shame. Through His Word and in His Sacraments, Christ forgives us our sins. The Lutheran Confessions say that the Holy Spirit works through these things as through instruments to give to us the forgiveness Christ won on the cross. But, through these things, also, is our watch sustained.

The temptation with this parable is to try and nail down what the oil is and how to get enough. I’m not sure we want to go down that route. Rather, let us stick to our Lord’s interpretation, that His return will be sudden and unexpected. Therefore, we are to keep watch. Though our flesh is weak, His Spirit is not. So that our watch is sustained and filled with hope, Christ gives us His Word and Sacraments. Through these things, our lamps have oil enough and more. And when the Bridegroom does finally call us, we will enter the wedding feast with joy.


[1] Matthew 25:13, English Standard Version.

[2] 2 Thess. 3:10.

[3] Acts 1:7.

[4] Matt. 25:2-3.

[5] Matt. 25:8-9.

[6] Matt. 25:11-12.

Unlimited Forgiveness

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

One of the conclusions that we all come to as we work our way through this life is that things don’t last. They wear out, they run out; they expire. One of the lessons I’ve had to learn over life is to smell my milk before I drink it. And, something I find myself doing with unnerving frequency is buying new socks. For some reason, I wear holes in my socks quickly, and I have to throw them away and get new ones. Everything has a number of expected uses, a shelf life, or an expiration date – which we have all learned to accept. But, what about forgiveness?

Forgiveness is the topic of the day in the Gospel text. St. Peter went to Jesus with a reasonable question. When my brother sins against me, how many times I am required to forgive him? How many times before I can stop? In some areas of our country, legal systems allow for three strikes – then you’re out. In our personal lives, we tend to mirror that standard. St. Peter was especially generous, he offered to forgive his brother up to seven times before he cut him off. How does our Lord respond to the question? “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Mt. 18:22) That is, the forgiveness we offer to our neighbor should never be exhausted or run out. There is no point at which we can stop forgiving our neighbor and get a new one. Jesus will illustrate this with a parable. As our multitude of sins have been forgiven by Christ, so also are we led by Him to freely forgive those who sin against us.

I.

It is a totally understandable – and relatable – question that Peter asked our Lord. We’ve all been in situations or are in one now, where we have been repeatedly sinned against, even by the same person. The flip side is also true, we have all been guilty of repeatedly sinning against other people. What prompts Peter’s question is Jesus’ teaching in this chapter. Matthew 18 is largely concerned with caring for our neighbor in Christ. The chapter opens with Jesus teaching that we should humble ourselves and become like children before God. Then, Jesus talked about how, if our brother sins against us, we should go and speak to him. If he refuses to be reconciled, Jesus said to take one or two others with us and go speak again. If he still refuses to be reconciled, it is to be told to the congregation and – if he still then refuses to repent and be reconciled – the offending brother is excluded from fellowship.

So, Peter follows this up with the question, “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” (Mt. 18:21-22) Peter’s question resonates with us. Forgiving is hard work. Often, it involves no small amount of spiritual hurt and anxiety. As such, we get tired of forgiving. So, we stop. And the world says we’re right to do so. But, what does Jesus say? We are not to forgive our brother seven times only, but seventy-seven times. The phrase that Jesus uses in the Greek is meant to convey an unlimited amount, not just a bigger – but still limited – amount than what Peter graciously offered. In no uncertain terms, Jesus says that we are to forgive our neighbor in Christ. Period. No limits. The relationship between a Christian and his or her neighbor is to be one of complete love and forgiveness. At no point should our forgiveness run out or dry.

II.

It’s like this, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” (Mt. 18:23) In this parable there is a king who wishes to reconcile the debts of his servants. Right away, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents. A talent itself was a large amount of money. One commentary I read did the math and said that this would be the equivalent of sixty million days of work. Since the man could not pay this monumental debt, the king ordered that all that the man had be sold to cover at least part of it. The man begged for patience while he tried to figure out some way to pay. But, instead, the king felt compassion for the man and, “released him and forgave his debt.” (Mt. 18:27)

Straightaway, the man went out and found one of his fellow servants. The other did owe him money, and a large amount – about 100 days’ wages – but certainly less than the first servant had been forgiven. The first servant began choking the other and demanding payment. When the man begged for patience, in the same way that the first had implored the king, his cries were steadfastly ignored. The Greek says the first servant kept being unwilling to forgive and instead threw his fellow servant in prison until such time as the debt be paid.

Now, in short order, the king found out about all this. He said to the unforgiving servant, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt. 18:32-33) The expected behavior of the first servant is that, as he had been forgiven a monumental debt, so he would in turn forgive the debt of his neighbor. Instead, he refused to forgive. So, the original forgiveness from the king was set aside. “In anger his master delivered him to the torturers, until he should pay all the debt.” (Mt. 18:34) Our Lord provides for us the interpretation of this parable, “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt. 18:35)

III.

This is a difficult text to hear, as Jesus is calling us to do something we cannot do. And, quite frankly, we have done the opposite of what Jesus says here. We have let our forgiveness toward others lapse, and we have often refused to forgive, even in the first place. We find ourselves in the position of the first servant. We are about up to our necks in sin and it’s poised to drown us all. We know that for each and every sin, there is payment to be made. The cost of our sin is such that we could not pay it in a billion years. Yet God, who is the king in the parable, forgives us. He forgives us at great cost to Himself, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His Son. By His grace, our colossal debt is forgiven. So, we, in turn, should forgive those who sin against us. And, not seven times, but seven-times-seven.

The question before us is how. How can we forgive so much, especially when we are hurt by others’ sinning? On our own we can’t. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches…apart from Me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5) But, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. This is why Jesus has given us the sacraments: so that we might receive the forgiveness of our sins, be strengthened in the faith, and have our love for our neighbor increased. This why we are to receive the Lord’s Supper often. On our own, we tend to look at forgiveness as a limited resource that, once it’s gone, it’s gone. But that is not how we are to be. Instead, through the Sacraments, the love of Christ is poured into our hearts, and through that we are led to love and forgive our neighbor as often as he does sin against us.

Peter’s question to Jesus is totally understandable. Like the milk in our fridge that expires or socks that wear out, we also treat our forgiveness like it’s something that can expire or run out. But, Jesus says our lives are to be lives of love and unlimited forgiveness. On our own, we cannot do this. But, Christ, through His Word and Sacraments, gives the forgiveness His won to us and, through these things, leads us to forgive others. May He grant that this day we receive the Sacrament for the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our faith, and the increase and sustaining of our love for each other.

The Dishonest Manager and the Merciful Master

Text: Luke 16:1-9 (10-13)

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Jesus says one of the most vexing sentences in all the Gospels in our text today. It seems to follow the parable of the Dishonest Manager as Jesus’ interpretation of the story. Make friends, Jesus says, by means of unrighteous wealth (you may have heard that phrase by another title, mammon), so that when it fails, you may be received into eternal dwellings. What is Jesus telling us to do, and why does the master in the story commend the dishonest manager? To use the familiar Lutheran question: Was ist Das?

When I was a student at our seminary in Fort Wayne, students took three homiletics classes. In these classes they learned what a sermon is, how to write one, and got some practice in delivering them. The first class covered sermon theory, the third class covered wedding and funeral sermons. It’s the second class that covered parables. In my experience, we were offered the choice of any parable to preach on. If you chose the parable we have today, and preached it well, you would get an automatic A in the course. No one picked it.

There are two ways that we’re going to look at the text today. First, we are going to look at it doxologically. That means that we’re going to look at it in a way that gives all glory and praise to God. We’ll do that by focusing not on the manager in the parable, but the master. Second, we’ll receive the parable as a teaching on the proper use of mammon, wealth. For, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money.” In the parable of the Dishonest Manager, Christ teaches us the proper use of wealth and about our merciful Master who forgives.

I.

Let us start with the text. Luke 16 begins, “[Jesus] also said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’” On a surface level, the first chunk of the parable needs no explanation. The story is about a wealthy landowner who has hired another man to be the manager of his property. The system was such that the landowner rented his land to tenant farmers. The farmers would pay their rent as a set portion of their crop, usually either in oil or wheat. The manager was in charge of collecting that rent. After a time, charges were brought to the master that his steward was squandering the landowner’s property.

One of the keys of interpreting a parable is to look for things that don’t match up to reality. Our text today is part of an ongoing section in Luke filled with parables, all of which we’ve actually looked at over the last couple months. The one that comes right before our text today is one you all probably know, the parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ll use that as an example. What is it in that parable that doesn’t match up to reality? Well, it’s not the younger son wasting his inheritance. We’ve all heard stories like that in our lives; and, who of us hasn’t wasted our possessions on immoral living? Or, how about the older son, the one who holds himself high and looks down on his brother who has fallen into sin, the one that we would describe as “self-righteous,”? No, both of those are quite common in reality. What doesn’t match is the father. The wealthy father sees his younger son from afar, he hikes up his robe and runs to greet his son. He embraces him, clothes him, and kills the fatted calf – for his son was dead and now is alive.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps better called the parable of the Merciful Father, because it’s not about the son but the father. From it we learn about our merciful God who forgives our sins by the blood of the Lamb. Same thing with the parable of the Dishonest Manager. It could probably be called the parable of the Merciful Master. That is the thing in this parable that doesn’t match up to reality. We would expect that, when the master hears his steward is cheating him, he would immediately throw him in jail. That would be his right. But instead, the master has mercy. And, not just on the manager. Remember what the manager did when he figured he was gonna get fired – he went and lowered the debts of all the master’s debtors. In response to that, the master honored the lowered debts. Again, that doesn’t line up with reality. If you fire your bookkeeper, and he in the meantime fudges the ledger, you wouldn’t be expected to honor those changes.

I said a few minutes ago that the first way we are going to look at this text is doxologically. That is, we’re going to look at it in a way that gives all glory and praise to God. We do that focusing not on the manager, but on the master. But first, the manager: what were his goals? Comfort and self-preservation at all costs. That involved squandering his master’s possessions, and lying to cover it up. I wish we could say that is what doesn’t match up with reality in the parable but, sadly, it does. Even among us Christians. The word for what the manager does is the same for what the prodigal son does in that parable: He takes what is his master’s and he wastes it on sinful living.

And so do we. We are each placed in various vocations by God, and given various resources to glorify Him and contribute to the work of His kingdom. We confess in the Small Catechism that God gives us everything that we need to support this body and life; everything we have and own belongs to God and is given for the support of our lives and for service to our neighbor. But instead, we put own spin on it. We dedicate our time, our money, and our talents, to our own comfort. And then we lie about it.

II.

The dishonest manager squanders his master’s possessions. He takes what isn’t his and uses it in service of his belly, then he lies to cover it up. When the master finds out that his manager, for perhaps a long time, has been cheating, he doesn’t immediately take to punishment. That would have been his legal right: to punish, to throw in jail, to take back everything, perhaps even to kill. Instead, he has mercy. And, so does our God. In His infinite wisdom, God knows every sin we have ever committed. Every single little indiscretion, and every lie we’ve told to cover it up and comfort ourselves, He knows. He knows every time we’ve used our money and possessions in service to iniquity, and when we’ve made idols out of them. He knows these things, and He forgives.

The central point of our parable today is not the manager, but the master. We are all dishonest managers of what God has given us, and yet our master has had mercy on us. He sent His only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our savior. He has taken our iniquity into Himself, and has died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He gives this forgiveness to us freely, not because we are perfect managers, but because He is a merciful Lord.

Now, that leaves us with the last verse of the text, the verse that I read at the beginning of the sermon. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” What’s that all about? The master commended the dishonest manager for being so clever, and then Jesus clobbers us with this verse of interpretation. The simplest way to understand it is this: Jesus uses the word, “mammon.” Mammon is a Hebrew word that means wealth and possessions that are above and beyond what you need to directly support your life. The world says that anything you can make over what you need to eat and have a home, that you can use for play. But, here Jesus says that proper use of everything that doesn’t go directly to the support of the body is for God’s glory and for service to our neighbor.

Everything. That’s why Jesus couches this in the parable of the Dishonest Manager, or rather, the Merciful Master. We are the dishonest manager. We misuse the things that God gives us and we lie to cover it up. But, God has had mercy on us and given His only Son to die for us. Through His Word and Sacrament, God daily conforms us to the image of His Son and leads us to use our time and possessions in ways that are pleasing to Him.

Our text today is hard passage. We can’t claim to have plumbed the depths of its meaning today; it’s good that it’ll come up again this time next year. However, when viewed in the context of the surrounding passages, particularly the Prodigal Son, we can see that it isn’t primarily about the manager who squanders and lies, but the Master who is merciful. Such is our God, who forgives us poor wretched managers.

The Parable of the Sower

Text: Luke 8:4-15

There was a something in my sermon last week that I’d like to visit again today in light of our text. Last week I said that the parable of the vineyard shows us that God’s grace is shown equally to all sinners. This means that no one is more sanctified than anyone else. Rather, all sinners receive the same grace of God in Jesus Christ – the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life that are given through faith. You will receive the same grace whether you were baptized as a baby, or you are convicted by God’s Law and receive His Word in faith on your deathbed. If this is the case, that God is so extravagant in showing mercy, why is it that out of 7 billion people in the world, only 2 billion are Christians?

Or, maybe the more traditional way of asking the question will make more sense; Why are some saved and not others? This question could take us into some heady realms, where theologians and pastors argue past each other, or we could keep our heads down here where Jesus is in the parable. To put it bluntly, Jesus’ ministry was met with two responses. The overwhelmingly popular one was rejection. Jesus indicates in our text that to His disciples, and to the others who received Him in faith, it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. But to the crowds, who pressed in on Jesus from every side, seeking not forgiveness but food for their bellies, it has not been given. That is why Jesus spoke in parables, so that the words of the Holy Spirit through Isaiah are fulfilled, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

Jesus teaches through the parable why some are saved and others not. There are two reactions to God’s Word: rejection or faith. Many hear the Word, but it goes in one ear and out the other. Others receive the Word with joy, but when times of persecution come, or the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, they fall away. But, all is not lost. For, by the grace of God there is another group: those who receive the Word in faith, and hold it fast in their hearts with patience. Though the broadly-cast Word of God is met by many with rejection, in those whom it takes root, it bears fruit – even a hundredfold.

  1.  

Since this is the second week in a row that our text one of the parables, it’s important to get something out there. Not everything in a parable is filled with meaning. In allegories, another type of story, different elements can all have different levels of meanings. A parable is different. There is usually one central point, and everything else given is to support that one point. It’s kind of like spokes in a wheel, but instead of going out from the center, they go into the center. In the parable of the sower the central idea is that the seed is sown generously and bears much fruit when it takes root. Jesus says the seed is the Word of God. The sower is Jesus. Now having said that, let us hear the parable.

A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.

In the parable Jesus compares Himself to a sower, who goes out to sow His seed. This parable is first about Jesus and His ministry, but then it is also about how He continues to sow His Word among us today. He does this through those who follow in His stead: His disciples, the Apostles, pastors, teachers, missionaries, and all others who teach and spread His saving Word. The sower in the parable scatters the seed just about everywhere. Some fell along the path, some on the rocky soil, some fell among the thorns; but some fell into good soil. This teaches us about the spread of God’s Word.

When Jesus came to preach the Gospel, He didn’t come to share it with just a few people. Rather, He directed that all nations be baptized and taught. The Good News is not just for some, but for all. The scattering of the seed all over, even in places where it wouldn’t have been sown otherwise, is like how Jesus sends us out to the byways and alleys, to sinners and tax collectors, to those who dwell in the shadow and darkness of death, to share with them the light of His Gospel. His will is that all be saved through the preaching of His Word, and through it be brought to repentance and faith.

  1.  

Therefore, God broadcasts His Word throughout all the world, and will continue to do so until time has reached its fulfilment. But, now we get to the hard question: why aren’t all people saved? We learn in the Catechism that the temptation to sin comes from three places: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Luther gets that partially from this text. Jesus contrasts the two types of hearers in the parable: those who reject the Word and those who keep it in an honest and good heart with patience. These are represented by the different types of soil.

Some of the seed fell along the path and was devoured by the birds. Jesus interprets this for us, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Notice that devil isn’t too concerned about people hearing the Word of God, but it’s their hearts that he battles for. It is with the heart that we believe and are saved. The seed that falls along the path represents those who hear the Word preached, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

These are not just the open unbelievers, unfortunately, but even some who go to church. There are some who come to worship, not to receive forgiveness and the gifts of our Lord’s body and blood, but purely out of habit or custom. And when the sermon comes, they check out, and the words are lost. There is no repentance, there is no progression in the faith, for the devil comes and steals the Word before it takes root.

Others are like the seed that falls on rocky soil. These are the ones who hear God’s Word and initially receive it with joy. But, as we learned from the Transfiguration, there is no glory without the cross. The Christian will be faced with persecution for the sake of Christ’s name. And many, when faced with the hatred of the world, fall away. They might not be openly divorced from the Word, but they dilute it just enough fit in and siphon off the world’s ire. And still, there are others who receive the Word, but then the cares and pleasures of life come. This was St. Paul’s point last week, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” For many, the Church is not seen as the place where forgiveness and grace are, but as an inhibitor of life’s pleasures. And for that reason, many depart from God’s Word and surround themselves with teachers who will tell them what they do want to hear.

III.   

This is all painting a pretty grim picture, but it confirms what we see in the world around us. Many people reject Christ and His Word – most even. That’s because God’s Word always produces one of two reactions: rejection, or faith. Faith is the reaction that God desires and creates. It’s why He casts the seed all over, so that as many as possible can hear the Word. In the parable, some of the seed does fall into good soil. It takes root and grows, yielding even a hundredfold. The interpretation that Jesus provides is that these are the ones who hear the Word and keep it. Though faced with many a persecution, the cares and pleasures of the flesh, they hold the Word and bear fruit in patience.

Though so many hear the Word and fall away, all is not lost. The fault is not with the seed. God says of His Word, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.” Neither is the difference in the soil, for the Scriptures clearly testify that all are equally conceived dead in iniquity.

The difference is that some, according to God’s will, receive the Word in faith. They are forgiven their sins through the washing of Holy Baptism and in the words of Absolution spoken from the altar. They are fed and strengthened in the faith with the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, and are led to take up their crosses and follow. They weather the persecutions and hatred of the world, and they refuse to be ruled by the pleasures of the flesh. These are the ones who bear fruit with patience. We are the ones who bear fruit with patience. Soon, the seed of Christ’s cross will bear fruit that is one hundred-fold, the eternal triumph over the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh in the resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” May He ever grant us those ears by His Holy Spirit, so that hearing the Word, we receive it in faith, casting off the hatred of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, and according to His will, abide until the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Septuagesima, “The Wages of Grace”

*Septuagesima marks the beginning of the season called Pre-Lent in our lectionary. The word means, “seventieth,” and stands for the seventieth day before Easter. It is three Sundays away from Ash Wednesday.


 

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Life isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. Either you’ve said this yourself, or you’ve heard it spoken by someone around you. I must confess that those words crossed my lips many times when I was a child. I wish I could say that I only uttered them when a real injustice was committed against me. But really, I was just upset at one thing or another. What I actually meant by, “Life isn’t fair,” was more like, “Why don’t things work they way I want them to?” You might’ve thought this way from time to time. This sort of feeling was common in the Bible, too – if I can speak a little candidly about King David and our other fathers in the faith. Though, for David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Solomon, and others, the question was more often phrased in terms of, “Why do other people prosper and I fare so poorly?”

However, as I look back on these long 26 years of my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably for the best that I don’t always get what I want. But, just as I don’t always get what I want, neither – by the grace of God – do I always get what I deserve. Actually, it is far more often that I don’t get what I do deserve. Meaning: When we confess in the liturgy that we have offended our heavenly Father with all our sins and iniquities, we also confess that, because of those sins and iniquities, we justly deserve God’s wrath in both the eternal sense (hell) and the temporal sense (afflictions, diseases, and death). By the grace of God alone, we are spared the majority of the terrible things that we deserve as the consequences of our sins. And by the grace of God alone, we are also invited into His heavenly kingdom. Jesus illustrates this for us in the parable of the vineyard. In it Jesus shows us that there is only one way to heaven, grace alone, and this grace is given equally to all sinners. As Jesus said, many who are last will be first.

Our text today is part of a larger chunk of teaching. After the Transfiguration, Jesus’ teaching was amped up a little bit; things got more serious as He drew nearer to the cross. Just before our text, Jesus was teaching His disciples and the crowds about getting into the kingdom of heaven. The conversation went like this. A rich young man came up to Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus, being the model preacher and knowing when to give either the Law or the Gospel, gave the man the Law. He knew the Commandments. If the man desired to enter eternal life by works, he must keep all of the Commandments perfectly. The man insisted that this was already the case. However, it was not. When Jesus instructed him to sell all his possessions and follow, he went away sorrowful. He was not rightly honoring the First Commandment. He did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

This caused no small ripple among the disciples, for if a rich person could only scarcely enter the kingdom of heaven, how could anyone be saved? The rich were looked to as the ones most able to do good works. They didn’t have to labor in the hot sun all day, and then worry about doing good works after. Instead, they could just do the greatest work of all and give away money. Surely the wealthy were on the short list to heaven. Not so. St. Paul clearly writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The way into heaven is not by works, but only by the grace of God. That is why Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven belongs even to little children. Everything a child has he receives as a gift. So also is the kingdom of heaven. In this way, many who are last are made first.

Since this parable is the second longest that we have recorded for us. I’ll let it stand as read before; I’ll just remind you how it goes. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. The first bunch are called early in the morning, and it is agreed that they will work for a day’s wages. A few hours later the owner goes out again and he finds workers standing around in the marketplace. He hires them to work, offering to pay them what is right. A few hours later he does the same, and again even later. Then, finally, when there is only one hour left in the workday, he goes out and hires a last round of workers.

Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. God is the master of the household and the vineyard is His kingdom. We are the workers. We see that life in Kingdom, life in Christ’s Church, is like being called to work in a vineyard. Throughout the Scriptures we are exhorted to serve to the Lord. Psalm 100, for example, teaches us, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” Like the master in the parable, the Lord, in His gracious wisdom, sees fit to call workers at many times throughout the day. The morning is probably the most expected time, but the master is gracious. He goes out many times during the day, calling to himself many who would not have been hired otherwise. We, likewise, have all been called to serve. That call has come to us at different times. Some of us received at Baptism while we were children. Some of us may have received it as adults or in other times of our lives. The Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace in many times and ways to call laborers into the vineyard.

  1.  

Eventually, the end of the workday does come. The owner of the vineyard calls his foreman and says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” Then, beginning with those who started in the last hour and finishing with those who started first, each received the same wages, a denarius. After the laborers who started first received their payment, they began to grumble. They figured that if those people who only worked an hour received so much, they should definitely receive more than that. That’s understandable. It’s fair, even. But, remember what I said before: life isn’t fair. Or, perhaps a better way to frame it today is: God’s fairness is not the same as our fairness.

That is to say, Jesus uses this parable to show us that with God things are reversed. In our world you work to get paid; in the kingdom of God, payment is given apart from works. In our world, your own hard work merits you a reward; in the kingdom of God, Christ’s hard work earns you the reward. In our our world, you work longer and you get paid more; but, in the kingdom of God, all are paid the same. In our world also, we all earn the same wage. The Scriptures say that the wage that we all earn is death. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, regardless of who we are, where we’re from, or what we’ve done. And, if life were fair, we would all die in our sins and trespasses, having justly deserved the earthly and eternal wrath of God.

But, life isn’t fair. Instead of getting the punishment we do deserve, we get the wage that Christ worked for. When someone gets that we’ve worked for, we get upset and grumble like the workers in the vineyard. But Jesus, He is happy when people get what He worked for, because otherwise they wouldn’t get it at all. What I mean is, in the kingdom of God everything is a gift. We are neither worthy of the things that we have, nor have we deserved them. Instead, God gives us all things freely in Christ Jesus. He blesses us with food and drink, house and home, clothing and shoes. He gives us all that we need to support this body and life. And, above and beyond that, He gives us the most precious gift in all creation: the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Him. And that, He gives to us not because we’ve worked for it or earned it, but because of the sacrifice of His only begotten Son on the cross.

When I was child, I used to complain that, “Life isn’t fair,” often. Mostly, it was just because things weren’t going my way. But, today I realize that might be for the better. In Christ, things don’t go our way; They go His way: grace. Through the sacrifice of Christ, we don’t get what we deserve (the punishment of our trespasses) and we do get what we don’t deserve (forgiveness). Having been forgiven our sins, we are called to be workers in God’s vineyard, sharing the grace and love of Christ with the world around us. And, whether we’ve been in the vineyard a long time, and worked many long hours, or whether our work is still mostly ahead of us, we all receive the same gift. As it says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Therefore, in Christ, life isn’t fair. Thanks be to God.

 

Automatic Soil Action

Text: Mark 4:26-34

St. Paul wrote in our Epistle reading, “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened…we walk by faith, not by sight.[1] Paul lived in a time where the Word of God was spreading rapidly, but it was also a difficult time. The Christian Church faced persecution from without and within. The threats of physical injury or death for our confession of faith were real. Backsliding and abandonment of one’s faith were a thing. As much as Paul wanted God’s Kingdom to expand on earth, meaning that, as much as Paul desired the spread of the Gospel of Christ, it wasn’t matching up with what he saw. He described our lives as Christians as ones of groaning and burden. But even in that, Paul says, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Like Paul we live in a temporal world full of change and disappointment. So often it seems like we work and work and work, and nothing becomes of our endeavors to share the faith of Jesus Christ with a sinful world. We long to put off this perishable tent and put on the imperishable, our eternal home in the heavens. It’s difficult because we live in a transitional time as we await the return of Christ. We are born from above, we have eternal life here and now…but we’re not there yet. We are exhorted by Paul to continue walking by faith and not by sight.

Jesus tells a parable in Mark 4 that is sometimes called, “The Automatic Action of the Soil.” In it a man goes out to scatter some seed on the ground. Then he goes about his business. Without any further action of the man, the ground produces fruit by itself. When the grain is ripe, the harvest comes. In this parable those who hear the Word of God preached are the soil. The man is Jesus, who preaches His Word. The seed is His Word that takes root in those who hear it and causes fruit to come forth, but not all at once. Despite appearances, which sometimes cause us to groan, God’s Word causes fruit to come forth until it’s time for harvest.

I.

The parable Jesus gives goes like this. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”[2] Last week and this we’ve gone from having almost no Mark to jumping right into the thick of it, especially considering that we’ve jumped and landed in some parables. The way parables were explained to me as a child, a way that’s stuck with me, is that parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They use various figures of speech and forms of imagery to explain a greater or higher concept.

Our text this week follows one parable that probably everyone knows or is aware of: the Parable of the Sower. Our text shares some elements, but uses them in some different ways. In the Parable of the Sower a man goes out to sow some seed. He sows the seed just about everywhere, and it falls on different types of soil. Here the sower is Jesus, the seed is His Word, and the different types of soil are us. It’s important to not try and figure which type of soil you are, but to recognize that at various times, we’re all four. The Parable of the Sower shows us that when God’s Word is preached and falls on good soil, it bears fruit beyond all comparison.

Likewise, in our parable today, a man goes out to sow some seed. The principal man is Jesus, if we carry His interpretation of the Sower here. The seed is His Word. During His ministry on earth Jesus preached the Word and the seed fell on the soil, those who heard His Word. Today Christ sows the seed of His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins through pastors and faithful Christians. The one type of soil in our parable is representative of those in whom the Word of God takes root, those who hear the Word of God, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, keep it. Without any further action, the seed takes root, and comes forth bearing fruit by itself.

II.

The man in the parable sleeps and rises after spreading the seed, and, by itself, it “sprouts and grows…The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”[3] I think this is a sobering and realistic truth – we don’t see growth all at once. Sometimes the candle burns really bright, like when you’re baptized, or when you work up the courage to go to Bible study, or you mention Jesus to your friend at work. Other times, it burns not so bright. What fruit are you producing when you sit at home and watch TV all evening? What fruit are you bearing for Christ when you put your boat in the water at church time on Sunday morning?

We’re told by the world and our own consciences that, if we want to be good Christians, we gotta put in the work. We have to do the studying, we have to do the discipling, we have to do the following. And if we do all these at the right time, in the right place, in the right order, and with the right enthusiasm – then we’re gonna bear fruit. Visible, tangible, measurable fruit. If you’re not bearing fruit, or if you see that someone else isn’t, we’ve found the reason why. By thinking this way we steal the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word and make it our own.

But Jesus isn’t using this parable to condemn; He’s using it to comfort us. When we look around and find our lives lacking the fruit of the Spirit, when we go weeks and months without a visitor in church, when we tell someone about the forgiveness of sins and they never mention Jesus again, this is our comfort: all by itself the seed sprouts. Without our work, God’s Word takes root and bears fruit. We may not always see it, but God’s Word works. It takes root and bears fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. This reflects the work of Jesus on the cross. By His death for our sins He has reconciled the world to God, which He promised in John 12: “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.”[4] For those in whom the Word takes root, Jesus promises, “I will raise him up on the last day.”[5]

 III.

So a man goes out to sow some seed. The seed lands on the soil, takes root, and grows. All this while the man goes to sleep and wakes up every day. He doesn’t make the seed sprout, and he doesn’t see it grow all at once. It just does. The man in the parable represents Jesus, and like Jesus we spread the seed of His Word. It takes root and grows even when we don’t see it, and sometimes in ways and places that we don’t expect. Scripture says that God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces the heart. God says as much in Isaiah 55, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”[6]

St. Paul wrote in the Epistle that we groan while we are in this tent, meaning that life isn’t always how we’d hoped it would be. As Christians we find ourselves lacking in our fruit bearing. We see others and maybe even ourselves refusing to listen to God’s Word. We live in this world as heirs of eternal life in heaven, but we’re not there yet. Jesus told this parable of the soil as a word of Comfort to us, that even when we don’t see it, God’s Word takes root and works, even until the harvest. At the harvest Jesus will return and takes us and all believers to be with Him forever.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Cor. 5.

[2] Mk. 4:26–29.

[3] Mk. 4:27–28.

[4] Jn. 12:32.

[5] Jn. 6:44.

[6] Is. 55:10–11.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

In the first stanza of our opening hymn we sang, “O Lord, how shall I meet You, how welcome You aright…O kindle, Lord most holy, Your lamp within my breast to do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.” (LSB 334) It’s an Advent hymn, but it helps set our minds to the theme of the close of the church year: Christ’s return. Jesus uses the parable in our text to illustrate what His return will be like on our end. He shows us that there will be two types of people, those who are prepared and those who aren’t. He says that the wise virgins were those who had enough oil to keep their lamps lit, and we will see that the lamps of the wise are kept lit by a faith that is continually fed through the Means of Grace, Jesus’ Word and Sacraments.

I.

The text begins, “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”[1] Jesus often uses imagery of a bride and groom to describe the relationship between Him and His bride, the Church. Earlier in Matthew 9[:15], after Jesus was asked why His disciples don’t fast like John the Baptist’s, He responded that the wedding guests cannot mourn while the Bridegroom is with them. In this He was referring to Himself. The Church is described in Revelation 21[:2] as the holy city Jerusalem, which has been decked out as a bride adorned for her husband.

Perhaps most famously, this relationship between Christ and the Church is described in Ephesians 5. Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.”[2] What Paul is describing is how we are made the Bride of Christ. On our own and by ourselves we are nothing. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. Our every waking moment is spent either sinning, or wrestling with the temptation to sin. Jesus took that sin upon Himself. He carried our guilt and shame to the cross and died, to present us without spot or wrinkle, as holy and blameless. Through Baptism we are brought into His Church and made members of His Body, which He feeds and nourishes through the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments to give and strengthen faith.

The virgins in the parable are members of the visible Church, the church on earth. As members of the wedding party they were to keep watch for the bridegroom to arrive and take them to the feast. This was part of an Israelite wedding custom where the groom would go to the bride’s house to pick up her and her friends and then they would process joyfully to the home he had prepared for them. It was just accepted that waiting was involved, and in that waiting there was revealed two types of virgins: the foolish and the wise, split half and half.

The difference between the two is that while the wise took flasks of oil to fuel their lamps, the foolish took only what was in the lamp to begin with. If we look at text before and after this parable, especially the Parable of the Talents, it becomes clear that the oil represents a faith that is being continually fed. The wise virgins are like those who continually hear God’s Word and receive His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of their faith. The foolish are those who say they are ready for the return of the Bridegroom, who believe in Him, and yet don’t ever hear the Word preached or receive the Sacrament.

II.

We continue on, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.[3] As the virgins are waiting time began to pass and they fall asleep. As the hours of waiting went on, it seemed to the virgins that the bridegroom was delayed and they became sleepy. Surely at this point the wise virgins were okay, because they knew they had enough oil to carry them through the night; but the foolish haven’t figured, yet, that as the night drags on, their lamps are going to run out.

Then, at about midnight, there was a cry: “The bridegroom is coming! Come meet him!” All the virgins quickly arise from their sleep, when there is a terrible foretaste of the end of the parable. The foolish realized that their lamps were running out of oil, and so they asked the wise to give them some of theirs. The wise responded that there isn’t enough to give them, they cannot share their oil. It suddenly becomes clear, the wise are prepared for the return of the Bridegroom, and the foolish aren’t. The wise are the ones who have kept their lamps fed continually being in the Word of Christ. They have built their house on the Rock, while Jesus says of the foolish, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.”[4]

The wise virgins confess that, as we sang in the opening hymn, we lay in sin’s fetters. And yet, Christ came to set us free. We stood moaning in shame, and yet Jesus came to honor us. In love Jesus came down to win for us the crown of life through His suffering and death in our place. We receive the benefit of His sacrifice only through faith. This He gives to us in Baptism. Faith is nourished in us through the preaching of His Word. He strengthens our faith as He gives us the forgiveness of sins through our His own body and blood. We are the wise. The foolish shun all of these things, assuring themselves that they do not need these things to be a Christian.

III.

And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.[5] The brakes are hit for the foolish virgins. While they were out trying desperately to find oil for their lamps, the bridegroom came. He gathered those who were ready and waiting, whose lamps were lit, and brought them into his feast and shut the door. When the foolish arrive later they beg to be let in, but the only answer that came was “I do not know you.”

The foolish virgins were found without oil for their lamps, without a true and living faith, and then when they wanted to get into the feast, the kingdom of heaven, they were not let in. This is what will happen to those who remove themselves from a faith nurtured and fed by Christ. Here, Christ comes to us in His Word, in the Holy Absolution, and in Holy Baptism. If you want to see Jesus, look to His Word and to His precious Sacrament. It is by these things that we are made the wise virgins and welcomed into the wedding feast.

In the opening hymn we asked how we may welcome the coming Bridegroom, how we may partake of the wedding feast – It is only through the gift of faith that the Holy Spirit gives to us and that Jesus keeps alive in us through the preaching of His Word and the receiving of His Supper. Even as we bear a debt and burden of sin, the temptation to avoid hearing God’s Word, we know that will are covered by His grace. It says in stanza 6, “He comes, for you procuring the peace of sin forgiv’n, His children thus securing eternal life in heav’n.” In Christ you are wise, your sins are forgiven, and you are welcomed into heaven.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:1–4.

[2] Eph. 5:25–27, 29.

[3] Matt. 25:5–9.

[4] Matt. 7:26.

[5] Matt. 25:10–12.