Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2020
“Hell is for Accountants”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
He preached in front of 1,500 people. And he preached this very text. And the people dutifully smiled at him and told him what a good sermon it was as they left the service. Except one. Aah, there is always the one.
She hadn’t been to church for a long time. And when she had gone, it was just on occasion. So, quite bluntly she asked the preacher, “Where do you get these stories? I really found the one today offensive.” The preacher in defense asked, “Offensive?” “Yes. It’s just not right to pay everyone the same wage, especially when they have worked so much harder than others. That’s unjust.”
The preacher said to her, “Here, fifteen hundred people have come out of this place telling me this was a nice sermon. You, on the other hand, have been offended. Outraged, even. In a sense, you are the only person, who understood the parable.”
I’m preaching on the same parable. And I want you to understand this…so, I guess my goal is to offend and outrage you. You know, this parable is not fair. Someone comes to work, harvesting grapes, at 6 in the morning. And then the owner looks for more workers, those who hadn’t gotten up as early as that first crew, and he finds some at 9, noon, 3 and then with only one hour left in the workday, he finds some workers at 5 in the afternoon – a full eleven hours after the first workers showed up. And those early workers had worked in the heat of the day.
My son-in-law has spent some time in Israel. He tells me that the grape harvest in Israel occurs during an extremely hot part of the summer. Little shade. Lots of sun. Temperatures 100 degrees or more. But late in the afternoon the cool Mediterranean breeze comes in off the ocean and makes life livable. And those who showed up at 3:00 or 5:00 got the same pay as the ones who worked the full day? That just isn’t fair!!
Among us today are some business people, owners of a business, folks who have to make the bottom line show a profit and we have some bean-counters – accountants among us, as well. Let’s say that you hire someone and for a day’s wage you pay them $150.00. If you still need work done at the end of the day and still have to find someone to do it, would you give the guy who came in mid-afternoon or an hour before the whistle blows the same amount as the guy who showed up first thing in the morning? I doubt it. $150.00 for both? You don’t do business that way. You don’t count beans that way.
Unless you are God. Then you can do things that way. This parable is about the surprise of God. What a lovely surprise! This is a parable, a story, about God’s kindness and desire for everyone to know the eternal joy of living in heaven. There are some people who from day one were brought into God’s Kingdom and were taught about the great love of Jesus and have known that they are counted precious by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then there are others who don’t find out about this new life until they are in their 20’s or 40’s, and some in their 11th hour come and experience the abundant life that Jesus brings.
This parable is not about fairness but about grace. The key to understanding this is not that all were paid the same, but that all had been paid generously.
I read about a pastor speaking to a mother about raising a large number of children on her own. He asked her, “How did you do it?” Before she could answer someone interrupted and interjected, “I suppose you loved all your children equally, making sure that you gave all of them equal treatment.” But the wise mother replied, “I loved all of them, loved them greatly, but I never wanted to love them equally. I loved the one that was down until he got up. I loved the one that was weak until she was strong. I loved the one that was hurt until he was healed. I loved the one who was lost until she was found.”
Grace goes beyond mere equality. Grace looks for the opportunity, the right moment. Grace reaches out to love, not just equally, but rather to love extravagantly. All through life we should be wonderfully surprised by God who is generous to us now and forever.
The lovely surprise is that God wants all people into his heaven whether they come in at 6:00 in the morning or when He comes looking for them in the last hour of their life. He wants you in heaven. I served a congregation in western Nebraska for almost 9 years. A few years ago I attended a funeral for one of the foundation stones of that church. Frank was a worker, the treasurer of the congregation for decades. And when anything needed to be done in the community Frank was always the president, the chairman, or on the committee. He was the one, in our parable, would be waiting prior to 6:00 to start work.
After the funeral service, I joined the entire town at the cemetery that sits in the prairie. After the graveside service, I spent some time walking among the headstones. I knew many of them, I had buried some of them, including Clarence Hubler. Clarence was an old rail-roader. I had buried him, he had lived until his 80’s but had only been baptized and confessed the saving name of Jesus the last few years of his life. But at the funeral for Frank and for the funeral for Clarence the same words of promise were spoken. For the one who was brought in at 6:00 in the morning and for this guy, who only had to work one hour before getting his pay, the same words were spoken. “I tell you the truth, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24) Or, the words of Jesus when He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) They both heard, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…Come and share your Master’s happiness.” (Matthew 25:21)
Is that fair that Clarence, a late-comer to the Christian Church would receive the same eternity as Frank? Maybe you have been connected to the church from the earliest of your days, you have been the worker, the chairman, the one that someone always knows to call if work needs to be done. Should some 11th-hour conversion get what you get for their eternity? YES. And you should know that more than anyone. You must hear and must know that we are rescued from our sins and from hell not by our deeds, or arriving early, but only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everyone in Christ gets this wonderful surprise from God.
A man named Robert Capon said that if the world could be saved by bookkeepers and settling accounts, God would have sent Moses, not Jesus. The law proved that “there is no one righteous, no, not even one.” (Romans 3:10) God, in Jesus, gave up His job as an accountant, closed the books forever, gathered all our IOU’s and nailed them to the cross. What a lovely surprise from God.
But our text tells us that not all the workers were so happy about the generosity of the owner. It mentions that they began to grumble against the landowner. And the landowner asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15) In the original language of Greek, the phrase is actually, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Have you ever received the evil eye from anyone? Your piano teacher, a professor, your boss, a mother-in-law, how about from some preacher? The evil eye cuts deep. They gave Jesus the evil eye because of this great surprise of His mercy. He gave them His eye of compassion.
When I originally preached this sermon on this date 12 years ago I offered my apologies to Frank Arsenault when I told him the title to my sermon, “Hell is for Accountants”. (When I told him the title of my sermon he agreed and then quickly added, “But, I am a C.P.A.”) You know something? Hell is for C. P. A.’s too!! It is for everyone who forgets grace. It is for everyone who thinks that showing up in the morning and doing the work in God’s Kingdom will bring them the guarantee of eternal life. Hell is for everyone who is self-justified and has no faith that they are declared justified and forgiven and cleansed and saved only through Jesus Christ. Hell is for everyone who hasn’t come face to face with the lovely surprise of God. The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah fits so well with the teaching of Jesus, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Our response whether we have known of God’s rescue in Jesus from early in life to late, or that others have known about this mercy from early to late, is praise. Thank God that this surprise of forgiveness and cleansing and new life and eternal joy is not based upon what is fair but on what is merciful. Paul in Romans says, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Praise comes with words, but it also comes with attitudes and actions.
Praise – it doesn’t come from duty or obligation but from delight. It is spoken and sung but most importantly it is lived. God’s lovely surprise of life and joy and eternity shown by the acts of Jesus are followed with our great surprise of living with joy and enthusiasm and appreciation every day.
So were you offended by the sermon? Outraged? It wasn’t fair that they all received the same pay. But it was the lovely surprise from God and it still is. Amen!!