Bourbon Street, New Orleans

February 12, 2017 • Matthew 20:1-16 • Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a sign advertises a so-called gentlemen’s club. It’s not for gentlemen. This particular den of iniquity is called “Temptations.” The gaudy neon sign displays an apple. The devil himself is mocking the people there: “I don’t even have to try with you, because either you humans don’t know your own story, or you’ve relegated it to myth. You are easy prey.”

But the audacious display of hedonism is not the only shingle the devil hangs out. In more refined places, his signs are lit with a softer glow, the lettering elegant, the product respectable. He has written “Temptations” with invisible ink.

And you buy what he’s selling. Pride. Envy. Resentment of someone you deem an outsider.

The inborn concupiscence—the disordered desires—pulls you back toward slavery, ensnaring your heart far worse than a Bourbon Street peep show, because it’s so much more respectable. What enslaves you? What disordered desire dominates you?

In the reading from Exodus we heard this morning, the children of Israel had just crossed the Red Sea, leaving their hard slavery behind. But the moment a challenge comes, they begin to long for their old life. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us?” 

The siren song urging you back to slavery is a test you will undergo throughout this life. It’s easy to see how an alcoholic, or a drug addict, is enslaved by those desires. The other kinds of slavery are more subtle. What sins permeate your life? Do you keep on gossiping? Do you harbor animosity toward someone in your heart? Are you controlled by desires for food? Do you squander your time in front of screens? Do you gaze at things forbidden?

The Lord Jesus says, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Jn 8.34). Does that describe you?

Today, the voice of the Lord your God calls you away from those things that enslave you. He calls you to Himself, to take the status of a child in His household.

Grabbing lunch at the New Orleans airport on Friday, I saw one of the district presidents in our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod waiting for his food. I’d never really talked with him one-on-one before, so after we prayed, I asked him how many kids he has. “Five,” he replied. Now some were adopted, but that came out later. He made no distinction in their status. All are equal. All are his children.

As people talk about their children, they mention characteristics: Girl, boy; quiet, loud; tall, short; a reader, a musician; adopted. The adoption says how the child came into the family, not whether or not the child is a “real” son or daughter.

Sometimes children will make fun of others by suggesting they’re adopted. What if I told you that you are adopted? You are, or you’re not a Christian.

This is no metaphor. None of us are children of God by nature. When the Son of God comes into the world, St. John’s Gospel tells us,

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)

The birth from below—coming from blood and flesh and a man—is not how we become “real” children in God’s eyes. The real birth is the birth from above, a reference to Holy Baptism. Today Adeline is adopted the second time; born from below, she was adopted into the family of Ryan and Whitney, and becomes their real daughter, and the real sister of Parker. Today she is born from above and receives not only God as Father, but Jesus as Brother, which means that Adeline is more your sister than even your flesh and blood siblings.

So in your Baptism, you are adopted, and that’s precisely what the call into the vineyard is.

It’s a strange story that Jesus tells, but that’s because the Gospel is strange, God is strange. He goes out and acts like he’s hiring men to work, but when the time comes for the wages to be paid, he doesn’t pay them according to any reasonable standard.

This is bad business. But God isn’t running a business, He’s creating a kingdom. This kingdom does not operate on wages, and thank God for that, because the wages of sin is death. The Lord does not distribute based upon merit—how long or how hard someone worked—but He distributes generously, freely, based on grace. The only standard God employs is His desire to be good.

This angers some. The man arguing with the master at the end of the parable resents the master’s grace. He resents the adoption of these new people and their status as being the same.

This is the mystery of the kingdom: God does not give us what we deserve, He gives us Himself and His entire kingdom. He isn’t treating these men like workers, He treats them like sons.

This is the mystery of the kingdom: God’s own Son becomes a slave; He treats us slaves like children.

So why go back to the slavery of your desires? You’ve been adopted. You have a new Father, God Himself; you have a new Brother, Jesus; you have a new family, and you have the inheritance. Renounce your former slavery; when you see the sign marked “Temptations,” keep on walking. That’s not who you are. You are not a slave. You are sons and daughters of the king. ✠INJ✠