Unsentimental, Unfair Inclusive Grace

22 09 2008

Text:  Matthew 20: 1-16

Grace is one of those funny things in Christian jargon.  It has been described as “God’s unmerited favour,” or “God’s mercy poured out to those who don’t deserve it.”  This goes against our human nature, for we want people to be rewarded or punished based on their merits, contributions and character.  In other words, we humans don’t really “get” Grace.  After all, isn’t it a right, good and joyful thing to be rewarded because of the great things we do or how wonderful we are?  Should the wicked be punished for the horrible things and atrocities that are committed?  That’s the funny thing about Grace.  By our own standards, no matter how high or equitable they might seem, Grace just isn’t fair.

It is simply inclusive.

Back when I was in the Merchant Marine serving as a Midshipman (aka Cadet, or apprentice) to the officers on board a commercial ship, they explained to me how they got their crew.  Crew members would compete in the union hall for work, with jobs going to the men and women with the most seniority in the union and who happened to show up earliest.  The best jobs would be given out in the morning and by the afternoon, you’d have what were seen as the dregs of the sailors, who had spent most of the day drinking beer and playing pool.

Jesus tells his disciples and us a parable in today’s text along similar lines while they journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.  The parable is about a landowner who hires help to work in his vineyard.  He hires one group in the morning, one around noon, one in the afternoon and still another later.  In the end, he winds up paying everyone the exact same wage, regardless of how long or hard they worked.  When questioned about it, the landowner says, “Look friend, it’s my vineyard and my money…who are you to tell me how I should run my house?  Everyone agreed to work for me and I set the wage and the price.  So you can either grumble about how unfairly you think i have treated you or you can enjoy my generosity and pull a chair up to the bar and have a glass of cabernet with everyone else.” (It’s interesting to note that the Greek word translated as friend would have been more appropriately translated “pal” or “buster.”)

It’s a message that is meant for those who were first called to be a part of the God’s Kingdom and for those who have (or more tellingly, think they have) the inside scoop as to what the Kingdom is all about.  It’s very clear to us at first glance just how unfair the landowner is.  Who is he to pay those who took the trouble to get up early and then work all day in the hot sun the same as those sorry folks who stood around in the hiring hall all day? Because it is in our fallen nature we want to join in with those early risers and say, “wait a minute that’s just not fair!”  Why should we do good things if our reward is the same as those bozos who joined in the Kingdom train at the last minute?

In giving the same wage to everyone, regardless of performance or time put in, the landowner tells us a lot about the judgment and grace of God and hints about what will come about when the Kingdom is consummated at the end of the age.  Grace, you see, is not for the faint of heart.  It is, in fact, the great equalizer.  It doesn’t work on merits, but God’s mercy.  All privilege and power is ripped away.

A system of reward and punishment only serves to promote a hierarchical way of life, and ultimately an exclusionary way of life.  The only real punishable offense in the Kingdom and the one thing that will keep us from enjoying the fruits of that Kingdom is the one of bookkeeping.  Fr. Robert Capon, an Episcopal priest who wrote the book “Kingdom Grace and Judgment” which explores all of Jesus’ parables has a lot to say about the sin of bookkeeping.  In his book, he attempts to show how all of the parables, even the ones of judgment, work towards God’s justice mercy and grace being poured out upon everyone.  His take on this parable is that God gives full pay to everyone regardless of when they started working.   Here are some quotes:

“If the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, God would have stuck with Moses and not gone with Jesus.”

“The Kingdom of Heaven is for everybody.  Hell is only reserved for those idiots who insist on keeping non-existent records in their heads.”

So then, back to the question, “Why do we do good if there is the same reward for everyone?”  Under this idea of Grace is for everyone, even the racists, sexists, homophobes and colonialists are recipients of Divine mercy. Maybe the simplest reason then is to do good for its own sake, for the corollary to Grace is that as recipients of Divine mercy, we are all under Divine judgment. We only experience salvation and mercy not through anything we do but through the Grace of God, and every single person can know this if we will only just wake up to that fact.

The message of Grace is that in Jesus, God gets out of the whole bookkeeping business.  The very real problem of evil in the world cannot be resolved by reward and punishment.  It is not about settling scores, but it is about the God who won victory over death and the grave through Jesus, who took all of the sin and evil of the world into himself … and closed the accounting books on absolutely everyone’s lives forever.

Amen

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8 responses

22 09 2008
Jeffrey

Grace is a really tough concept for so many people, the idea of unmerited, inclusive favor; we like much better the works-righteous model, where God is the cosmic book keeper and we earn our own salvation. That way we can sit on thrones on either side of Jesus, much as John and James (or their mother0 requested, judging everyone else.

22 09 2008
John-Julian, OJN

Good note, Jeffrey — and some are in the process right now of building their own thrones!

Another take on the parable (which I commented on somewhere else): it is said that the *dinarius* (a day’s wages) was enough to feed, clothe, and house a family of four — so perhaps the owner of the vineyard was actually putting charity ahead of accounting!

22 09 2008
Larry Shell

Hmmmm, as I read this gospel reading to the congregation on Sunday and then listened to the sermon, I was struck by how much our reaction is based on our capitalist paradigm. We use The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures Vol I-III and The Inclusive New Testament, so I’m not sure how that translation has colored my judgement. In addition to the parable being about God’s grace, I can’t help thinking about migrant workers gathering at the unofficial “hiring spot.” Our translation indicated that the generous owner of the vineyard kept hiring more and more as the day went on who were not hired out anywhere else but yet still desparate for work. I guess I also think of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List providing life saving employment to as many Jews as possible. Those workers hired first that expect more at the end of the day represent (to me) the capitalist way of measuring it all out – a way that would have left those not hired to go home empty handed or nearly empty handed and pray for work the next day. So in addition to teaching about grace, perhaps there’s also a lesson about smashing the paradigm. I know this makes me sound like a raving socialist – and perhaps at times I am – but I’m also a Deacon thinking about social justice and I just can’t help myself.

Peace+ Everybody!

23 09 2008
Anthony

Last Sunday’s lesson, like much of what Jesus taught, is taken from Deuteronomy. The fair and equal status, and the fact that all are treated justly. Yet, contained within this parable is the on-going truth that we are constantly given gifts from God, yet we place more important attention the gifts rather than the giver. The same happened in the parable, people put more importance on the wage, then the justice provided by the giver.

The lesson is, don’t center on grace, but give thanks to the giver.

23 09 2008
Dave

And poeple get grace and mercy mixed up alot as well. Good post dude.

23 09 2008
RFSJ

Why do we do good? Because of grace – we can’t possibly pay God back for the grace he showers on us, so we can only pay it forward if you will. The General Thanksgiving of the Daily Office really says it far more eloquently:

And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;

RFSJ

24 09 2008
Fran

Oh my – you have really upturned my heart on this fuzzy (for me) morning Reverend Boy.

This is beautiful.

Grace is impossible in some ways to define – and because of that it must be lived, received and given in many dynamic ways.

Leave bookkeeping to the bookkeepers… We see today where that has gotten us in this world. Frankly I suck at record keeping, but clutch at it madly in moments of fear and anger, just like any other “good Christian.” LOL, but not really.

And for the tiny moments where I might just chose a shred of surrender, grace makes me whole. Until I start looking for that damn ledger again, both for myself and others.

Thank you Reverend Boy.

25 09 2008
Rob

From an old newsletter article for my parish newsletter:

Grace exists inside of all of us and around us. It is our inner beauty that radiates outward, touching everyone we meet. It is that unseen hand that comes from the divine, raising us up when we most need it. To be able to live in a state of grace is not based on worthiness, nor is it earned through good deeds, ritual, or sacrifice. Rather it is an unearned favor, freely bestowed and available to all, that is inherent to our birthright. All we must do is open our eyes to its presence and we will find and experience grace everywhere.

Grace is in the rain bringing relief to drought-ridden farms, and the unexpected lead for the perfect job opportunity that comes from a stranger. Grace is what happens to someone when they miraculously escape injury; it is even the simple events that happen to us that we call “good luck,” like when we don’t get a parking ticket after are meter has expired. Grace resides in the love between two people, the gift or check that comes unexpectedly in the mail, the cozy comforts that make up a home, and in the acts of forgiveness we bestow upon others. It is grace that moves us to go out of our way to help a stranger. In music, a grace note is the pause between notes that is so important to the pacing of a song. Grace is the state we are in when we are doing nothing but just being who we are.

When we accept that we always exist in a state of grace, we are able to live our lives more graciously. Knowing we are graced gives us hope, makes us more generous, and allows us to trust that we are taken care of even when we are going through difficult times. Grace is our benevolence of heart, and our generosity of spirit. Grace is unconditional love and the beauty that is our humanity. When we know that we are blessed with grace, we can’t help but want to live our lives in harmony.

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