Monday, October 15, 2007

A Parable About Grace

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-15)

Jesus said:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
" 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

What do we make out of this parable?

The math of the landowner is a little bit on the fuzzy side, don’t you think? But that’s part of the story. The point of this parable is that we are all recipients of God’s grace—his generosity that is his alone to give. In our math we talk about getting what we deserve. In the math of the Kingdom we get far more than that. The best definition I know for the kind of grace God gives to us is: Undeserved Favor.

Think about that.

Undeserved favor doesn’t mean that we get what we deserve—it means that we get what God chooses to give us. The math we usually use to calculate our appreciation and our envy, our giving and our resentment, all of that math goes out the window in the values of the Kingdom. That’s the point of this parable. Everyone got their pay—but the landowner chose to be gracious to some folks who hadn’t worked as hard for it.

There are some things for us to learn from this parable.

Grace is not about human effort, the things we do or what we deserve. This is a story about the way grace works from God’s point of view. We can’t reason our way into this one—it has to be revealed to us. We are accepted, welcomed, loved by God because of his grace and his initiative. That fact radically changes the math of how we’re called to live in the Kingdom of God. Robert Capon wrote: ‘If the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses—by the Law—and not Jesus.’

It’s easy to try to define the 11th hour converts as being somehow less deserving than the rest. They’re like the deathbed confessions or last minute conversion stories we’ve all heard. But in the context of the Gospel we are all such people, all of us hired at the eleventh hour for a full measure of blessing, all of us totally dependent on unmerited grace.

The call to us is live remembering that we have received grace from God, and to extend that grace to others. The warning here is that when we aren’t radically generous with grace to other people, we probably haven’t considered the grace we’ve received. Don’t let that happen in your life.

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, wrote an essay about this parable. He said this:

‘People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in the field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s works as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-sized kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt, but not for the great tree it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at the First Presbyterian Church of Wherever, but not for the marriage supper of the lamb.’

As we move into the seasons of Thanksgiving and Advent and even Christmas, my prayer for all of us is that we are prepared for the grace we’re about to receive and celebrate. We can thank God now for the generous math of the Kingdom, for the undeserved favor we have all received, and we can share that grace with the rest of the world.


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