1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” You all probably know the rest, or at least some part of the rest. That hymn is about as deep in our bones as any one hymn can be. So deep, in fact, that we tend to gloss right over what is actually being said, or as, the title of one popular Christian book puts it, “What’s so amazing about grace?” Well, to answer that question, we have to pose a few others, a few like, well, what is grace to begin with? And also, why do we experience it to be as frustrating as it is amazing?
One of the reasons I love spending time with my nieces, apart from the obvious, is that they are wonderful instructors in what it means to be human, just like all children. There it is, human pride, joy, anger, trust, love, resentment, all of it, right there in the raw. And if there is one thing that I have learned from spending time with the seven dwarfs, if you will, is that kids, like us all, have an innate sense of fairness. The instant one of my nieces suspects that I am paying more attention to a different niece, I am called on it: “Uncle Justin, you have only pushed Annika on the swing; that’s not fair.” And try as I might to rationalize the complexities, morally speaking, of all this, how Annika is my goddaughter, how she and I bonded during my brother’s divorce, how I feel especially protective of her because she can often get pushed to the side and does not get as much adult attention, none of that matters. For they are right in terms of how my time is being divided. Annika probably does get more attention from me, and you know what, it is not fair. Deep beneath those other issues and complicating factors is the glaring reality of whether or not I am being fair; there is nothing quite like seven nieces to cut you down to size a bit.
And it is precisely this issue of fairness that stalks us from the background of these particular stories, and it is this issue of fairness that can make grace not amazing but frustrating, maddening, infuriating, even. Look, if you will at the Gospel. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a land owner who will pay everyone the same regardless of the amount of work that they have done. It matters little if you clocked in on time and have been doing all those little things that go unnoticed or if you showed up horribly late for your shift and managed to again, get away with it. Now please do not gloss over your gut reaction to this; you are right, this is fundamentally unfair. From our perspective, it makes little sense and it is more than a little frustrating. What kind of God is willing to do this sort of thing, to doll out payment it seems, with no regard to how much labor has been done, how much effort put forth and how much sweat dripped from the brutality of the mid-day sun?
What is so very interesting about this reaction of ours, though, is that, rather than first being some sort of commentary on what we think about God, it reveals some deeply held belief we have about ourselves. It would be impossible, you see, to respond with anger, like Jonah, to God’s mercy and grace if we did not first assume that we were somehow more worthy of that unearned love and mercy, that absurdly generous paycheck. For reasons that are personal and communal, we believe ourselves to be the first workers. Some where along the way, the faith that we have been gifted, the love that has been shown to us, the Christ who calls to go work joyously in his kingdom, some where, we mistook the gift for something that was ours to possess. And it is not that this is one time affair, but it seems to be something that we do constantly. When this happens, there is nothing waiting for us but frustration and resentment. Resentment towards those whom we believe have not earned God’s grace as we have, and resentment towards God, as we cry along with Jonah: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
The fundamental mistake that we make can be heard in God’s answer to both Jonah and to those first workers: “Is it right for you to be angry?” and “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Yes, in both of these questions, utterly rhetorical one might add, the reality is being named: we do not possess God’s mercy and we are not given the authority to determine where that mercy ends up or whom it may come to name. To put this as simply and forcibly as possible, God does not consult us before extending divine love and care to both our neighbors and our enemies. And if we are in the business of wanting to reduce God’s mercy to our sense of what is fair or unfair, if we believe, like those first workers, that we can somehow tell God what to do with those things that belong always and only to God, this will strike us a dead end. We will bang our heads against God’s own incomprehensibility and wish, perhaps a touch less mellow dramatically than Jonah, to just be done with this whole mess.
But, this is by no means the only option for us. Because in our more honest moments, when that odd mixture of pride and despair dissipates in Christ’s warm light, we realize this: we are not the first workers, none of us. None of us stands in the position to rightly dole out Christ’s mercy and grace, and to make this presumption is both arrogant and foolish. No matter how long or well we have lived lives of faith, no matter how well we believe we have behaved, or how committed we believe ourselves to be, none of that allows us to possess the gift as though it were only ours. Instead, we, all of us together, and the whole church down through time and space, yes, all those whom Christ has called and continues to call, we are all those workers who were found just a short while before closing time who somehow receive a day’s wages. And rather than this being a burden, or a blow to our spiritual self-esteem, or point of utter frustration, this is actually what grace means. It means that you have been chosen by God in Christ Jesus and called to live into the utter giftedness where you receive so much more than you could even possess. It means letting go of our attempts at controlling God and simply enjoying the fact that Christ’s mercy has found and named us, and that He has given us all that he has: that Christ has given, through the waters of baptism and in this Holy Supper, his own body, his own blood, his peace which surpasses all human understanding and the love that the Father has poured out onto him from everlasting to everlasting, to say nothing of the blessed Holy Spirit that sustains and upholds, that keeps Christ close by your side through all darkness and strife. All of that, quite literally all of that, is the gift that you are given again and again and again. This is something much wider than we can possess, instead, it possesses and animates us. And with all the saints of God, all those whom Christ has called and continues to call, you have been gathered to go find this Christ who has already found you. For you have been given the vision to see Christ in the hungry neighbor or the restless poor; in the lonely child and the mourning widow. With the full knowledge that even who we are is an utter gift, we are free to explore how this same God is calling and naming others. For you belong to Christ, and in him, you have all things. Is it fair, no, it is not, and we can thank God for that. In Jesus’ name, amen.