Grumbling About Grace

To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16

Throughout his ministry Jesus often made people feel uncomfortable and upset because he said things that were unsettling. Jesus often used parables in order to help people see the great truths of the kingdom of God. The late John H. Westerhoff, III an author of many books on the subject of Christian Education once said, “If you are not feeling very uncomfortable after you have read a parable in the Bible, just assume that you did not get it. Its function is to turn your life upside down and get you very upset. And most people are not upset about parables. That means that they did not get it.”

As Jesus often did in his ministry, he took everyday occurrences to provide powerful lessons in his parables. It’s interesting that the scenario that was recorded in Matthew’s account would have been a typical scene in the days of the Bible. Just as we have employment agencies today, in the first century, there were places where day laborers gathered to seek work. They worked from job to job, many of which lasted no more than a day. Because they had no guarantee of work beyond what they might do at the time, they would gather in the market place before dawn to be available for hiring. Working in a vineyard was not easy work. At harvest time, the grapes have to be picked often in temperatures of 100 degrees or more. Grapes had to be picked quickly before the bad weather set in and if for some reason the grapes were slow in ripening, the time for harvesting could be significantly shortened. Consequently, the grape harvest was a hectic and demanding time. Jesus shared that the employer sent laborers into his vineyard all through the day as he found them in the marketplace. At the end of the day he paid the last worker hired the same amount as those workers who worked a full day. This landowner from the parable might have trouble in our more modern business world. His compensation package would not really be acceptable in today’s world. This parable is unique for it explains the nature of how God’s grace works in our lives.

I think we all like to think of grace as a comforting concept.  But there is another side of grace that is a little more disturbing that causes some to grumble about grace. Grace is challenging. Grace is not the way we like to do things. Even today like those laborers from our parable, we are offended if someone would get something of equal value by doing less work than we have done. It has been said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace. And that is certainly true. But, even so, grace is not well understood and often not really believed. We use the word a great deal but rarely think about what it means. We have created an entire society that is not based on grace. Airlines make us earn frequent flyer miles; they don’t just give them to us. The military has ranks and corporations have organizational charts so that everyone knows where everyone stands in relation to everyone else. Even in the churches there might be a pecking order for people. If we are honest with ourselves, some of us like it this way. Grace can be disturbing to us because it challenges us.

The first way grace challenges us is that grace levels the playing field of life. Grace makes us equal to everyone else and often the problem is we do not want to be equal. We want to be better.  In our parable we see that equal pay for unequal work was totally unexpected, and regarded by some of the laborers as unacceptable. Their complaints here in the parable fascinate me. We see in the parable that they don’t complain about the wage because the wage was perfectly generous. Their voices of dissatisfaction came from these words, “You have made us equal to these other workers.” An old proverb says: When we get what we deserve, that is justice. When we don’t get what we deserve, that is mercy. When we get what we don’t deserve, that is grace. God’s kingdom we discover is not based on what is fair but on what we need. Grace overlooks our shortcomings in life and promises us that one day we can be standing in line hoping that God will reward us as the employer did to those laborers.

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Phillip Yancey points out that part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself. Grace is scandalous. It’s hard to accept, hard to believe, and hard to receive. Grace shocks us in what it offers. It is truly not of this world. It frightens us with what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. Grace is given to those who don’t deserve, barely recognize, and hardly appreciate grace.

The second reason that I think grace is a challenge to us is because grace is so radical. It is so different than anything we are used to experiencing. Grace means that for those of us who know Jesus there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. No one is first, and no one is last, we’re all just covered by the grace of God. I know I would feel more comfortable with a formula for grace but God does not work this way. God’s sense of mathematics does not make sense at times. For example:

  • God will leave 99 sheep to find the 1 lost sheep. (Luke 15)
  • God will count a penny as much as hundreds put into the Treasury. (Mark 12)
  • God doesn’t pay by the hour, God pays equally. (Matthew 20)

Just prior to this text in Chapter 19, a rich young man came to Jesus to ask what good deeds he must do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells him to sell all he has and come follow Him. Peter picks up on this story and says to Jesus, “We have given up everything? What are we going to get?” Peter wanted a formula but there is none. Jesus tells the parable of the workers to say that there is no formula. The mathematics of grace is that everyone wins.

As we speak of winning, perhaps you’ve heard the story of a person who was watching a baseball game with the Lord. The Lord’s team was playing Satan’s team. The Lord’s team was at bat, the score was tied zero to zero, and it was the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs. They continued to watch as a batter stepped up to the plate whose name was Love. Love swung at the first pitch and hit a single, because Love never fails. The next batter was named Faith, who on a hit and run play also got a single because Faith works with Love. With Love on third base and Faith on first base, the next batter up was named Wisdom. Wisdom sensed that the pitcher was getting tired so he decided to make him throw a strike over the plate. Wisdom walked on four straight pitches. The bases were loaded. The Lord then turned to this person and told him He was now going to bring in His star player. Up to the plate stepped Grace. The first pitch came right over the plate and to the shock of everyone, Grace hit the ball harder than anyone had ever seen and it flew over the centerfield fence for a home run! The Lord’s team won. The Lord then asked this spectator if he knew why Love, Faith, and Wisdom could get on base but could not win the game. The Lord explained, “If your love, faith and wisdom had won the game you would think you had done it by yourself. Love, faith and wisdom will get you on base, but only grace can get you home. In the game of life, in the game of grace, we only lose if we begrudge the fact that there are no losers. Grace is not about scorekeeping to determine whose life has been more Christ like than others. Through the life and death of Jesus Christ we realize those things have no meaning in God’s kingdom. That is radical. That is very different.

This brings us to the third, and maybe the most difficult, reason that grace challenges us.  Grace at times seems unfair. In our parable, the landowner’s grace means that those who worked only an hour got paid the same as those who worked all day. That doesn’t seem fair.  When translated into our lives, this means we can’t feel superior even to the person sitting behind prison bars who is a Christian, even though we have worked hard to be a good person.  Closer to home that means we can’t be jealous of the gifts that God has given to other people. I have always found this parable to be a good Moravian text, because it is a great measure to see what kind of grace filled Christians we are. Are we happy that others receive the grace of God no matter how little they seem to deserve grace? Or do we grumble about grace like those in our parable?

Grace levels the playing fields of life, grace is radical and at times grace seems unfair. Despite these feelings we are left with the task of being the dispensers of God’s grace in our society. Are we doing a good job or is their room for improvement? In short, our worst days are never so bad that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And our best days are never so good that we are beyond the need of God’s grace. Grace is challenging but it is amazing!

Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

September 24, 2017