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Sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16
Ten years ago in May I completed my doctoral studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. I will always remember one course when our professor shared a story about teaching a class in ethics at another seminary where her students were pursuing their Master of Divinity degree. One morning she walked in and said, “The funniest thing happened today at our meeting with denominational leaders. They decided students no longer need courses in Greek or Hebrew to be ordained.” A couple of students in class voiced their dissatisfaction with this announcement. She continued to share that some courses that these students had already completed were going to either be eliminated from the curriculum or combined with others. “It is obvious that students will not need as many hours to graduate from seminary in the future” she said. At this point the professor shared that at least a dozen classmates in the room started to protest. “What is this? This isn’t fair! They can’t do this! The professor was sympathetic, saying, “I know, I know, it’s not fair. I know,” and with just a hint of a smile, she said, “Let’s turn to our text for today, Matthew 20, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.”
Those students at that very moment realized they had been duped. They had been turned into a living parable. Here were students in seminary training to become pastors, who were going to be dispensers of God’s grace and the whole idea of grace offended them. That someone would get something by doing less, while others work hard offends us. 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. Grace has a bit of an edge because grace is challenging. Grace is not the way we like to do things. We have created an entire society that is not based on grace. The military has ranks and corporations have organizational charts so that everyone knows where everyone stands in relationship to everyone else.
This landowner from the parable would have trouble making it in our society. His compensation package would not really fly in today’s world. Our society is built around everything but grace. And if we are honest with ourselves, some of us like it this way. If we didn’t, we would change our society. There are times when grace disturbs us because it challenges us.
The first way grace challenges us is that grace makes us equal to everyone else. Sometimes we do not want to be equal to others. We want to be better than others. The workers complaints here are interesting as they say: “You have made us equal to these other workers.” They don’t complain about the wage. The wage was perfectly generous. They complain that they were made equal to everybody else and they didn’t want to be equal, they wanted to be superior. A lot of our human happiness seems to depend on having something that others do not have. We witness this phenomenon when we have a chance to observe children playing together. Often we can watch an older child playing with a toy and a younger child will be playing with a different toy. The youngest will notice that the older child has a different toy. They of course turn their attention to that toy, not because they really want to play with that toy but for the simple fact that someone else has the toy. We also see this type of interaction a lot with pets interacting with each other as well. Our dog loves to go visit our neighbor’s dog and will always try to leave their house with one of that dog’s toys, despite the fact he may have the very same toy at home.
A lot of our happiness seems to depend upon acquiring something we do not possess. It is a part of human nature; maybe it is a natural born competitive streak that wants us to be better than others. Whether it’s earning the best grades in class, scoring the most points, goals or touchdowns or earning the highest commissions at work, we strive in so many different ways to be better than others. There is a part of us that desires a God who grades us so that we can compare ourselves to other people. The late Lewis Smedes who was a Christian author wrote a book entitled, How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is Wrongonce discussed the way grace works. Smedes wrote:
Grace is not a ticket to Fantasy Island; Fantasy Island is dreamy fiction. Grace is not a potion to charm life to our liking, charms are magic. Grace does not cure all our cancers, transform all our kids into winners, or send us soaring into the high skies of success. Grace is rather an amazing power to look reality full in the face, and see that it has sad and tragic edges…
The second reason that grace challenges us is because grace is radical. Grace is different than anything we have experienced before. Grace means that for those of us who believe that Jesus is our Savior, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. Grace also means that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less when we seek forgiveness for our sin. No one is first, and no one is last, we’re all just covered by the grace of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that’s why Jesus used what some consider confusing language in Matthew about being first and last. At the end of chapter 19 before he shared this parable, Jesus said the following:
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matthew 19:30)
Jesus was trying to make the point in the Kingdom of God first and last doesn’t matter anymore. Grace is not about finishing first. Grace is not about finishing last; grace is not about counting or keeping score anymore. Those things have no meaning in the kingdom of God according to Jesus. We can stop worrying about whether or not we are on top. We can stop worrying about whether we are on the bottom. Jesus’ death upon the cross has released us from this forever in the Kingdom of God. That is very different. That is radical.
This brings us to the third, and maybe the most difficult, reason. Grace seems unfair. 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. We can certainly understand why those workers who put in more time were questioning this action. They all got paid the same even if they worked less. It seems unfair. Translated into our lives, that means that we must remain humble in all circumstances. This means we cannot be jealous of the gifts that God has given to other people, or congregations. Grace applied to us seems normal but grace applied to other people who we feel are undeserving of grace disturbs us. Grace levels the playing field of life. As the old saying goes, the ground at the foot of the cross is always level!
In thinking of a level playing field, I recall reading a story of a college chaplain who was talking to a group of students, some new to the Christian faith. This chaplain was talking about the subject of grace. One of the students said, “Let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose someone has done many awful things in their life, criminal things and this person on the last day of their life accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Are you telling me that this person goes to heaven just the same as Mother Theresa?” The Chaplain said, “That’s what I’m telling you.” The student responded, “That’s not fair!” The Chaplain responded, “You know, it doesn’t seem fair. I’ve got to agree with you, it doesn’t seem fair.” To which the student said, “Someone has to pay a price!” This is where the student missed the point because Jesus paid that price with his suffering and death upon the cross. Over two thousand years ago an innocent man was put to death upon a cross. While that did not seem fair it was grace in action. GRACE as an acronym represents the following:
G = God’s
R = Riches
A = At
C = Christ’s
E = Expense
While grace is challenging we must never forget that it is also amazing.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
July 15, 2018