2023-09-24 Pentecost 17
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
I need all of you parents and grandparents to do a little experiment for me. The next time you have a houseful of grandkids or if you have a few kids at home yet, I want you to do this. Get some candy or pop or cookies and give some to all the kids except one of them. It could be your least favourite grandkid, that’s just fine! Hand out the sugary bounty except to that one lone child and then sit back and watch what happens. Write down all the details in a notepad and return to me with your findings, OK? … Ah, you can already guess what’s going to happen! It’ll be world war 3 in your living room! Crying. Hurt feelings. Resentment. Yelling. Screaming. Threats! Imagine if you gave them money instead of candy!? The fireworks would really fly then!
We know that such an experiment would end with weeping and gnashing of teeth because everyone is born with a very deeply ingrained sense of justice. Or at least, what we perceive to be fair and what isn’t. We know exactly when we’ve been slighted and others have received more than we have. If we make out better than those around us, so be it. But if someone else got a deal and we didn’t, watch out! We’re going to make our case heard quick, fast and in a hurry! I remember exams back in school. You and your fellow pupil wrote the same answer for a question and she got it right and you got yours marked wrong! We lose it! We snap! We go ballistic over that terrible, no fair injustice of eternal consequence!
Enter our Lord Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers. We’ve heard this one before, it’s probably not new. But at the same time, we need to go over and over it so we can let the word of God mould and shape us like a potter to the clay. The gist of the parable is that workers are hired and agree to work for a denarius, the days wages of a labourer. So it’s like $100 in our day and age before the government steals half of it in taxes. The workers go out early in the morning into the vineyard and work the day away. The master also goes out and hires more workers as the day goes on, the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours of the day. For us this would be like bringing in more workers at 9AM, Noon, 3PM, and 5PM with the work day finishing at 6PM. So the steam whistle blows and the work day is done, it comes time to clock out and square up with the workers.
This boss man starts doling out the money to the workers who were hired last right up to the first ones hired. Just like the car give away episode of Oprah, “And you get $100, and you get $100, and you get $100 and you get $100!” They all get the same Denarius. Denarius. Denarius. Denarius. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:10-16).
Well uggggg. It’s definitely not fair. The workers hired late in the day got the same amount as the those who started at 6AM. But it’s not a ripoff either. He paid the workers what they agreed upon. But our ingrained sense of justice is annoyed by this. It’s kind of like chewing on tinfoil! Somehow it’s just not right! Those people who showed up at 5PM didn’t work anything close to the guys who started early in the day! But they get the same amount?! How can this be?! So it’s the inverse of the experiment I want you to try with the kids and grandkids! And you know there is going to be grumbling, complaining and surmising!
But what makes this lesson so scandalous is that this parable is none other than a lesson in grace. Grace, like forgiveness, is not something native to our nature. Grace is rich to share and give and forgive in the face of injustice and unfairness. Our sinful nature will not easily relent and give up on injustice. We will cling hard and fast to justice and what we perceive to be fair. If the teacher marked our friend’s exam question right and ours wrong even though we wrote the same answer, you can better believe we’re marching straight up to the desk to demand our extra point! If our neighbour buys a new truck and gets a sweet 10% off at the dealership, we better get the same deal or else! If the other kids get candy and pop and we didn’t get any, hell will be unleashed in all of its 3 year old fury! You get the idea. You’ve all been there at one time or another.
But grace is so different. Grace doesn’t demand justice. Instead, it lavishly gives. Grace is God’s way when it comes to eternal life and salvation. We see this everywhere in the Scriptures. We see it hugely in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. We see it clearly on the cross. The sinless and innocent Lord Jesus dies for the sinful and guilty sinners. Us. Grace doesn’t demand. Grace gives. Instead of telling us to shape up, quit sinning, fly right and then God will love us, God “shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). This is how God operates. His Kingdom is overflowing with grace and mercy for poor sinners like us.
The more we saturate ourselves with God’s grace, the more it overflows from us to those around us. Our spiritual life should be like a gigantic sham-wow towel, sopping up God’s grace and wringing it out on our friends, coworkers and neighbours! But often it isn’t. More often than not we are content to cling on to our sense of justice and fairness and compensation. We are even hostile to God’s grace. This is where repentance comes in. We have to pray that God’s grace would take over in our lives. We focus on Christ our Lord and His sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. We look to the cross and see there grace poured out for us.
Then, we put the score card behind us. We become less focused on ourselves and all the injustices that we’ve faced. We become overwhelmed by the gracious master. Really, when we think of it, no matter of justice can really make things right. Think about crimes committed against us. Can any amount of prison time or money bring back a murdered family member? Can any reparation to society clear out the red in the ledger? Can you ever do enough good to outweigh the bad?! The answer is no. No it can’t. Seldom, if anything, in life can “make things right again” after sin has worked it’s poison. The only thing we can turn to is our Lord’s grace. The healing nature of God’s forgiveness and grace is what will do it. Not justice. Not fairness. Not any human work or merit.
We like it when God’s grace rains down upon us. We struggle with wringing out the sham-wow to others. We instinctively want to cling to justice and our “rights.” But we need rather to focus on Christ. His amazing grace alone will set us free. His promise in the water and word of our Baptism washes us clean. His body and blood in, with and under bread and wine will change us from the inside out. His Holy Scriptures will reprogram our sinful genetic code. It is then and only then that life becomes bursting with light and mercy. We care less about wrongs done to us and more about God’s Kingdom illuminating our dark world. Through prayer and repentance, the Gospel of Jesus Christ works inside of us, transforming and transfiguring our nature. Generosity begins to replace stinginess. Grace begins to replace justice. Mercy begins to replace the need to be right. Life begins to replace death. Thanks be to God our gracious Master now and forever more. Amen!