September 20, 2020
Last Sunday we heard a parable from Jesus about grace. In that parable, a king forgives the debt of a slave… a debt so large that the slave has no possible chance of ever repaying. That slave leaves the king with gratitude… but that gratitude doesn’t extend to a fellow slave who owes him a debt. Instead of being changed… instead of learning from his own experience of grace… he instead angrily throws his fellow slave in prison in order to exact payment of the debt owed to him. When the king hears of this… when the king hears how his generosity of forgiveness did not go far… the grace given disappears and the slave is immediately thrown into prison and tortured until he would pay his entire debt… a debt that is still so large that he has no chance of ever repaying.
So as Presbyterians… when we declare that grace is our first theological principle… if we are not shaped by God’s freely given grace… the grace that sets us free… then we too are imprisoned by our own sin… whether that prison is shaped by our own destructive pride, or prejudices, or feelings of deservedness, or our own lack of generosity to our fellow debtors, or… and probably most damaging of all… our inner belief that the debt of sin between us and God… that that debt is not so great… not so deep and so wide that we can’t somehow overcome it ourselves by our own sense of our own goodness. When we believe that grace is for others only and not for ourselves… then we are still imprisoned because we can’t acknowledge the mercy… we can’t appreciate or have that sense of gratitude for the forgiveness that was shown to us. What then would motivate us to show that same grace others?
In our parable today from Matthew, grace is shown again… and again it fails to penetrate the hardness of hearts. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Matthew 20… starting with verse 1.
READ Matthew 20:1-16
So I dare anyone to deny that they don’t relate to the laborers who worked all day and expected a bit more at the end after seeing that the last also received a full day’s pay for just a few hours of work. That would have been considered fair… no matter to whom or when Jesus is telling this parable. In his time, that would have made perfect sense to the day workers who would have gathered around to hear this parable from this traveling rabbi. In our time, the idea that we are to be payed fairly for the work that we do… while not always applied today… is still an idea we would consider to be just and right. Take this parable out of the Bible and put it as a general ethical question to people… and I would guarantee that most would side with the laborers who worked all day long. Most would agree that they deserved more… even if in their hearts they wished they could get in on the deal that the last workers in the vineyard received. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get a full day’s pay for a few hours of work?
At the end of the day the workers all receive the same… yet one group feels gipped and the other group feels gratitude.
When it comes to grace… we still have a tendency to approach it with a transactional mindset. One of the lectionary readings today was from the book of Jonah. The story of Jonah is more than a story about a big fish. Jonah is given the message to go and tell the people of Nineveh that God’s judgment is coming upon them. Now, you would think that this would be a message that Jonah would relish… that he would be happy to give to the people of Nineveh because Jonah hates them. They are the enemy. He wants nothing more than to see them destroyed… to see the worst imaginable judgment from God rain down upon their heads. Their destruction would make Jonah happy. So Jonah does all he can not to deliver the message God has given to him. Jonah hops on a boat heading in the opposite direction. When a storm comes up and threatens to sink the boat, Jonah does all he can to get the sailors to throw him overboard so that he would drown. In Jonah’s mind and in his heart it would be better for him to die than to deliver this message warning of God’s coming judgment. Why? Because Jonah knows that God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. The worst thing Jonah can imagine is God showing grace to the people of Nineveh… which is exactly what God does when the people repent.
God’s grace violates what Jonah believes is right and is deserved. Nineveh was an enemy of Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire… the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Nineveh did not deserve God’s grace… had not earned God’s steadfast and abounding love. Nineveh deserved God’s wrath. Nineveh received grace. And God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
The landowner in the parable asks the disgruntled laborers, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
What happens when God does not follow the proper transactional etiquette? When we are the benefactors it is wonderful… it is amazing… it is worth our praise and gratitude. When we feel ourselves wronged… it isn’t fair… it isn’t right… God isn’t really so generous and real judgment is always there to be given in the end. They… and it is usually they… will get what they deserve in the end.
We don’t think of the kingdom of heaven like the gospels do. We’re still stuck on the vision of heaven… that place I want to go to after I die. We’re stuck on the transactional faith that will get me there… what I have to do in order to earn my entrance. So when our theology talks about grace… when we say there is nothing for you to earn… no hoops that you have to jump through… no special dispensation that you have to somehow acquire… we don’t know what to do with that. How many times have I heard someone say, “God is gracious… and grace is free… but…” Try to tack conditions onto grace and it is no longer grace. So how many times have I found myself in the conversation where I’m talking about God’s free grace… someone in the conversation… thinking about the kingdom of heaven as that place where I want to be after I die… starts to ask questions about who goes to heaven. Will people from other religions go to heaven? What about people who have done horrible things in life… will they get to go to heaven? How about those deathbed confessions… will that gimmick get them into heaven even if they’ve cursed God their whole lives? Will God freely forgive their debt too? All these are Jonah questions. What about the people of Nineveh God? What are they to you? Yet, Jonah knew the character of God… that’s why he went in the opposite direction.
How many have gone away disappointed… or disbelieving when I tell them that God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing? What happens when a God for whom nothing is impossible… what happens when that God is generous with grace? Jonah got angry. The laborers got angry. Many good Christians get angry… because a generous gracious God doesn’t support their transactional faith. They don’t know what to do with a God who forgives so freely. They can’t find the gratitude for something they had no part in creating. They can’t find joy in knowing that the underserving last will be first and the deserving first will be last. Such a thing makes no sense. It gets twisted as a punishment for the first… who lose nothing, but still are seen as the ones getting the raw end of the deal. And yet… that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
I’ve been trying to learn more about the theology of Reinhold Niebur lately. And in a book called “The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr” by Hans Hofmann that I found in our church library, I found this quote. “Yet there is this other side of the gospel teaching and of all biblical thought: It makes no difference whether men are good or evil in the sight of God, because they are all in need of God’s mercy. It makes no difference whether they have labored long or briefly in the vineyard, the first is as much in need of divine grace as the last. It is because the first are so greatly tempted to forget this that they frequently become last and the last first.” Transactional faith has a way of shortening our memories… has a way of making us forget God’s grace and being able to acknowledge our need of that grace.
In the story that comes before Jesus tells this parable about the laborers in the vineyard, a young man comes before Jesus with a transactional question… “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” You know how this encounter goes. Jesus tells him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The young man asks him, “Which ones?” You don’t get much more transactional than that. Jesus lists off different commandments and the young man is feeling real good about himself. His good quotient is high… but his transactional spirit still needs to ask what he is lacking. And that’s when Jesus lowers the boom. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Because the young man is rich… because in his heart his riches are deserved and owed to him for either the work he has done or because the good he has accomplished… he goes away grieving. Selling everything and giving it to the undeserving poor does not fit his transactional expectations of what is right and what is just… any more than does the laborers late to the fields receiving the same pay as those who have labored all day.
The disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Saints, when grace is our first theological principle it means God comes first. In a transactional faith… the kind we are comfortable with… we come first. We come first because we are trying to influence God… we are trying to get God to act on our behalf… we are trying to earn our reward and justify ourselves before God. So when God upsets that transaction by being gracious… by being merciful and forgiving… by abounding in steadfast love… we become angry and we reject that God in favor of the safe, predictable transactional God… the kind of God that Jonah needed to enact Jonah’s righteous anger and vengeance on the undeserving people of Nineveh. When Niebuhr talks about there being no difference in good and evil in light of God’s grace… he’s not saying that good and evil don’t matter… what he is saying is that good and evil have no transactional bearing upon the debt we owe to God. Good or evil we all owe that debt that we cannot forgive ourselves no matter how many of the commandments we have followed. So we give thanks for God’s graciousness. And it is because of God’s grace that that transactional weight is lifted from us… that is what we are set free from… from having to prove ourselves before God. What we are left with is our response to God’s grace. We can show ingratitude like Jonah. We can turn right around and demand the debts owed us be paid by our fellow slave. We can grumble that grace was shown to someone we felt undeserving and resent God’s generosity as do the laborers in the vineyard. We can go away grieving because God’s grace takes away what we believe is our due reward. We can work evil because if there’s no longer any transactional reason to be good… then what does anything matter anymore.
Or… or… we can embrace the freedom and live into the goodness of God’s grace… we can love as God has loved us in Christ… we can let that same generous spirit live through us… we can do good for the sake of doing good alone and for the joy of walking in the path of God… of bringing glory to the God who is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And in that way we can come to know what the kingdom of Heaven is like. Amen.