Is God’s Grace Fair?
Septuagesima Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 12, 2006| Matthew 20:1-16
I will never forget a conversation I had with a fellow in St. Cloud, Minnesota about twenty five years ago. On my day off I used to go to a rather nice pool hall to shoot pool for a couple of hours. This guy was a pretty good pool player, though he was rather profane in his language. I think he took God’s name in vain just to annoy me and to throw me off my game. He called me preacher, but never showed the slightest interest in what I preached. I kept inviting him to church, but he never came. One day, the man’s curiosity got the better of him. In a respectful tone he asked me what I preached about. “Here’s my chance,” I thought. I had to say it just right. I didn’t want to blow it. So, I carefully explained to the man how Jesus had taken the place of all sinners. I told him how God placed the blame for everyone’s sins on Jesus who suffered for them. I told him how God gave to these same sinners the credit for Jesus’ holy life of obedience. Jesus took the blame for what we did wrong and God gave us the credit for what Jesus did right. I thought that was pretty simple, and also quite comforting to know. He thought about what I said for a moment and then he blurted out: “But that’s not fair! Jesus should get the credit for what He did, and the sinners should get the blame for what they did.” He looked at me as if I were a rather dull child, not to see how unfair it was. I told him, yes, I suppose it looked unfair, but that’s the only way a sinner could find salvation from sin. The fellow then reverted to his typically profane self, and made a few jokes about hell, pretending not to believe in it as he talked about going there to be with all his friends. Well, I tried, I thought. I wish I could have done a better job.
It took a while to learn that it wasn’t a matter of my doing a better job. The fact is that the Christian faith is quite unfair, judging by human standards. Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard all getting paid the same amount of money tells us that God just isn’t fair the way we understand fairness. Thank God for that!
You want fair? Then you can face God without Christ bearing your sins on the cross. See where you stand then. You want fair? You can try to win over God’s approval by your own life and your own religious devotion. But you won’t succeed. The fact is, if you know the truth about yourself, you don’t want fair. You want mercy. You want grace. You want God to treat you, not as you deserve, but according to His boundless love and undeserved kindness.
The parable Jesus told of the workers in the vineyard is one that would have been well understood by people of Jesus’ day. When the time had come to harvest the grapes, there was a short period of time before the winter rains would come. The harvest had to be finished before then or it would be ruined. Men were hired to work in the vineyard, not just at six in the morning (which was the first hour), but throughout the whole day. Laborers were needed and they would be hired at any time of the day. In those days, the working man did not have much in the area of savings. A day’s wage, which was a denarius, could be the difference between a man feeding his family and having them go hungry. So when a man was hired to do less than a day’s wage but was paid a whole day’s wage, that was a wonderful kind of generosity.
God is generous. Do we approve or disapprove of this? God is gracious. Do we agree with God being gracious? This is the issue this parable places before us. What do we think of God’s grace? Do we regard it as unfair? Or do we regard it as the most wonderful treasure we have in this life?
Those who were hired at the eleventh hour are rewarded for the work that others have done. And so it is for the Christian. The Christian – that is, the believer, the saint – is the one who trusts in the work done by Another, namely Jesus. Jesus was crucified at the third hour, at the sixth He was suffering fully the penalty for all of our sins, at the ninth hour He was crying out, “It is finished,” and at the eleventh hour He had been taken down from the cross and laid in the grave. The work of our salvation had all been done. All is done by the eleventh hour. All is done and the reward is given to those who have done nothing to earn it.
Naturally, those who were working hard were angry to be made the equals of those who did no work at all. It wasn’t fair. Listen to the words of the parable:
And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”
They were right about that. They understood the gospel intellectually. They just didn’t believe it. Like that pool player in St. Cloud. He didn’t reject the gospel because he didn’t understand it. He rejected it because he did understand it. Jesus teaches us an equality more radical than the most radical reformers. He teaches an equality that human pride cannot tolerate. Oh, folks love to talk about equality, but they don’t believe in it. They just say they do. Human notions of equality pertain to social, political, or economic equality. So there are the Communists who preach equality while attacking business interests, and then, when they are in power, proceed to impoverish the entire nation except themselves. They learned their bloody ideology from the French Revolution which promised liberty, equality, and brotherhood, and in order to show how seriously they took their creed, they used the guillotine to enforce it until the streets of Paris were flowing with blood. Even the milder forms of enforced equality impose quite the opposite of what is promised. Feminism, which promised to liberate women by making them equal with men, has become the civil creed of our nation during the same time that women have been more callously exploited by merchants of sex than ever before. No, equality as humanly constructed promises but doesn’t deliver. Sadly, the bogus human notions of equality often invade the church and pass themselves off as God’s own word.
In the sixties and seventies the cause for equality in the church was the ordination of women. Now this is taken for granted. Today the cause for equality in the church is the ordination of homosexuals and recognizing homosexual marriage. The church is told that she must pursue equality. But the Bible condemns the ordination of women. It condemns homosexuality. When the church sets aside the Scriptures she relies instead on carnal standards and ends of doing the devil’s work for him. True equality isn’t something the church must pursue or achieve. It isn’t a social or political condition that comes about by applying the right principles or by electing the right politicians or by overcoming age-old prejudices and systemic discrimination.
We will never have this kind of equality here on this earth. The only kind of equality we will have here on earth is the kind that Jesus offers. It is more radical than anything devised by man or woman. Do you remember what Jesus did when his disciples were arguing among themselves over who would have what power in the church? Listen to the words of St. Matthew 18:2-5.
And Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
We must take Jesus’ words very seriously, for he teaches us the same thing in the parable that we are considering today. He sets the standards of true worth, true value, and true status in his church. Jesus does. We don’t. And it is Jesus who says that if you don’t become like a little child, you cannot be a Christian. Whoever will not humble himself will by no means enter into heaven. Jesus cares nothing for the standards of fallen sinful mankind. He cares nothing about human merit, human achievement, human glory, and human worth. Jesus says that the last will be first and the first last. The very idea that the church of Jesus Christ should be used as a vehicle for social change to achieve some sort of mythical equality here on earth visible to the human eye is a rejection of Christ himself. But then, it is also as Jesus says, “Many are called, but few chosen.”
We all want equality when it makes us powerful. Do we want it when it makes us weak? Do we want it when it requires us to set aside all reliance on our own powers and to regard a little child as our equal? Oh, how we treasure our labor. How we won’t be cheated without making a federal case out of it. How we want to be acknowledged for every deed, every contribution we make. And then to hear Jesus say, “But you haven’t really earned anything at all. Whatever you receive in the kingdom of heaven is pure grace. Someone else earned it for you. You earned nothing at all.”
Look at the newly baptized baby. What accomplishments can you see? What great feats of human virtue or what impressive acts of human commitment? What spiritual achievements? What do you see? You see a little baby who can do nothing but to receive. You see someone the world knows is small and helpless and unable to earn anything from anyone. Are you willing to be such a person? Are you willing to regard all of your labor as a Christian as meriting nothing at all? Are you willing to be the very last? Look at the baptized infant – not at him, but at the promises of his gracious God – see a wealth that the world can only imagine, but never bestow. See a place in heaven among the angels sharing in the glory of God himself. See a righteousness more pure and holy than anything done by the greatest saints who have ever lived. See a peace of soul and conscience unmarred by any sin of any kind. See a saint in God’s kingdom, who received his saintliness without doing a thing to get it. Now can you see yourself?
You don’t want fair. You want mercy. This is what Jesus wants you to know. If you want fair, you don’t know what you want, because simple fairness requires that you pay your own debt of sin. The pool player in St. Cloud was right about that. Fair is not what we really want. Mercy is what we really want. And that we why we are here today.
When you have seen Jesus suffer for you, labor for you, bear the heat of the sun and the backbreaking work for you, you know you cannot do it for yourself. So you rest in Jesus and find your peace in him. You claim your status as a little child who can do nothing but receive the gift that is given. And what a wonderful status it is! Just look at how all of your failures, your offenses, your guilt, your shame, your punishment, and your sorrow have been laid on Jesus. Look at how He patiently takes it all in, swallows it up, and bears it in his innocent body and soul. Look at that Jesus. He is your life. He offers you mercy in the place of fairness. He forgives you all your sins. He has every right to do so because He bore them. And He joins you in a mystical union with everyone else, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, of every tribe, language, people, and nation who have received him in simple, childlike faith. He has made you their equal and he has made them your equal because He has given to every member of his church the same mercy from the same bitter suffering and death. The rich he has sent empty away. They have been paid for their labor and they must leave. Pray Jesus that he keep us humbly trusting in His merits alone, that we may stay with Him now and always. Amen.