Equations of Grace

Matthew 20.1-16 (The Workers in the Vineyard)

The story of the workers in the vineyard reminds me of a play I saw a number of years ago called Jesus Hopped the A Train. It’s set in Rikers Prison and surrounds a couple of characters who’ve been locked up for murder. It was a very uncomfortable play, not only because it was filled with all kinds of colourful language that you’d expect to hear in a prison, but also because it asked the audience seriously difficult questions about grace. 

One of the characters, named Angel, is serving time for murder; but it’s the kind of murder some might call “justifiable” or at the very least complex. Angel doesn’t believe he belongs in prison, and certainly not in the same company of those who are to him the real criminals. One of those people is Lucious, a serial killer turned born-again Christian, and who’s also fighting with his own demons. Lucious routinely scrambles Angel’s equations of grace. Surely, Angel wonders, surely I’m different than him.

The opening scene of the play has Angel on his knees in prayer during his first night in prison and he’s terrified. He tries to put together the Lord’s prayer from distant memory but struggles, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Harold be they name.” So you start out feeling that Angel has a lot to learn about the God he misnames and about grace, but as the story unfolds you realize that you’ve got just as much to learn. 

The play goes around and around, asking deeper and deeper questions. Just when you think you’re comfortable, just when you think you’ve got grace pinned down, something happens making you uncomfortable again, asking you more questions about how grace works, who should get grace, and who shouldn’t. 

I remember driving home with a friend after the play and feeling very conflicted about what we’d just seen. The story made us think about the true depth of grace, challenging our assumptions and judgements. I think that was the point, and why it was a good play.

On the Parable           

The story of the workers in the vineyard does the same kind of thing by challenging our assumptions and judgments. Jesus often tells parables to get a point across and many times his stories make his listeners uncomfortable. A parable is not so much an allegory (each part representing something else) but a pictureJesus uses to get something across about God’s character and kingdom. What’s coming across in the story about the benevolent vineyard owner is that God isn’t bothered about our pecking orders or our various constructs of fairness.

For the first listeners, many of them law-abiding Israelites, this story said that God was opening the door of blessing to non-Israelites, even though these outsiders hadn’t been committed to God in the past. And according to Jesus they’d better get used to it, because the kingdom he spoke about was beginning to break through all around them. 

“Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” we hear the vineyard owner ask the grumbling workers. That’s really Jesus’ main thrust. God can do what God likes and who are we to tell him he’s being too kind or too welcoming to people we might label undeserving? So here is Jesus turning up with God’s hope and welcome, not just for the strait-laced Israelite doing things the right way, but for people who’ve done things the wrong way. As you’d expect that ruffled some feathers and still does. How dare God be so unfair! You get the sense in this story that if we think we can control God’s impulse to love or that we can systematize or manage grace according to our equations, then we’re going to get frustrated with God very quickly. It’s not dissimilar to what Jesus says earlier in Matthew 5, “the rain falls on the just and unjust alike”. Good luck trying to organize or control the rain! Trying to stop God from being gracious, is like trying to stop the rain from being wet. God’s welcome and grace has nothing to do with whether or not you put your back in to it, so to speak. Grace is rooted in God’s capacity to love, not my capacity to try or work.

But what the story also does, through the interaction between the vineyard owner and the workers, is to confront us with some of our obsessive illusions about God and how we think the world should work. What are some of the obsessions we carry as seen through this story?

Confronted with our obsessions: Effort, Fairness, Competition

The first obsession has to do with effort. At the end of the workday we hear, “When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.” Even though they had received a full day’s wages, those hired first assumed that the vineyard was run according to how much effort they’d given. What they had forgotten, of course, was that they wouldn’t have had any work at all if the vineyard owner hadn’t hired them in in the first place. Everything they thought they’d earned was really still dependent on the benevolence of the one who owned the vineyard and hired them.

            When thinking about grace that’s a very important obsession to point out. Our world is obsessed with merit. We carry the assumption that we are worth more or deserve more based on the effort we exsert or time we invest. And so we walk around with thoughts like “I’ve done enough” or “I’ve not done enough” to merit this or that, and then we apply this across every relationship we have, including our relationship with God. And though these assumptions are pliable in the world’s economies and societal constructs, they simply don’t fit with God’s kingdom and character. This is what the apostle Paul holds up over again and what we see most brilliantly in his letter to the Ephesians, God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2. 8-9). 

But it’s very easy to apply our constructs of merit, effort or earning to how God surely must relate to us, and to how we should then relate to others. It can be mind-bending to learn how to relate to a being who is unlike anyone we know, who sets terms we’re totally unfamiliar with. God’s love, welcome and gift of life itself isn’t contingent on, as I said earlier, how much we put our back into it. We are just given to by God. Learning to be a receiver rather than an earner is what much of Christian maturity feels like. That isn’t to say that work doesn’t come with faith (as we read in the Book of James), just that in the end, all things considered, what I get from God is always rooted in God’s life and action, not mine. All that is asked of me is to open my hands and accept. 

Connected to the obsession about effort or earning is the obsession with fairness. We become so sure that we should be delt with based on our efforts that we begin to look around and wonder about what’s fair and what’s not. We think “They’ve done this or haven’t done that, therefore they should get this or not get that result”. Of course, the underlying problem here is that fairness appears to be objective, when in fact it’s very subjective. Which is why wise old saints have often said that we should be grateful that God relates to us based on his goodness, and not on our deceptive concepts of fairness. If we want to be related to on the bases of fairness, then most of us would be in a pickle. Arguing that “I’m no worse than the next person”, depends very much on who the next person might be. Do we really want to live in a world grounded in fairness or a world grounded in grace?

So the obsession about effort, leads to an obsession about fairness, which inevitably leads to an obsession with comparison or competition. And that’s where this story ends up. 

The workers hired first compare themselves to those hired late, and things get competitive. I worked eight hours. Why are they being paid the same as me for only working one hour? But you have to wonder if those hired first would mind so much about fairness and a competitive rate if the shoe was on the other foot. Comparison and competition works when we’re “winning” (whatever that means), but it gets pretty inconvenient and devastating when we’re not “winning”, when we’re not in some comfortable position of advantage. But our positions of advantage mean little to God when it comes to grace, of course, which is why the Gospel can be so offensive to the haves and a relief to the have nots. The kingdom Jesus imagines does not divide people into winners and losers, or first and last, as we heard. Jesus points us out of “us and them” thinking, towards the truth that we’re all under God’s roof.

That reality, of all being under God’s roof, was as hard to see then as it can be now. For example, you get the sense in this story that the workers hired first might have some anxiety about whether or not there is enough to go around. Which is why that incisive response from the vineyard owner hits so hard. What difference does it make to you how I choose to treat another and how I choose to spend my money? Is there some anxiety bubbling up among those hired first that someone else has to lose in order for them to win? That someone has to be left out in order for them to be fully welcomed? Without reading too much into the story, it does draw out our fears about scarcity, which the first listeners must have felt keenly under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire. Jesus, however, points us to God’s goodness and abundance, demonstrating this growing kingdom of grace which is renewing a world scarred by sin and scarcity. It’s one of the reasons I think Jesus is always multiplying food! Food always spells grace out for us, and is why the Church must always work to fight poverty, scarcity and resource hoarding where we can. As the hands and feet of Jesus we must always be about “multiplying” work, especially in service those who are going without, no matter where they live or what they believe. (CNOY, Gateway of Hope)

Those are some of the obsessions that appear as we look at this story, and if we’re honest as we look inward at ourselves. We can be obsessed with effort, with fairness and with competition or comparison. And those obsessions make for a pretty dismal view and experience of life. As we look around us, those obsessions make for a pretty dismal world to live in. A world of burden piling, of dog-eat-dog, of point scoring and scarcity. 

The Freedom of Grace

Thankfully, Jesus disrupts those obsessions and equations by putting God’s generosity on display through his own outrageous life. He dismantles the unhealthy and unsustainable obsessions we carry about how we relate to God and to each other. Jesus’ life says that the world does not turn on my action, but his. Human value is not measured on a subjective and sliding scale of fairness or comparison. You don’t have to compete with others for love, grace and welcome when it comes to God. We may have needed to fight for scraps at the dining room table, fighting off our brothers and sisters for the last potato, but you don’t have to worry about that with God. And so grace is rooted in God’s generous character, not in the economies of effort, competition or fairness. That character was put on full display in Jesus’ crucifixion. The vision of Jesus on a cross says that God doesn’t hold anything back from us. He’ll give everything in abundance, and if you don’t believe that look at Jesus on the cross, dying from asphyxiation and exposure. 

The generosity and self-giving love of Jesus is outrageous and its why his stories still draw a reaction. But listen to him and we’ll grow. Learning to trust that God is outrageously gracious begins to seep in after a while. Spend enough time in the vineyard and before long you’ll start thinking and living like the benevolent vineyard owner.  

A life of faith then is about getting to know Jesus, where we slowly become more and more convinced that God is gracious, and that we can be too. We get free from our obsessions and begin to live not out of scarcity, but abundance, drawing on God’s capacity, not our own. 

This story brings to mind the spot we’re in globally when it comes to resource distribution. Are we comfortable hearing that some lives are being considered less valuable than others, particularly lives in vulnerable positions? Recently I saw news reports of vaccines being delivered to prisons and the anger some reacted with to that news was alarming. In effect, some were saying: the first should be first; and the last are last for a reason. God help us if that’s our reaction as Christians! Is this not a time to recommit ourselves to the kingdom of heaven, and a vision of abundance and generosity, rather than scarcity and hoarding. How can we pray and act as Christians to ensure the gracious voice of Jesus is heard in our time? 

Grace makes room and we become very good conduits of grace when we make room. It’s why we’re having more discussions about equality and equity within our church, trying to make more room for voices easily tuned out. And learning to make room doesn’t mean that there is now less room at the table for me. Someone else receiving doesn’t mean I am being robbed. In fact, it seems the opposite is true. Welcome tends to compound and multiply.

Like other parables this story is meant to shock us, even offend our sensibilities about how God really works. Reading this story we might even find ourselves saying, “you know I think those complainers had a point, didn’t they?” Maybe that only betrays in us the need for a greater familiarity with grace, and how far off we can be from the kingdom of Heaven sometimes. It reminds me of how much I need Jesus, that I still have to learn that grace is rooted in God’s capacity, not my capacity.

Some days I feel like that character in Jesus Hopped the A Train. Angel is not only locked up in Rikers prison, but is also imprisoned by his own judgement and scarcity. Like Angel, I’m in desperate need of the increasing freedom grace brings. When I acknowledge that need, when I stand out in the pouring rain and let it do what rain does, I begin to see the world no longer as a dessert or a prison, but as a garden bursting with unlimited potential.