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The offensive nature of grace


23 January 2005 11:00 | The Revd Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: 1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Gospel: Matthew 20.1-16

The message couldn't be clearer; but if we've really heard this morning's Gospel, it will leave us feeling distinctly uncomfortable. And the measure of our discomfort will depend on where we see ourselves in relation to the story….

If I find myself identifying with the 'Johnnies-come-lately', the workers who were employed with only an hour of the day left to work, I may feel enormous gratitude at receiving wages out of all proportion to the time I've worked. But I'm just as likely to feel more than a little embarrassment to discover that I've received exactly the same pay as those who've worked in the vineyard all day. And as I think about that embarrassment, I realise that I'm feeling a 'victim' of the owner of the vineyard's generosity. And that leaves me feeling very uncomfortable!

So let's try again. How about standing in the shoes of one of those employed at the beginning of the day?

"When I arrived in the market-place just before six o'clock, I was so desperate for work I'd have worked for whatever was going. Well, almost! When I was taken on, yes, I agreed on the going rate. A fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Can't complain about that….

"Now it's the end of the day. I've been standing around watching these others receiving their wages, and I can see that this employer is clearly very generous! He's giving those who only arrived an hour ago, the same wage the rest of us agreed on first thing this morning. I'm on to a good thing here. If he's as fair as he is generous, I'll be going home with a tidy little sum tonight….

"But no! He's not fair! This doesn't make sense! There must be some mistake? This is not only unjust - it's outrageous! Uncomfortable? I'm furious!! And I'm not impressed or convinced by his reply to my complaint. This is humiliation. It certainly doesn't sound like "good news" to me! I'd better try coming at this story from another angle…."

What happens if we stand back, and look more 'objectively' at what's going on here? What about standing among the disciples to whom this parable was first addressed? This story is not part of Jesus' teaching to the general crowds. Matthew includes it in a group of teachings addressed to 'the disciples', Jesus' companions, those who had been with him the longest….

In the discussion which precedes it, Jesus has been covering a series of topics: the need to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God; how difficult (if not impossible?) it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven. But then Peter, in his blunt fashion, asks whether or not those who have left everything to follow Jesus can expect any reward in the age to come.

Jesus replies "Yes", the Twelve will have a share in his dominion and glory in the age to come as will all who have left possessions of any kind in obedience to him. It appears that the disciples can expect that their relationship with Jesus will count for something after all....?

So reading today's parable in this larger context, and including ourselves among the followers of Jesus (which is after all what each one of us aspires to be?), perhaps we need not feel so uncomfortable after all? Unfortunately that is not the case!

As if picking up our - or the disciples' - train of thought, Matthew stops us in our tracks. Following Jesus' teaching that 'those who have left everything in order to follow him will receive a hundredfold reward and will inherit eternal life', he rounds off with a warning: "But (for all that) many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." And then, as if to reinforce the point, he recounts this parable of the workers in the vineyard.

So its uncomfortable lesson is also intended for the disciples after all; and that includes you and me, who hear it again today. Now when we look a little more closely into the parable, we discover why it is particularly pertinent to the disciples, and to all of us who count ourselves among the followers - or would be followers - of Jesus today. The heart of the objection of the original group of labourers is not so much a criticism of the apparent generosity of the owner of the vineyard towards the workers who arrived later in the day.

Their real objection is: "These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden and heat of the day".

There's the rub! It's the implications of the master's generosity that hurts. No apparent recognition of faithful service, rightful order, deserving merit or simple justice. So flagrant a disregard for such values is surely an affront, an offence?

"But my ways are not your ways," says the Lord. … "Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" … "Do you become a victim of my generosity?" …"So the last shall be first, and the first last."

These might strike us as hard sayings, but they bring us to the heart of a mystery, the mystery of God's grace. And because God's grace is more loving, generous and all inclusive than we can ever imagine, we will often find it upsets, disturbs, disrupts and overturns so many of our presuppositions and theories.

To the extent that we haven't yet discovered the outrageous, disturbing nature of God's grace - and how offensive can be - we haven't discovered the real nature of grace at all!!
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