Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Economy of God's Grace

Notes from my sermon preached on September 21, 2014

From a very early age, most of us were taught about the concept of fairness.

Just spend an afternoon with almost any combination of children under the age of about 7 and undoubtedly you will be witness some conflict that arises over the issue of fairness. If one child gets 3 cookies for a snack and the other child only gets 2, almost immediately the recipient of the 2 cookies will denounce such inequality as a great injustice and demand that this injustice be rectified (which means give me another cookie!) Children are passionate about making sure things are fair!

In fact, a few years ago a study was conducted by Yale University in which young children given an odd number of Hershey’s chocolate bars and they were asked to distribute those chocolate bars between two other children. Since there were an odd number of chocolate bars, there was always one left over. The children were then given 2 options: they could give the final chocolate bar to one of the other children, would have resulted in an unequal distribution of chocolate bars, OR they could throw the odd chocolate bar in the trash. The vast majority of the children in this study chose to throw the chocolate bar in the trash rather than do something they intuitively understood to be unfair! Even if they were given the opportunity to add the additional chocolate bar to their own pile of chocolate bars, if the result was unbalanced, a majority of children still opted to throw the chocolate bar away.

This study powerfully demonstrates that the concept of fairness is a concept we internalize at a very young age, and I think this is why the parable that Jesus delivers in today’s gospel reading is so disorienting. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Everyone receives the same wage regardless of hours worked. These are things that go against the grain of everything we have learned about the world since we were 2 years old.

And yet, this parable, that seems to paint a picture of injustice and unfairness, is actually a powerful teaching about the nature of the kingdom of God, which governed by the abundant, generous grace of God. 

The parable is actually the response of Jesus to question that is posed by Peter. A few verses before the start of our gospel reading, Peter says, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you, what then will we have?” In other words, what will be our reward, what will be our payment, for being such faithful and dedicated disciples?

And Jesus says, “Let me tell you a parable!”

There once was a landowner who had a vineyard and this vineyard was full of grapes ready to be harvested. So went to the marketplace to hire workers for his vineyard and there was an agreement that workers would be paid one denarius, which represented the average daily wage in the first century.

About 9 o’clock that morning, the landowner noticed that there was a group of people in the marketplace that had been hired, so he hires them and send them to work in his vineyard. This same thing happened at noon, at 3 o’clock, and at 5 o’clock with only 1 hour left in the workday, the landowner hired still more workers.

Finally, at 6 o’clock in the evening, then the workday was finished, the workers lined up to receive their pay, beginning with those who were hired last. The landowner gave these workers 1 denarius (the daily wage) even though they had only worked one hour. Now you can imagine that the guys who had worked all day were watching what was happening and quickly doing the calculation in their heads…if those guys who only worked an hour got a denarius…we are going to be make a killing today!

And yet when they approach the landowner to receive their pay, they receive 1 denarius…exactly what the first group received. You can see and feel the 2 year old inside rising up crying out “that’s not fair…we should be paid more!” And, if you listen carefully, their complaint of those who worked all day is not simply that they didn’t get paid more…their complaint is that those who had worked only 1 hour were made equal to them.

Those who worked all day were saying, “Listen! We worked harder…we sacrificed more…we accomplished more…therefore we should receive more! And in that moment you can hear the echo of Peter’s question…”Lord, we have left everything to follow, what then will we have…what is our reward, what is our payment…and Jesus, by means of this parable, says essentially, “you receive exactly what every other worker in the vineyard receives.”

You see, the kingdom of God is governed by a radically different economy than the kingdom of this world. The kingdom of God is not governed by competition and greed; the kingdom of God is governed by compassion and grace!

And so, perhaps the reason this parable is so disorienting is not our concern over the unfair treatment of the workers. Perhaps this parable is so disorienting because we find it difficult to comprehend the abundant, generous grace of the landowner. Perhaps this parable is disorienting, because grace is disorienting. Grace shakes up our preconceived notions about how the world works!

The Book of Common Prayer defines grace as God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved. 
We can’t buy grace. We can’t work for it. We will never be worthy of it.

Grace doesn’t look at what kind of job you have…grace doesn’t care how much money you have in the bank…grace isn’t concerned with our accomplishments…it fact grace isn’t concerned with any of the outward and visible measurements of success and worthiness that our world uses to define who we are.

Grace is gift, pure and simple, unearned and undeserved. 

Ad yet, in a world that is driven by competition and selfish ambition, a world in which there seems to be an ever-increasing struggle for basic needs and resources…it is a great challenge for us to comprehend that the blessing and favor and power of God can be pure gift! In a world that is often defined by scarcity, it is difficult for us to receive and embrace the abundant, generosity of God.

Those who worked all day were angry at what they deemed to be unfair. They were jealous that those who had only worked one hour received the same wage and were thereby made equal to them.

We have all been there, haven’t we?
Feelings of anger, injustice, jealously, and envy are common to our human experience.

And yet…ultimately, we have choice. We can choose to stay angry. We can choose to remain jealous, envious, and bitter.

OR we can choose to stand under the banner of God’s grace. We can choose to stand together under the blessing and favor of God that are unearned and undeserved. We can to be a community of grace that receives and embraces the abundant generosity of God.

Today's parable, which seems to condone injustice and unfairness, is actually a window into the reality of kingdom of God, a reality in which we are no longer governed by competition and greed, but a reality in which we are covered by the abundant, generous grace of God, unearned and undeserved, freely given and freely received.  

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