The Bad Economics of Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)
Listen to what Bono says: “At the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you out out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics …every action is met by an equal or opposite one.
Along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so will you sow stuff’. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupted, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was to be my judge…”
Jesus told a shocking parable in Matthew 20:1-16 which conveys what Bono was getting at: God does not treat us as we deserve. In that he is not fair. But, boy, is he generous! Indeed, such is his grace, that God’s justice demands of himself that he gets us what he desires us to have - and far from that being a terrifying thought - we find ourselves recipients of unbounded kindness and largeheartedness - a lavish unrestricted, unsparing relentless love. In God’s world the word DESERVE never applies..
In this parable, Jesus tells of a farmer who hired workers to work in his vineyard at harvest time. It’s an accurate picture of what would happen. Some clocked in at sunrise (6am), some at morning coffee break (9am), some at lunchtime (noon), some at afternoon tea (3pm) and some just an hour before going home time (5pm). All seemed content till payroll time - when to their absolute horror those who worked the longest and the hardest were paid exactly the same as the Johnny-come-latelies who had hardly put in an hour’s toil. What the employer did went against all trade union fairness, all fair compensation and employee motivation. These who had slaved all day under a scorching sun naturally thought they had been hard done by. What a rotten way to run a business! What terrible economics!
Hold onto how you are felling right now… and let me tell you of the play/film Amadeus. In it the devout Salieri desires earnestly to create immortal music of praise to God. He has the desire but not the skill or the aptitude or the gift if you like. It maddens him (literally) that God instead has lavished his greatest gift of musical genius upon the childish, vulgar, rude, pre-adolescent Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri just can’t get it: why would God choose Mozart and not him - he who had served God so well and so long? He is, in other words, infuriated by grace.
The Bible is full of stories of infuriating grace. Why the deceiving cheat Jacob over the dutiful Esau? Why did God choose a murderer like Moses to lead his people out of Egypt? Why David, the red faced runt of the family, to become King over Israel? Why give wisdom to Solomon the son of David’s adulterous relationship? Why did God have mercy on the people of Nineveh? Why did Hosea have to endure such marital infidelity?
In the parable that Jesus told this scandal of grace is confronted head on. The lazy idlers at the end of the day had done nothing to commend themselves. What employer in his right mind would give the same wage to the one who had worked one hour as to the one who had worked twelve? This parable makes no sense economically.
And that is precisely the point.
Grace cannot be calculated, like some column on an accountant’s spreadsheet. Grace is not about finishing first or last. It’s never about counting. God says to each of us, “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?”
You see, God’s generous kindness, without recourse to worth or effort put in, was poured out on these 5pm workers. As it was was on Mozart. As it is being poured out on Bono. And you and I. The employer in Jesus’ parable did not cheat anyone: he gave those who had arrived at 6am exactly what he had promised - and they were content then with that amount. What infuriated them, what maddened them, is that the scoundrels got paid 12 times more than they deserved! But as Capon says, “If the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses and not Jesus.”
From nursery school onwards we are told a different tale: do this well, and you will be loved; work hard, and you will be rewarded, no pain, no gain; no such thing as a free lunch; demand your rights; and you get what you pay for.
But at the heart of our faith is this scandal of grace in which not for one moment did I get what I deserved. I deserved to be left in outer darkness, cut off from the love of God - but God came into that darkness to look for me, and bring me home. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved to be left in the prison of my own debts and habits and bound by the chains of my own making - but Jesus, God in the flesh, came to that dark dungeon of my soul and through his shed blood on the cross, he dissolved all that oppressed me and I was set free. I was so much in debt I thought no one would ever trust me again - but to my amazement through Christ I now have the best clean credit history imaginable. I deserved stern lectures, and severe unfeeling judgement, and instead I got staunch unceasing support - and more, I got a feast given in my honour. I thought myself too poor and dirty a creature for God ever to feel at ease in my presence, and wonder of wonders, oh the joy!, I find he wants to come and live within me. This is grace.
Grace brings about what Peterson calls, “the Great Reversal - many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” It may be rotten economics and poor maths - but God can’t help himself: that’s just what he is like - he is love. And as we learned from The Shack he is ‘especially fond’ of us.
Oh the grace of God!
You are better and more loved than you know! The Love of Jesus is greater and deeper than you know!
And even today the Spirit of God is working in you the wonders of his Grace and Mercy!