By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist
A surpassingly strange story it is, and enough to make a math or accounting major bite nails. I’m talking about Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).
Here’s the story in a nutshell: It’s grape-harvest in Palestine. A vineyard owner goes out early to hire men to work in his vineyard, and he agrees to pay them a denarius, a normal day’s wage. They go to work.
At 9:00 a.m. he finds other men standing around in the marketplace and also hires them, promising to pay them a fair wage. At noon and at 3:00 he does the same thing. Finally, even at 5:00, he finds others standing around, and he hires them also.
When evening comes, he pays the workers, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first. To the workers he hired last, he gives a denarius, and so on down through the line. Every worker receives the same pay.
The workers who were hired first begin to complain that it isn’t fair, that the landowner has made the fellows who worked just one hour “equal to” those who have worked all day long in the hot sun. But the landowner replies that he paid exactly what he agreed to pay, and that he has every right to choose to as generous as he wishes with his own money and pay the men hired last as much as those hired first.
Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Quite a story, and not so much a story about vineyard owners and workers as a story about grace.
You see, where real grace is found, you’ll find our gracious God.
Law may ask grudgingly, “I know I’m to love my neighbor. Who qualifies? And under its breath it mutters, “I’ll not love anyone I don’t have to.”
Law may ask grudgingly, “Who and how many times do I have to forgive?” and mutters with frosty breath blown out over a cold heart, “It’ll be a snowy day in perdition when I forgive THAT one.”
Law may ask grudgingly, “How much do I have to give?” and under its breath mutter, “I’ll not give a penny more.”
Law may ask grudgingly, “How many times do I have to go to church?” and under its breath mutter, “I’ll go not one Sunday more.”
Those are not the kind of questions grace asks because they are not the kind of questions God asks. God loves, forgives, gives, walks with us, because our Father is the God of all grace. Do we deserve his gift? No! It is enough for him that we desperately need it. His loving us will never make black and white, bottom-line accounting sense. Legally, it will never add up or balance. Not even close.
Sadly, where you find real grace, you’ll also find, just as in this parable, grinchy grumblers who aim to get their salvation the old-fashioned way: They want to EARN it. They are angered by a God who freely offers salvation to a thief on a cross or a prisoner at Huntsville with a needle in his arm but faith on his lips. That kind of grace just doesn’t add up! That God gives it always angers some.
May we be far too busy praising him and thanking him to ever listen to complaints from those who’ve not yet learned that to get what you deserve is hell.