Life as a River
The New Mathematics of Grace
Last week he looked at 4 stories or parables - one from each of the four gospels. 1. The good Shepherd; 2. Mary pouring perfume on Jesus' feet; 3. The poor widow; and 4. The employer and his hired help.
This week in part 2, Yancey continues to examine the economic sense or nonsense of Grace.
While watching the performance, I realized I was seeing the flip side of a problem that had long troubled me. The play was posing the same question as the biblical book of Job, only inverted. The author of Job ponders why God would “punish” the most righteous man on the face of the earth; the author of Amadeus ponders why God would “reward” an undeserving brat. The problem of pain meets its match in the scandal of grace. A line from the play expresses the scandal:
“What use, after all, is man if not to teach God his lessons?”
Why would God choose Jacob the conniver over dutiful Esau? Why confer supernatural powers of strength on a delinquent named Samson? Why groom a runty shepherd boy, David, to be Israel’s king? And why bestow a sublime gift of wisdom on Solomon, the fruit of that king’s adulterous liaison? Indeed, in each of these Old Testament stories the scandal of grace rumbles under the surface until finally, in Jesus’ parables, it bursts forth in a dramatic upheaval to reshape the moral landscape.
Jesus’ parable of the workers and their grossly unfair paychecks confronts this scandal head-on. In a contemporary Jewish version of this story, the workers hired late in the afternoon work so hard that the employer, impressed, decides to award them a full day’s wages. Not so in Jesus’ version, which notes that the last crop of workers have been idly standing around in the marketplace, something only lazy, shiftless workers would do during harvest season. Moreover, these laggards do nothing to distinguish themselves, and the other workers are shocked by the pay they receive. What employer in his right mind would pay the same amount for one hour’s work as for twelve!
Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is about not counting.
We receive grace as a gift from God, not as something we toil to earn, a point that Jesus made clearly through the employer’s response:
Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?
Are you, Salieri, envious because I am so generous to Mozart? Are you, Saul, envious because I am so generous to David? Are you Pharisees envious because I open the gate to Gentiles so late in the game? That I honor the prayer of a tax collector above a Pharisee’s, that I accept a thief’s last-minute confession and welcome him to Paradise — does this arouse your envy? Do you begrudge my leaving the obedient flock to seek the stray or my serving a fatted calf to the no-good prodigal?
The employer in Jesus’ story did not cheat the full-day workers by paying everyone for one hour’s work instead of twelve. No, the full-day workers got what they were promised. Their discontent arose from the scandalous mathematics of grace. They could not accept that their employer had the right to do what he wanted with his money when it meant paying scoundrels twelve times what they deserved.
Significantly, many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day’s work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, and the employer’s strange behavior baffles us as it did the original hearers. We risk missing the story’s point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell.
In the words of Robert Farrar Capon, “If the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus.”
Grace cannot be reduced to generally accepted accounting principles.
in the realm of grace the word deserve does not even apply."
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