Exodus 16:2-15 / Jonah 3:10-4:11; Phil 1:21-30; Mat 20:1-16
(for Sep. 24)
We modern Christians get hung up on the whole salvation by works vs grace thing. On the one hand while Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8f). On the other hand there are over two dozen passages that say that in the end, God will judge us by our works, including that rather amazing passage in James 2:14-24 that appears to be an explicit corrective to how Paul’s teaching on grace and works was understood by the church.
The process of salvation is a far more rich and nuanced issue in scripture than our binary of grace and works allows for. This week’s Gospel lesson is a wonderful example of this richness. A landowner needs workers, so he goes to the workers’ market early in the morning to hire a van load of workers. He returns to the workers’ market a few more times, the last trip being around 4:00 pm to pick up his final load of workers for the day. At 5:00 pm, when he pays everyone for their day’s work, everyone gets paid the same, no matter if they worked 8 hours or one hour.
“How’s that fair?” complains the group who worked all day. And indeed! How is this fair at all?
And of course, isn’t this rather the point about the Gospel that Jesus is making. The Gospel isn’t fair nor is it just, it is instead excessively good for everyone involved.
Back to our original question of grace and works, we must start with grace because that is where the New Testament starts. But once we have been given new life in Christ, totally by divine grace, then we have responsibilities to use the gift wisely. What do you suppose would have happened if one of those workers who was hired at 8:00 am just sat around all day instead of doing the work assigned to him? Getting the job implies the responsibility of doing the job. Similarly, receiving the gift of new life means we have several responsibilities: being “a workman who is not ashamed” (2 Tim. 2:15), “enslaving” our bodies (1 Cor. 9:27), “growing up in every way … into Christ” (Eph 4:15), etc. Paul goes as far as to say that if he failed to do these things he feared that he would be “disqualified” (NRSV) or “a castaway” (KJV) (1 Cor. 9:27).
At this point – the point of being good stewards of the new life that has been graciously given to us – the grace/works binary breaks down and ends up being more harmful than helpful. Work is not what you do or don’t do, it’s a frame of reference. Instead of a binary of opposites (grace/work) which James clearly rejects in ch. 2 of his letter, we need to think in terms of complimentary responses. Divine grace draws out human gratitude. God’s mighty work draws out my own labor.
Furthermore, work (in the positive context) has less to do with actions and more to do with expectations. True love expects nothing in return. Like grace drawing out gratitude, so our work in God’s vineyard should be the result of God’s love for us. As soon as we begin to think that we’re becoming a special Christian, or even, God forbid, someone that God simply can’t do without, then our expectations have misled us and we end up being like the laborers who worked all day. We think that God needs us and fail to understand (as the landowner says in the parable that God is simply generous. (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Mt. 20:15)
The parable ends with a common theme in the parables: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We must always remember that there is nothing fair about the kingdom. Everything is upside down. If you go about your life seeking justice, then you are not seeking God. God’s generosity (the word from the parable that is a synonym for divine grace) is not fairness; it is not payment for what is owed. Thinking about life in terms of fairness, justice, and becoming a powerful Christian because of how my life has been transformed will get you nowhere in the Kingdom of heaven.
Can we delight in God as God delights in us or will we fall back into the trap of expecting even more for all the “good” things we have done?